(Demonstrators wave placards and EU flags as they call for a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal)
Since the EU referendum in June 2016, the Brexiteers have fared as badly as their opponents warned. Rather than delivering the seamless withdrawal from the European Union that they promised, they have collided with reality.
Even when the United Kingdom leaves the EU on 29 March 2019, it will be forced to obey all European laws for at least two years during an inevitable transition period. Any new trade agreement that the UK reaches will sacrifice either political sovereignty – with Britain becoming a rule-taker, rather than a rule-maker – or economic prosperity, through withdrawal from the single market and the customs union.
Those leading the People’s Vote campaign express outrage at this and much else: the Brexiteers treated a narrow 52-48 Leave vote as a landslide victory for “the people”; the Leave campaign falsely claimed that “Turkey is joining the EU”; Vote Leave broke electoral law through overspending; the Brexit vote has already squeezed living standards – through higher inflation – and reduced GDP growth by an estimated 2 per cent. All of this is true, but some ardent Remainers go further: they dismiss the referendum result as “advisory”; they deride Leave voters as ignorant and racist; they denounce the BBC as the “Brexit Broadcasting Corporation”; they romanticise the opaque and troubled EU; and they assume that Remain would win a second referendum.
One of the reasons that the pro-EU campaign lost in 2016 was its excessive confidence and arrogance. Having imposed reckless austerity on Britain and long denounced Brussels as a bureaucratic ogre, David Cameron assumed that he could nevertheless alarm voters into backing Remain. He could not and was forced to resign, his reputation destroyed.
For many of those who backed Brexit, including a significant number of Labour voters, the referendum was a chance to reject both a discredited British political establishment, a failing economic model and a profoundly flawed EU. The conduct of the most ardent Remainers since the Leave vote shows that too few have learned from this experience. Brexit was not the result of a population “brainwashed” by propaganda but a reflection of profound economic and social discontent: the largest public spending cuts in postwar history, the longest fall in living standards since the Napoleonic Wars, the erosion of social cohesion, the loss of social trust and – we should not delude ourselves – anxiety about the uncontrolled free movement of people.
Rather than simply dismissing the vote for Brexit, Remainers must grapple with its causes. A second referendum would not be inherently undemocratic. As David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, stated in 2012: “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.” But before the country voted again, we would all need more seriously to reflect on the result of the first vote, its antecedents and effects.
The minority of Remain voters who were truly devastated rather than merely disappointed by the result cannot simply point to the flaws in the conduct of the 2016 referendum. They must be better prepared to make their own arguments. That the Leave side misled voters and broke electoral law, and that the media struggled to articulate what was at stake, does not negate the sincere opposition of many to our EU membership.
Opinion polls show, at best, a marginal shift in voting intention since 2016. Having lost one referendum that they expected to win, it would be truly reckless for pro-EU elites to lose a second. Yet more than this, rather than mimicking the worst excesses of their opponents, they must demonstrate that they understand the forces driving this age of upheaval.
For some families, game nights are at the very core of who they are and how they live together. From generation to generation, brothers and sisters and cousins in game families have shared in-jokes, swapped anecdotes, and passed down the legend of that time Grandma accidentally drew something kind of racy in Pictionary. When they gather around a game board, they’re at their smartest and their funniest, and they make some memories.
And then there are those families whose kids melted down during one game of Monopoly, and they never pulled a board game out of the cabinet again.
No matter where you are on this continuum, Slate’s list of the 40 best family games is for you. The past two decades have seen a renaissance in family-friendly tabletop gaming, with new games taking the best elements of the classics, then reimagining and improving them. Some of the more popular modern games have become franchises, spawning expansion packs, special variant editions, and mobile apps. There’s no reason why any parent these days should wish for a fun family gathering and then come back from the store with Scrabble, Battleship, or Clue. There are so many better options out there: games that are more fair, more exciting, and more likely to provoke memorable conversations afterward about the choices everyone made.
To make this list, I polled Slate’s staffers—those with kids and those who simply once were kids—and tried out a mess of new games previously unfamiliar to my game-crazy family. The games on our list run the gamut from the old-fashioned to the state-of-the-art. Some are expensive, and are improved by spending even more money on their optional add-ons. Some are cheap enough that you could find them in the dollar store—or even play them for free. What they have in common is that they follow my Five Commandments for a Great Family Game:
Games should be the right length. Long enough to allow players to develop strategy and potentially to come back from early setbacks, but not so long that everyone gets sick of them before they’re over.
Games should be fair. If you sit in a specific seat, or go last, you shouldn’t be disadvantaged.
Games should be action-packed. It’s more fun when there’s something for players to do on every turn, or even on other players’ turns; it’s frustrating to be skipped because you lack the resources to make any significant moves.
Games should help you learn something. “Educational” games are often boring, but some of the most entertaining games offer either implicit or explicit lessons about reasoning, sportsmanship, math, ethics, and teamwork.
Games should encourage spontaneity. Games that favor creativity and conversation make each experience more personally rewarding to all of you than games that are played the same way every time. After all, you’re not playing with just anyone. You’re playing with your family, so it’s more fun to play a game that lets each of you shine.
We’ve arranged our 40 games by the ideal age for a kid to play them, from 4 to 16. (Of course, that’s merely a recommendation. Plenty of little kids enjoy games that you might think are too advanced for them, and plenty of big kids enjoy something simple now and then.) We’ve also noted what style of play each game is, the optimal playing conditions, and whether each game might even be fun—perhaps after a glass of wine?—for adults to play together after the tots have gone to bed. And we’re also celebrating the fun of family games by publishing Slate writers’ odes to the games they love the most—and their defenses of the truly bad ones.
So buy a game or two, borrow one from a friend, or see if your local library has games to lend out. And then pop some popcorn, light a fire in the fireplace, and gather ’round the table. It’s never too late to get a game night tradition started. Roll to see who goes first!
Too many games aimed at preschoolers are shiny and (God, no) noisy. They’re often festooned with colorful licensed characters, but they don’t actually engage the mind. Guess Who? is all about observation and logic. Youngsters scrutinize 24 faces, pay attention to what makes them unique, and ask yes/no questions to narrow down the identity of their opponent’s secret someone. For children, there’s nothing quite like the kick of eliminating multiple targets at once, just by asking, “Is your person smiling?” or “Does your person have blue eyes?”
Using plastic swine as dice makes Pass the Pigs kooky and adorable for both young and old. Points depend on variables like whether the little porker’s nose is touching the table (a snouter!) or its legs are in the air (a razorback!). This is also a good game for teaching the concept of risk. Players keep rolling until they choose to stop or until they wipe out, racking up points so long as they avoid any of the killer combinations. On any given turn—even the last one of the game—a player can surge into the lead, or lose everything.
The most enduring Western variation on the centuries-old Indian game of Pachisi, Sorry! is at once one of the easiest games for kids to learn and one of the most frustrating to play—though its frustrations are character-building. Yes, you’re trying to move your pieces—your “mice,” in traditional game parlance—around the board toward “home,” but the game’s peak occurs when you have the chance to sabotage the competition, sending one of your opponents’ pieces back to the start. Sooorrrrry!! The game offers opportunities for families to have some deep discussions about patience, about not being a sore loser … and about the virtues of showing mercy.
The late Richard Scarry’s picture books have been popular for generations, not because they tell great stories (they’re mostly plotless), but because his minutely detailed drawings of anthropomorphic animals are so pleasing to the eye and nourishing to the imagination. During this Busytown game, players regularly stop their pieces’ forward motion to scurry around the long, narrow board, scrutinizing hundreds of illustrations to find a handful of items scattered about. Best of all: The game is cooperative, not competitive—everyone has to make it to the finish line together—which makes this the game least likely to provoke arguments among tots still learning sportsmanship.
The name “Concentration” is a catch-all for a variety of matching games—some officially branded as Concentration, some not—wherein players flip over face-down cards in pairs, looking for two alike. It’s a versatile enough concept that it can be played with a standard deck for free, or with specially designed cards that add twists. (For those lucky enough to have Milton Bradley’s home version of the TV game show Concentration, there’s an added bit of fun: As the pairs come off the board, they reveal a rebus puzzle, which must be solved for the big win.) The game can be played alone or in groups, but in every iteration there’s an orderly quality that’s almost meditative. Bit by bit, cards find their mates and get stacked into neat little piles.
As in Tic-Tac-Toe or Connect Four, the object of Sequence is to string together markers into a straight line—in this case, five colored chips, arranged across a board. The difference is that players’ choices in Sequence are limited by the cards in their hands, which correspond with squares on the playing area. This is an easy game for kids to grasp (especially the variation Sequence for Kids), because in each turn there are only so many plays to make and because their cards are determined by random draw. It’s also a fun game for parents to play with their children, with just enough strategy and just enough chance that adults will be neither bored nor dominant.
A standard deck of playing cards is all you need for a round of the classic card-shedding game Crazy Eights. The genius of Uno is that it enhances Crazy Eights with special game-changing cards like “Skip” and “Draw 2,” adding elements of unpredictability and opportunities to play defense. Invented in the 1970s by an Ohio barber, Uno pioneered a whole subgenre of branded games that tweak the rules of pre-existing playing-card favorites like Spades or Rummy.
While Uno’s name and mechanics (a gaming term for the design of the game’s rules and user experience) have been extended to dozens of other products (Uno Attack! Uno Slam! Duo!), it’s still best played in its original form, with a small group of people and a ton of idiosyncratic house rules.
One common gaming objective is to claim as much territory as possible, on a fixed board, an open table, or even a piece of paper. Dots and Boxes—which has been around for more than 200 years—provides a simple, elegant way for anyone with a pencil and notepad to play a variation on the territory game, and to make it as simple or challenging as the competitors choose. Players fill a page with a square grid of dots (at minimum, nine, with no maximum), then take turns drawing short lines between the points, angling to close off one or more of those lines into squares, immediately seizing that space. Call it the thinking person’s Tic-Tac-Toe.
Yahtzee’s a perfectly fine game, but it’s usually obvious after about five turns who’s going to lose, making completing the rest of the round something of a chore. In recent years, game designers have been working to maximize the most fun element of Yahtzee—rolling a handful of dice successively and putting aside the good ones—while eliminating the dreary disappointment of only partially filling in a scoresheet. In the fast-paced, tricky Las Vegas, players finish their rolls, then decide which dice to place in one of six casinos, with the hope that at the end of the round they’ll have the biggest “bet” on that property, and win the money it pays out. The dollar amounts are randomized, and because ties cancel each other out, sometimes the second-highest better wins—all of which allows Las Vegas to combine shrewd decision-making and fiendish luck.
Qwirkle is among the most attractively designed of a subset of games that rely on the basic tile-laying and points-scoring mechanics of Scrabble, but which eliminate the need to have any kind of advanced vocabulary. Like Iota, Latice, and many others, Qwirkle replaces letters with multicolored shapes, which players put on the table in sets, maximizing their score if they can combine what they lay down with sets already played. The rules are easy to grasp, but ace players will see combinations others miss—which is why if you have a family of smarties, you may want to play this game with a timer, so each turn doesn’t devolve into five-plus minutes of intense staring and chin stroking.
Yes, the name “Mexican Train” is questionable, especially given that it refers to a rogue spur where players slough off their misfit tiles. Nevertheless, this is the easiest-to-learn and most enjoyable of the classic domino games—which is why so many domino sets are sold with the name “Mexican Train” embossed right on the front of the box. The game requires both long-term planning and the ability to come up with alternatives on the fly, as players spot patterns in their piles of bones and methodically match number to number, trying to keep building their “trains” before an opponent or a numerical gap forces a change in course.
There’s a lot to love about Spot It!, a card game that’s inexpensive and portable, with rules variations that extend the basic mechanics in fun ways. The immediate aim is always the same. Each of the 55 cards displays an array of eight images (a snowman! A clock! A ladybug!), and between any two cards, there is always one—and, somehow, only one—matching symbol. Players have to find that match and shout it out first. Whether you’re playing a card-collecting version of Spot It!, a card-shedding version, or something else entirely, the race to be the first person to see a connection is always a nail-biter.
Countless board games ask players to move their pieces, square by square, from Point A to Point B, usually at the prompting of dice, spinners, or cards. In Labyrinth, competitors can move as little or as much as they like along the corridors of a maze, heading toward objects they’re tasked to collect. The trick is that the maze is always changing—and the strategy along with it. Labyrinth looks like a cute game for little kids, but figuring out exactly the right way to manipulate the maze itself could bedevil even a Ph.D.
The venerable code-breaking game Mastermind is like a more refined version of Battleship, as one player tries to narrow down the order of four colored pegs hidden by her opponent. A preset number of turns adds tension, limiting how methodical the guesser can be. The fun of Mastermind comes in watching as an idle proposition (“I dunno … yellow, purple, red, blue?”) gradually shifts into an actual, logical deduction.
Kids have been playing variations of the card game Rummy with their parents and grandparents for generations, but Rummikub supercharges the game by turning the cards into dominolike tiles, and letting players disassemble and steal from their opponents’ “melds.” The result is a complex, challenging game in which a player can sit frustrated for a half-dozen or more turns, unable to make a move, until the right tile comes along, and suddenly he’s able to go nuts and lay down an entire rack at once.
Not enough people know about the excellent German card game 6 Nimmt!, released in the U.S. a decade or so ago as Take 6! (though that version’s long out of print). As in Hearts and Spades and many other card games, players try to avoid getting stuck with a lot of points—which happens if they play the wrong number at the wrong time and end up having to pick up one of the rows of cards already on the table. The gameplay combines guesswork, chance, and some shrewd strategy. Sometimes, the best option for players is to take a lower-value row intentionally, to avoid a stiffer penalty. Choosing when to make that sacrifice can be the difference in the score—and is what makes 6 Nimmt! a useful exercise in pragmatism for young and old alike.
Whether you’ve dropped some serious bucks on a full-size table for your game room, or you’re economizing with one of those tiny tabletop versions, whenever tiny jets of air make a plastic puck float and slide, it’s like a little miracle of science. Also, there’s something about air hockey that gets the competitive juices flowing. Swat the puck hard off the boards and into the goal, just past your sister or cousin or uncle’s flailing paddle, then throw in a little trash talk as you announce the new score. It’s the rare sports-related pastime at which the nonsporty can excel. Who’s got next?
Camel Up offers yet another clever twist on “moving the mice” around a board. In this game, players don’t zip to the finish line as one of five different colored camels. Instead, they place bets throughout the race on which piece might come in first and which’ll bring up the rear. The “Supercup” expansion enhances Camel Up’s unpredictability, giving players more choices on any given turn between wagering, rolling the dice to move pieces further along, or making smaller proposition bets. Much of the fun of the game comes from talking through all the different potential scenarios—“camel-stacks” inclusive—and figuring out the most likely outcome.
Square by square, players map out an entire shared kingdom in Carcassonne and populate it with their own human-shaped “meeples,” who earn points for their masters based on the cities, roads, and fields they complete. Because the builders only have access to one tile at a time, planning ahead in this game in minimal. Instead, the trick is to properly deploy a limited pool of human resources onto the land. One of the first and most popular of the modern wave of tile-laying tabletop games (a genre that also includes Alhambra, Kingdomino, Small World, and Kingdom Builder), Carcassonne has spawned more than a dozen expansions, which can be played together, potentially extending the game by hours. Experienced players prefer the first two: Inns & Cathedrals and Traders & Builders. Be warned, though: Adding any more than two expansions at a time makes the play more confusing, and kind of exhausting.
Sometimes known (and sold) as “Werewolf” (or some other name that puts a frame around the concept), Mafia is at once an engaging party game and a fascinating social experiment. In one phase, the players assigned to be the villains silently agree to kill one of the heroes. In the following phase, the survivors—good and bad alike—deliberate, choosing someone from the pool of the living to pay for the crime. The fun comes from playing pretend and working with a group to solve problems. But Mafia also promotes paranoia, asking people to consider the possibility that someone they think they know well is a dirty liar—or that they themselves are capable of condemning an innocent.
Like Uno, Phase 10 adds some new rules and gimmicks to a pre-existing card game: Contract Rummy, in this case. In each round, players must lay down the right number of runs or sets to move on to the next “phase.” Because the challenges get harder over time, some players can fail for multiple rounds—getting increasingly irritated—and then make a sudden surge. Also like Uno, Phase 10 has generated a number of variant editions, some involving dice or a board. The best version is the “Master’s Edition,” which gives players control of the order in which they complete the phases and also allows them to “bank” cards to use in later in rounds.
One of the more popular recent game mechanics has players passing a hand of cards after picking one to lay down for themselves—with the understanding that they may never see the best cards in that hand again. Sushi Go Party! (a revised, expanded, and improved version of the game Sushi Go!) is this premise at its most sublimely cruel. Because some items that roll by on the sushi “treadmill” only score points in combination with other cards, players have to make hard choices, hoping that the gyoza or tempura they need will come back around. A fast pace and “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” set of options make this game addicting.
The best argument-starting, subjectively judged game this side of Cards Against Humanity (which, more often than not, is decidedly not family-friendly), Apples to Apples asks players to decide which of a set of proposed nouns best fits that round’s designated adjective. Is Andy Warhol more dangerous than a sword? Are babies more fragrant than roses? Like the best party games, this one quickly conforms to whatever crowd’s playing it, so it can be as rigorous or as silly as the family holding the cards.
Why Boggle and not Scrabble? Because it’s more democratic, dagnabbit. (Note: “Dagnabbit” is not a legal Boggle word.) In Boggle, everyone uses the same letters, in the same configuration, and since scoring is based on both length and originality, one long fancy word isn’t necessarily any better than a bunch of three-letter words that no other player wrote down. The timer adds excitement too, eliminating the tedious deliberation that can sap the fun out of some family games and replacing it with panicked glances back and forth between the tray of letters and the rapidly slipping sand.
One of the most basic forms of a party game has competitors trying hard to get a group of teammates to guess a name or a title, based on gestures and/or a limited set of clues. In Celebrity, families and friends put their own set of names into a pot and then have to figure out the best way to describe the person in question, without saying the person’s name. In later rounds, the same set of names are reused, but the clue-giver is restricted to a single word, or no words at all. The game costs nothing, and is infinitely adaptable to whoever’s gathered together—play with your English professor friends and guess Romantic poets, or play with tweens and learn all about YouTube stars and their least-favorite teachers.
Though it’s only three years old, Codenames is already a new tabletop classic, with multiple variations and branded spinoffs. A smart combination of a clue-giving party game and a logic puzzle, Codenames has players using single words, Password-style, to guide their partners to one or more other words on a grid. A conservative hinting strategy minimizes the potential for catastrophe but is also unlikely to lead to victory. Instead, teams need to take chances—and the game rewards close relationships, as players rely on what they know about each other to deliver exactly the right prompt.
There are few games quite like Colt Express, a train-robbing adventure that combines multiple modes of play. Players move bandits around two levels of a 3D train board, picking up loot and shooting at each other, while avoiding a lawman—all prompted by action cards that the competitors place one at a time into a deck. Sometimes everyone can see the cards and can map out an appropriate response, and sometimes the moves are secret, and outlaws inadvertently throw away their shots. Collecting the most money matters less than the thrill of watching a heist play out, one crazy card at a time—like a Mad Libs version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
A perennially popular amalgam of a card game and a board game—with origins dating back to the 1600s—Cribbage anticipated the tough “choose your best cards and pass along the rest” demands of many modern games. Once the players have decided which of their cards to keep and which to kick into the “crib,” the scoring rounds rely heavily on their ability to recognize the many combinations of cards than can earn points. from simple pairs to long runs to numbers that add up to 15. Frankly, the board’s unnecessary, because scores could just as easily be tallied on a piece of paper. But often those big old wooden Cribbage tracks become family heirlooms, passed down to the next generation of card players who enjoy an easeful time spent with a loved one counting points and moving pegs.
The aptly named “cooperative shouting game” Spaceteam requires players to download a free app, which then connects them in a frenzied race against time, working together to repair a disintegrating rocket ship by trading tools from their supply. (There’s also a tabletop version.) Complicated conditions and quirky twists make it difficult to overcome the impossibly short, constantly ticking timer. Between the barked requests and weird commands (“Set Luminous Foot to Full Power!”), this game combines some of the frenetic fun of the old card game Pit with the silliness of a party game.
Not only does Ticket to Ride have one of the cleanest, easiest-to-explain mechanics of the popular modern strategy games, but its basic “build a railroad across the country” concept has been neatly adapted into more than a dozen different maps, each with their own small, challenging variations. The best thing about Ticket to Ride is that while the players are competing with each other—and sometimes getting in each other’s way, claiming exclusive territory first—for the most part everyone’s on their own, trying to complete all the connections they’ve been assigned, before someone triggers the endgame. It’s unusually relaxing, for at least the first half of Ticket to Ride, to make long-range plans and move them closer to completion, one short segment at a time. But then your kids steal your routes, the number of trains start to dwindle, and suddenly making it to Helena becomes a matter of life or death.
Imagine a version of Trivial Pursuit where it doesn’t matter if you don’t know the answers, because you’re not expected to. In Wits & Wagers, every answer’s a number that—more often than not—nobody at the table is likely to have floating around in their heads. (Example: “How many episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood were produced?”) Everyone simultaneously makes hurried guesses, then places bets on which answer they think is closest to correct.
Beyond learning some fun facts (there were 895 Mister Rogers episodes, just FYI), the rush to write something on the game’s miniature whiteboard means that some poor family member will never live down the time he guessed that the Hollywood sign is 400 feet tall.
Give credit to the ’60s game show Password for popularizing a whole genre of party games in which players try to get teammates to guess a word by rattling off other words—like Charades, with speech instead of gestures. Catch Phrase started out as a board game, then was reimagined as a handheld electronic toy, with beeping and buzzes to make the time limit for every round more stressful, as the competing clue-givers hand the device back and forth. The current version is cheap enough to be a staple of department store and grocery store toy aisles (sometimes in multiple editions) but is way more fun than its price tag would suggest, because of the way it combines Password’s basic method of play with a rousing game of Hot Potato.
Imagine you’re an explorer, cutting your way through a jungle filled with treasures, trying to reach one of four temples before any of your rivals. That’s the premise of Karuba, which has one of the most ingenious mechanics of any tile-laying game. Each player controls four little adventurers, and each has an individual board to fill with pathway tiles, using the same pieces as their opponents, delivered to everyone in the same order. Nobody has any kind of lucky edge over anyone else, beyond their innate abilities to spot geometric patterns and to plan routes.
Just about everyone who’s ever played Pictionary has heard the same complaint from someone at their party: “But guys, I can’t draw!” And just about everyone has a story about how the person who didn’t want to participate came up with the cleverest or the funniest drawing of the night. What makes Pictionary one of the greatest of all party games is that winning doesn’t demand any polished artistic skill. It’s all about finding the precise, most efficient way to convey a clue to your partners. And the aftermath is just as fun, as exasperated players demand to know just what it was their partners were drawing and guessing. Baby Fishmouth is sweeping the nation!
Each game of Betrayal at House on the Hill starts the same way: Everyone’s all together, in the foyer of a haunted house, taking and giving suggestions turn by turn about where their various characters should go next and what they should do. As the team explores—with the help of shuffled decks of cards that essentially “build” the house with each blind draw—the danger intensifies. And then, at some unpredictable moment, everything changes, and one random player gets “possessed,” taking on the form of some beastie that everyone else has to beat. The number of possible combinations of rooms and monsters makes Betrayal a different experience every time, though it’s ultimately always going to be about teamwork and guesswork, as the mortals try to figure out just what kind of evil they’re facing and how to squelch it.
Introduced in Germany in 1995, the game officially known as the Settlers of Catan quickly spread around the world, transforming tabletop gaming at the end of the 20th century. The blank-looking pieces and wordless board made of hexagons can seem daunting to novices, but the actual turn-by-turn play isn’t that hard to get the hang of. Roll some dice, collect whatever resources you’re due, and then get down to the real work of Catan: building your own miniature civilization if you have the goods to do so, or begging your opponents to trade you some wool or brick or what-have-you so you can make progress. With its balance of wealth accumulation and property management, and its smartly designed variations (in particular “Cities & Knights,” considered by many to be the gold standard for how to design an expansion pack), Catan has for two decades now captured imaginations—and served as a gateway to the exciting, clever new breed of board games.
In each turn of Splendor, players can choose between collecting coins and buying cards that can be used in perpetuity as coins. In either case, this game is ultimately all about constant accumulation: no setbacks, just gain. The goal is to hoard wealth faster than the opposition, to get all the extra jewels and special favors needed to win. Everyone’s equal at the start, but it doesn’t take long for Splendor to become a white-knuckle chase between players trying to become more filthy rich than anyone else at the table.
In the second half of the 20th century, game designers declared virtual war, drawing on elements of ancient combat-themed board games like chess while adding cards, dice, charts, and historical context. Risk is the game most responsible for setting the trend, but Axis & Allies is better, because its specific grounding in the details of World War II gets across the difficult choices of a real global military conflict. Sure, the competition still comes down to armies trying to obliterate each other. But the fighting happens on the sea and air as well as the land, and the battle extends to the homefront, where the economy and the supply chain are factors. No longer will war be decided by who can roll a higher number.
Pandemic is one of the more complex (and critically acclaimed) of the modern cooperative games, in which players are asked to collect resources and to figure out a way to share them in order to achieve a common goal. In this case, the aim is to prevent the eradication of the human race. Teams have to talk to each other and to think several moves ahead, as they come up with a strategy for moving doctors and medicine around a map of the world, before the little colored cubes representing disease spread any further. Other than the novelty of working together with your family rather than trying to crush them, what makes Pandemic such a success is the scope of the challenge. It’s satisfying to move pieces across a board for a noble reason, not just to pile up cash or to reach a finish line.
Family game night needn’t end once the kids start getting old enough to drive and to apply to colleges. Modern designers have created plenty of games sophisticated enough to challenge older children—and to daunt their parents. Village is a more detail-oriented version of games like Catan and Carcassonne, in which players on each turn face a plethora of choices about how to go about their business in a small medieval community. Shop? Sell? Travel? Worship? Get into politics? The gimmick here is that because the game takes place across several generations, players can plan for the future but then have to adjust on the fly as members of their “family” die off. Forget the Game of Life. Village is the perfect game to play with older teens, who are starting to work out what’s really important as they prepare to leave the nest.
The body landed in the courtyard, not far from the building’s bins. Shortly before 5am on 4 April 2017, a 65-year-old woman was hurled from the third-floor balcony of a social housing project in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, a rapidly gentrifying area on the eastern side of the French capital. An hour earlier, that same woman – a retired doctor and kindergarten teacher – had been asleep in the small apartment where she had lived for the past 30 years. When she woke up, she saw the face of her 27-year-old neighbour in the darkness. The man, who still lived with his family on the building’s second floor, had first stormed into another apartment, whose tenants had locked themselves in a bedroom and called the police. By the time he climbed up the fire escape into his victim’s apartment, three officers were present in the building.
The autopsy would later reveal that the woman’s skull had been crushed, most likely with the telephone on her bedside table. Before and after his victim lost consciousness, the assailant beat her until the nightgown she was wearing – white, with a blue floral pattern – was soaked with her blood. He then dragged her body to the balcony of the apartment, and threw her over the railing – exactly the same way, he told prosecutors, as John Travolta does in The Punisher, the film he had been watching before the attack. “I killed the sheitan!” he yelled from the balcony, according to testimonies given by neighbours. “Sheitan” is an Arabic word for “devil”. Neighbours heard him repeatedly chant “Allahu Akbar”.
The victim was Lucie Attal, an Orthodox Jewish woman who sometimes used the name Lucie Attal-Halimi. The perpetrator, who confessed to the crime, was Kobili Traoré, a Franco-Malian Muslim. He later told authorities he knew that his victim was Jewish. According to her family, Attal had long felt afraid of Traoré. Her brother, William Attal, told me that Traoré had verbally abused her in the building’s elevator, and she had said she would only feel safe if he were in prison. In fact, Kobili Traoré may never go to prison for the killing: he has been in psychiatric detention since the night of the crime, and a French judge could rule that he is mentally unfit to stand trial.
In the immediate aftermath of Attal’s death, there was virtually no public discussion of her killing. With the upcoming presidential election dominating headlines, the defenestration of a Jewish woman in the 11th arrondissement of Paris was treated by the mainstream French press as a fait divers, the term used to describe a minor news story, which led to considerable outcry in the Jewish community. But after the victory of Emmanuel Macron, the case returned to the forefront, becoming a new frontline in France’s culture wars, among the most explosive in Europe.
The French Republic is founded on a strict universalism, which seeks to transcend – or, depending on your viewpoint, efface – particularity in the name of equality among citizens. In a nation that tends to discourage identity politics as “communautaire” and therefore hostile to national cohesion, the state not only frowns on hyphenated identities, but does not even officially recognise race either as a formal category or a lived experience. Since 1978, it has been illegal in France to collect census data on ethnic or religious difference, on the grounds that these categories could be manipulated for racist political ends.
But eliminating race did not eliminate racism or racist violence. In the case of Lucie Attal, the inescapable fact of the matter is that a Muslim killed a Jew in a society where those distinctions are supposed to be irrelevant. More than a year after the fact, exactly how to label Attal’s death remains a matter of bitter, and perhaps unresolvable, debate. To examine the case is to examine the fractures of the French Republic, the contradictions in the stories a nation tells itself.
Traoré has vehemently denied that antisemitism played a role in his crime, claiming instead that he acted in the throes of a psychotic episode triggered by cannabis. But for William Attal, the only way to understand his sister’s death is as an act of antisemitic violence. “He knew very clearly that Judaism was the motor of her life, that she had all the external signs of Jewishness,” Attal said. When we met in a cafe in the Paris suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne, he wore an anonymous red baseball cap instead of anything that might identify him as Jewish. “We have the obligation to cover the head, but we do not have the obligation to wear a kippa,” he said. “Understand?”
In February 2018, after considerable public outcry from Jewish organisations, who accused the criminal justice system of a cover-up, a French judge added the element of antisemitism to the charges against Traoré. But the case is far from closed. In July 2018, a second court-ordered psychiatric examination declared that the perpetrator was not of sound mind and was unfit to stand trial; a third examination is forthcoming. If he cannot be held accountable for his actions, Traoré cannot, legally speaking, be said to have had a motive. There is the possibility that Attal will have officially died in a random act of violence, as if she had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
During the months of confusion, indecision and silence that followed the killing, people from every side of France’s political debate seized upon the case as evidence of whatever position they already held. In time, the story of Lucie Attal would become the inspiration for any number of politicised narratives, hardly any of which took into account the woman who had died, or even her actual name.
On 10 July, Kobili Traoré was formally interviewed by the judge investigating the case. Three months earlier, on the night of the crime, he had been taken into custody, and police discovered that he already had a considerable criminal record, having served time for aggravated violence and drug dealing. But when police tested him that night, the toxicology report showed a high level of cannabis in his bloodstream, and his behaviour was erratic enough that he was immediately sent to a psychiatric hospital. There he was examined by a respected psychiatrist, Daniel Zagury, who concluded that he was not of sound mind and was therefore not in a fit state to be interviewed by prosecutors. In the months that followed, Traoré remained in the hospital, under warrant but without being formally charged.
When the investigative judge finally interviewed Traoré in July, the young man insisted that antisemitism had not been his motive. “I have never had problems with Jews before,” Traoré said. He claimed that the killing had happened during a bout of temporary insanity. On the night of 4 April he had been with a friend, he said, watching The Punisher. Before turning on the television, the two had gone to evening prayers at the Omar mosque in the rue Morand, according to an investigative account by the French journalist Noémie Halioua. (Mohammed Hammami, that mosque’s former imam, was expelled from France in 2012, when Traoré was a teenager, for having allegedly incited hatred in sermons.) Traoré, who by all accounts was not a particularly observant Muslim, told the judge that he and a friend had gone to pray that night because he had not been feeling well. “I was feeling like I’d been oppressed by an exterior force,” he said in his interview, according to the transcript. “A demonic force.”
The young man defined that “demonic force” as a kind of delirium over which he had no control, induced by the several joints he had smoked. (According to Le Monde, Traoré smoked between 10 and 15 joints a day.) Asked why he had entered Attal’s apartment, he had no answer: “I still do not know,” he said. “It could have fallen on anyone – the Diarras, my family,” Traoré claimed, referring to the family whose apartment he had first entered, before climbing up from their balcony to the apartment of the woman he killed. Yet “it” did not fall on anyone else; it fell on Lucie Attal.
At one point in Traoré’s interview with prosecutors, he was interrogated about what he had said at the scene of the crime.
Investigator: Your family heard, and your sister and your mother have confirmed that you were not feeling well and that you were repeating “Sheitan, sheitan.” What does that mean?
Traoré: It’s “the demon”, in Arabic.
Investigator: Do you speak Arabic?
Investigator: Doesn’t it seem bizarre that you would designate [Attal] as the devil in a language you don’t speak?
In Zagury’s report, seen by Le Monde, the psychiatrist concluded that it was unlikely the killing was a premeditated antisemitic hate crime. However, the psychiatrist saw plenty of antisemitic mechanisms at work, including Traoré’s own confessions that he had somehow been triggered by the Torah and the menorah he saw in Attal’s apartment.
In his report, Zagury pointed out that the particular form delirious episodes take is always shaped by “society’s atmosphere and world events”. “Today, it is common to observe, during delirious episodes among subjects of the Muslim religion, an antisemitic theme: the Jew is on the side of evil, the evil one,” he wrote. “What is normally a prejudice turns into delirious hatred.”
This, he concluded, is precisely what happened once Traoré broke into Attal’s apartment. “The fact that she was Jewish immediately demonised her, and amplified his delusional experience … and caused the barbaric surge of which she was the unfortunate victim.”
Lucie Attal’s apartment block – No 30, rue de Vaucouleurs – is a classic habitation à loyer modéré, or HLM, one of the many social housing projects developed in this part of Paris in the early 1980s to provide residents, many of them immigrants, with affordable housing in a fairly central location. In recent years, the neighbourhood has become the kind of place where trendy cafes, natural wine bars and experimental restaurants with months-long waiting lists seem to anchor every block.
A squat, angular structure plastered with grimy grey tiles on a short, treeless street, the apartment block is as far as central Paris gets from 19th-century grandeur. But the rue de Vaucouleurs is hardly an example of the “social and ethnic territorial apartheid” decried by then prime minister Manuel Valls in January 2015, as he lamented the rise of homegrown Islamist extremism following the Charlie Hebdo attack. It is also a remarkably diverse neighbourhood, which appears at first glance to be a testament to the success of the French social model of integration, not its failures. Local residents describe a far more complex reality than often appears in public discussions of the killing.
One of Attal’s neighbours, Faim Mohamed, 50, told me he had lived in the building since 1997. “Life was cool,” he said, insisting that the only tensions he has ever felt came after Attal’s death, not before. “Since the murder, everyone is suspicious. They’re worried if someone is following them when they enter the building.”
Another man, from Morocco, who declined to give his name, was Attal’s neighbour on the third floor. I met him as he was bringing in groceries one afternoon, and his eyes filled with tears when I asked him if he knew the woman who had been killed. “She was someone who was very good,” he said, adding that she had designated him her “Shabbos goy”, because he would do little household tasks for her on Shabbat that she could not do for herself. He said he had been on vacation when the killing happened, visiting family in Morocco. “If I were there, I would have intervened. But I was not,” he said. A Muslim himself, he was adamant on one point: “A Muslim would not do this.”
But one reason the case became so notorious is that it fit into what has become a common narrative. France is the only country in Europe where Jews are periodically murdered for being Jewish. No fewer than 12 Jews have been killed in France in six separate incidents since 2003: Sébastien Selam, Ilan Halimi, Jonathan Sandler, Gabriel Sandler, Aryeh Sandler, Myriam Monsonégo, Yohan Cohen, Philippe Braham, François-Michel Saada, Yoav Hattab, Lucie Attal and Mireille Knoll.
In each of these cases, at least one of the perpetrators was from what the French call minorités visibles, or “visible minorities”, which typically refers to those of north African or west African descent; in most cases, the perpetrators have been linked with some form of fundamentalist Islam. In nearly every case, the victims have been either identifiably Jewish or personal acquaintances of the perpetrator. Almost all perpetrators and victims have been lower middle-class, residing in the same diverse neighbourhoods, the same streets, or even the same buildings.
In 2006, for instance, there was the notorious murder of Ilan Halimi, in which the so-called “Gang des barbares” – a band of French-born children of Muslim immigrants from west Africa and north Africa – lured the 23-year-old Halimi, who sold mobile phones off the boulevard Voltaire, on a date with a pretty girl. They had hoped to extract €450,000 in ransom money from Halimi’s parents, whom they assumed to be rich because they were Jews. But the Halimis lived in Bagneaux, the same low-income banlieue as the gang members themselves. Ilan Halimi was imprisoned and tortured in the basement of a public housing project for three weeks. He was found on the train tracks in Sainte Geneviève de Bois, to the south of Paris, his body naked and burned.
For Rachid Benzine, a scholar of Islam and a well-known French public commentator, these killings are best understood in the context of what he calls postcolonial antisemitism. “For me, this is a holdover from the colonisation of Algeria, linked to the treatment of Algerian Jews compared with Muslim natives,” he said. In 1870, for instance, the so-called Crémieux decree secured full French citizenship for all Jewish subjects residing in Algeria, whereas Arab Muslims remained under the infamous code de l’indigénat, which stipulated an inferior legal status, essentially until 1962. The legal disparity continued even after Algeria won independence, when hundreds of thousands of former colonial subjects from North Africa continued to arrive in metropolitan France. Jews like the Attal family, originally from the Algerian city of Constantine, arrived in France as citizens. Muslims, however, had to apply to the government for the privilege of citizenship.
Benzine also noted “the unfortunate reality that the Palestinian tragedy fuels the perception among many Muslims that we somehow have the Jews of France to blame”. Another factor, he said, is the so-called concurrence des mémoires. “We have this competition of who’s suffering most,” Benzine said. Many French citizens of west African origin, for instance, argue that while the French state has invested fully in preserving the memory of the Holocaust, it has made little effort to preserve the memory of Islamic slavery. “The disparity is a fact, and it’s true that many black people say, ‘look what they do for Jewish people, and there’s nothing for us,’” Louis-Georges Tin, an activist and the former director of the Representative Council of France’s Black Associations (CRAN), told me recently. Paris is home to one of the world’s premier Holocaust museums and research centres, and a black plaque adorns the façade of nearly every building in the city from which a Jewish child was deported during the second world war. All that commemorates slavery in Paris, the capital of a former slave-trading nation, are two small nondescript statues. The thousand years of Islamic slave raids into black Africa are treated as a footnote to history. The only museum that documents this history is in the overseas department of Guadeloupe, nearly 7,000km from mainland France.
But the concurrence des mémoires has also become a trope in contemporary French antisemitism, with those such as the Franco-Cameroonian “comedian” Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala engaging in Holocaust denial supposedly as a means of attacking “Jewish power” and insulting what they see as establishment narrative of the past. Tin said he could understand that frustration, but not its expression. “The anger should not be targeted toward Jewish people,” he said, “but against the state.”
The battle over antisemitism in contemporary France often comes down to a war of words. Few would dispute the existence or even the virulence of Muslim antisemitism. According to statistics announced by the prime minister, Edouard Philippe, on the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht earlier this month, antisemitic incidents in France have increased by 69% in the first nine months of 2018. Among those incidents were the torching of two kosher shops in the Paris suburbs and a Jewish teenager being slashed in the face with a utility knife. For Philippe, this significance of the problem is not up for discussion: “Every aggression perpetrated against one of our fellow citizens because they are Jewish resounds like a new shattering of glass,” the prime minister wrote. But when it comes to naming the perpetrators, or labelling particular acts, this certitude collapses. Much of the French government and the French press can seem at a loss for words.
For many on the political right, antisemitism is essentially a straightforward problem, which the left strategically ignores, downplays or denies. “It’s very simple,” Alain Finkielkraut, one of France’s most prominent public intellectuals, told me earlier this year. “The new antisemitism is an import. It comes to us from the exterior. It’s among the gifts, the contributions, of immigration to French society.” (This is not entirely accurate: if the perpetrators in antisemitic crimes are often from Islamic immigrant backgrounds, they are almost always also French citizens, a distinction often lost in the public debate.)
Finkielkraut, now 69, is himself the son of immigrants, Polish Jews who came to France to escape persecution and who eluded the roundups of the early 1940s. A member of the Académie française, France’s most elite literary circle, he is now something of a public contrarian, a former leftist who uses his bestselling books and radio presence to bemoan what he sees as a nation in inexorable decline. What particularly aggravates Finkielkraut and his conservative allies about the debate around antisemitism in France is what they see as a widespread refusal to “name the problem” – that is, to declare unambiguously that the primary threat to France’s Jews comes from France’s Muslims.
For much of the left, this amounts to a dangerously crude generalisation about France’s largest minority group, which itself is the target of a constant stream of hateful rhetoric, from the covers of Charlie Hebdo to the regular pronouncements of sitting members of the French government. Muslims, too, are frequent victims of hate crimes. No one was actually hurt, but, in June 2018, French authorities thwarted a rightwing plot to kill veiled women, imams and other Muslims at a network of halal groceries, mosques and community centres across France. Authorities have charged a group of 10 conspirators – one woman and nine men – for terrorist activity; the alleged ringleader was a former police officer. Cartoonists and concertgoers where gunned down by the hundreds by Islamic Jihadists
Cécile Alduy, a scholar who has written extensively on political rhetoric, puts the question this way: “How can you denounce a ‘new’ form of antisemitism that would be perpetuated only by Muslims, without targeting all Muslims as a threat to society?”
Even the phrase “the new antisemitism” is contested. If the old antisemitism was associated with France’s Catholic far right, which has hardly disappeared, the “new antisemitism” is today used almost exclusively to describe Muslim violence towards Jews. In that sense, many on the left believe that “naming the problem” actually makes it worse, enshrining difference in a society that officially recognises none, and repeating the kind of racial stereotypes about the Islamic race that only exacerbate social divisions. But others, both on the right and in the Jewish community, ask whether Attal and the other French Jews who have been killed since 2003 are collateral damage in an egalitarian social project that was always doomed to fail. They often decry what they call “ostrich politics”, what they see as the wilful blindness of the left with regard to the fundamental violence at the core of Islam.
One conservative I spoke to, the Jewish historian Georges Bensoussan, echoed this point. He has been embroiled in a debate about racism and Islamophobia since 2015, when, in the course of a heated debate on a radio show hosted by Finkielkraut a month before the Paris attacks, he said: “In Arab families in France – and everyone knows it but no one wants to say it – antisemitism is something babies drink in with their mothers’ milk.” Under France’s stringent hate speech laws, a number of claimants charged Bensoussan with inciting racial hatred by using reductive blanket statements. He was acquitted in March 2017 – one month before Attal’s death – but during the period that French authorities were struggling with how, exactly, to label the killing, the Bensoussan trial was constant point of reference.
For Bensoussan, his recent trial was “a symptom of the much larger problem, the hesitation to acknowledge the truth”. He noted that despite the persistence of non-violent antisemitism among Front National members and supporters, “none of the antisemitic murders we’ve seen [in France in recent years] have been committed by the extreme right. All were perpetrated by Muslims, even as most journalists continue to blame the extreme right.”
Bensoussan is correct that mainstream media outlets refrained from emphasizing the Muslim background of Kobili Traoré, but it is hardly the case that they blamed the far right in that particular case. It is also hard to defend the claim that French Muslims are somehow spared public scrutiny. To take one example, what Muslim women wear outside their homes has been among the most frequently debated questions in France over recent years. Meanwhile, political rhetoric around Islam has become increasingly extreme. Nearly every major candidate for the French presidency in 2017 had an official position on Islam, and Emmanuel Macron is still slated to announce a proposal to “reform” the practice of Islam in France.
When it comes to antisemitism, members of the French government have emphasised that they find themselves in something of an impossible situation: ensuring the safety of certain citizens while preventing the collective demonisation of others. The state takes the security threat very seriously, dispatching heavily armed reserve officers to guard nearly every major Jewish school, temple and community centre in the country. But for politicians, finding the right words to describe this situation remains acutely difficult.
“To identify the phenomenon and to understand the different ways it works is not the same thing as identifying potential authors of future attacks. We should pay real attention to the Muslims who feel stigmatised by this,” Frédéric Potier, the head of the French government’s interministerial delegation against racism and antisemitism, told me recently. “You have to pay very close attention to the words you choose, and how you say them. But at the same time, we have to say something.”
On 16 July 2017, France’s new president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech at a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv roundup, speaking at length about France’s complicity in Nazi crimes. Standing alongside his invited guest, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Macron then turned to the present day, mentioning the name of the woman whose case Jewish groups and public intellectuals had, for months, been citing as the latest example of France’s indifference to antisemitism. But the name he used was not Lucie Attal.
“Despite the denials of the murderer, judicial officials must now search for full clarity on the death of Sarah Halimi,” Macron said. Calling her “Sarah Halimi” was not a novel choice. Ever since the killing first made headlines, that had been the name most commonly used to identify the victim. Yet Sarah Halimi was not necessarily the way she was known to her family, or in official documents. “Sarah” was Lucie Attal’s Hebrew name, while the surname “Halimi” came from her former husband, Yaacov Halimi, a psychologist she had divorced decades earlier.
How the woman known in her lifetime as Lucie Attal became Sarah Halimi after she died is a detail no one can quite explain. But the name only intensified the symbolic resonance of her case. The name “Sarah” happens to be the label the Nazis uniformly used to identify their female Jewish victims, who were stripped of their individuality along with their lives. “Halimi” also carried its own grim associations. In 2006, the torture and murder of Ilan Halimi became a national scandal, not only because of the brutality of the crime, but also because French authorities at the time had initially refused to acknowledge that his killers had antisemitic motivations.
Thus, by the summer of 2017, Sarah Halimi had come to be seen by many as a new Ilan Halimi, the latest victim not only of Islamist antisemitism but also of government silence, and possibly even indifference. “I think ‘Sarah Halimi’ was the most resonant for the Jewish community, the most Jewish name,” Haïm Korsia, France’s chief rabbi, told me. “For some, the recurrence of the two names was striking.”
Gilles-William Goldnadel, the lawyer for Attal’s family and a well-known hardline rightwing columnist, disputes that the association between his client and Ilan Halimi was a calculated political move. But he acknowledges that names can be powerful public symbols. “We can consider that ‘Sarah Halimi’ is the name of the syndrome for the ideological reticence to recognise reality,” he said when we met in his office earlier this year.
Like Ilan Halimi before her, Sarah Halimi soon became less a real human being and more a metaphor put to use in France’s culture wars. In most accounts, she was portrayed without nuance or individuality. In April 2018, Sarah Halimi – rather than Lucie Attal – became the centrepiece of a widely publicised book entitled Le Nouvel Antisémitisme en France, a collection of essays by prominent journalists and public intellectuals. “We have to ask ourselves if her death was only an accident or whether it testifies to the spirit of the times,” says the preface. Again, the allusion to the earlier Halimi case was clear: “Such a convergence of silences will have represented a perfect model of public denial.”
Of all the events on the Parisian social calendar, none quite compares to the annual dinner of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, or Crif. Not merely a gathering of Jewish leaders or a chance to take a selfie with the aging Nazi hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, the dinner is a gathering of virtually everyone who matters in French public life, including nearly every sitting government minister. Although the main event is always an address by the French president, the point of the evening is to demonstrate that even the most universalist of republics can recognise that its citizens have their particular attachments.
In keeping with Macron’s taste for setting and spectacle, the first Crif dinner of his presidency, on 7 March 2018, was held beneath the Louvre pyramid. Once again, Macron used the Attal case to show he took the issue of contemporary antisemitism seriously. “I took a stand by calling for the justice department to make clear the antisemitic dimension of Sarah Halimi’s murder,” he said, not without a tone of self-congratulation.
By that point, the Paris prosecutor, François Molins, had ultimately decided to consider the killing as antisemitic. In his speech, Macron did not go on to discuss the Attal case in any more detail, falling back on abstract platitudes: “We must never falter, we will never falter, in the denunciation of antisemitism and in the fight against this scourge.”
But two weeks later, on 23 March 2018, Mireille Knoll, 85, another elderly Jewish woman – and a survivor of the Vel d’Hiv roundup – was stabbed 11 times in her apartment and left to burn in a failed arson attempt.
The similarities to the Attal case were immediately striking. Knoll also lived alone in a public housing project in the 11th arrondissement. Authorities later confirmed that one of her alleged assailants was also a neighbour, also a young man in his late 20s, and also a Muslim, this time of north African heritage. Members of Knoll’s family later confirmed that she had known the young man, identified as Yacine Mihoub, since he was a boy and that he had been in her apartment drinking port and chatting with Knoll earlier on the day of the murder. Mihoub was a known alcoholic with a history of psychiatric problems, but he had long enjoyed a good relationship with his elderly neighbour. Knoll’s daughter-in-law, Jovinda, told me that in years past, when her mother-in-law was unwell, Mihoub had helped her “a lot”. “He was the one who’d helped put her to bed,” she said.
The news of Knoll’s death broke the next day, via a small item in Le Parisien noting that an 85-year-old woman had died in a “mysterious fire”. The day after that, on Sunday 25 March, two things happened that transformed a small fire in eastern Paris into a national scandal. The first was Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo announcing on Twitter that the victim had been a Holocaust survivor. The second was a Facebook post by Meyer Habib, a confidante of Benjamin Netanyahu’s and a rightwing member of the French parliament. Before authorities had released any information about the identities of the killers, Habib cast Knoll as a victim of “the barbarism of an Islamist”. He then situated her killing in the context of France’s recent struggle with Islamist terrorism. “It’s the same barbarism that killed several Jewish children in Toulouse, slit the throat of a priest in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray or a gendarme officer in Trèbes,” Habib wrote. The Trèbes attack, in which four people were killed by a terrorist, including the gendarme Arnaud Beltrame, happened on the same day as Knoll’s killing and was still receiving wall-to-wall coverage on all major networks.
Knoll’s family, meanwhile, had also retained Gilles-William Goldnadel as their lawyer. He immediately sought to link the two alleged perpetrators: “The two are Muslims who attacked with barbarity women who haven’t done anything,” he told me at the time.
This time, the French state’s response was different. By midday on 26 March, François Molins announced that the Paris prosecutor’s office would investigate the death of Mireille Knoll as an act of antisemitic violence. On 28 March, Macron went even further, closing the investigation in the court of public opinion: Knoll, he said, “was murdered because she was Jewish”.
In the days and weeks that followed the killing, there emerged a string of facts that did nothing to undermine the cruel intimacy of Knoll’s killing, but that did complicate the motive long since ascribed to her alleged murderer – especially the allegation of “Islamist” antisemitism. For starters, Knoll had two assailants, the second of whom, Alex Carrimbacus, was neither Muslim nor of North African origin. Second, Mihoub had no links to any jihadist organisation. In much of the French press, he has been treated as the principal suspect, although both he and and Carrimbacus have since accused the other of having committed the actual murder, while each claiming to have only acted as the other’s accomplice. Both are currently in prison, awaiting the conclusions of an ongoing investigation.
Further complicating matters was the story that emerged about Mihoub’s personal history with Knoll. In February 2017, Mihoub was imprisoned for having sexually assaulted the 12-year-old daughter of Knoll’s live-in carer. Mihoub was released from prison in September 2017 on a suspended sentence, and Carrimbacus, who he had met in jail, later told a panel of investigative judges that Mihoub was out for revenge, a claim authorities have not corroborated. “He told her: ‘You will pay, I wasn’t at the burial of my sister’,” Carrimbacus reportedly said. But revenge seems an unlikely motive, as Knoll had never filed a complaint against him; it was Knoll’s carer, the child’s mother, who filed the complaint that ultimately landed Mihoub in prison.
Even if Mihoub did kill Knoll out of some form of revenge, under the influence of alcohol, there may still have been an element of antisemitism to the act – what Zagury, the psychiatrist in the Attal case, interpreted as the tragic influence of “society’s atmosphere and world events”. One of Knoll’s sons, Daniel, believes there was, saying that the authorities would not have investigated the case as such if they did not have some evidence along those lines. In his interview with the judges, Carrimbacus also reportedly said that Mihoub had antisemitic motivations and had screamed “Allahu Akbar” during the attack – an allegation widely reported in the French press as fact, despite the dubious source. Mihoub’s lawyer, Fabrice de Korodi, vehemently denies the charge, claiming that Carrimbacus was trying to shift the blame. “The one motive that we can be sure was not involved was that of antisemitism,” de Korodi told me.
Unlike Lucie Attal, Mireille Knoll became an instant national martyr. On 28 March, the Crif, along with several other Jewish organisations, planned a march in Paris in Knoll’s honour, from the Place de la Nation to her apartment in Avenue Philippe Auguste. It was an astounding sight: in a country often accused of indifference to the fate of its minority populations, here were tens of thousands of people marching down the Boulevard Voltaire, wearing buttons and brandishing signs that bore the face of a murdered Jew. In the crowd, I happened to bump into Finkielkraut, who was moved by the remarkable diversity we saw on the street. “Many Jews felt abandoned by the national community as a whole,” he told me then. “But I believe today there will be people of all faiths here. That’s very important.”
But a different, less harmonious narrative soon emerged. The month after the killing, the cases of Mireille Knoll and the woman now known as Sarah Halimi became the catalysts for a blistering “manifesto” against “the new antisemitism.” This was an open letter signed by more than 250 French luminaries, including one former president, calling for French Muslims to demonstrate their fealty to the Republic and arguing that portions of the Qur’an should be “banished to obscurity”, which many took to mean redacted altogether. In response, 30 imams published a response in Le Monde, denouncing antisemitism, but also what they saw as the normalisation of Islamophobia. “Some have already seen a chance to incriminate an entire religion,” the imams wrote. “They no longer hesitate to say in public and in the media that it is the Qur’an itself that calls for murder.” (Korsia, France’s chief rabbi, later told me that he regretted the phrasing of the original manifesto, which he signed. “What I would have preferred is that we would have made clearer the need for contextualisation and interpretation rather than the total abrogation of this or that verse,” he said, referring to the call to edit portions of the Qur’an.)
Looking back on the affair, Daniel Knoll feels that an opportunity was missed. On a rainy October afternoon, he received me for tea at the small apartment he shares with Jovinda, his Catholic, Filipina wife, in a suburb of Paris not far from Orly airport. I asked him how he felt seeing his mother transformed into a national symbol, a metaphor for the threat of Islamist antisemitism – even if there was little evidence her killer had been an “Islamist”.
“The culprit was a Muslim, but he doesn’t represent the entire Muslim religion,” Knoll said. He was particularly moved by the diversity of the crowd at the march, and what he saw as a collective sense that his mother could be anyone’s grandmother. “But to say she’s a symbol? I’m not sure about that.”
When Shane McCorristine, a scholar of modern British history, went trawling through police reports from 19th-century England, he was struck by the number that contained descriptions of dreams: witnesses and victims seemed to make a point of telling police and coroners if they had anticipated a crime or a death in their dreams. Telling dreams, he said, was a way to create “a social bond between a vulnerable person and the authorities.” But he noticed that dream reports started dropping out of inquests and news stories in the 1920s, and he pinned the blame on Freud. “Freudian theories were spreading, and they were recalibrating people’s relationship with the dream world,” he said. “There’s increasing embarrassment around dreams.” Suddenly, they might be interpreted as signs of some latent neurosis or sexual deviance.
A century later, conventional wisdom dictates that dreams are not a subject for polite conversation. Writing for the New Yorker’s website in 2018, Dan Piepenbringbegan a reviewof Insomniac Dreams — a book about Nabokov’s relationship with his dreams — by apologizing for the topic: “Dreams are boring. On the list of tedious conversation topics, they fall somewhere between the five-day forecast and golf.” A few years earlier, radio producer Sarah Koenig devotedan episodeof This American Life to laying out the seven topics that interesting people should never talk about. Dreams came in at number four, right behind menstruation. In the Guardian, British writer Charlie Brookerclaimed that listening to other people’s dreamsmade him dream “of a future in which the anecdote has finished and their face has stopped talking and their body’s gone away.” Novelist Michael Chabonwrote in the New York Review of Booksthat discussion of dreams is all but banned from his breakfast table, railing against them as poor conversational fodder: They drag on and on. They get twisted in the telling. Most unforgivable, they are bad stories. When I explain the topic of my book, people frequently offer their sympathies: “People must want to tell you their dreams,” they say with an I-feel-your-pain nod. “Those are the most boring conversations.”
In a society that still sees dreams as frivolous, airing them aloud is considered pointless at best, self-indulgent at worst. People worry that in sharing their dreams, they could inadvertently reveal some shameful neurosis or deviant desire; one of Freud’s most enduring — yet least supported — theories is that most dreams express unconscious erotic wishes. If someone says, “You were in my dream last night,” it’s still basically an innuendo.
“Tellers of dreams have some basic obstacles to overcome,” literary scholar James Phelan said when I asked him whether there was anything about dreams that rendered them tedious narratives. “What makes stories of non-dream experiences interesting is that they are ‘tellable’ in some sense: the story implicitly claims that there’s some- thing about the experiences that raise them above the level of ordinary, unremarkable happenings.” The protagonist might confront some danger, learn a lesson, or encounter something beautiful. But in dreams, “just about any event can occur, which means that the ordinary/extraordinary distinction relevant to stories of non-dream experiences no longer applies, which makes tellability more murky.”
Another problem is that dreams don’t follow the type of logic we expect of a good yarn, Phelan said. “Often tellers will try to recount faithfully the sequence of the dream events. But such faithfulness typically means no cause-and-effect logic, and that absence typically means no coherence to the story, and no coherence means a bad story. If the story of my day is boring because it is awash in details of no significance, the faithful recounting of a dream is boring because it is awash in randomness.”
And it’s hard to feel invested in another person’s dream. You don’t have any stake in it — you know from the outset that the story ends with the dreamer waking up in bed, unscathed. “The teller of the dream has a listener who inherently doesn’t really care, because it’s the teller’s dream, and the listener is hearing something kind of egotistical and likely to be embarrassing,” said Alison Booth, an English professor at the University of Virginia who specializes in narrative theory. “How are we to imagine we are the dreamer, when we hear about it? Whereas in fiction, rule number one is you are the reader and you have every right to be at the center of the story/imagine yourself as protagonist.”
But maybe Westerners are just out of practice; maybe they don’t know how to communicate their dreams. The reluctance to talk about dreaming is a culturally specific — and recent — phenomenon. There may even be an evolutionary reason why we feel so compelled to share our dreams. If the brain is trying to identify weak associations that may be valuable, then “it’s got to be very lenient,” said Robert Stickgold, director of Harvard’s Center for Sleep and Cognition. “Maybe part of this process of biasing the brain’s association-strengthening mechanism — to say, ‘Pay attention to this association I found’ — carries over into waking, and now you want everyone else to pay attention to it.”
As our ancestors intuited, talking about dreams — whether casually recounting them to friends, analyzing them in structured groups, or even sharing them with strangers on the internet — can amplify their benefits. The more we integrate our dreams into our days, the more easily we remember them. And the act of discussing dreams can bring people together; just as dreams open up conversations on sensitive or embarrassing issues in a therapeutic setting, they can also facilitate intimate conversations among friends.
From the 1970s onward, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Montague Ullman led the movement to develop dream-sharing groups. He wanted to democratize dream analysis — to find a way for people without special qualifications or access to psychiatric care to gain insight and social connection from their dreams. “Trust, communion, and a sense of solidarity develop rapidly in a dream-sharing group,” he wrote. “There is an interweaving of lives at so profound a level that the feeling of interconnectedness becomes a palpable reality.”
New research confirms what Ullman suspected: participating in a dream group can yield a host of social and psychological benefits. In onestudy, college students’ levels of personal insight were measured after they shared either a dream or a significant real-life experience with the researchers. The students met in groups until everyone had spent a full forty-five-minute session parsing both a dream and an emotional daytime event. Sharing a dream proved to be more helpful; scores on scales of exploration insight (“I learned more from the session about how past events influence my present behavior”; “I learned more about issues in my waking life from working with the dream/event”; “I learned things that I would not have thought of on my own”) and personal insight (“I got ideas during the session for how to change some aspect(s) of myself or my life”; “I learned a new way of thinking about myself and my problems”) were significantly higher if the students had worked with a dream.
Clara Hill, a psychologist at the University of Maryland, has studied how dream groups can help people improve a relationship or cope with a breakup. In one experiment, she and a coauthor recruited 34 women going through a divorce and invited 22 of them to a weekly dream group. Many of their dreams revolved around painful themes like failing or being thwarted or mocked. One woman dreamed of going home to reconcile with her husband and finding him in bed with two beautiful women in an apartment full of dead fish. Another woman dreamed of climbing a rope up a muddy hill, only to keep sliding back down. The 12-person control group, meanwhile, spent the two-month period of the study on a waitlist before finally sharing their dreams in a single workshop. By the end of the experiment, the women who had participated in the ongoing dream group not only had gained insight into their dreams but also ranked higher on measures of overall self-esteem. The catharsis of sharing their secrets and the pleasure of belonging to a community translated into a confidence that stretched beyond the limits of the weekly dream group.
Studies like these are useful in proving that psychologists should take dream groups seriously — but people don’t need to consult the latest research to know that dream groups can be a source of insight and a balm for boredom and loneliness. Less formalized dream groups have cropped up as an organic bonding ritual in desperate situations. “Every morning we would start the day by sharing and interpreting the dreams we had during the night,” one Auschwitz survivor wrote years after liberation. Dreams were a source of distraction in an environment sorely lacking in it; the dreaming mind was a self-reliant fount of entertainment. And the act of sharing dreams became an exercise in community-building. The Nazis replaced inmates’ names with numbers and subjected them to barbaric conditions, but in sharing a dream or offering an interpretation, a prisoner could reassert his humanity.
“The interpersonal dimension of interpreting dreams in Auschwitz was connected with the inmates’ need for capturing others’ attention,” Owczarski wrote. “When a prisoner shared an interesting dream, he or she became, at least for a while, important for his or her interlocutor . . . The meaning of a dream was not as important as the sheer fact of talking about it. Sharing dreams was therefore a kind of mutual help, aimed at increasing the inmates’ self-esteem.”
In a vacuum of outside news, prisoners looked to dreams for clues to life-or-death questions like whether their relatives were still alive and whether the war would ever end. And because dreams were thought to contain prophecies pertinent not only to the dreamer but to other prisoners and the community at large, dissecting them was a legitimate group activity. Throughout the day, people could look for signs that an omen from another inmate’s dream had been fulfilled. “When the dream did not come true for the dreamer, it came true for his friend,” one prisoner said. “Dreams became common property: see, your friend dreamt about it.” They made up their own dream dictionary that reflected the precariousness of their lives and their preoccupation with the future. Smoking a cigarette prophesied the dreamer’s release from prison. Cooking meat meant that he would be beaten during interrogation.
After liberation, many of the inmates were embarrassed to remember their one-time faith in dreams; the extreme stress of camp life had allowed them to suspend their disbelief. “It is hard to tell why we were all so naïve,” one survivor wrote. “Nowadays, we see them [the dream interpretations] as immature or even silly, but back then they were simply necessary,” said another.
With a day job as well as a freelance business, I tend to think of myself as rather a chameleon. When at my day job, I wear suitable clothing in line with the other employees. It is a socially accepted mode of ‘uniform’ in most workplaces, we wear the ‘appropriate’ clothes for the work we are doing. However, when in ‘freelance’ mode there are two options, firstly the working at home in front of the computer can be any of these:
Aren’t these illustrations just the best? We all know, we have dressed like this at one point of another (or constantly!) and it is one of the perks of the digital age that we do not have to actually meet clients per-say on a daily basis but can pick and choose the mode of communication. Some clients might be in another country or state/province and emails, Skype calls etc. allow us contact without leaving the house.
When we are meeting face to face, however then we need to consider how we want to project our ‘freelance’ image. To arrive in any of the above would surely have any client running for the hills. We must dress to impress, give our client a professional image to enlist confidence in our ability and competence. I am listing clothing for women in particular but of course men should consider a suit or smart jacket and casual trousers/pants.
A business casual look can be a simple chiffon shirt, jersey top, turtleneck or patterned blouse partnered with a blazer or jacket for a smarter look. In cooler temperatures opt for a pea or trench coat or a thicker fabric jacket. Matched with either suit trousers, chinos or a dark-coloured dress, simple skirt. Footwear can be loafers, brogues, pumps or shorter heels. Keep your jewelry understated.
As with any job interview, we need to ‘look the part’ and show our client we have the credentials to produce a great product, no matter what kind of project that may be.
An extra tip, I use, is to browse the company or person’s website – it can give you an idea of the ‘culture’ and the ‘look’ of their employees. You can tailor your look to match.
Over the past couple of decades, one idea has almost become a cliché in reviews of animated movies: They might be aimed at kids, but there’s plenty about them that will appeal to adults!
It’s an idea that has come up consistently since the mid-’90s, the height of theDisney Renaissanceand the start of the computer animation boom (thanks to Pixar’s 1995 release of Toy Story). Sometimes, critics homed in on the films’ sense of humor, like how Aladdin was built around Robin Williams’s genie, who provided anendless string of pop culture referencesthat few kids would understand but their parents would enjoy. Sometimes, they simply appreciated that the movies contained musical numbers — which Hollywood had mostly gotten away from after the bust of the mega-musical in the late ‘60s.
But usually, they were responding to animated films that featured compelling themes and well-told stories. Certainly, not every animated film that came out during this period was a bastion of excellence — hello to Pocahontas, a deeply confused movie about early American race relations. But I get the sentiment; in comparison to the sloppy storytelling and non-existent themes in so many big-money blockbusters of the day, many animated kids’ films stood out for their narrative ambitions.
To this day, a surprisingly high number of animated kids’ films continue to adhere to good storytelling fundamentals. Their character arcs are clear. Their plots are carefully tuned. Their themes aren’t precisely subtle — at least one character usually states them outright — but they’re at least present, which is more than I can say for many similarly successful live-action blockbusters aimed at the whole family (or some approximation thereof).
Some American animation studios are better than others (notably Pixar, Disney, and Laika). But even something like Illumination’s new animated version ofThe Grinch, while not a stunning work of filmmaking, is still a marked improvement on2000’s live-action spinon the story, which felt like an evolutionary step backward from theclassic 1966 TV special, Dr. Seuss with all his vestigial organs still attached.
So why are animated films so frequently possessed of better storytelling than other, comparable big studio films? The answer has to do with how stories are constructed for those films. To find out more, I headed behind the scenes of Disney’s new, critically acclaimedRalph Breaks the Internet.
Animated movies typically figure out their stories from start to finish before diving deep into filming
Like many people, I was skeptical of Ralph Breaks the Internet, the 2018 sequel to 2012’s terrific, video game-spoofingWreck-It Ralph. Sequels have a poor track record to begin with, to say nothing of sequels to films with endings as perfect and wistful as Wreck-It Ralph’s. By the end of that movie, Ralph and his new friend Vanellope have conquered their fears and made peace with the things they haven’t always liked about themselves. Thanks to their new friendship, everything is swell.
So the end of Wreck-It Ralph already doesn’t offer up a particularly organic place to begin a new story. And that’s before you factor in that its sequel satirizes the internet, where the targets of parody change literally every hour. Animated films have very long development cycles (Ralph Breaks the Internet was officially announced in 2016 and had already been in the works for years before that). How could this movie possibly succeed, especially in an era when our relationship to online behemoths like Facebook and Amazon shifts by the day?
The answer to that question occupied everyone working on the film, but especially the story department.
A brief aside here: By “story,” I mean the overall structure of the film’s plot — which events will lead to other events, how the character arcs will play out, etc. You can often diagram a work’s story on paper, showing the rise and fall of the plot, as in thefamous “three-act structure.” Think of it as the blueprint.
The “script” is the document that contains the dialogue and other details required to produce the final product you’ll eventually see in theaters — the house built from the blueprint. In the best-case scenario, the script is built atop a rock-solid story, but not all movies are best-case scenarios.
Some live-action blockbusters are still produced from scripts that are finalized well in advance of filming, but in an age when special effects workshops often have to start building a movie’s big action setpieces years before its release date, a complete script can be a rare luxury when a movie is actually filming — to say nothing of one based on an actual story that makes sense. Industry anecdotes about huge blockbusters where the script was being written right while production was happening are unfortunately common. This can lead toan all-time classic. More often it leads to somethinglike Men in Black III.
Because the process of making an animated film is so expensive — there’s a lot more time and labor involved, since whole worlds have to be drawn or created in a computer and then animated — it’s imperative to only animate sequences that are as close to final as they can get. So on an animated film, story is typically determined ahead of time, and occasionally even before the screenwriter has started her first draft.
Enter the story department, staffed by hybrid writer-artists, who come up with ideas for how the major beats of a movie’s plot might proceed, then draw quick sketches — storyboards — of each sequence. The storyboards are roughly animated and voiced by temporary actors to create what’s called an “animatic,” then screened for the film’s larger production team, including the directors and screenwriters.
Here’s an idea of what an animatic looks like — this one features a deleted scene from the first Wreck-It Ralph film:
It’s very rare for a sequence to be approved immediately. More often, certain ideas are praised, others are thrown out, and the story team starts over again from (almost) scratch.
How Ralph Breaks the Internet benefited from the storyboarding process
One example the Ralph story team shared offers valuable insight into how the storyboarding process works. The story team knew they needed Ralph and Vanellope to go viral somehow, in order for the movie’s plot to progress. But coming up with a way for the pair to go viral ended up being tricky, because what’s viral today won’t be what’s viral tomorrow, or even an hour from now.
The team tried everything. One sequence that riffed on the idea of finding out whether you’re a Ralph or a Vanellope (which sounds vaguely like a BuzzFeed personality quiz) was discarded as being too weak. Another that dealt with a meme factory ended up making Ralph (who in the sequence took all sorts of abuse in order to make people laugh) feel like too much of a sad sack.
Finally, they started to zero in on what ended up in the film (which I won’t spoil) thanks to a sequence where Ralph became the star ofa YouTube unboxing video(a subgenre of the platform in which people open products they’ve just purchased). The unboxing sequence didn’t quite land, but it was closer, for two reasons: It gave Ralph an authentic connection to the action of the story (it was something he was doing, in other words), and it pivoted off a fairly big-picture generic thing that’s out there on the internet.
It wasn’t too specific to be tied to any one era of internet history, while still feeling recognizable to people who’ve spent time online. With that feedback in mind, the story team moved forward with new iterations of the idea.
And that’s just one sequence. The numbers behind Ralph Breaks the Internet tell the tale of just how much work the story department put into the film.
If you buy a ticket to go see Ralph Breaks the Internet, the finished movie you’ll see includes 45 sequences that went through the full storyboarding process and were approved for full animation. Those were whittled down from 153 proposed sequences. Altogether, those 153 proposed sequences comprised 7,883 different iterations, and to make up those different iterations, the story department drew 283,839 total storyboards.
Where many animated movies discard hundreds of ideas for every one they find, “on Ralph Breaks the Internet, it was like a thousand ideas to get that one idea,” saidJosie Trinidad, the film’s head of story. But the team’s effort seems to have paid off. The sequences screened for journalists at Disney headquarters were fresh and funny, and the film now boastsa 93 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes (it opens Wednesday).
Ralph Breaks the Internet is a great example of how the storyboarding process that animated films rely on tends to yield tighter, better-told stories. Instead of working from an unfinished script that can change from day to day on set — as often happens with live-action blockbusters — animated movies have been mercilessly pulled apart and vetted by multiple people before real production begins.
By the time a story is approved and an actual script is written, the film has been thought and rethought countless times. (In a weird way, this whole process is somewhat similar to the writers’ room that exists on most television shows.)
And though some live-action films use storyboarding as well, they often approach it differently. Some directors — like Steven Spielberg and Mad Max’s George Miller — are experts in the form, using storyboards to examine how an action sequence or fight scene will play on screen, and how it might land (or not) for the audience. But live-action storyboards are usually drawn after the script is written, to figure out how to visualize sequences as scripted. Only rarely are they used to create a rough visualization of a movie’s story to see if everything is working.
And there are animated films that don’t have story departments, especially those produced by smaller studios or independent directors. But for the most part, the storyboarding process is an industry standard that most major animation studios use.
Is the process foolproof? Of course not. In particular, it can create stories with a very point-A-to-point-B feel; sometimes a story department will focus so heavily on crafting a plot that makes sense that the characters’ emotional journeys fall by the wayside. The process can also lead to overly familiar, bland stories if all involved don’t guard against clichés, which is the pitfall of any story told by committee.
And even then, a story department is only as good as the different voices it can bring into the process, who must make a concerted effort to come up with fresh and new ideas. One needs only look to Pixar to find a studio with a strong track record whose movies nevertheless tend totell variations on the same storyover and over again.
But there’s a reason the storyboard process has been used in animation since the days of Walt Disney himself: It works. It boils stories down to their essence, and at its best, it finds new ways to pivot off of familiar storytelling tropes. It won’t work for every film, but its batting average is shockingly high. And if you’ve ever found yourself more satisfied with the story in an animated movie than you were in some comparable live-action blockbuster, you probably have this process to thank.
Justice is rare. But once in a while there arises an unexpected situation that nourishes the hope that justice has not disappeared entirely from the world. The news of an impending lawsuit againstNYU professor Avital Ronellreminded me of a conversation I had years ago with one of her students. Even her luck can’t last forever, this student reckoned. At some point, he said, she won’t be able to continue to abuse her power and unleash psychic terror on her students without being punished. At the time I considered the cloistered world of the university and the unique powers of intrigue and manipulation this professor possesses, and I was skeptical. Now, years later, it seems the student was right. There is, however, bitter resistance brewing, which has also found expression in the feuilletons of German newspapers. A muddle-headed resistance puts solidarity among its members before justice, thus scorning the victim.
First, a brief flashback. As chair of the German department and head of the appointment committee, I played a large role in the decision to offer Avital Ronell, on her second attempt, a professorship at NYU. Three years before that, I had been asked to resuscitate a moribund German department and to help it find legs upon which to stand. During negotiations, the dean pledged four professorships to me. I wrote a comprehensive position paper describing what a German department in the academic landscape of New York and the United States should look like. This task drew me to New York.
Before I offered Avital Ronell her job, I’d had many in-depth conversations with her. She engaged my queries with what seemed like understanding. She said she’d throw herself into the building of an integrated study and research program. She promised actively to contribute to department research, conferences and publications. Once she had assumed the position, however, she broke all her promises. She did her best to sabotage the program. She pursued one goal: The work of Avital Ronell and Jacques Derrida must be at the center of all teaching and research. Instead of an academic program, we were left with boundless narcissism. Once she’d become the head of the German department, she had her secretary announce in a departmental meeting that in the German department no student’s written work would any longer be acceptable unless it cited Derrida and Ronell.
At that point, I understood the question the dean had posed during my interview, namely, where do you stand on deconstruction? I was still naïve and answered as though he had asked me what I think of Leibniz. After I’d arrived in New York it took me a while to understand what was really behind the dean’s anxious question. We were at war, and, as in any war, there was only a yes or a no, for me or against me.
In Professor Ronell’s opinion, I was not enough for her. So she began, after an initial period of acclimatization in the department, to undermine my position as department head. When she spoke, I noticed deviations from the facts; in her deeds, the signs of disloyalty. An unpleasant tension took root. I didn’t expect gratitude, but I could not have imagined such disloyalty. If Martin Heidegger obliterated the name of his predecessor, ejecting him from the offices he eventually occupied, as Ronell claims (in “The Telephone Book“), then obviously he was her role model.
“To make things ‘perfectly clear’ is reactionary and stupefying. The real is not perfectly clear.” – Avital Ronell
The university belongs, like the church and the military, to the social institutions that are situated at a considerable distance from democracy and adhere to premodern power structures. Professor Ronell was unusually skilled at manipulating these. Nothing is so important in these power plays as the unconditional support of the dean of faculty. Luck was on her side. The dean had changed, and the new dean admired her and her publications, of which, I suspect, he had not read a single one. If he had, he would have had to disown his own. But his confidante in the comparative literature department provided him with evidence of theory-queen Ronell’s genius. He took every opportunity to throw himself at her feet.
Working with the dean, she achieved a coup. After I’d returned from a semester in Berlin, I found a letter from the dean on my desk, informing me I was no longer chair of the department. Professor Ronell now occupied my position. No consultation or information preceded this announcement. No appeal, no protest, no reference to my arrangement with the former dean, who had in the meantime left NYU, was relevant. No reason for my demotion was given. The plan I had developed and had begun implementing for the department had evidently been scuttled. Having made Professor Ronell acting chair and installed her in that position before my trip to Berlin, she seamlessly continued as chair.
“Giorgio Agamben is possibly the most delicate and probing thinker since Walter Benjamin.” Avital Ronell
But squeezing me out wasn’t enough for Ronell. Any means were justified in her attempt to destroy my reputation. A friend from Princeton had warned me against hiring her, predicting she would, after a short while, denigrate me as a male chauvinist. This reproach did not escape her lips. After all, it would have been implausible, since, of the five positions I had filled in the department, four were given to women.
“Neither a pathology nor an index as such of moral default, stupidity is nonetheless linked to the most dangerous failures of human endeavor. ” Avital Ronell
However, she had another arrow in her quill. At a public event she labeled me an anti-Semite. Not that she actually believed this smear. But the accusation, once uttered, was not easy to unhear, and since it fit into her political calculations, she had no scruples deploying it. Even if no one believed the charge, it would still have the desired effect for her. Semper aliquid haeret, as the Romans used to say: Something always sticks.
With that, the first step to her goal was taken, namely, to discredit me and to destroy my standing at the university. All of this she did from behind a veil of smiles and verbal niceties. Hypocrisy reigned.
Since I usually learned only indirectly of her slandering me, I had no means of defending myself. Circumstances didn’t allow for more than a frustrated silence. A colleague, a professor of economics whom I respected and who was on the committee that appointed me to NYU, one day did not know me, turning on his heel when we met by accident on the street. I can only guess why he reacted this way.
She once won first prize in theBad Writing Contestoverseen by the late philosopher Denis Dutton. Her winning piece, taken from an entirely serious article published in “the scholarly journal Diacritics,” is an excellent example of how to get to the top in po-mo academe:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power. (Bad Writing Contest for 1998)
From her second semester onward Professor Ronell reigned with an authoritarian hand, gloved in her well-proven hypocrisy. Instructors whom I had brought to the department either submitted to her regime or lost their jobs, always according to the letter of the law and in discussion with the dean, never in consultation with members of the German department. Once, she drafted a secret dissenting opinion against the unanimous decision of a commission and submitted it to the dean. The protest we as a department made to the dean against the dismissal of a junior professor fell on deaf ears. He would make no decision that ran counter to the will of the chairperson. The cynicism of Professor Ronell’s reasoning was hard to beat. The dismissal of this junior colleague was in this professor’s best interests, she explained, for she would not have felt comfortable in the department. In fact, Ronell wanted this colleague to leave because she was not prepared to be subservient. Someone else was found to fill in. Sure, the new hire had no experience, but at least she was ready to submit to Professor Ronell.
She dismissed a lecturer in the German language who had been hired by my predecessor and had for years done a great job. Occasionally, he had been a bit aloof around Professor Ronell. For that he had to pay. When he returned to his office to pack up his things, Professor Ronell appeared to commiserate with him and assure him of her sympathy, until he broke into tears and fled the room.
The quality of teaching in the department unraveled. The carefully planned program of teaching German literature was ignored. Many students arrived in the department with minimal knowledge of German literature or history. The courses that were meant to correct this no longer existed. Now philosophy, from Hegel to Judith Butler, was taught. But multidisciplinarity quickly deteriorated into dilettantism. Students were encouraged to take philosophy seminars at other universities. Soon, students who had learned about deconstruction and feminism in Paris, but who had no idea who Gottfried Benn, Joseph Roth and Alfred Döblin were, were no exception in the department. As one student told me, “We study in a German department where French theory is taught in English.”
I am amazed even today that we succeeded in preventing the inclusion of a clause in the German department’s charter that would have exempted students from mastering the German language. It was Professor Ronell who, in all seriousness, made this suggestion. In fact, however, she admitted students who spoke English and French, but not a word of German — but they had studied in Paris and proven in their term papers that they were Derrida connoisseurs.
Included in Professor Ronell’s instruments of domination was the absolute control of information. Information streams were strictly controlled, and a thick net was spun that captured and distributed them as she saw fit. At a department meeting Professor Ronell let it be known through her secretary that no member of the department would be allowed to make contact with any dean at NYU without her (Professor Ronell’s) explicit consent. Soon after that, there were no more department meetings. Information was exchanged only in one-on-one conversations. Whoever did not belong to the inner circle had no access to information. Uncertainty grew, and the department became a rumor mill. This fostered all sorts of manipulation that in turn served to strengthen the inner circle. As in a conventicle [a secret or illegal religious meeting], access to information was gained through eavesdropping on the proclamation of the divinity’s message. Inquiries and criticisms were unwanted.
The rules for the formation of Ronell’s congregation functioned within as without. Necessary to maintaining this body of followers was the placing of a few people in strategically advantageous positions, a journal in which colleagues could review one another’s work, and a flock of admirers. These conditions either existed already or were manufactured. An editor from a publisher was introduced to me with the sentence: “He discovered me!” I received, presumably as a test, an offer to review a book in “one of our” journals. The book had been written by “one of our own.” My review was critical; I saw no reason to praise the book. Further offers to review books were not forthcoming. I’d flunked the test.
The interests of graduate students counted for little. In a department meeting, all students were informed they wasted the professors’ precious research time by asking for guidance and advice.
Sharpening the critical faculties of students was no longer the goal of the department under Professor Ronell. Quite the contrary. Before students were allowed to practice criticism, they had to learn to subject themselves to authority. Every objection, every doubt, brought punishment with it. Dissent was heresy, and heretics would be reprimanded or excommunicated — and not always with a smile, but often ironically, derisively, maliciously.
Two students told me about a seminar in which the “O” in Heinrich von Kleist’s novella “The Marquise von O” was under discussion. Pauline Réage, in her pornographic novel “Story of O“explores the relationship between sexuality and extreme forms of submission. This subject can certainly be discussed in a university seminar — but in one on Kleist? And the obvious question of the relation between university teaching and submission was, according to the students’ report, not dealt with. There was a reason for that.
I have saved a letter from a student who was close enough to Avital Ronell to study her in detail. He was an older student who had completed training as a psychotherapist. He had wanted to write his dissertation under her guidance. After one year, he gave up, disillusioned, and left the department. I quote from an E-mail he wrote to Professor Ronell :
From my interactions with you and observing you in various settings, you give the impression that you suffer from a well-known mental illness referred to as malignant narcissism in a borderline structure …
There are clear clinical descriptions of sadistic object relations. You may get some sense of why your criticisms of students are so often felt to be destructive and disillusioning: you appear to be unable to control your sadism. Don’t you realize that the metaphor you expressed to me in front of other faculty, that you liken your role to that of a Procrustean bonsai master who prunes and places wires on her students, probably points to a destructive, violent and sadistic phantasy that is only worsened by the self-satisfied relish with which you related it? This disorder, were it found to be present, would also account for why you sometimes seem to me slightly unkempt. These comments are meant to be helpful. I hope you will seek out a proper professional evaluation to identify whatever the problems are and have them addressed. I am concerned for you and I hope you will take this caution seriously …
This student had the financial means to leave. Other students were not in such fortunate positions. They were dependent on Professor Ronell’s approval if they didn’t want to put their stipends at risk. How quickly this approval might disappear she made crystal clear. As soon as a student’s admiration was deemed lacking, Avital Ronell withdrew her support. The department became a hand-selected group of disciples. Whoever didn’t fit in left voluntarily or was pressured to do so. One such student said to me by way of farewell: “Avital never should have been made chair of this department.”
Trust cannot grow in a department where the chair repeatedly stresses her commitment to the success of staff and students, but in truth has only her own success in mind. As the dismissed junior colleague said, the learning environment under such leadership grew cold. Hypocrisy, suspicion and intrigue were all that blossomed.
Under the mantle of hypocrisy, Professor Ronell’s abuse of power was the order of the day. If a relationship between Ronell and a student had a sexualized tincture, its end spelled personal catastrophe for the student. The initiation of a sexualized relationship is never only an ethical violation; it is also a major breach of professional conduct that inevitably influences a student’s professional training. I know of a student who lost her stipend after a personal conflict with Ronell. This meant she wasn’t able to continue her education, which meant she lost her visa and had to return to her home country. Later, I met her by coincidence at a conference in Berlin. She lived from gig to gig and off of grant money. But her judgment of her former advisor hadn’t changed: Ronell, she insisted, was a genius, the greatest living literary theorist. Once a member of the sect, always a member. Tunnel vision forever.
One time I was away from the department for a few weeks, and a student had used my office and computer. When I returned, I found a letter on my desktop that the student had written to Ronell. Never in my life had I read a cry of such groveling submission and howling guilt. She begged forgiveness because she had failed to appear at a scheduled meeting. She confessed: She had not been sick. Instead, she had not had the inner strength to meet Avital in person at her apartment. Would Avital forgive her one more time?
Other students kept their appointments with Professor Ronell. I remember a student from Iran. Ronell had pressured him to write his PhD thesis on Goethe’s “West-East Divan” under her guidance. He acquiesced, bowing to necessity. After a conference with his new mentor, he slunk into my office. He closed the door and dropped his voice (the walls had ears), and said: “I am sick to my stomach. I need to take two days off to recover.” Most students reacted differently through self-humiliation and self-abnegating subjugation. They were ever-stricken with a guilty conscience and an identification with their aggressor. The question of guilt played a large role in Professor Ronell’s machinations. Her steady accusation was this: “You are guilty and deserve to be punished by me.” Students translated this as: “Yes, I am guilty and deserve to be punished by you.” The severe über-mama was always in the right.
Going against her prohibition of making any unauthorized contact with university officials, I arranged a meeting with a new dean. I could no longer look on in silence, and I told her about the desolate state of teaching in the German department and the psychic pressure students were forced to endure. The dean’s response: There are no faculty police to ensure the enforcement of rules. If there are problems, they need to be solved within the department. This, in my view, provided carte blanche for abuse. A few days later, Professor Ronell inquired of me if I “still” found it necessary to stay in contact with the deans. On the same day she found a new way to humiliate me. The continued bullying — needling and more serious harassment — had no end.
Even when one is acquainted with the hermetic world of the modern academy, it is still hard to believe how many years had to pass before awareness of Ronell’s abuse of power made its way to a public forum, or before her sexualized pedagogy would even be mentioned.
“Learning to speak is like learning to shoot.” Avital Ronell
Now, however, a few commentators will have us know that the case of Ronell is a fresh example of the oppression of a leftist feminist by conservative white men. This political polarization is crude, and its goal transparent: This is war, and ranks are closing around Ronell.
Leftist? Avital Ronell’s father figures are Martin Heidegger and, often quoted and paraphrased, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan. Who could possibly describe them as left-leaning theorists? If Ronell has a political agenda, it is the liquidation of the legacy of 1968.
In the German newspapers Die Zeit and the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Ronell has been elevated to the “shining light” of feminist studies. I had to read this description twice before I could believe my eyes. Anyone trying to find a substantial contribution to feminist thought in her work will be searching for a long time. And “shining light”? If pure ignorance did not produce this phrase, then it is simply the reality-denying militancy of ideology. If “light” is supposed to refer to the Enlightenment, this is also a perversion of standards. Few other books in recent years have served the Counter-Enlightenment as well as Avital Ronell’s books. Her hypocrisy serves the commentators’ lack of insight. She likes to cast herself as diabolical and loves the color black — but only in the sanctuary of her inner circle. As soon as her audience grows beyond those confines, she performs a new role, namely, that of the fragile and vulnerable woman.
The quality of her publications is trotted out as one reason she should remain immune from criticism. But should even a brilliant book protect someone from accusations of sexual harassment and abuses of power? Moreover, not everyone agrees that Professor Ronell’s books have made significant contributions to theoretical debates. And not everyone who declares her guilty of intellectual charlatanism (for example, for her fantasies of a conversation between Martin Heidegger and the SA in Berlin, or her musings about Flaubert and the crack wars) are old, misogynist men thirsting for the blood of emancipated women.
How could such a polarization emerge? I remember a conversation I had with a colleague after one of Ronell’s lectures. In private and with a glass of wine in hand, we agreed without hesitation: It was a convoluted mess replete with incomprehensible longueurs. As soon a third person joined us, however, the conversation shifted to high praise. The intervention of Ronell’s network of supporters was working splendidly.
She is expert at translating incomprehensibility into pseudo-profundity. The following convoluted remarks were Avital Ronell’s attempt at clarifying the convoluted structure of her book “Crack Wars.” Her purpose was not, she argued, to show complicity with the “metaphysics of continuity” — what could this mean?
In fact, I wanted to move with a disruptive flow characteristic of the types of experience which we can still have which are discontinuous, rhythmed according to different moments and impulses, urges. I was trying to play precisely with the question of speeding and slowing down, and the relation of artificial injections to the way we can think about temporality. So the book is on different types of drugs, too: there’s the more psychedelic moments, there’s the narcotized moments where it slows down into a heroin experience, and there’s the speed freak moments. Different articulations. There’s different angles and approaches (or reproaches) to the problem. Since it’s also trying to argue for the relationship of drugs to technology, I do try to sequence it according to this discontinuous flow, in the sense that the electronic media “makes sense” only by discontinuous flows. So it would be an instance of non-technological resistance to try to produce an uninterrupted linear argumentation.
Professor Ronell’s confused efforts at originality don’t convince every reader. Terms such as “ontic,” “identity,” “Dasein,” “a priori” and “totality” are generously scattered throughout her books and give the impression of philosophical rigor. In such a lexical environment, the following banalities and meaningless sentences have a patina of significance: “As for Hölderlin, he did not watch television,” or “A woman’s voice is perfectly suited to perform a phallic penetration” (from “The Telephone Book”). “That’s how I want to write,” sighed a student whom Ronell had helped to make the jump from Bielefeld to New York. He wasn’t the only one who took burbling nonsense for profundity.
One rarely sees posed the question of whether her writings have meaning beyond the suggestive allure of their incomprehensibility or their playful associative quality. Judgment is preordained; admiration is programmed. To keep this charlatanism alive, her cultivation of her communications network is essential. At one of the last faculty receptions I attended the year I finally threw in the towel, one of the, by that time, many deans, vice-deans or sub-deans said, “But her research!” just moments after bemoaning from one corner of his mouth the deficiencies of her administration.
Whoever masters the art of manipulating deans and colleagues has won the game. I must admit that I once unwillingly took part in that power game by offering her a professorship. At a similar faculty function, I remarked that as chair of the department I had made gravely misguided decisions. Avital, who stood nearby, immediately understood what was behind this remark. “That can only have been me.” She never wanted for presence of mind and intellectual sharpness, for what, in the 18th century, was called “wit.”
Ronell’s supporters warn of the loss to NYU and the academic world if she is disciplined. But what, exactly, would be lost? In an open letter, available online, philosopher and visiting professor at NYU Slavoj Žižek bemoans the potential loss to the academy, because it is in need of her “ironic, mocking, sardonic” language.
Ronell’s high-profile supporters blame the students for misunderstanding her modes of communication. Such self-justification is scandalous. Whom are university professors meant to serve? Are they there for their own entertainment and self-affirmation? As her student in the quoted letter observed more than 10 years ago, Ronell’s students found her language destructive and injurious – contrary to Žižek’s glowing assessment of their effect. But Professor Ronell, he added, was obviously incapable of seeing the sadism at work in her language. If she conceives of her verbiage as the equivalent of a bonsai master’s craft, one based on cutting and constraining, then this destructive and sadistic fantasy will merely be strengthened by the self-justified pleasure she obviously takes in cutting down her students.
Can it be anything but false solidarity that is now practiced as a diagnosis from afar, or, in the case of Žižek, who after a mere two weeks at NYU, sees in Ronell an understanding and caring professor? Whoever wants to whitewash the misconduct of Avital Ronell does so either out of ignorance or is eager to make a contribution to this undeclared war. As in all wars, truth is the first casualty, and these alternative facts do a disservice to the cause of women. The critique of asymmetrical power structures in universities, which the case of Avital Ronell would allow, will be prevented by the ranks now closing around her. Avital Ronell’s supporters will ensure that existing power structures remain in place.
American militarism has gone off the rails — and this middling career officer should have seen it coming. Earlier in this century, the U.S. military not surprisingly focused on counterinsurgency as it facedvariousindecisive and seemingly unending wars across the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa. Back in 2008, when I was still a captain newly returned from Iraq and studying at Fort Knox, Kentucky, our training scenarios generally focused on urban combat and what were called security and stabilization missions. We’d plan to assault some notional city center, destroy the enemy fighters there, and then transition to pacification and “humanitarian” operations.
Of course, no one then asked about the dubious efficacy of “regime change” and “nation building,” the two activities in which our country had been so regularly engaged. That would have been frowned upon. Still, however bloody and wasteful those wars were, they now look like relics from a remarkably simpler time. The U.S. Army knew its mission then (even if it couldn’t accomplish it) and could predict what each of us young officers was about to take another crack at: counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Fast forward eight years — during which this author fruitlessly toiled away in Afghanistan and taught at West Point — and the U.S. military ground presence has significantly decreased in the Greater Middle East, even if its wars there remain “infinite.” The U.S. was still bombing, raiding, and “advising” away in several of those old haunts as I entered the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Nonetheless, when I first became involved in the primary staff officer training course for mid-level careerists there in 2016, it soon became apparent to me that something was indeed changing.
Our training scenarios were no longer limited to counterinsurgency operations. Now, we were planning for possible deployments to — and high-intensity conventional warfare in — the Caucasus, the Baltic Sea region, and the South China Sea (think: Russia and China). We were also planning for conflicts against an Iranian-style “rogue” regime (think: well, Iran). The missions became all about projecting U.S. Army divisions into distant regions to fight major wars to “liberate” territories and bolster allies.
One thing soon became clear to me in my new digs: much had changed. The U.S. military had, in fact, gone global in a big way. Frustrated by its inability to close the deal on any of the indecisive counterterror wars of this century, Washington had decided it was time to prepare for “real” war with a host of imagined enemies. This process had, in fact, been developing right under our noses for quite a while. You remember in 2013 when President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began talking about a “pivot” to Asia — an obvious attempt to contain China. Obama alsosanctioned Moscow and further militarized Europe in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Crimea. President Trump, whose “instincts,” on the campaign trail, were to pull out of America’s Middle Eastern quagmires, turned out to be ready to escalate tensions with China, Russia, Iran, and even (for a while) North Korea.
With Pentagon budgets reaching recordlevels — some $717 billion for 2019 — Washington has stayed the course, while beginning to plan for more expansive future conflicts across the globe. Today, not a single square inch of this ever–warmingplanet of ours escapes the reach of U.S. militarization.
Think of these developments as establishing a potential formula for perpetual conflict that just might lead the United States into a trulycataclysmic war it neither needs nor can meaningfully win. With that in mind, here’s a little tour of Planet Earth as the U.S. military now imagines it.
Our Old Stomping Grounds: Forever War in the Middle East and Africa
Never apt to quit, even after 17 years of failure, Washington’s bipartisan military machine still churns along in the Greater Middle East. Some 14,500 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan (along with much U.S. air power) though that war isfailingby just about any measurable metric you care to choose — and Americans are still dyingthere, even if in diminished numbers.
In Syria, U.S. forces remaintrappedbetween hostile powers, one mistake away from a possible outbreak of hostilities with Russia, Iran, Syrian President Assad, or even NATO ally Turkey. While American troops (and air power) in Iraq helped destroy ISIS’s physical “caliphate,” they remain entangled there in a low-level guerrilla struggle in a country seemingly incapable of forming a stablepoliticalconsensus. In other words, as yet there’s no end in sight for that now 15-year-old war. Add in the drone strikes, conventional air attacks, and special forces raids that Washington regularly unleashes in Somalia, Libya, Yemen, and Pakistan, and it’s clear that the U.S. military’s hands remain more than full in the region.
If anything, the tensions — and potential for escalation — in the Greater Middle East and North Africa are only worsening. President TrumpditchedPresident Obama’s Iran nuclear deal and, despite the recent drama over the murderof Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has gleefully backed the Saudi royals in their arms race and cold war with Iran. While the other major players in that nuclear pact remained on board, President Trump has appointed unreformed Iranophobe neocons like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo to key foreign policy positions and his administration still threatens regime change in Tehran.
In Africa, despite talk about downsizing the U.S. presence there, the military advisory mission has onlyincreasedits various commitments, backing questionably legitimate governments against local opposition forces and destabilizing further an already unstable continent. You might think that waging war for two decades on two continents would at least keep the Pentagon busy and temper Washington’s desire for further confrontations. As it happens, the opposite is proving to be the case.
Poking the Bear: Encircling Russia and Kicking Off a New Cold War
Vladimir Putin’s Russia is increasingly autocratic and has shown a propensity for localized aggression in its sphere of influence. Still, it would be better not to exaggerate the threat. Russia did annex the Crimea, but the people of that province were Russians and desired such a reunification. It intervened in a Ukrainian civil war, but Washington was alsocomplicitin the coup that kicked off that drama. Besides, all of this unfolded in Russia’s neighborhood as the U.S. military increasinglydeploysits forces up to the very borders of the Russian Federation. Imagine the hysteria in Washington if Russia were deploying troops and advisers in Mexico or the Caribbean.
To put all of this in perspective, Washington and its military machine actually prefer facing off against Russia. It’s a fight the armed forces still remain comfortable with. After all, that’s what its top commanders were trained for during the tail end of an almost half-century-long Cold War. Counterinsurgency is frustrating and indecisive. The prospect of preparing for “real war” against the good old Russians with tanks, planes, and artillery — now, that’s what the military was built for!
And despite all the over-hyped talk about Donald Trump’s complicity with Russia, under him, the Obama-era military escalation in Europe has only expanded. Back when I was toiling hopelessly in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army was actually removing combat brigades from Germany and stationing them back on U.S. soil (when, of course, they weren’t off fighting somewhere in the Greater Middle East). Then, in the late Obama years, the military began returning those forces to Europe andstationingthem in the Baltic, Poland, Romania, and other countries increasingly near to Russia. That’s never ended and, this year, the U.S. Air Force hasdeliveredits largest shipment of ordnance to Europe since the Cold War.
Make no mistake: war with Russia would be an unnecessary disaster — and it could go nuclear. Is Latvia really worth that risk?
From a Russian perspective, of course, it’s Washington and itsexpansionof the (by definition) anti-Russian NATO alliance into Eastern Europe that constitutes the real aggression in the region — and Putin may have a point there. What’s more, an honest assessment of the situation suggests that Russia, a country whose economy is about the size of Spain’s, has neither the will nor the capacity to invade Central Europe. Even in the bad old days of the Cold War, as we now know from Soviet archives,European conquestwas never on Moscow’s agenda. It still isn’t.
Nonetheless, the U.S. military goes on preparing for what Marine Corps Commandant General Robert Neller, addressing some of his forces in Norway, claimed was a “big fight” to come. If it isn’t careful, Washington just might get the war it seems to want and the one that no one in Europe or the rest of this planet needs.
Challenging the Dragon: The Futile Quest for Hegemony in Asia
The United States Navy has long treated the world’s oceans as if they were American lakes. Washington extends no such courtesy to other great powers or nation-states. Only now, the U.S. Navy finally faces some challenges abroad — especially in the Western Pacific. A rising China, with a swiftly growing economy and carrying grievances from a long history of European imperial domination, has had the audacity toassertitself in the South China Sea. In response, Washington has reacted with panic and bellicosity.
Never mind that the South China Sea is Beijing’s Caribbean (a place where Washington long felt it had the right to do anything it wanted militarily). Heck, the South China Sea has China in its name! The U.S. military now claims — with just enough truth to convince the uninformed — that China’s growing navy is out for Pacific, if not global, dominance. Sure, at the moment China has onlytwoaircraft carriers, one anold rehab(though it is building more) compared to the U.S. Navy’s 11 full-sized and nine smallercarriers. And yes, China hasn’t actually attacked any of its neighbors yet. Still, the American people are told that their military must prepare for possible future war with the most populous nation on the planet.
In that spirit, it has been forward deploying yet more ships, Marines, and troops to the Pacific Rim surrounding China. Thousands of Marines are nowstationedin Northern Australia; U.S. warships cruise the South Pacific; and Washington has sent mixedsignalsregarding its military commitments to Taiwan. Even the Indian Ocean has recently come to be seen as a possible future battleground with China, as the U.S. Navy increases its regional patrols there and Washingtonnegotiates stronger military ties with China’s rising neighbor, India. In a symbolic gesture, the military recentlyrenamedits former Pacific Command (PACOM) the Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM).
Unsurprisingly, China’s military high command has escalated accordingly. They’veadvisedtheir South China Sea Command to prepare for war, made their own set ofprovocative gesturesin the South China Sea, and also threatenedto invade Taiwan should the Trump administration change America’s longstanding “One China” policy.
From the Chinese point of view, all of this couldn’t be more logical, given that President Trump has also unleashed a “trade war” on Beijing’s markets and intensified his anti-China rhetoric. And all of this is, in turn, consistent with the Pentagon’s increasing militarization of the entire globe.
No Land Too Distant
Would that it were only Africa, Asia, and Europe that Washington had chosen to militarize. But as Dr. Seuss might havesaid: that is not all, oh no, that is not all. In fact, more or less every square inch of our spinning planet not already occupied by a rival state has been deemed a militarized space to be contested. The U.S. has long been unique in the way it divided the entire surface of the globe into geographical (combatant)commandspresided over by generals and admirals who functionally serve as regional Roman-style proconsuls.
And the Trump years are only accentuating this phenomenon. Take Latin America, which might normally be considered a non-threatening space for the U.S., though it is already under the gaze of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). Recently, however, having already threatened to “invade” Venezuela, President Trump spent the election campaign rousing his base on the claim that a desperate caravan of Central American refugees — hailing from countries the U.S. had a significant responsibilityfor destabilizing in the first place — was a literal “invasion” and so yet another military problem. As such, he ordered more than 5,000 troops (more than currently serve in Syria or Iraq) to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Though he is not thefirstto try to do so, he has also sought tomilitarizespace and so create a possible fifth branch of the U.S. military, tentatively known asthe Space Force. It makes sense. War has long been three dimensional, so why not bring U.S. militarism into the stratosphere, even as the U.S. Army isevidentlytraining and preparing for a new cold war (no pun intended) with that ever-ready adversary, Russia, around the Arctic Circle.
If the world as we know it is going to end, it will either be thanks to the long-term threat of climate change or an absurd nuclear war. In both cases, Washington has been upping the ante and doubling down. On climate change, of course, the Trump administration seemsintenton loading the atmosphere with ever more greenhouse gases. When it comes to nukes, rather than admit that they are unusable and seek to further downsize the bloated U.S. and Russian arsenals, that administration, like Obama’s, has committed itself to theinvestmentof what could, in the end, be at least $1.6 trillion over three decades for the full-scale “modernization” of that arsenal. Any faintly rational set of actors would long ago have accepted that nuclear war is unwinnable and a formula for mass human extinction. As it happens, though, we’re not dealing with rational actors but with a defense establishment that considers it a prudent move towithdraw from the Cold War era Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia.
And that ends our tour of the U.S. military’s version of Planet Earth.
It is often said that, in an Orwellian sense, every nation needs an enemy to unite and discipline its population. Still, the U.S. must stand alone in history as the only country to militarize the whole globe (with space thrown in) in preparation for taking on just about anyone. Now, that’s exceptional.
(Boston MA: Thanksgiving Day – Fall 22 November 2018)
Inconvenient Science: NASA data show that global temperatures dropped sharply over the past two years. Not that you’d know it, since that wasn’t deemed news. Does that make NASA a global warming denier?
Writing in Real Clear Markets, Aaron Brown looked at the official NASA global temperature data and noticed something surprising. From February 2016 to February 2018, “global average temperatures dropped by 0.56 degrees Celsius.” That, he notes, is the biggest two-year drop in the past century.
“The 2016-2018 Big Chill,” he writes, “was composed of two Little Chills, the biggest five month drop ever (February to June 2016) and the fourth biggest (February to June 2017). A similar event from February to June 2018 would bring global average temperatures below the 1980s average.“
Isn’t this just the sort of man-bites-dog story that the mainstream media always says is newsworthy?
In this case, it didn’t warrant any news coverage.
In fact, in the three weeks since Real Clear Markets ran Brown’s story, no other news outlet picked up on it. They did, however, find time to report on such things as tourism’s impact on climate change, how global warming will generate more hurricanes this year, and threaten fish habitats, and make islands uninhabitable. They wrote about a UN official saying that “our window of time for addressing climate changeis closing very quickly.”
Reporters even found time to cover a group that says they want to carve President Trump’s face into a glacier to prove climate change “is happening.”
In other words, the mainstream news covered stories that repeated what climate change advocates have been saying ad nauseam for decades.
That’s not to say that a two-year stretch of cooling means that global warming is a hoax. Two years out of hundreds or thousands doesn’t necessarily mean anything. And there could be a reasonable explanation. But the drop in temperatures at least merits a “Hey, what’s going on here?” story.
What’s more, journalists are perfectly willing to jump on any individual weather anomaly — or even apicture of a starving polar bear — as proof of global warming. (We haven’t seen any stories pinning Hawaii’s recent volcanic activity on global warming yet, but won’t be surprised if someone tries to make the connection.)
We’ve noted this refusal to cover inconvenient scientific findings many times in this space over the years.
Then there was the studyin the journal Nature Geosciencethat found that climate models were faulty, and that, as one of the authors put it, “We haven’t seen that rapid acceleration in warming after 2000 that we see in the models.”
Nor did the press see fit to report on findings from theUniversity of Alabama-Huntsvilleshowing that the Earth’s atmosphere appears to be less sensitive to changing CO2 levels than previously assumed.
Reporters no doubt worry that covering such findings will only embolden “deniers” and undermine support for immediate, drastic action.
But if fears of catastrophic climate change are warranted — which we seriously doubt — ignoring things like the rapid cooling in the past two years carries an even bigger risk.
Suppose, Brown writes, the two-year cooling trend continues. “At some point the news will leak out that all global warming since 1980 has been wiped out in two and a half years, and that record-setting events went unreported.”
He goes on: “Some people could go from uncritical acceptance of steadily rising temperatures to uncritical refusal to accept any warming at all.”
Brown is right. News outlets should decide what gets covered based on its news value, not on whether it pushes an agenda. Otherwise, they’re doing the public a disservice and putting their own already shaky credibility at greater risk.
Play up your favorite feature with these dress-for-success tips
by Lois Joy Johnson, August 23, 2018
“No, no, no, YES, no, no, no, no, no, maybe.”
En español | That’s how fashion editors (like me), stylists and department store personal shoppers go through racks of dresses for photo shoots and clients. There’s good reason to be picky. While thousands of women age 50-plus share the same dress size, we differ a lot in body proportions, weight distribution and height. Size 16 to 18+ is the new normal (with some brands expanding up to size 30!), but as an insider I know even full-figured women size 8, 10 or 12 wrestle with curves at bust, belly, hips, booty and/or thighs … so c’mon, let’s be inclusive here! We can alldress up with a body-positive attitude if you follow my 10 tips. Get inspired by these photos and dresses.
1. Fit on top, flow below — opposites attract the right attention
If you have a soft middle or nonexistent waist and a voluptuous lower body, it doesn’t get better than a fit-and-flare dress. The trick is choosing a beltless style that suggests a waist by hugging the torso before expanding into the A-line skirt. A wide neckline like a boat, broad V or scoop with wide-set straps also is a good idea to help balance fullness at the bust and hem. Go longer to give the bottom of the dress room to sway — just below the knees for shorter women; a midi for taller ones.
Sherri Shepherd in a fit-and-flare blue-and-white floral print sleeveless midi.
2. Show your shoulders for body-balancing confidence
Remember how we loved shoulder pads? Off-shoulder, nearly off-shoulder or cold shoulder with sleeves and cut-out scoops give similar results by creating a strong horizontal shoulder to balance curves at the bust, hips or thighs. Keep attention on the neckline drama by choosing a solid color dress. Whether you’re a statuesque 12, 18 or 22, these dresses are PC in their more modest modified versions. Save the full-tilt off-shoulder looks for weekends and evenings.
Dana Delany in a red nearly-off-shoulder knee-length sheath with 3/4 sleeves.
3.Wrap your curves to mold, hold and display contours
The wrap is the Houdini of dresses. Its list of illusions includes a crossover design that creates a bust-flattering V-neckline and defines your middle; an adjustable waist tie to fake a waist or amplify an existing one; a wrap flap of double fabric below that blurs tummy bulges and flashes a little leg for a body-elongating bonus when you walk and sit. Look for supple fabrics like viscose, polyester, or blends of cotton/silk, modal/ polyester or polyester/spandex that cling to curves but have some substance. If you have big breasts and a small rib cage or have lost body definition and tone — this is your shape-shifter.
Wendy Williams in a green leopard-print wrap dress.
4. Use color to deliberately play curvy spots up or down
The gist of a color-block dress is simple: light, bright colors attract and emphasize, dark hues de-emphasize. Look for a dress with black bands at the sides, midriff or waist, with white everywhere else for a simple neutral solution. If you love sheath dresses but want to minimize hills and valleys of your silhouette from the front or rear view, or just minimize your midriff bulge, a well-placed black stripe is all it takes.
Gayle King in a color-block dress — square neck, cap sleeves, wide black midsection bust to top of hip.
5. Use crisp fabrics and straight lines to tone up your silhouette
A shirtdress is like a personal trainer. It whips curves into a firmer line fast, thanks to the sharp structure, button-down vertical front detail and fresh woven fabrics like cotton, chambray, linen, denim or poplin that hold their shape. Look for updated classics like full-skirted midis with a belt to nip the waist, and ruffled or dolman sleeves.
Mariska Hargitay in a white-striped midi shirtdress.
6. Let your dress stand away from the body
Not too loose, not too tight — the knee-length shift dress that swings out in a trapeze A-line shape is a perfect choice if your weight fluctuates up and down or you’re going through a bloated phase. For women who find extra pounds settle below the waist, the clean minimalist flared silhouette liberates them from shapewear. The focus here is all on your face and legs, so makeup and fabulous shoes are all you need. Keep shifts fashionable by choosing dresses with subtle draping or statement sleeves.
Julianne Moore in a white A-line shift dress with long funnel sleeves.
7. Try a long feminine loose dress for a body-empowering change
Who knew ankle-length dresses would be a hit with well-rounded women everywhere? Maybe it’s timing … coming on the heels of the #MeToo and body-empowerment movements and the trend toward more conservative, covered-up dressing. Maybe we just want to wear a bralette and skip the Spanx 24/7? Or maybe we want to have our cake and eat it, too … in peace. The key is to show some body definition so our curves are not altogether lost in fabric. You might go sleeveless (bare arms make up for lack of leg visibility) or sling on a belt, or opt for a gently elasticized or drawstring waist for a blouson.
Ava DuVernay in a long flowing print dress with defined waist and bell sleeves.
8. Use statement dress sleeves as a diversion and style tactic
For years we’ve loved 3/4 sleeves for their flattery (every woman has relatively slim forearms and wrists!) and bracelet-stacking space. Time to upgrade with more special optical effects. For example: elbow-length sleeves make your waist appear narrower (try it!); tiered, ruffled and bell sleeves are volumizers that disguise full upper arms and frame the body for an illusion of slimness — so no jackets or cardigans for us.
Rosanna Scotto in a pink sheath with cold-shoulder elbow-length ruffled sleeves.
9. Let a busy bold print do camouflage work
Know how a print sofa hides stains, dog hair and droopy cushions better than a solid color? An allover swirly, artsy, graphic, leafy, floral, dotted or leopard print works the same way in dresses. It camouflages anything that annoys you (and you can be body positive and still have issues; we all do) — bulges, jiggles or extra pounds — by keeping the eye moving. Small-scale print works better on fitted dresses and simple styles, while larger, lavish or louder prints work better on dresses with more volume and design details. Besides, prints are simply fun — and if we spill our tea, coffee or wine, no one will notice!
Shonda Rhimes in green-and-white leaf print dress with boatneck, 3/4 sleeves and ruffle hem.
10. A V-neck is a power point that never fails to flatter
A pretty dress with the wrong neckline for your ample curves will never feel or look right. A V-neck increases the amount of exposed skin — so a narrow, long V-neck makes a short, wide neck and torso appear longer, while a wide V-neck helps a full bosom and hips look more balanced. If your dress has one, consider it a curve-curating home run.
Vanessa Williams in a coral belted sheath with wide, slightly off-shoulder V-neck.
There’s a dirty little secret we never talk about: our bras. Besides the fact that most of us wear the same bra day after day (we don’t wash them often enough — admit it!), we complain about poking underwires, bands that hike up, bra bulges and straps that dent our shoulders. Most of all, we can’t wait to get home and take the darn thing off. Sound familiar? The right bra feels comfy and looks appealing. It also makes or breaks the fit of everything you wear. No one needs all the bras listed below, so find the best ones for your breasts and buy a backup. Here are 10 ways to make your bra a bosom buddy.
1.Seamless underwire T-shirt bra.
This full coverage anti-sag style provides maximum structure for a generous bosom — it’s the tailored jacket of bras. The wire hoists your “girls” up and off the torso, adding more space between your waist and chest, and the molded or lightly lined cups create a rounded natural look with no see-through possible. Try the T-Shirt Bra from Ava & Viv ($22, target.com), Bali’s Live It Up Seamless Underwire Bra No. 3353 ($38, target.com), or splurge on the new online brand ThirdLove’s 24/7 Classic Perfect Coverage Bra ($68, thirdlove.com) to wear beneath clingy tees, knits and fitted sweaters. And yes, while some T-shirt bras say so on the label, others don’t. Go by the description.
Insider tip: If a T-shirt bra gives you double boobs, the cups are too small, so go up a size or try another brand. Be sure the bra band and underwire fit snugly under your bosom, the cups totally enclose your breasts, and both bra fabric and underwire feel soft, not squeezed or too constricted.
2. Wireless full-coverage bra.
The new alternative to bra No. 1 mentioned above uses a high-tech engineered design instead of wires to shift breast tissue upward for lift and has seamless molded or light-foam cups for a firm natural look. It’s a good choice for full-busted or full-figured women who find underwires a tough fit (does yours always creep up?) but need the extra support. Hanes Women’s ComfortFlex Fit Full-Coverage Wireless Bra G260 ($12, target.com) and Simply Perfect by Warner’s Women’s Invisible Edge Lift Seamless Wireless Bra ($20, target.com) hug your body and won’t be detectable, even in pale silk blouses, light knits, jersey dresses or bodysuits.
Insider tip: Put your wire-free contoured bra on, bend slightly forward and use one hand to scoop your breast (including sides and bottom), then swoop it into the cup. Rotate between a handful of bras instead of wearing the same bra daily in order to give the spandex a break, as well as time to recover its snap back.
3. Racerback bra.
For those of us with largish chests, shoulder straps that cross or morph into a Y or V shape in back take the pressure off our neck and shoulders while providing plenty of support. Women with narrow or sloping shoulders (and chests of any size) love racers, too, because there’s zero strap slippage, which is especially important when wearing sleeveless dresses and tops. Try the new online brand True & Co.’s True Body Lift V Neck Racerback Full Cup Bra ($58, trueandco.com), with sizes up to XXL, and the cult favorite Spanx Bra-llelujah! Racerback Bra ($68, spanx.com), with sizes up to 38 DD, for all-gain, no-strain style.
Insider tip: Look for seamless, smooth and stretchy racerbacks with wider and secure nonadjustable hardware-free straps for extra comfort and “invisible” molded or engineered cups. You may have to spend a little more to get these details, but the result and — aaah! — feeling is worth it.
This equivalent of leggings for your breaststurns bra haters into lovers. Smooth and seamless pull-on styles that are thick but stretchy, have no cups or hardware with a wide bra band — such as Hanes Women’s Full Coverage SmoothTec Band Unlined Wireless Bra G796 ($14.99, target.com) or Spanx Bra-llelujah! Bralette ($48, spanx.com) — hold breasts in a comfy sling of support fabric. Go up a notch to a bralette with lightly padded cups, adjustable straps, a hook and eye closure like Bali Bra: Comfort Revolution Smart Sizes Wire-Free Full-Figure Bra 3484 ($39, kohls,com) or Olga Easy Does It No Bulge Seamless Wirefree Bra style GM3911A ($40, kohls.com) for a little more control with your comfort.
Insider tip: Bralettes are great if your weight yo-yos up and down or if bloating due to excess salt, alcohol or hormonal changes affects your breasts (instead of your face, tummy or ankles). They are a dream if you like to layer tanks and slouchy tees, have a casual lifestyle or like loose minimalist modern clothes (think: Eileen Fisher).
5. V-neck plunge bra.
If a neck-lengthening, super-flattering V neckline is your signature style — and for many women with a full bust it is — choose bras in sync. A plunge bra with a deep and wide V between the cups and contoured soft foam or lined cups for coverage and natural-looking shaping — like Paramour Women’s Carolina Plunge Wirefree Bra ($22, target.com) or Bali’s Comfort Revolution Full-Figure Front-Closure Bra style 3P66 ($42, kohls.com) — won’t show under V-neck tees or pullovers, or when you unbutton your shirt or blouse to expose your upper chest.
Insider tip: Plunge bras require attention to fit since they have the least coverage and control upfront. The bra should feel snug when worn on the loosest hook. With washing and wear and time over time, the band will stretch — sometimes by inches — which is when you tighten up and move a hook inward. Wear your lowest V-neck shirt to try on a new bra.
6. Multi-way bra.
Ever buy a strapless bra for a specific dress and then find you never wear it again? So have millions of women who are now fans of convertible bras such as Warner’s This Is Not a Bra Full-Coverage Strapless Convertible Bra No. 1693 ($40, kohls.com) and Wacoal’s Red Carpet Strapless Full Bust Underwire Bra ($68, nordstrom.com), which morph from a strapless to a cross-back, halter or one-shoulder bra. As a strapless bra, it stays up, with cups melting into your body, and there are no telltale ridges or lines. And you always have a bra that works with trendy tops like your off-shoulder party blouses to wear with jeans.
Insider tip: Since strapless bras require the band to do everything, you might consider going down a band size and up a cup size. Look for bras with nonslip silicone strips that line the inside that grip but leave no marks. Keep the bra and its strap in a separate plastic baggie in your lingerie drawer to avoid last-minute panic.
7. Sports bra.
Even if your idea of exercise is a walk or yoga, a bra that minimizes bounce and gives breast tissue extra support is necessary. Choose from low- to high-impact styles that vary in compression and design in order to complement the intensity of your workout. A low-impact bra works for yoga or golf, while a high-impact one would be best for running, tennis or interval training. Look for bras with cup separation — to avoid a uni-boob effect — in a moisture-wicking fabric, such as Old Navy Medium Support Sports Bra ($23, oldnavy.com), Champion Women’s Plus-Sized Max Support Power Shape Underwire Sports Bra-C9 ($27, target.com), or GapFit Sculpt Bonded High-Impact Sports Bra ($50, gap.com).
Insider tip: Choose moisture-wicking fabrics and bras with nonirritating details like a plush band, wide shoulder straps or a racerback, tag-free label in a stretchy spandex blend. Larger busts benefit from sports bras sized like bras, with numerical band sizes and alphabetized cup sizes, for a more personalized fit.
8. Show-off balcony bra.
When you do want something pretty or feminine that reveals just a hint of cleavage, look for a balcony bra (aka balconette bra) with shallow, curved cups and wide-set straps that frame and support your bust likePlaytex Bras’ Love My Curves Beautiful Lace & Lift Full-Figure Underwire Bra US4825 ($42, kohls.com) or Paramour’s Ellie Unlined Full-Busted Bra ($22 target.com). It gives a subtle boost, especially if your breasts are deflated on top and fuller on bottom, or wide set or have lost their natural oomph. It gently rounds without looking like a push-up bra.
Insider tip: Don’t worry if your breasts are not the exact same size. Go with the larger one for cup sizing and make up the difference by adding a gel insert. There is no standardization of cup size — one brand or style’s D may be another brand’s DD or E. A point midway between the elbow and shoulder should be level with nipples in this bra style, even if you’re a 42H. Slightly sexy is the idea.
9. Bulge-breaker bra.
When your “extra” is spilling out of your bra, try one cut wider at the sides and/or back, with hidden power-mesh panels to control rolls and overhang likeSimply Perfect by Warner’s Women’s Full Figure Underarm Smoothing Spacer Bra ($25, target.com), Beauty by Bali Women’s One Smooth U Underarm Smoothing Bra ($25 target.com), or the Vanity Fair Beauty Back Smoother Full-Figure Bra style 76380 ($42, kohls.com). These are great if you love sleeveless dresses or fitted clothing and are bugged by (let’s call it what it is) excess back or armpit fat.
Insider tip: Armpit bulge has nothing to do with your weight or size. It’s usually caused by cups that are too small and/or a band that’s too loose. Is the band level all around or riding up in back? If you see back bulges, the band size may be too big, and you’re probably tightening the straps to compensate, causing more overflow. To remedy this, size down in the band, and go up in cups.
10. Front-closure bra.
Some women simply prefer a front-closure bra for the smooth, no-bumps line at the back or the fact that it’s easiest to slip on and off — especially when you have limited mobility. I found this out when my shoulder and arm were broken! Styles likeGlamorise Front-Closure Wonderwire Bra style 1245 ($50, kohls.com) or Spanx Bra-llelujah! Full-Coverage Bra ($68 to $70, spanx.com) are fashionable classics that provide lift, coverage and an edge.
Insider tip: A front-closure bra is an easy fix when gravity, weight fluctuations or shifting body proportions have increased the gap between breasts to inches, creating an empty space in the middle. Eliminating excess volume at the sides and shifting breasts to front and center makes any top fit better.
With the current and welcome resurgence of weird fiction, sometimes it’s nice to know that your mama and your grandmama had cool stuff to read as well. So we thought that we’d revive interest in five wonderful weird fantasy books which still hold their own. From a book which influenced Stephen King, L Sprague de Camp and Italo Calvino, through C S Lewis and Alan Moore and finally to a novel by an Irish genius which should influence more people, we surge through the years with our fur flying…
None of these are most people’s idea of fantasy nowadays, but they all contain elements of fantasy – and some are particularly weird. Our point, if we have one, is these five books are important pieces of writing in one way or another. We read all these when we were pups, and know that they still lurk there at the back of our collective mind.
And if you have already read them all lots of times, then what do you want? A medal? Honestly, clever people, coming into our house, eating our chicken carcasses – go back to your Ligotti and stop leaving mud on our carpets. See if we care.
Print-wise, we notice that three of these were published in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series edited by Lin Carter, and one had been published by Ballantine before Carter took the reins of the endeavour. Our own copies of the Bramah, the O’Brien and the Chesterton are random early editions, but we do have the Ariosto and Lindsay in the Ballantine versions, with very nice covers.
Their presence here, though, is based on their influential nature and the fact that we love them, each for a different reason. We’ll do this thing in chronological order, for no especial reason…
Orlando Furioso (1532)
Written by Lodovico Ariosto (1474-1533)
OK, we’ll be honest. This one is an epic poem, one of the longest in European literature, but it’s also a series of wild adventures with hippogriffs and intertwining themes of love, war and sacrifice.
The whole thing is a chivalric romance, being based on the story of Roland (Orlando), the hero from the times of Charlemagne when war between Christian and Saracen warriors surged across Europe. That’s Roland as in “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came”, the 1855 poem by Robert Browning, an influence on so many books (including Stephen King’sDark Tower series) that we can’t list them here. And as in the poem The Song of Roland, based on the Battle of Ronceveaux in 778. Now that we write this, we realise that the whole Roland thing deserves a post of its own, really.
Trivia: For pure fantasy buffs, the paladin characters beloved of Role-playing Games and medieval fantasy novels come from the twelve mostly fictitious companions of Roland.
We fell in love with the idea of the female knight Bradamante, possibly because we’d never come across the idea of a female knight before, and her Saracen lover Ruggiero, with the sorcerer Atlantes and many more. Mentioning Atlantes, who had a castle of iron in the Pyrenees, you might know that The Castle of Iron by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, the third story in their Harold Shea series, takes place in the same setting as Orlando Furioso.
The character of Bradamante has been used many times since, and she was even in the film Heart and Armour 1983, portrayed by Barbara di Rossi. Unfortunately the film is variable in its quality, and the plot wanders all over the place.
Orlando Furioso is sometimes cited as a major precursor of later fantasy writing. The on-line Encyclopedia of Fantasy considers it what they call a Taproot Text for Adventure Fantasy, where the protagonists wander strange lands generally trying to thrive or survive.
Italo Calvino was a great fan, and took elements of it for his book The Castle of Crossed Destinies, a Tarot-linked book which is well worth reading in its own right (although we suspect that it has something to do with semiotics, which hurts our brain). Jorges Luis Borges was also an enthusiast.
Utterly free of hippogriffs, this marvellous book is difficult to describe without wrecking it for new readers. The adventures of Gabriel Syme take place in an imagined Edwardian London, a period which is much beloved here. Consider police detectives seeking out anarchist plots, undercover officers who aren’t what they seem, anarchists who aren’t anarchists and blend them together in a highly original novel of deception and delusion. We can give away the fact that Syme joins a council of anarchists (or are they?) who are each named after a day of the week, hence the title.
Over (or under) everything lies the question of what we believe and what role we really play in existence – it is part a detective farce and part a philosophical examination of identity. Rebels who are conformists rebel against conformist ideas of rebellion, and true anarchists get rather lost trying to question it all. Or something like that. Chesterton said of his work:
“The book… was not intended to describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was… It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt, which even the pessimists felt in some fitful fashion”
Orson Welles called it “shamelessly beautiful prose” and made a radio dramatization of it with his Mercury Radio Theater of the Air. You might also have a look at Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), which is a future alternate-reality novel set in 1984 (yes, it may have been the inspiration for Orwell’s date as well).
We read this when rather young, and got completely lost in its allegorical passages. If we say that it’s the story of a man who goes to a seance and later gets transported to wander around another planet, then we’re probably not helping. It is just that, but in the process it explores the nature of communication, the role of God and what humans do to each other. It’s Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress on acid, a science fantasy adventure with weird new organs growing on people, and lots more.
It’s a fascinating book, though you need a philosophical bent to pick up everything at which Lindsay was driving. Maskull, the protagonist, travels to Tormance, an imaginary planet orbiting Arcturus’ imaginary binary system. There he meets characters from the various lands of Tormance, often with dire results. Adventure Fantasy again, in some degree.
It’s almost worth reading for the names themselves – Maskull, Joiwind, Crimtyphon, Haunte, Oceaxe and so on – and includes the character Nightspore. Eagle-eared listeners will note that last week we talked about The King of Nightspore’s Crown, a new novel by Raphael Ordonez (seenightspore’s crown). As Raphael mentioned being a great enthusiast of the Ballantine series, we suspect a touch of homage there. Lindsay had in fact originally intended his book to be called Nightspore in Tormance.
Sadly for Lindsay, it didn’t sell well. It does still stand out as a unique vision, and it had considerable influence on C S Lewis’s ‘Space Trilogy’ – Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength. Lewis said:
“The real father of my planet books is David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, which you also will revel in if you don’t know it. I had grown up on Wells’s stories of that kind: it was Lindsay who first gave me the idea that the ‘scientifiction’ appeal could be combined with the ‘supernatural’ appeal.”
Alan Moore said of A Voyage to Arcturus:
“A Voyage to Arcturus demands that David Lindsay be considered not as a mere fascinating one-off, as a brilliant maverick, but as one worthy and deserving of that shamanistic mantle; of the British visionary and apocalyptic legacy.”
Because we like oddities, you might be interested that in the seventies, an Ohio student called William J. Holloway made an independent 35mm feature film of the book. Distributed by Brandon Films on 16mm as part of their underground film series, the film is now available again to watch. It’s odd, and quite seventies – possibly best watched if you’ve already read the book.
The concept of the Chinese sage wasn’t exactly new when Ernest Bramah (Ernest Brammah Smith) decided to write a series of books containing wise sayings and fantastical tales, all set within a pseudo-China of many years ago. Kai Lung himself is a wandering storyteller, who ends up in both mundane and perilous situations as he travels the land. When facing local conundrums or serious danger, he relies on his wits and collection of stories to survive.
The sage unrolls his mat, preferably under a mulberry tree, and recounts fantastical tales, many of which draw on real or embroidered Chinese mythology – bushes which spring from eyelids; a boy whose soul enters the body of a mighty warrior; a suitor who pares off part of the moon to win his love.
There are half a dozen collections featuring Kai Lung. Kai Lung’s Golden Hours, for example, uses the Arabian Nights trope of telling so many stories that you avoid your own execution.
Such was Bramah’s influence on people’s views of Chinese history that sayings such as “May you live in interesting times” may, rather than being traditional, have been invented by Bramah himself. His romantic view of China might be called a pastiche, in that it is accurate in many ways and yet an exaggerated, English version at the same time.
Critic and writer David Langford puts it perfectly when he says:
“The peculiarly addictive quality of this chinoiserie lies not so much in plot as in the unwaveringly artificial prose style. Formal politeness and elaborate diction are maintained in the most extreme circumstances, to hilarious effect. Bramah had impressive resources of vocabulary, circumlocution and euphemism, and could always find another and more ludicrous way of putting a commonplace sentiment: parodists have pulled their own heads off rather than sustain his remorseless flow for more than a few paragraphs.”
Million Magazine (1991)
You can find the whole excellent Bramah piece by David Langford on-line here:
One of the writers influenced by Bramah was Barry Hughart, whose three-book series The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox follows in much the same witty vein – but in a slightly less outrageous way in terms of style.
Bramah was a creative dude, as we don’t say in Yorkshire, and will also be known to some listeners as the creator of Max Carrados, the blind detective. He also wrote supernatural stories, but we haven’t read them so we’ll keep our mouths shut.
The Third Policeman (1967)
Written by Flann O’Brien (1911–1966)
Two notes on the above – the first is that Flann O’Brien was one of the pseudonyms of Irish writer Brian O’Nolan; the other is that although The Third Policeman wasn’t published until 1967, it was written in 1939-40.
This is possibly our favourite of the five books, and the most difficult to describe not just because of plot spoilers, but because of the sheer inventiveness and language of the work. The story is narrated by a man who is never named, one who follows the work of the weird scientist and inventor de Selby, an eminent “physicist, ballistician, philosopher and psychologist”.
De Selby may be a philosophical genius or an esoteric idiot – one of de Selby’s biographers is quoted as saying “The beauty of reading a page of de Selby is that it leads one inescapably to the happy conviction that one is not, of all nincompoops, the greatest.”
What else can we say? A number of the characters are dead, or probably dead, and it it is a fantastical tale in an Ireland rooted in the real, the pagan and the mythic land, which may also be some sort of allegory. It has policemen who are obsessed with bicycles, and questions as to what is and is not fiction. Marvellously, it includes a kind of physical and spiritual osmosis, where constant contact means the policemen may be becoming more bicyclish, and the bicycles more policemanish. As with A Voyage to Arcturus, you had to be there.
De Selby, by the way, also turns up in The Dalkey Archive, with more ideas which are quite mad. Or are they?
BEIJING (AFP) – The Chinese Communist Party has faced and crushed a myriad of dissidents over its decades-long rule, from pro-democracy reformers to human rights advocates and outspoken religious leaders. But Chinese authorities are now facing an unlikely challenge spawned from their own efforts to indoctrinate the population with the ideology of the party: young Marxists.
“After I started university, I became very sensitive to the treatment, rights and interests of workers,” a student activist at Peking University told AFP, requesting anonymity.
As the son of migrant farm workers, the 21-year-old had a sense of social responsibility for China’s underclass, he said. In exploring ways to help them, he read the work of Karl Marx. His story is not unique. Reacting against the increasing consumerism in Chinese society and the growing inequality between the rich and poor, students at elite universities are turning to Marxism – the ideological bedrock of any Communist Party.
On campus, students organised movie nights and socials for the school’s janitorial and cafeteria staff. They gathered to sing socialist anthems.
But when students tried to apply theory to practise by joining efforts to organise a labour union for factory workers in southern Guangdong province, Chinese authorities flew into action.
In August, a police raid swept up the student activists, beating several of them and confiscating their phones, according to the Jasic Workers Solidarity group, a labour rights organisation that the students joined. Several of them, including Yue Xin, a Peking University graduate who became known after co-authoring a petition demanding details of a sexual abuse case at the school, have not been heard from since.
“We, the academics, are really concerned about the students’ freedom and their safety,” said Jenny Chan, an assistant professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University who studies labour movements.
– A violent past –
The crackdown continued this month, with around five graduates detained in various cities, according to activists. Among them was a Peking University graduate who was beaten and taken by men in dark clothing on campus, an eyewitness told AFP.
The school issued a statement on the university’s internal online forum, calling the Peking University alumnus a “suspected criminal”.
At one university, students who participated in Jasic Workers Solidarity activities are tightly monitored by teachers and are questioned if they leave campus for an extended period of time, according to an activist who asked that her school not be named for fear of retribution. Students say their Marxist societies have struggled to register with their universities.
“These incidents will only make me feel more angry and further arouse my will to fight,” a Nanjing University student involved in the Jasic group told AFP, requesting anonymity. “It will not make me yield.”
Though the activists make up a small portion of the student body, Chinese authorities are taking no chances. In 1989, thousands of university students joined workers in pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that eventually provoked a bloody crackdown.
Since those protests, authorities have moved “swiftly and harshly against anything that seems capable of linking people in different occupations and different places,” explained Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a Chinese history professor at the University of California, Irvine.
In one sense, it is certainly ironic to find a government that claims to adhere to Marxism cracking down on a Marxism group,” he said. With the upcoming 100th anniversary of the May 4th movement, another historical mass demonstration led by students in Beijing, the Chinese Communist Party will be on “high alert,” he told AFP.
– Divided campus? –
So far, police and school authorities seem to have succeeded in containing the burst of activism. Online censors have scrubbed posts about police detentions and Jasic workers. Chat groups circulating information about student activists have also been shut down.
At Peking University student views on the school’s Marxist society and the activism of their fellow classmates run the gamut. Some were sympathetic, while others criticised the group as militant and extremist.
“I strongly support them because they dare to put others before themselves,” wrote one student on Peking University’s internal online forum. “Forget it,” scoffed another. “I’m a left-leaning Maoist and I don’t even like them.”
The ideological clash also comes as Chinese leader Xi Jinping calls for a refocusing on Communist roots — including a May speech which called for Marxism to be promoted in campuses and classrooms. For most students, many of whom are liberal-minded or influenced by Western ideas, Maoism and worker rights are very distant concepts, explained Li, a fourth-year Peking University student who only gave his surname.
“As a political science student, I’m not very leftist in how I view labour,” he told AFP.
He criticised the activists for their lack of “objectiveness and impartiality”, but said that doesn’t mean they should be suppressed. Even if the government tries to clamp down on students, the labour disputes that sparked the protests in the first place won’t vanish, added Chan. “It is the government now who has to come up and resolve the problems,” she said. Otherwise, “all these grievances and discontent” will simply increase.
“Obviously,” she added, “the students are not going to be silent.”
Some theaters revive Broadway hits. Others take chances on new plays that may or may not be successful. In 1973, an adventurous theater in New York did what no theater had ever done: the Chelsea Theater Center of Brooklyn revived a 1957 Broadway flop.
Candide, for all its problems, featured music by Leonard Bernstein that rivals what he accomplished in West Side Story and his best concert works. After bringing in new people to revise the book and lyrics and finding a radical new way to stage the work, the Chelsea brought Candide back to Broadway; there, it drew huge audiences, earned rave reviews, and took five Tony Awards. Since then, Candide has been a staple of theater and opera companies — it lives on the line between musical theater and operetta — and has been revised by other companies along the way.
Now, on what would have been Bernstein’s 100th birthday, the University Opera Theatre, in collaboration with Michigan’s departments of Theatre & Drama and Musical Theatre,will presentthe 1988 Scottish Opera version. Matthew Ozawa will stage Bernstein’s favorite and final revision; Kenneth Kiesler will conduct the University Symphony Orchestra. “The Scottish version has much more music,” Ozawa reports.
Adapted from the 1759 novella by Voltaire, Candide follows an optimistic and naïve young man who believes the tutor who insists that we live in the “best of all possible worlds.” Candide travels the world, experiencing war, natural disasters, and other sufferings, all the while continuing to believe what he has been taught; in the end, he decides to cultivate his own garden, his way of creating a better future.
Bernstein hardly made a secret of the fact that one of the impulses for his operetta was provided by the McCarthyite witch hunts in the 1950s. The work was created in 1953 as a result of discussions between the composer and playwright Lillian Hellman. Both had been affected by the Red Scare. Bernstein was forced to sign a humiliating affidavit attesting to his anti-communism. Hellman, a onetime member and continuing supporter of the Communist Party, was blacklisted in the film industry, and her partner, author Dashiell Hammett, another party supporter, went to jail for refusing to provide the names of those who had contributed to a bail fund for Communist Party leaders prosecuted under the reactionary Smith Act.
Hellman adapted Voltaire’s work with lyricist John La Touche and Bernstein. LaTouche was later replaced by poet Richard Wilbur. In 1956, the year that Bernstein was simultaneously composing West Side Story, Candide was ready for performances in Boston, where Dorothy Parker contributed lyrics to “The Venice Gavotte” in Act 2. La Touche also belonged to the Stalinist milieu, as did Parker, and Wilbur was generally left-wing.
Candide’s complicated performance history involves numerous revisions in the 30 years since its premiere in 1956. Versions appeared in 1973, 1982 and 1989, and further posthumous revisions in 1993 and 1999—Bernstein died in 1990. UM presented the 1989 Scottish Opera Edition of the Opera-House Version.
Over the course of their wanderings throughout Europe and South America, Candide and his love interest and partner Cunegonde are subjected to every sort of painful adversity: wars, shipwrecks, earthquakes, rapes, beatings and swindles. Their life lessons knock the stuffing out of Pangloss’s “optimism.”
Bernstein’s Candide itself wanders through an array of musical styles: jazz, Broadway, Igor Stravinsky, neo-Baroque, operetta, tango, Gustav Mahler, and, in some versions, a Schoenbergian twelve-tone row.
Many of the lyrics are striking, such as when Pangloss sings: “Though war may seem a bloody curse, it is a blessing in reverse. When cannon roar, both rich and poor by danger are united.”
Pangloss is also responsible for such gems as these: “Since every part of the body is made for the best of all possible reasons, it follows that every part of the State—which is merely a body in macrocosm—is made of the best of all possible reasons.”
Narrator Voltaire derides the Catholic Church for torturing and killing its victims in an “Auto-da-Fé” (act of faith, or the burning of heretics and apostates), while a chorus sings:
What a day, what a day, For an Auto da Fé!… It’s a lovely day for drinking And for watching people die! What a perfect day to be a money lender! Or a tradesman, or a merchant or a vendor! At a good exciting lynching… It’s a bonnie day for business, Better raise the prices high! For an Inquisition day this is a wonder!
“One final word in praise of the universal laws of Science,” says Pangloss. “God in his wisdom made it possible to invent the rope and what is the rope for but to create a noose?”
The operetta is highlighted by the famous satirical showpiece, Cunegonde’s coloratura aria, “Glitter and Be Gay.”
Bernstein always pointed to the anti-communist purges of the 1940s and 1950s as one of the impulses for his operetta. According to the official Leonard Bernstein website, the operetta’s creators saw a “parallel between the Inquisition’s church-sponsored purges and the ‘Washington Witch Trials,’ fueled by anti-Communist hysteria and waged by the House Un-American Activities Committee.”
In 1989, between the acts of a concert performance of the work in London, Bernstein remarked: “Why Candide ? Whither and whence Candide ?… The particular evil which impelled Lillian Hellman to choose Candide and present it to me as the basis for a musical stage work was what we now quaintly and, alas, faintly recall as McCarthyism—an ‘ism’ so akin to that Spanish inquisition we just revisited in the first act as to curdle the blood. This was a period in the early ‘50s of our own century, exactly 200 years after the Lisbon affair [massive earthquake], when everything that America stood for seemed to be on the verge of being ground under the heel of that Junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, and his inquisitorial henchmen. That was the time of the Hollywood Blacklist—television censorship, lost jobs, suicides, expatriation and the denial of passports to anyone even suspected of having once known a suspected Communist.
“I can vouch for this. I was denied a passport by my own government. By the way, so was Voltaire denied a passport by his.”
With Candide, Bernstein was attempting to create a popular American musical satire. Undoubtedly, one of his inspirations or models, in the general sense, was The Threepenny Opera (1928) by Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill. Bernstein had conducted a concert performance of the “play with music”—also a bitter satire and based on an 18th century work—in 1952 at a music festival before an audience of nearly 5,000 people. That performance, featuring Lotte Lenya (Weill’s wife), is considered the “warm-up” for The Threepenny Opera’s enormously successful run off-Broadway in 1954 and then from 1955-1961. Lenya once asserted, “I think surely Leonard Bernstein knows every note of Kurt Weill … and he is the one who took up after Weill’s death … I think [he] is the closest to Kurt Weill.” The current production is fully staged, but you can get a sense of the premise and the music from a video clip from an earlier concert of the Scottish version:
“It is a really wild journey, filled with raucous entertainment,” Ozawa says, “Each of the scenes uses satire and irony to criticize some abuse or folly. Voltaire was a French Enlightenment writer, known to be an advocate of freedom of religion, freedom of speech and the separation of church and state, and a critic of religious hypocrisy. This enables us to investigate these topics in a sensitive manner and opens the conversation to all viewpoints.” (The play was Voltaire’s answer to the philosopher Leibniz. How often do you see a musical or an opera that grapples with deep philosophical issues?)
Although this is the perfect work to revive at a time when some Americans think we have the best of all possible worlds, Ozawa is highlighting another aspect of the operetta. “Candide and Cunegonde [who Candide loves madly] are forced to leave the house and venture into the real world and grapple with the unpredictable,” Ozawa says, explaining that students performing Candide will eventually leave the university nest and go out into the world. “The piece speaks to that and celebrates diversity, humanity and our collective ability to grow a garden. There may be an idealistic state in a more protective environment, but there is a way to cultivate the world we would like to see, with both the good and the bad that exist in it.”
To that end, Ozawa has set the show in a 1950s classroom. Costume designer Christianne Myers dressed the characters in 18th-century attire until they are booted out into a 1950’s world. Ozawa says he wanted to create a parallel to today’s world without pinpointing specific things that are happening now.
Kiesler notes that Bernstein was 38 when he wrote Candide. “We can see the depth and breadth of his musical knowledge. It’s challenging to write light music,” he says, noting that because of the libretto, Bernstein had to write in earlier and different styles: baroque dance for some scenes, a Parisian waltz for one, and Latin music for another, for instance.
Conducting his work is also a challenge. When the composer conducted his own work, he often made changes in it. “With Bernstein and other composers who conduct, there’s always a choice. Do you do what he did as a conductor or as a composer, when he was in the white heat of inspiration or when he revisited it or possibly didn’t study it after decades?” Kiesler is opting primarily to honor the score Bernstein wrote. “Every evening of theater is wonderfully and thankfully unique,” he adds, “and somewhat fluid depending on many factors, such as which singers are in that particular cast.”
The production brings together 43 undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty from opera, theater, musical theater, and dance. For Ozawa, that is a way of “uniting our artistic communities.”
And performing a work of art in these times is one of the best ways to begin to grow a rich garden.
Davi Napoleon’s book, Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theater, describes the onstage triumphs and offstage turbulence at a theater whose compounded disasters rivaled Candide’s; it takes readers behind the scenes of what has come to be called the “Chelsea Candide.”
“Candide” runs from Thursday, November 8 to Sunday, November 11 at the Power Center, 121 Fletcher St., Ann Arbor. For tickets and further information visit events.umich.edu.
OK, so, that was a close one. For a moment there, I was starting to worry that the Democrats weren’t going to take back the House and rescue us from “the brink of fascism.” Which, if that had happened, in addition to having to attend all those horrible stadium rallies and help the government mass murder the Jews, we would have been denied the next two years of Donald Trump-related congressional hearings and investigations that we can now look forward to … I’m going to go ahead and call them the Hitlergate Hearings.
Staging these hearings has always been a crucial part of the Resistance’s strategy. As history has proved, time and time again, when literal fascists take over your democracy, outlaw opposing political parties, and start shipping people off to concentration camps and revoking journalists’ White House access, the only effective way to defeat them is to form a whole buttload of congressional committees and investigate the living Hitler out of them. This is especially the case when the literal fascists who have commandeered your democracy are conspiring with a shifty-eyed Slavic dictator whose country you have essentially surrounded with your full-spectrum dominant military forces, and who your media have thoroughly demonized, but who is nevertheless able to brainwash your citizens into electing his fascist puppet president with a few thousand dollars worth of Facebook ads.
Once you’ve determined that has happened (which it obviously has), the gloves have to come off. No more prancing around in pussyhats, not with Russian Hitler in office! No, at that point, you really have no choice but to wait two years until your opposition party (which Hitler somehow forgot to ban) regains control of the House of Representatives (which Hitler somehow forgot to dissolve), wait another two months until they take office, and then immediately start issuing subpoenas, auditing Hitler’s financial records, and taking affidavits from former hookers. I realize that may sound extreme, but remember, we’re talking literal fascists, backed by literal Russian fascists, who are going around emboldening literal fascism, and makingliteral fascist hand gestureson television, and doing all kinds of other fascist stuff!
Now, OK, if you’re anything like me, you’re probably wondering, if Trump is really a fascist, not to mention a Russian intelligence asset,why hasn’t the “Resistance” just assassinated him? Many of them are ex-CIA, after all, or are otherwise members of the Intelligence Community. Why bother with all these congressional hearings? Why not just go in there and kill him?
But that’s two years from now, which is almost an eternity. In the meantime, the neoliberal “Resistance” has got some serious investigating to do! And not just Mueller’s investigation of Trump’s treasonous activities as a Russian agent. No, we’re talking congressional investigations of his tax returns, his Deutsche Bank statements, takeout receipts, dry cleaning tickets, his entire fascistic financial history! And then there’s that emoluments thing! And that Kavanaugh thing! And that security clearance thing! And that bimbo thing! And some other things! And, well, I think it’s pretty safe to assume we are on the road to Subpoena City!
The corporate media appear to agree. Scanning the post-election coverage, it looked like most “Resistance” journalists got the official press release. The Guardian started taking live bets onwhich investigations the House would launch first. The New York Times, in its ongoing efforts to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller from the fascistic “muzzling” its editorial staff are certain that Trump is about to subject him to in order to prevent him from presenting evidence of Trump’s formative years in the GRU (and possible links to the Skripal assassins),published a “roadmap”Mueller can follow to “send incriminating evidence directly to Congress,” bypassing the Nazified Justice Department! According to CNN (a dissident samizdat owned by the Turner Broadcasting division of Warner Media, LLC, which, in turn, is owned by AT&T, a multinational conglomerate holding company), “House Democrats are preparing to unleash the full force of their oversight powers on the Trump administration” in series of “high-octane Democratic-controlled hearings,” which Jim Acosta will be covering live, if he has to take out every jackbooted Nazi intern on the Hill to do it! I could go on, but you get the picture. And for anyone who doesn’t, here it is …
The next two years will be a demonstration of the power of the global capitalist empire and its predominant propaganda machine the likes of which the world has never witnessed. By November 3, 2020, they will need to have brainwashed enough Americans into voting for whatever global capitalist puppet the Democrats end up nominating to defeat Donald Trump in the general election, which isn’t going to be a cakewalk. To do this, they will need to foment such an atmosphere of mindless hysteria, emotional exhaustion, and paranoia that anyone to the left of Mussolini will stagger to the polls on election day and vote for the Democrat just to make it stop.
In addition to the Hitlergate Hearings, each and every excruciating moment of which will be broadcast live and then milked to death by the corporate media’s experts and pundits, they will continue to subject us to a torrent of messaging designed to convince us that Donald Trump is simultaneously Hitler and a Russian operative, and that America is literally “on the brink of fascism,” and that anyone who questions this narrative is a Putin-loving Trumpian fascist, and a hate criminal, and probably a “domestic terrorist.”
None of this messaging will need to make sense. The goal of the “Resistance” is not to present a credible case that Donald Trump is literally a fascist or a Russian operative, or that global capitalism is in any real danger of being torn asunder by literal fascism (whatever your definition of fascism is). The goal of the “Resistance” is to make it unmistakeably clear who is really running things, and what happens to annoying billionaire ass clowns who get elected president without their permission, and to the ignorant rabble who elect such ass clowns, or who vote to leave the European Union (which, of course, they will never allow to happen, except perhaps in some nominal sense).
In other words, the global capitalist ruling classes are about to teach the world a lesson. It is the same basic lesson they have been teaching the world since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They taught it in the former Yugoslavia. They taught it in Greece, and Iraq, and Libya. They have taught it throughout the Middle East. They are about to teach it throughout the West. The lesson is, resistance to global capitalism is not just futile, it is suicidal. The lesson is, play with identity politics and all that “cultural wars” stuff to your heart’s content, but fuck with global capitalism and we will squash you like a tomato bug.
The Hitlergate Hearings, thefascism hysteria, the Russian mind control paranoia, and the rest of the concerted propaganda campaign we have been subjected to since 2016 (and are about to experience the full force of) are all just parts of a broader effort, not just to crush the “populist” insurgency that began in the West with the Brexit referendum, continued with Trump, and then spread throughout Europe, but to crush all hope for any future rebellions against global capitalism and its ideology, regardless of whether they stem from the Left or Right. (If you think they’re just focused on the neo-nationalists, you obviously haven’t been paying attention to the ongoingdemonization of Corbyn, Mélenchon, Sahra Wagenknecht, and assorted other “populist” leftists.) In the old days, this was the part where the king would mount the usurper’s head on a spike to remind everybody who was boss. Nowadays, of course, we do it on television, or the Internet, like when we hung Saddam, or sodomized Gaddafi with a bayonet. They’re not going to do anything like that to Trump, who is, after all, an American usurper, but they are going to make an example of him.
So, get out your popcorn, and your pitchforks, and so on, and get ready to cheer them on as they do. The future of democracy hangs in the balance! And, if you’re on the Twitter, make sure you fulfill your daily Calling-Trump-a-Fascist and Feeding-the-Fascism-Hysteria quotas. And Putin, of course. Don’t forget Putin … and whatever other mindless hysteria the capitalist ruling classes need us to parrot. Trust me, in about two years, when the post-Putin-Nazi celebrations begin, and people are running around in the streets burning effigies, hooting vuvuzelas, and hunting down anyone wearing the wrong hat, you’re not going to want to be mistaken for having been on the “populist” side of history.
C. J. Hopkins is an award-winning American playwright, novelist and satirist based in Berlin. His plays are published by Bloomsbury Publishing (UK) and Broadway Play Publishing (USA). His debut novel, ZONE 23, is published by Snoggsworthy, Swaine & Cormorant. He can be reached at cjhopkins.com or consentfactory.org.
In November 2014, China and the United States agreed to give all passport holders seeking to visit for business or tourism reciprocal multi-entry status for up to 10 years so they did not need to keep applying for visas.
One Chinese researcher whose 10-year visa had been revoked recently said: “The embassy did not give me any explanation. And I have to attend an interview with the embassy’s consul general to get my US visa in the future.”
The researcher said that so far the cancellations appeared to be limited to a small number of specialists at American studies institutes. But there have been complaints in China that the review process for US visa applications has become longer, forcing some researchers to cancel their US trips.
The US embassy in Beijing was closed on Thursday for the Thanksgiving holiday.
Under the administration of President Donald Trump, the US has also stepped up screening of Chinese people with access to American hi-tech sectors.
Trump has labelled China a strategic competitor, accused the country of intellectual property theft and criticised Beijing for its “Made in China 2025” programme, which aims to move the country up the hi-tech industrial value chain.
As a result, the US launched a restrictive visa policy in June, cutting visas for Chinese graduate students in robotics, aviation and advanced manufacturing from a maximum of five years to 12 months.
But the visa scrutiny appears to affect a broader number of areas. In July, Rao Yi, a prominent Chinese neuroscientist who used to have US citizenship, accused the US embassy in Beijing of being arrogant in repeatedly denying his visa to the US.
Another expert on international relations whose 10-year US visa is still valid said national security concerns were driving the extra scrutiny.
“Visa control is just one of the measures,” he said.
Chinese analysts said better communication – particularly with influential conservative think tanks in the US – was needed to resolve the issue.
“It is unprecedentedly difficult for China to communicate with government officials, think tanks and enterprises in the US,” Chen Wenling, chief economist with the China Centre for International Economic Exchanges think tank, said at a forum on the weekend. Chen said the biggest hurdle was the political and social consensus in the US to take a hard line against China.
Former vice finance minister Zhu Guangyao said better communication was needed at all levels to avoid missteps.
Washington and Beijing have been locked in the trade war since July, imposing tariffs up to 25 per cent on each other’s products.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Trump are expected to meet on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on December 1, raising prospects for a ceasefire in the tariffs.
But deeply rooted conflicts over China’s state capitalism and the US technology blockade are likely to continue.
Its faith-based 12-step program dominates treatment in the United States. But researchers have debunked central tenets of AA doctrine and found dozens of other treatments more effective.
J.G. is a lawyer in his early 30s. He’s a fast talker and has the lean, sinewy build of a distance runner. His choice of profession seems preordained, as he speaks in fully formed paragraphs, his thoughts organized by topic sentences. He’s also a worrier—a big one—who for years used alcohol to soothe his anxiety.J.G. started drinking at 15, when he and a friend experimented in his parents’ liquor cabinet. He favored gin and whiskey but drank whatever he thought his parents would miss the least. He discovered beer, too, and loved the earthy, bitter taste on his tongue when he took his first cold sip.His drinking increased through college and into law school. He could, and occasionally did, pull back, going cold turkey for weeks at a time. But nothing quieted his anxious mind like booze, and when he didn’t drink, he didn’t sleep. After four or six weeks dry, he’d be back at the liquor store.
By the time he was a practicing defense attorney, J.G. (who asked to be identified only by his initials) sometimes drank almost a liter of Jameson in a day. He often started drinking after his first morning court appearance, and he says he would have loved to drink even more, had his schedule allowed it. He defended clients who had been charged with driving while intoxicated, and he bought his own Breathalyzer to avoid landing in court on drunk-driving charges himself.
In the spring of 2012, J.G. decided to seek help. He lived in Minnesota—the Land of 10,000 Rehabs, people there like to say—and he knew what to do: check himself into a facility. He spent a month at a center where the treatment consisted of little more than attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He tried to dedicate himself to the program even though, as an atheist, he was put off by the faith-based approach of the 12 steps, five of which mention God. Everyone there warned him that he had a chronic, progressive disease and that if he listened to the cunning internal whisper promising that he could have just one drink, he would be off on a bender.J.G. says it was this message—that there were no small missteps, and one drink might as well be 100—that set him on a cycle of bingeing and abstinence. He went back to rehab once more and later sought help at an outpatient center. Each time he got sober, he’d spend months white-knuckling his days in court and his nights at home. Evening would fall and his heart would race as he thought ahead to another sleepless night. “So I’d have one drink,” he says, “and the first thing on my mind was: I feel better now, but I’m screwed. I’m going right back to where I was. I might as well drink as much as I possibly can for the next three days.”He felt utterly defeated. And according to AA doctrine, the failure was his alone. When the 12 steps don’t work for someone like J.G., Alcoholics Anonymous says that person must be deeply flawed. The Big Book, AA’s bible, states:
Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way.
J.G.’s despair was only heightened by his seeming lack of options. “Every person I spoke with told me there was no other way,” he says.
The 12 steps are so deeply ingrained in the United States that many people, including doctors and therapists, believe attending meetings, earning one’s sobriety chips, and never taking another sip of alcohol is the only way to get better. Hospitals, outpatient clinics, and rehab centers use the 12 steps as the basis for treatment. But although few people seem to realize it, there are alternatives, including prescription drugs and therapies that aim to help patients learn to drink in moderation. Unlike Alcoholics Anonymous, these methods are based on modern science and have been proved, in randomized, controlled studies, to work.For J.G., it took years of trying to “work the program,” pulling himself back onto the wagon only to fall off again, before he finally realized that Alcoholics Anonymous was not his only, or even his best, hope for recovery. But in a sense, he was lucky: many others never make that discovery at all.The debate over the efficacy of 12-step programs has been quietly bubbling for decades among addiction specialists. But it has taken on new urgency with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which requires all insurers and state Medicaid programs to pay for alcohol- and substance-abuse treatment, extending coverage to 32 million Americans who did not previously have it and providing a higher level of coverage for an additional 30 million.
Nowhere in the field of medicine is treatment less grounded in modern science. A 2012 report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University compared the current state of addiction medicine to general medicine in the early 1900s, when quacks worked alongside graduates of leading medical schools. The American Medical Association estimates that out of nearly 1 million doctors in the United States, only 582 identify themselves as addiction specialists. (The Columbia report notes that there may be additional doctors who have a subspecialty in addiction.) Most treatment providers carry the credential of addiction counselor or substance-abuse counselor, for which many states require little more than a high-school diploma or a GED. Many counselors are in recovery themselves. The report stated: “The vast majority of people in need of addiction treatment do not receive anything that approximates evidence-based care.”
Alcoholics Anonymous was established in 1935, when knowledge of the brain was in its infancy. It offers a single path to recovery: lifelong abstinence from alcohol. The program instructs members to surrender their ego, accept that they are “powerless” over booze, make amends to those they’ve wronged, and pray.
Alcoholics Anonymous is famously difficult to study. By necessity, it keeps no records of who attends meetings; members come and go and are, of course, anonymous. No conclusive data exist on how well it works. In 2006, the Cochrane Collaboration, a health-care research group, reviewed studies going back to the 1960s and found that “no experimental studies unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA or [12-step] approaches for reducing alcohol dependence or problems.”
The Big Book includes an assertion first made in the second edition, which was published in 1955: that AA has worked for 75 percent of people who have gone to meetings and “really tried.” It says that 50 percent got sober right away, and another 25 percent struggled for a while but eventually recovered. According to AA, these figures are based on members’ experiences.
In his recent book, The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry, Lance Dodes, a retired psychiatry professor from Harvard Medical School, looked at Alcoholics Anonymous’s retention rates along with studies on sobriety and rates of active involvement (attending meetings regularly and working the program) among AA members. Based on these data, he put AA’s actual success rate somewhere between 5 and 8 percent. That is just a rough estimate, but it’s the most precise one I’ve been able to find.
I spent three years researching a book about women and alcohol, Her Best-Kept Secret: Why Women Drink—And How They Can Regain Control, which was published in 2013. During that time, I encountered disbelief from doctors and psychiatrists every time I mentioned that the Alcoholics Anonymous success rate appears to hover in the single digits. We’ve grown so accustomed to testimonials from those who say AA saved their life that we take the program’s efficacy as an article of faith. Rarely do we hear from those for whom 12-step treatment doesn’t work. But think about it: How many celebrities can you name who bounced in and out of rehab without ever getting better? Why do we assume they failed the program, rather than that the program failed them?When my book came out, dozens of Alcoholics Anonymous members said that because I had challenged AA’s claim of a 75 percent success rate, I would hurt or even kill people by discouraging attendance at meetings. A few insisted that I must be an “alcoholic in denial.” But most of the people I heard from were desperate to tell me about their experiences in the American treatment industry. Amy Lee Coy, the author of the memoir From Death Do I Part: How I Freed Myself From Addiction, told me about her eight trips to rehab, starting at age 13. “It’s like getting the same antibiotic for a resistant infection—eight times,” she told me. “Does that make sense?”She and countless others had put their faith in a system they had been led to believe was effective—even though finding treatment centers’ success rates is next to impossible: facilities rarely publish their data or even track their patients after discharging them. “Many will tell you that those who complete the program have a ‘great success rate,’ meaning that most are abstaining from drugs and alcohol while enrolled there,” says Bankole Johnson, an alcohol researcher and the chair of the psychiatry department at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “Well, no kidding.”Alcoholics Anonymous has more than 2 million members worldwide, and the structure and support it offers have helped many people. But it is not enough for everyone. The history of AA is the story of how one approach to treatment took root before other options existed, inscribing itself on the national consciousness and crowding out dozens of newer methods that have since been shown to work better.A meticulous analysis of treatments, published more than a decade ago in The Handbook of Alcoholism Treatment Approaches but still considered one of the most comprehensive comparisons, ranks AA 38th out of 48 methods. At the top of the list are brief interventions by a medical professional; motivational enhancement, a form of counseling that aims to help people see the need to change; and acamprosate, a drug that eases cravings. (An oft-cited 1996 study found 12-step facilitation—a form of individual therapy that aims to get the patient to attend AA meetings—as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy and motivational interviewing. But that study, called Project Match, was widely criticized for scientific failings, including the lack of a control group.)As an organization, Alcoholics Anonymous has no real central authority—each AA meeting functions more or less autonomously—and it declines to take positions on issues beyond the scope of the 12 steps. (When I asked to speak with someone from the General Service Office, AA’s administrative headquarters, regarding AA’s stance on other treatment methods, I received an e-mail stating: “Alcoholics Anonymous neither endorses nor opposes other approaches, and we cooperate widely with the medical profession.” The office also declined to comment on whether AA’s efficacy has been proved.) But many in AA and the rehab industry insist the 12 steps are the only answer and frown on using the prescription drugs that have been shown to help people reduce their drinking.People with alcohol problems also suffer from higher-than-normal rates of mental-health issues, and research has shown that treating depression and anxiety with medication can reduce drinking. But AA is not equipped to address these issues—it is a support group whose leaders lack professional training—and some meetings are more accepting than others of the idea that members may need therapy and/or medication in addition to the group’s help.AA truisms have so infiltrated our culture that many people believe heavy drinkers cannot recover before they “hit bottom.” Researchers I’ve talked with say that’s akin to offering antidepressants only to those who have attempted suicide, or prescribing insulin only after a patient has lapsed into a diabetic coma. “You might as well tell a guy who weighs 250 pounds and has untreated hypertension and cholesterol of 300, ‘Don’t exercise, keep eating fast food, and we’ll give you a triple bypass when you have a heart attack,’ ” Mark Willenbring, a psychiatrist in St. Paul and a former director of treatment and recovery research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, told me. He threw up his hands. “Absurd.”Part of the problem is our one-size-fits-all approach. Alcoholics Anonymous was originally intended for chronic, severe drinkers—those who may, indeed, be powerless over alcohol—but its program has since been applied much more broadly. Today, for instance, judges routinely require people to attend meetings after a DUI arrest; fully 12 percent of AA members are there by court order.Whereas AA teaches that alcoholism is a progressive disease that follows an inevitable trajectory, data from a federally funded survey called the National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions show that nearly one-fifth of those who have had alcohol dependence go on to drink at low-risk levels with no symptoms of abuse. And a recent survey of nearly 140,000 adults by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nine out of 10 heavy drinkers are not dependent on alcohol and, with the help of a medical professional’s brief intervention, can change unhealthy habits.We once thought about drinking problems in binary terms—you either had control or you didn’t; you were an alcoholic or you weren’t—but experts now describe a spectrum. An estimated 18 million Americans suffer from alcohol-use disorder, as the DSM-5, the latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual, calls it. (The new term replaces the older alcohol abuse and the much more dated alcoholism, which has been out of favor with researchers for decades.) Only about 15 percent of those with alcohol-use disorder are at the severe end of the spectrum. The rest fall somewhere in the mild-to-moderate range, but they have been largely ignored by researchers and clinicians. Both groups—the hard-core abusers and the more moderate overdrinkers—need more-individualized treatment options.The United States already spends about $35 billion a year on alcohol- and substance-abuse treatment, yet heavy drinking causes 88,000 deaths a year—including deaths from car accidents and diseases linked to alcohol. It also costs the country hundreds of billions of dollars in expenses related to health care, criminal justice, motor-vehicle crashes, and lost workplace productivity, according to the CDC. With the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of coverage, it’s time to ask some important questions: Which treatments should we be willing to pay for? Have they been proved effective? And for whom—only those at the extreme end of the spectrum? Or also those in the vast, long-overlooked middle?For a glimpse of how treatment works elsewhere, I traveled to Finland, a country that shares with the United States a history of prohibition (inspired by the American temperance movement, the Finns outlawed alcohol from 1919 to 1932) and a culture of heavy drinking.Finland’s treatment model is based in large part on the work of an American neuroscientist named John David Sinclair. I met with Sinclair in Helsinki in early July. He was battling late-stage prostate cancer, and his thick white hair was cropped short in preparation for chemotherapy. Sinclair has researched alcohol’s effects on the brain since his days as an undergraduate at the University of Cincinnati, where he experimented with rats that had been given alcohol for an extended period. Sinclair expected that after several weeks without booze, the rats would lose their desire for it. Instead, when he gave them alcohol again, they went on week-long benders, drinking far more than they ever had before—more, he says, than any rat had ever been shown to drink.Sinclair called this the alcohol-deprivation effect, and his laboratory results, which have since been confirmed by many other studies, suggested a fundamental flaw in abstinence-based treatment: going cold turkey only intensifies cravings. This discovery helped explain why relapses are common. Sinclair published his findings in a handful of journals and in the early 1970s moved to Finland, drawn by the chance to work in what he considered the best alcohol-research lab in the world, complete with special rats that had been bred to prefer alcohol to water. He spent the next decade researching alcohol and the brain.Sinclair came to believe that people develop drinking problems through a chemical process: each time they drink, the endorphins released in the brain strengthen certain synapses. The stronger these synapses grow, the more likely the person is to think about, and eventually crave, alcohol—until almost anything can trigger a thirst for booze, and drinking becomes compulsive.Sinclair theorized that if you could stop the endorphins from reaching their target, the brain’s opiate receptors, you could gradually weaken the synapses, and the cravings would subside. To test this hypothesis, he administered opioid antagonists—drugs that block opiate receptors—to the specially bred alcohol-loving rats. He found that if the rats took the medication each time they were given alcohol, they gradually drank less and less. He published his findings in peer-reviewed journals beginning in the 1980s.Subsequent studies found that an opioid antagonist called naltrexone was safe and effective for humans, and Sinclair began working with clinicians in Finland. He suggested prescribing naltrexone for patients to take an hour before drinking. As their cravings subsided, they could then learn to control their consumption. Numerous clinical trials have confirmed that the method is effective, and in 2001 Sinclair published a paper in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism reporting a 78 percent success rate in helping patients reduce their drinking to about 10 drinks a week. Some stopped drinking entirely.I visited one of three private treatment centers, called the Contral Clinics, that Sinclair co-founded in Finland. (There’s an additional one in Spain.) In the past 18 years, more than 5,000 Finns have gone to the Contral Clinics for help with a drinking problem. Seventy-five percent of them have had success reducing their consumption to a safe level.The Finns are famously private, so I had to go early in the morning, before any patients arrived, to meet Jukka Keski-Pukkila, the CEO. He poured coffee and showed me around the clinic, in downtown Helsinki. The most common course of treatment involves six months of cognitive behavioral therapy, a goal-oriented form of therapy, with a clinical psychologist. Treatment typically also includes a physical exam, blood work, and a prescription for naltrexone or nalmefene, a newer opioid antagonist approved in more than two dozen countries. When I asked how much all of this cost, Keski-Pukkila looked uneasy. “Well,” he told me, “it’s 2,000 euros.” That’s about $2,500—a fraction of the cost of inpatient rehab in the United States, which routinely runs in the tens of thousands of dollars for a 28-day stay.When I told Keski-Pukkila this, his eyes grew wide. “What are they doing for that money?” he asked. I listed some of the treatments offered at top-of-the-line rehab centers: equine therapy, art therapy, mindfulness mazes in the desert. “That doesn’t sound scientific,” he said, perplexed. I didn’t mention that some bare-bones facilities charge as much as $40,000 a month and offer no treatment beyond AA sessions led by minimally qualified counselors.As I researched this article, I wondered what it would be like to try naltrexone, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved for alcohol-abuse treatment in 1994. I asked my doctor whether he would write me a prescription. Not surprisingly, he shook his head no. I don’t have a drinking problem, and he said he couldn’t offer medication for an “experiment.” So that left the Internet, which was easy enough. I ordered some naltrexone online and received a foil-wrapped package of 10 pills about a week later. The cost was $39.
The first night, I took a pill at 6:30. An hour later, I sipped a glass of wine and felt almost nothing—no calming effect, none of the warm contentment that usually signals the end of my workday and the beginning of a relaxing evening. I finished the glass and poured a second. By the end of dinner, I looked up to see that I had barely touched it. I had never found wine so uninteresting. Was this a placebo effect? Possibly. But so it went. On the third night, at a restaurant where my husband and I split a bottle of wine, the waitress came to refill his glass twice; mine, not once. That had never happened before, except when I was pregnant. At the end of 10 days, I found I no longer looked forward to a glass of wine with dinner. (Interestingly, I also found myself feeling full much quicker than normal, and I lost two pounds. In Europe, an opioid antagonist is being tested on binge eaters.)
I was an n of one, of course. My experiment was driven by personal curiosity, not scientific inquiry. But it certainly felt as if I were unlearning something—the pleasure of that first glass? The desire for it? Both? I can’t really say.Patients on naltrexone have to be motivated to keep taking the pill. But Sari Castrén, a psychologist at the Contral Clinic I visited in Helsinki, told me that when patients come in for treatment, they’re desperate to change the role alcohol has assumed in their lives. They’ve tried not drinking, and controlling their drinking, without success—their cravings are too strong. But with naltrexone or nalmefene, they’re able to drink less, and the benefits soon become apparent: They sleep better. They have more energy and less guilt. They feel proud. They’re able to read or watch movies or play with their children during the time they would have been drinking.In therapy sessions, Castrén asks patients to weigh the pleasure of drinking against their enjoyment of these new activities, helping them to see the value of change. Still, the combination of naltrexone and therapy doesn’t work for everyone. Some clients opt to take Antabuse, a medication that triggers nausea, dizziness, and other uncomfortable reactions when combined with drinking. And some patients are unable to learn how to drink without losing control. In those cases (about 10 percent of patients), Castrén recommends total abstinence from alcohol, but she leaves that choice to patients. “Sobriety is their decision, based on their own discovery,” she told me.Claudia Christian, an actress who lives in Los Angeles (she’s best known for appearing in the 1990s science-fiction TV show Babylon 5), discovered naltrexone when she came across a flier for Vivitrol, an injectable form of the drug, at a detox center in California in 2009. She had tried Alcoholics Anonymous and traditional rehab without success. She researched the medication online, got a doctor to prescribe it, and began taking a dose about an hour before she planned to drink, as Sinclair recommends. She says the effect was like flipping a switch. For the first time in many years, she was able to have a single drink and then stop. She plans to keep taking naltrexone indefinitely, and has become an advocate for Sinclair’s method: she set up a nonprofit organization for people seeking information about it and made a documentary called One Little Pill.In the United States, doctors generally prescribe naltrexone for daily use and tell patients to avoid alcohol, instead of instructing them to take the drug anytime they plan to drink, as Sinclair would advise. There is disagreement among experts about which approach is better—Sinclair is adamant that American doctors are missing the drug’s full potential—but both seem to work: naltrexone has been found to reduce drinking in more than a dozen clinical trials, including a large-scale one funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism that was published in JAMA in 2006. The results have been largely overlooked. Less than 1 percent of people treated for alcohol problems in the United States are prescribed naltrexone or any other drug shown to help control drinking.To understand why, you have to first understand the history.The American approach to treatment for drinking problems has roots in the country’s long-standing love-hate relationship with booze. The first settlers arrived with a great thirst for whiskey and hard cider, and in the early days of the republic, alcohol was one of the few beverages that was reliably safe from contamination. (It was also cheaper than coffee or tea.) The historian W. J. Rorabaugh has estimated that between the 1770s and 1830s, the average American over age 15 consumed at least five gallons of pure alcohol a year—the rough equivalent of three shots of hard liquor a day.Religious fervor, aided by the introduction of public water-filtration systems, helped galvanize the temperance movement, which culminated in 1920 with Prohibition. That experiment ended after 14 years, but the drinking culture it fostered—secrecy and frenzied bingeing—persists.
In 1934, just after Prohibition’s repeal, a failed stockbroker named Bill Wilson staggered into a Manhattan hospital. Wilson was known to drink two quarts of whiskey a day, a habit he’d attempted to kick many times. He was given the hallucinogen belladonna, an experimental treatment for addictions, and from his hospital bed he called out to God to loosen alcohol’s grip. He reported seeing a flash of light and feeling a serenity he had never before experienced. He quit booze for good. The next year, he co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous. He based its principles on the beliefs of the evangelical Oxford Group, which taught that people were sinners who, through confession and God’s help, could right their paths.
AA filled a vacuum in the medical world, which at the time had few answers for heavy drinkers. In 1956, the American Medical Association named alcoholism a disease, but doctors continued to offer little beyond the standard treatment that had been around for decades: detoxification in state psychiatric wards or private sanatoriums. As Alcoholics Anonymous grew, hospitals began creating “alcoholism wards,” where patients detoxed but were given no other medical treatment. Instead, AA members—who, as part of the 12 steps, pledge to help other alcoholics—appeared at bedsides and invited the newly sober to meetings.A public-relations specialist and early AA member named Marty Mann worked to disseminate the group’s main tenet: that alcoholics had an illness that rendered them powerless over booze. Their drinking was a disease, in other words, not a moral failing. Paradoxically, the prescription for this medical condition was a set of spiritual steps that required accepting a higher power, taking a “fearless moral inventory,” admitting “the exact nature of our wrongs,” and asking God to remove all character defects.Mann helped ensure that these ideas made their way to Hollywood. In 1945’s The Lost Weekend, a struggling novelist tries to loosen his writer’s block with booze, to devastating effect. In Days of Wine and Roses, released in 1962, Jack Lemmon slides into alcoholism along with his wife, played by Lee Remick. He finds help through AA, but she rejects the group and loses her family.Mann also collaborated with a physiologist named E. M. Jellinek. Mann was eager to bolster the scientific claims behind AA, and Jellinek wanted to make a name for himself in the growing field of alcohol research. In 1946, Jellinek published the results of a survey mailed to 1,600 AA members. Only 158 were returned. Jellinek and Mann jettisoned 45 that had been improperly completed and another 15 filled out by women, whose responses were so unlike the men’s that they risked complicating the results. From this small sample—98 men—Jellinek drew sweeping conclusions about the “phases of alcoholism,” which included an unavoidable succession of binges that led to blackouts, “indefinable fears,” and hitting bottom. Though the paper was filled with caveats about its lack of scientific rigor, it became AA gospel.Jellinek, however, later tried to distance himself from this work, and from Alcoholics Anonymous. His ideas came to be illustrated by a chart showing how alcoholics progressed from occasionally drinking for relief, to sneaking drinks, to guilt, and so on until they hit bottom (“complete defeat admitted”) and then recovered. If you could locate yourself even early in the downward trajectory on that curve, you could see where your drinking was headed. In 1952, Jellinek noted that the word alcoholic had been adopted to describe anyone who drank excessively. He warned that overuse of that word would undermine the disease concept. He later beseeched AA to stay out of the way of scientists trying to do objective research.But AA supporters worked to make sure their approach remained central. Marty Mann joined prominent Americans including Susan Anthony, the grandniece of Susan B. Anthony; Jan Clayton, the mom from Lassie; and decorated military officers in testifying before Congress. John D. Rockefeller Jr., a lifelong teetotaler, was an early booster of the group.In 1970, Senator Harold Hughes of Iowa, a member of AA, persuaded Congress to pass the Comprehensive Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Prevention, Treatment, and Rehabilitation Act. It called for the establishment of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and dedicated funding for the study and treatment of alcoholism. The NIAAA, in turn, funded Marty Mann’s nonprofit advocacy group, the National Council on Alcoholism, to educate the public. The nonprofit became a mouthpiece for AA’s beliefs, especially the importance of abstinence, and has at times worked to quash research that challenges those beliefs.In 1976, for instance, the Rand Corporation released a study of more than 2,000 men who had been patients at 44 different NIAAA-funded treatment centers. The report noted that 18 months after treatment, 22 percent of the men were drinking moderately. The authors concluded that it was possible for some alcohol-dependent men to return to controlled drinking. Researchers at the National Council on Alcoholism charged that the news would lead alcoholics to falsely believe they could drink safely. The NIAAA, which had funded the research, repudiated it. Rand repeated the study, this time looking over a four-year period. The results were similar.After the Hughes Act was passed, insurers began to recognize alcoholism as a disease and pay for treatment. For-profit rehab facilities sprouted across the country, the beginnings of what would become a multibillion-dollar industry. (Hughes became a treatment entrepreneur himself, after retiring from the Senate.) If Betty Ford and Elizabeth Taylor could declare that they were alcoholics and seek help, so too could ordinary people who struggled with drinking. Today there are more than 13,000 rehab facilities in the United States, and 70 to 80 percent of them hew to the 12 steps, according to Anne M. Fletcher, the author of Inside Rehab, a 2013 book investigating the treatment industry.The problem is that nothing about the 12-step approach draws on modern science: not the character building, not the tough love, not even the standard 28-day rehab stay.Marvin D. Seppala, the chief medical officer at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Minnesota, one of the oldest inpatient rehab facilities in the country, described for me how 28 days became the norm: “In 1949, the founders found that it took about a week to get detoxed, another week to come around so [the patients] knew what they were up to, and after a couple of weeks they were doing well, and stable. That’s how it turned out to be 28 days. There’s no magic in it.”
Tom McLellan, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine who has served as a deputy U.S. drug czar and is an adviser to the World Health Organization, says that while AA and other programs that focus on behavioral change have value, they don’t address what we now know about the biology of drinking.
Alcohol acts on many parts of the brain, making it in some ways more complex than drugs like cocaine and heroin, which target just one area of the brain. Among other effects, alcohol increases the amount of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), a chemical that slows down activity in the nervous system, and decreases the flow of glutamate, which activates the nervous system. (This is why drinking can make you relax, shed inhibitions, and forget your worries.) Alcohol also prompts the brain to release dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasure.
Over time, though, the brain of a heavy drinker adjusts to the steady flow of alcohol by producing less GABA and more glutamate, resulting in anxiety and irritability. Dopamine production also slows, and the person gets less pleasure out of everyday things. Combined, these changes gradually bring about a crucial shift: instead of drinking to feel good, the person ends up drinking to avoid feeling bad. Alcohol also damages the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for judging risks and regulating behavior—one reason some people keep drinking even as they realize that the habit is destroying their lives. The good news is that the damage can be undone if they’re able to get their consumption under control.Studies of twins and adopted children suggest that about half of a person’s vulnerability to alcohol-use disorder is hereditary, and that anxiety, depression, and environment—all considered “outside issues” by many in Alcoholics Anonymous and the rehab industry—also play a role. Still, science can’t yet fully explain why some heavy drinkers become physiologically dependent on alcohol and others don’t, or why some recover while others founder. We don’t know how much drinking it takes to cause major changes in the brain, or whether the brains of alcohol-dependent people are in some ways different from “normal” brains to begin with. What we do know, McLellan says, is that “the brains of the alcohol-addicted aren’t like those of the non-alcohol-dependent.”Bill Wilson, AA’s founding father, was right when he insisted, 80 years ago, that alcohol dependence is an illness, not a moral failing. Why, then, do we so rarely treat it medically? It’s a question I’ve heard many times from researchers and clinicians. “Alcohol- and substance-use disorders are the realm of medicine,” McLellan says. “This is not the realm of priests.”When the Hazelden treatment center opened in 1949, it espoused five goals for its patients: behave responsibly, attend lectures on the 12 steps, make your bed, stay sober, and talk with other patients. Even today, Hazelden’s Web site states:
People addicted to alcohol can be secretive, self-centered, and filled with resentment. In response, Hazelden’s founders insisted that patients attend to the details of daily life, tell their stories, and listen to each other … This led to a heartening discovery, one that’s become a cornerstone of the Minnesota Model: Alcoholics and addicts can help each other.
That may be heartening, but it’s not science. As the rehab industry began expanding in the 1970s, its profit motives dovetailed nicely with AA’s view that counseling could be delivered by people who had themselves struggled with addiction, rather than by highly trained (and highly paid) doctors and mental-health professionals. No other area of medicine or counseling makes such allowances.
There is no mandatory national certification exam for addiction counselors. The 2012 Columbia University report on addiction medicine found that only six states required alcohol- and substance-abuse counselors to have at least a bachelor’s degree and that only one state, Vermont, required a master’s degree. Fourteen states had no license requirements whatsoever—not even a GED or an introductory training course was necessary—and yet counselors are often called on by the judicial system and medical boards to give expert opinions on their clients’ prospects for recovery.
Mark Willenbring, the St. Paul psychiatrist, winced when I mentioned this. “What’s wrong,” he asked me rhetorically, “with people with no qualifications or talents—other than being recovering alcoholics—being licensed as professionals with decision-making authority over whether you are imprisoned or lose your medical license?
“The history—and current state—is really, really dismal,” Willenbring said.
Perhaps even worse is the pace of research on drugs to treat alcohol-use disorder. The FDA has approved just three: Antabuse, the drug that induces nausea and dizziness when taken with alcohol; acamprosate, which has been shown to be helpful in quelling cravings; and naltrexone. (There is also Vivitrol, the injectable form of naltrexone.)
Reid K. Hester, a psychologist and the director of research at Behavior Therapy Associates, an organization of psychologists in Albuquerque, says there has long been resistance in the United States to the idea that alcohol-use disorder can be treated with drugs. For a brief period, DuPont, which held the patent for naltrexone when the FDA approved it for alcohol-abuse treatment in 1994, paid Hester to speak about the drug at medical conferences. “The reaction was always ‘How can you be giving alcoholics drugs?’ ” he recalls.
Hester says this attitude dates to the 1950s and ’60s, when psychiatrists regularly prescribed heavy drinkers Valium and other sedatives with great potential for abuse. Many patients wound up dependent on both booze and benzodiazepines. “They’d look at me like I was promoting Valley of the Dolls 2.0,” Hester says.
There has been some progress: the Hazelden center began prescribing naltrexone and acamprosate to patients in 2003. But this makes Hazelden a pioneer among rehab centers. “Everyone has a bias,” Marvin Seppala, the chief medical officer, told me. “I honestly thought AA was the only way anyone could ever get sober, but I learned that I was wrong.”
Stephanie O’Malley, a clinical researcher in psychiatry at Yale who has studied the use of naltrexone and other drugs for alcohol-use disorder for more than two decades, says naltrexone’s limited use is “baffling.”
“There was never any campaign for this medication that said, ‘Ask your doctor,’ ” she says. “There was never any attempt to reach consumers.” Few doctors accepted that it was possible to treat alcohol-use disorder with a pill. And now that naltrexone is available in an inexpensive generic form, pharmaceutical companies have little incentive to promote it.
In one recent study, O’Malley found naltrexone to be effective in limiting consumption among college-age drinkers. The drug helped subjects keep from going over the legal threshold for intoxication, a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent. Naltrexone is not a silver bullet, though. We don’t yet know for whom it works best. Other drugs could help fill in the gaps. O’Malley and other researchers have found, for example, that the smoking-cessation medication varenicline has shown promise in reducing drinking. So, too, have topirimate, a seizure medication, and baclofen, a muscle relaxant. “Some of these drugs should be considered in primary-care offices,” O’Malley says. “And they’re just not.”
In late August, I visited Alltyr, a clinic that Willenbring founded in St. Paul. It was here that J.G. finally found help.
After his stays in rehab, J.G. kept searching for alternatives to 12-step programs. He read about baclofen and how it might ease both anxiety and cravings for alcohol, but his doctor wouldn’t prescribe it. In his desperation, J.G. turned to a Chicago psychiatrist who wrote him a prescription for baclofen without ever meeting him in person and eventually had his license suspended. Then, in late 2013, J.G.’s wife came across Alltyr’s Web site and discovered, 20 minutes from his law office, a nationally known expert in treating alcohol- and substance-use disorders.
J.G. now sees Willenbring once every 12 weeks. During those sessions, Willenbring checks on J.G.’s sleep patterns and refills his prescription for baclofen (Willenbring was familiar with the studies on baclofen and alcohol, and agreed it was a viable treatment option), and occasionally prescribes Valium for his anxiety. J.G. doesn’t drink at all these days, though he doesn’t rule out the possibility of having a beer every now and then in the future.
I also talked with another Alltyr patient, Jean, a Minnesota floral designer in her late 50s who at the time was seeing Willenbring three or four times a month but has since cut back to once every few months. “I actually look forward to going,” she told me. At age 50, Jean (who asked to be identified by her middle name) went through a difficult move and a career change, and she began soothing her regrets with a bottle of red wine a day. When Jean confessed her habit to her doctor last year, she was referred to an addiction counselor. At the end of the first session, the counselor gave Jean a diagnosis: “You’re a drunk,” he told her, and suggested she attend AA.
The whole idea made Jean uncomfortable. How did people get better by recounting the worst moments of their lives to strangers? Still, she went. Each member’s story seemed worse than the last: One man had crashed his car into a telephone pole. Another described his abusive blackouts. One woman carried the guilt of having a child with fetal alcohol syndrome. “Everybody talked about their ‘alcoholic brain’ and how their ‘disease’ made them act,” Jean told me. She couldn’t relate. She didn’t believe her affection for pinot noir was a disease, and she bristled at the lines people read from the Big Book: “We thought we could find a softer, easier way,” they recited. “But we could not.”
Surely, Jean thought, modern medicine had to offer a more current form of help.
Then she found Willenbring. During her sessions with him, she talks about troubling memories that she believes helped ratchet up her drinking. She has occasionally had a drink; Willenbring calls this “research,” not “a relapse.” “There’s no belittling, no labels, no judgment, no book to carry around, no taking away your ‘medal,’ ” Jean says, a reference to the chips that AA members earn when they reach certain sobriety milestones.
In his treatment, Willenbring uses a mix of behavioral approaches and medication. Moderate drinking is not a possibility for every patient, and he weighs many factors when deciding whether to recommend lifelong abstinence. He is unlikely to consider moderation as a goal for patients with severe alcohol-use disorder. (According to the DSM‑5, patients in the severe range have six or more symptoms of the disorder, such as frequently drinking more than intended, increased tolerance, unsuccessful attempts to cut back, cravings, missing obligations due to drinking, and continuing to drink despite negative personal or social consequences.) Nor is he apt to suggest moderation for patients who have mood, anxiety, or personality disorders; chronic pain; or a lack of social support. “We can provide treatment based on the stage where patients are,” Willenbring said. It’s a radical departure from issuing the same prescription to everyone.
The difficulty of determining which patients are good candidates for moderation is an important cautionary note. But promoting abstinence as the only valid goal of treatment likely deters people with mild or moderate alcohol-use disorder from seeking help. The prospect of never taking another sip is daunting, to say the least. It comes with social costs and may even be worse for one’s health than moderate drinking: research has found that having a drink or two a day could reduce the risk of heart disease, dementia, and diabetes.
To many, though, the idea of non-abstinent recovery is anathema.
No one knows that better than Mark and Linda Sobell, who are both psychologists. In the 1970s, the couple conducted a study with a group of 20 patients in Southern California who had been diagnosed with alcohol dependence. Over the course of 17 sessions, they taught the patients how to identify their triggers, how to refuse drinks, and other strategies to help them drink safely. In a follow-up study two years later, the patients had fewer days of heavy drinking, and more days of no drinking, than did a group of 20 alcohol-dependent patients who were told to abstain from drinking entirely. (Both groups were given a standard hospital treatment, which included group therapy, AA meetings, and medications.) The Sobells published their findings in peer-reviewed journals.
In 1980, the University of Toronto recruited the couple to conduct research at its prestigious Addiction Research Foundation. “We didn’t set out to challenge tradition,” Mark Sobell told me. “We just set out to do good research.” Not everyone saw it that way. In 1982, abstinence-only proponents attacked the Sobells in the journal Science; one of the writers, a UCLA psychologist named Irving Maltzman, later accused them of faking their results. The Science article received widespread attention, including a story in The New York Times and a segment on 60 Minutes.
Over the next several years, four panels of investigators in the United States and Canada cleared the couple of the accusations. Their studies were accurate. But the exonerations had scant impact, Mark Sobell said: “Maybe a paragraph on page 14” of the newspaper.
The late G. Alan Marlatt, a respected addiction researcher at the University of Washington, commented on the controversy in a 1983 article in American Psychologist. “Despite the fact that the basic tenets of [AA’s] disease model have yet to be verified scientifically,” Marlatt wrote, “advocates of the disease model continue to insist that alcoholism is a unitary disorder, a progressive disease that can only be arrested temporarily by total abstention.”
What’s stunning, 32 years later, is how little has changed.
The Sobells returned to the United States in the mid-1990s to teach and conduct research at Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. They also run a clinic. Like Willenbring in Minnesota, they are among a small number of researchers and clinicians, mostly in large cities, who help some patients learn to drink in moderation.
“We cling to this one-size-fits-all theory even when a person has a small problem,” Mark Sobell told me. “The idea is ‘Well, this may be the person you are now, but this is where this is going, and there’s only one way to fix it.’ ” Sobell paused. “But we have 50 years of research saying that, chances are, that’s not the way it’s going. We can change the course.”
During my visit to Finland, I interviewed P., a former Contral Clinic patient who asked me to use only his last initial in order to protect his privacy. He told me that for years he had drunk to excess, sometimes having as many as 20 drinks at a time. A 38-year-old doctor and university researcher, he describes himself as mild-mannered while sober. When drunk, though, “it was as if some primitive human took over.”
His wife found a Contral Clinic online, and P. agreed to go. From his first dose of naltrexone, he felt different—in control of his consumption for the first time. P. plans to use naltrexone for the rest of his life. He drinks two, maybe three, times a month. By American standards, these episodes count as binges, since he sometimes downs more than five drinks in one sitting. But that’s a steep decline from the 80 drinks a month he consumed before he began the treatment—and in Finnish eyes, it’s a success.
Sari Castrén, the psychologist I met at Contral, says such trajectories are the rule among her patients. “Helping them find this path is so rewarding,” she says. “This is a softer way to look at addiction. It doesn’t have to be so black and white.”
J.G. agrees. He feels much more confident and stable, he says, than he did when he was drinking. He has successfully drunk in moderation on occasion, without any loss of control or desire to consume more the next day. But for the time being, he’s content not drinking. “It feels like a big risk,” he says. And he has more at stake now—his daughter was born in June 2013, about six months before he found Willenbring.
Could the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of coverage prompt us to rethink how we treat alcohol-use disorder? That remains to be seen. The Department of Health and Human Services, the primary administrator of the act, is currently evaluating treatments. But the legislation does not specify a process for deciding which methods should be approved, so states and insurance companies are setting their own rules. How they’ll make those decisions is a matter of ongoing discussion.
Still, many leaders in the field are hopeful—including Tom McLellan, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist. His optimism is particularly poignant: in 2008, he lost a son to a drug overdose. “If I didn’t know what to do for my kid, when I know this stuff and am surrounded by experts, how the hell is a schoolteacher or a construction worker going to know?” he asks. Americans need to demand better, McLellan says, just as they did with breast cancer, HIV, and mental illness. “This is going to be a mandated benefit, and insurance companies are going to want to pay for things that work,” he says. “Change is within reach.”
Testosterone is one of the most important hormones in the human body, and that is true whether you’re a man or a woman. Testosterone plays a role in a wide range of bodily functions, affecting areas of the body like bone and muscle health and sperm production in men or sex drive in women. The importance of testosterone production cannot be overstated, and, for some individuals, testosterone levels are so low that they suffer from hypogonadism, or Low T, which requires clinical treatment by a medical professional.
Add Specific Foods That Boost Testosterone to Your Diet
This one might be so obvious that you miss it completely! Most of us have some milk in the fridge, and we might even refer to whole milk as “vitamin D milk,” but actually most store bought milk has vitamin D added to it (although raw milk and some organic milks may not be fortified with this nutrient). Adding a few glasses of milk to your diet a week may help boost your testosterone levels.
Who said boosting testosterone was going to be cheap? Seafood in general has a variety of health benefits, but shrimp in particular contains high levels of vitamin D. As one of the foods that boost testosterone levels, shrimp may improve your testosterone while helping thin your waistline. Consider adding shrimp to a meal once a week.
This one’s a little more affordable! Cortisol levels may drop in response to vitamin C, so add this vitamin C rich food to your diet to fight cortisol and boost testosterone.
Beans have a variety of health benefits (they’re low cal and high in protein for a start), but they also have high levels of zinc. And they’ll offset all that money you’re spending on shrimp. Try replacing a side dish like mac and cheese with beans once a week.
When you’re reaching for a salty snack, reach for pumpkin seeds instead of the crackers. Not only are they inexpensive, but their high levels of zinc can help push your testosterone levels up.
I guess popeye had it right all along! Spinach is rich in magnesium and vitamins C and E. In the same study on Zinc mentioned above, the same researchers also found that magnesium may help boost testosterone levels. This may be one of the better foods that boost testosterone because it fights cortisol at the same time. Consider eating spinach once a week to add these key nutrients to your diet.
Of all my memories of that summer in Peru—drinking pisco in the desert, finding a mummified baby, unwrapping it under less than scientifically optimal conditions— the one that stands out most is the memory of my first lucid dream. At 9 o’clock, I climbed into the bottom bunk and curled up in my sleeping bag, worn out from physical exertion and the monotony of digging. I set my alarm for 5 am and drifted off almost immediately, my body too tired to let my mind wander down its usual anxiety-laden paths.And then, the scene changed. It was a summer afternoon—not the Andean summer, with its thin warmth and cloudy nights, but a real summer, the kind of heat so extravagant you jump in the water and dry off in the sun. I soaked up the warmth I’d been craving, treading water in some bucolic pool I’d never seen before. I don’t particularly like swimming in real life; I don’t like exercising in any form without the distraction of podcasts or Pandora. But this was different—effortless and sensual. I had a heightened awareness of every part of my body, the physicality of the cool water and the bright air and a surreal forest enclosing the pool in magnificent foliage. I woke up euphoric.
The memory had none of the haziness that usually clouds dreams, and the details remain perfectly crisp years later. But I wasn’t just elated; the whole thing was also vaguely disturbing. I hadn’t been in my sleeping bag in a dusty dormitory in Peru—I had been transported to some faraway place, and I preferred it there. My jaunt in the pool had shaken my sense of what was real, and I couldn’t explain it without sounding crazy. All I knew was that I wanted todo it again.
I spent the rest of the summer practicing tips from a secondhand copy of Stephen LaBerge’s Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming. I repeated LaBerge’s mantra ad nauseam: “Tonight, I will have a lucid dream.” I made up mantras of my own: “Tonight, I will fly to the moon.”
No one had done more to advance lucid dreaming than Stephen LaBerge. He is to lucid dreaming what Louis Pasteur is to pasteurization, Thomas Edison to electricity. In spite of his discoveries, LaBerge failed to attract much attention from the scientific establishment. Lucid dreaming didn’t seem likely to cure cancer, after all; it was thought of as weird, nonessential, if it was thought of at all. Instead of devoting himself to research, he had to find a way to make money. He set up a private company called the Lucidity Institute and began writing primers on lucid dreaming—like the one I found in Peru.
I learned to recognize the signs that I was dreaming, like finding myself flying or meeting dead people. Every couple of hours, I would do what LaBerge called a reality test, asking myself if I was awake or asleep—a trick that, once ingrained, LaBerge promised would trigger lucidity. I’d had lucid dreams on occasion, but couldn’t predict when they would come; I got lazy about my reality tests, and I didn’t always make time to meditate. Sleep was precious; waking myself up in the middle of the night was out of the question.
Yet the more I learned about the power of lucid dreaming, the more I wanted to be able to induce lucid dreams on a consistent basis. I wanted to learn from Stephen LaBerge himself.
On a hot, humid day in September, I flew into Hawaii’s tiny Hilo airport to find a bleary-eyed group already gathering. My fellow lucid dream enthusiasts had picked one another out without too much trouble; they were the ones milling around sheepishly, looking a little rumpled, a little apprehensive, not quite sure what they had signed up for. I joined them and we waited for the shuttle, exhausting the browsing potential of the kitschy gift shop with its cheap leis and turquoise hoodies, swapping names and dreaming résumés.The whole district of Puna has a history as a magnet for seekers and searchers, a respite for pilgrims fleeing the pressures of modern life. Hippie co-ops and intentional communities are dotted across the area. So-called Punatics wander the black-sand beaches in dreadlocks and ratty clothes and loiter in the hot springs, smoking.
Natalie showed me to my room, a simple dormitory-like space with hokey pastoral paintings on the walls, a few pieces of wicker furniture, and little else. The primary source of light was a single bare bulb on the why-we-dream ceiling, but the electricity was out that night. I stumbled around with the tiny flashlight on my key ring and passed out.
When I drew back the flimsy curtains in the morning, I took in the scene properly for the first time. From my window, I could see luscious palm trees and tall tropical grasses misted over by a layer of fresh dew. My first thought was that the landscape resembled a desktop background come to life.
In the morning, we convened in a bright, airy structure on top of a hill, one side opening directly onto the rainforest. Knotted scarves hung from the window frames, and a portrait of the volcano goddess Pele, painted in fiery primary colors, dominated one of the eight walls. (I have never found four-walled rooms particularly stifling, but this space had been designed, according to the promotional literature, to liberate visitors from “box-based architecture.”)
LaBerge’s assistant, Kristen—a clinical psychologist and master lucid dreamer, with the pun-embossed T-shirts and upbeat mien of a camp counselor—regaled us with tales of her lucid adventures. Kristen taught herself to induce lucid dreams in college after she learned about the phenomenon in a psychology class. “I couldn’t believe it wasn’t a commonly known thing,” she said. “I was just so in awe.” She had since trained herself to become lucid as often as three times a week and could even meditate and practice yoga in the dream state. She was outlining our curriculum for the week when she was interrupted by a low-pitched masculine shout.
“What are we doing here?” bellowed a barefoot man in a baggy Hawaiian shirt and shorts, bright blue eyes peering out from beneath bushy white eyebrows. Stephen must have slipped in through the back door while Kristen was talking; I had missed his entrance. His voice swung theatrically; each question began as a rumble and ended as a squeal.
“What is this all about?” he demanded. “How do I know you’re people? Maybe you’re robots or aliens or dream figures. Does anybody think that it really might be a dream?”
This barrage of questions was a fitting introduction; Stephen would spend much of the coming week training us to pay closer attention to our surroundings, to scrutinize the details of our environment, to search for incongruities and stop assuming that we were awake. He greeted us one by one, mustering an impressive show of curiosity over each person’s individual path. At 69, he had devoted the better part of his life to lucid dreams, and it was “revivifying,” he said, “to be with people who find the topic intriguing.”
Stephen was intense in a way that a sympathetic observer might describe as cerebral; a less generous one might have characterized him as awkward, even manic. He was constantly in motion even when he was sitting, contorting his body this way and that, crossing and uncrossing his ankles. When he got excited—which was often—he jumped out of his chair. His gesticulations sometimes devolved into jazz hands, and his voice could cover several octaves in a single sentence. More than once, I heard his manner likened to that of a wizard.
Lucid dreaming has been slowly gaining prominence in recent years. The release of Christopher Nolan’s 2010 science-fiction blockbuster Inception— in which corporate spies sneak into their marks’ dreams to steal their secrets and implant bad ideas — was a landmark moment. (The spies use a top as a tool for reality tests; if it spins indefinitely, then they know they are in the dream state; if it falls, they are awake.) Nolan said that the film was inspired by his own experience of lucid dreaming and that its ambiguous ending—the camera lingers on a spinning top, leaving viewers to wonder whether or not it will fall—should be taken to mean that “perhaps all levels of reality are valid.” Google searches for “lucid dreaming” spiked around the movie’s release and have never returned to pre-2010 levels. And the internet, of course, has helped. A constantly updated Lucid Dreaming forum on Reddit has accumulated more than 190,000 subscribers.
Still, lucid dreaming has not exactly permeated the culture. Our contemporary neglect of our dream lives is not only a historical anomaly, but a particular paradox. People are obsessed with hearing the latest research on sleep, even if scientists haven’t yet reached a consensus on why we pass out every night. We want to know how screens and modern scheduling affect our sleep patterns. We click on studies warning us that anything less than eight hours of sleep destroys our health, looks, and happiness—or promising that six hours is enough or that some people are fine with just three or four.
Meanwhile, we chart, track, and optimize our time, buying Fitbits and phone apps to count the minutes spent on exercise, work, and hobbies; we suffer from “fear of missing out.” Yet in ignoring our dreams, we squander an opportunity to experience adventure and boost our mental health, about five or six years’ worth of opportunity (20 to 25 percent of total time asleep) over the course of an average lifetime.
Sleep is usually discussed as a means to an end—a tool to ensure the daytime is productive, to improve memory, regulate metabolism, and keep the immune system in order. But as LaBerge asked: “If you must sleep through a third of your life, as it seems you must, are you willing to sleep through your dreams too?”
By the end of his painstaking period of trial and error as a student at Stanford, not only had LaBerge created a powerful system that let him lucid dream whenever he wanted, but also it worked for other people too. The core of his method, the sine qua non, is what he calls the reality test. Aspiring lucid dreamers should make a habit of asking ourselves at regular intervals throughout the day whether we are awake or asleep. Because daytime routines work their way into dreams, we should pose the same question in our sleep. If we are sufficiently attuned, we will respond that we are asleep, and a lucid dream will commence.Effective reality tests entail reorienting yourself in the world, cultivating a skeptical outlook toward your environment. Is everything as it should be? Look for clues that your surroundings might not be real. Inspect your hands: Does each one have the usual number of fingers? Check the clock, and check it again: Has a reasonable amount of time elapsed? Find a shiny surface: Are you reflected back as you really are, or are you distorted, as though you’re looking in a funhouse mirror? Jump up in the air: Do you drop back to the ground, or have you suddenly acquired the ability to fly? The dream world is constantly in flux; check whether your environment is stable. Exit a scene and then return to it. Are you in a different room? Find a piece of text—the spine of a book, a word on a bracelet, an email—look away from it, and then look back. If you’re in a dream, the words are likely to have changed by the second inspection.
Stephen demonstrated a reality test: “Does anybody think that this might be a dream?”
Silence; we glanced sideways at one another, like students taken aback by a pop quiz.
“Are you sure you’re not going to wake up in bed in another 10 minutes or an hour?”
Tentative nods of assent.
“But how do you know?” he asked. “What is the evidence for that assumption?”
“I can’t float,” one brave guy called out. He was sitting motionless in his chair.
“You call that trying?” Stephen shouted. His incredulity was melodramatic, his voice rising in a show of outrage. “That’s not a real effort!” Stephen straightened his back as though trying to levitate out of his chair, his face crumpling with the strain of his imagined effort. He jumped up, his eyes widening as if in hope. But he dropped back down into his seat; he could not float.
He was awake, and he had conveyed his point. A proper reality test entails truly considering, with your body as well as your mind, the possibility that you are in a dream.
LaBerge didn’t start leading retreats just to pay the bills or even to share the joys of lucid dreaming. The workshops have also provided him with a way to move his own research ahead. They have given him access to a group of people who are willing to participate in his studies, even if they aren’t certified by a lab.This year, that tradition continued. On three consecutive nights, those of us who agreed to take part in what LaBerge cryptically called “the experiment” were given plastic bags of unmarked, oversize capsules and instructions to swallow them after our third REM period, meditate, or write in our dream journals for 30 to 60 minutes, and go back to sleep. The three packets contained one set of placebo pills and two of galantamine, a drug developed to treat Alzheimer’s disease. (It’s available both over the counter and as an FDA-regulated prescription.) Alzheimer’s patients suffer from low levels of neurons that respond to acetylcholine, a chemical that sends signals between nerve cells; the imbalance can contribute to their lapses in memory. Galantamine—one of a number of drugs classified as cholinesterase inhibitors—works by preventing the breakdown of acetylcholine in the brain. Bizarre dreams are a side effect; galantamine reduces “REM sleep latency,” the time between sleep onset and the first REM stage, and increases “REM density,” a measure of frequency of eye movement that corresponds to dream intensity.
Galantamine should enhance mental clarity in the dream state in the same way that it improves memory in dementia patients. Over the years, LaBerge has served different doses of galantamine and other cholinesterase inhibitors to over 100 aspiring lucid dreamers. His results are promising; he has found that people who are already proficient lucid dreamers are five times more likely to become lucid on the nights they take galantamine than on the nights they take a placebo. Even without yet publishing these findings in a peer-reviewed journal, LaBerge has—thanks to presentations at IASD and word of mouth—helped set off a wave of formal and informal research, stimulating the market for lucid-dreaming supplements with names like Galantamind. Online lucid-dreaming boards are teeming with inspirational stories of galantamine-assisted success. “The first night I took it I had one lucid dream after another,” wrote a member of the World of Lucid Dreaming Forum. “Most of the times I take it, I have outstanding dreams—often flying dreams and amazing journeys that blow my mind,” another attested. One researcher surveyed 19 lucid dreamers who incorporated galantamine into their routines and found qualitative differences in the way they described their drug-fueled lucid dreams: They were more vivid, longer, and more stable than usual.
Galantamine is not a magic bullet, though; it can trigger nasty side effects like headaches, nausea, and insomnia. And it can work too well—cautionary tales of galantamine-induced nightmares can be found alongside success stories. “It felt like my brain was being drawn and quartered,” one lucid dreamer wrote. “I kept falling back asleep into these bizarre dreams that I can only describe as my head being scraped against the bottom of a submerged iceberg.” “It felt like I was falling through my bed and all these loud screeching sounds and vibrations started happening,” testified another. “It was so scary and I felt paralyzed.”
The day after our experiment began, a few people turned up to the morning lecture looking haggard and complaining that they hadn’t been able to fall back to sleep after taking their pills; one had spent the night vomiting. For me, galantamine did the trick. On both of the nights that I took it, I had lucid dreams, and no trouble falling back to sleep. When I took what I later found out was a placebo, I could recall only a mundane, nonlucid anxiety dream in which I found out that an acquaintance was also working on a book about the science of dreams. What I think was more helpful than galantamine, though, was the fact of being on the retreat—in a place where I didn’t have to think about everyday things and where I was surrounded by people who shared my goals. I don’t think it was a coincidence that my first lucid dreams in Peru came at another time when I was able to maintain a single-minded focus on my desire to become lucid, and when I had made dream talk a regular part of my day.
Scientists are finding powerful applications of lucid dreaming for intellectual as well as therapeutic and clinical problems. “If you want to study subjective experiences and their neural correlates, dreams are an excellent means to do that,” said Katja Valli, a neuroscientist at the University of Turku in Finland. She believes that pinpointing the neural differences among dreamless sleep, dreams, and lucid dreams could shed light on the cognitive basis of consciousness itself.Lucid dreaming can also help people with common mental disorders like anxiety. Line Salvesen has been both an anxious person and an effortless lucid dreamer for almost as long as she can remember. As a child, she suffered from recurring nightmares and realized that she could escape from them if she recognized that she was in a dream. In one, she would be riding in the back seat of a car when all of a sudden, her parents, who were driving, would vanish. The car would hurtle down the road, toddler Line powerless in the back, until it crashed. She figured out that she could wake herself up, which helped, but it was only after she taught herself to seize control that she was able to banish the nightmare for good. One night, after her parents disappeared as usual, Line consciously formulated a new plan: She would summon her kindergarten classmates to steer the car. “They were in the driver’s seat, and they helped each other,” she said. “It wasn’t really a nightmare anymore.”
It wasn’t until reading an article about lucid dreaming in a magazine that Line—who was having lucid dreams almost every night—realized that not everyone was conscious in dreams. “It said that only a small fraction of people are able to have these naturally, and I was like ‘I’m special?’ ” She laughed. The habit that was as intuitive for her as breathing, she learned, was an elusive goal for others.
In spite of her special skill, Line suffered from overwhelming anxiety in her teens and early twenties. “I felt stressed all the time,” she told me. “I didn’t feel that I had any control.” She tried therapy and medication, but nothing worked. “It made life pretty hard,” she said. “It ruined my senior year in high school.” She missed classes because she was so tired—even though she was sleeping 12 hours a night—and her grades plummeted. She took sick leave from her first job to undergo more intensive treatment.
Until Line met lucid dreaming expert Robert Waggoner in a cyber-dreaming conference, she had mostly used her lucid dreams for fun, but Waggoner suggested they might hold the key to solving her anxiety. The next time she became lucid, she followed his advice. “I told myself that I would be happy and anxiety-free for one week. I just said it out loud in the dream, with confidence.” When she woke up, she could feel that something had changed inside her. “It was like my anxiety was just turned off. I was ecstatic.” Her therapist could scarcely believe her overnight transformation. “I came into his office, and he could just see that I was different. When I told him what I did, he almost fell out of his chair.” Her new sense of composure lasted, and when it began to fade, she just repeated her mantra in her next lucid dream. She still suffers the occasional panic attack, but her anxiety has never returned in full force.
Sports scientists, meanwhile, have latched onto lucid dreaming as a tool in performance and exercise. In a series of experiments in the 2010s, Michael Schredl and Daniel Erlacher had lucid dreamers try to use their dreams to improve at physical tasks. In one study, 40 people tried to toss a coin into a cup about 6 feet away. Afterward, one group was allowed to practice, another group tried to incubate lucid dreams about the coin toss, and a control group did nothing. When everyone attempted the task again, the people who had dreamed about it improved their hit rate by 43 percent, compared with just 4 percent for the control group. (Practicing while awake, though, was the most effective strategy.)
Recent research has vindicated much of LaBerge’s early work, but he is hardly bitter about the academic career he could have had. His books are still selling. His fans are ardent, his workshops well attended. Perhaps the spiritual experiences he has had in the dream state tempered his ambition. In one lucid dream, which Stephen spent about half an hour recounting, he floated into a sky stippled with religious symbols and experienced a sense of oneness with the natural world as his body dissolved into a “point of awareness.” He woke with his fear of death diminished. Lucid dreams have done enough for him.
Excerpted from Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journey by Alice Robb.
Haitians protest Sunday in Port-au-Prince, their anger aimed primarily at the misuse of funds from the Petrocaribe program. Through Petrocaribe, Venezuela for years supplied Haiti and other Caribbean and Central American countries with oil at cut-rate prices and on easy credit terms. (Estailove St. Val/EPA-EFE)
In Port-au-Prince, a crowd of several thousand blocked roads, setting alight bonfires of tires and garbage as they chanted anti-government slogans and waved the old black-and-red flag that Haiti replaced after the Duvalier dictatorship was ousted from power in 1987.
It’s the second round of violent clashes in less than a month, and the unpopular President Jovenel Moise appears to be running scared. Hecancelled a planned visit to Vertiéres yesterdayand zipped through a wreath-laying ceremony in the capital in under 10 minutes.
Haitians are demanding action after a corruption probe implicated government officials. (Estailove St. Val/EPA-EFE)
The anger stems from widespread public suspicion of corruption surrounding some $3.8 billion US in money and discount oil that Haiti received from Venezuela starting in 2005 as part of a regional Petrocaribe aid program.
The Haitian Senate produced reports in 2016 and 2017 alleging that nearly $2 billion of the money, which was intended for infrastructure and economic development projects, was embezzled or misappropriated.
The probes implicated 14 senior members of the government of former President Michel Martelly in the alleged fraud, but to date no one has been charged. And Moise, who succeeded Martelly as leader of the Tèt Kale [Baldhead] party, is perceived to be doing little to advance the investigation.
Haitian Police block anti-corruption demonstrators Sunday in Port-au-Prince. Investigations by the Haitian Senate in 2016 and 2017 concluded that nearly $2 billion US from a Venezuelan aid program called Petrocaribe was misused. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)
Meanwhile, the country’s economic situation grows ever more precarious. The foreign aid that flowed in following 2010 earthquake and subsequent hurricanes has all but dried up, and the government has few domestic revenue sources to tap.
Large protests in Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, September 29, 2018 against Jair Bolsonaro, saying #NotHim.
There are communities in Brazil living in a state of terror. The country’s new president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, is a proud proto-fascist. Imagine Donald Trump with the volume turned up to eleven, in a country with far weaker democratic guardrails against authoritarian tendencies.
Bolsonaro traffics regularly and proudly in openly racist comments,callingblack activists “animals” who should “go back to the zoo.” He oncebleatedthat a female political rival wasn’t “worth raping.” He vowed as a candidate that political opponents faced either exile or jail, and said he would “put an end to all types of activism in Brazil.”
Already, political repression has reared its head in Brazil’s universities, withreports of classes being invaded by troops, books on fascism being seized, and banners being torn down. This is a President who aspires to be a military dictator in a country that has only been a political democracy for three decades. (Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, has chillinglycalled this “a welcome development in the region.”)
It’s a terrifying moment and many are wondering how this rightwing authoritarian clawed his way to power. This question has many complicated answers rooted in Brazil’s history and politics.
But one aspect is the nation’s hosting the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. Both mega-events were ushered in by the social democratic PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or Workers’ Party) under the leadership of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Both cost billions of dollars to stage. Both arrived with a remarkable amount of promise, as the economy was on a historic hot streak, with unprecedented growth in the GDP.
When securing the Olympics, Lulaboasted that “Brazil has left behind the level of second-class countries and entered the rank of first-class countries. Today we earned respect. The world has finally recognized that this is Brazil’s time.”
But the World Cup and Olympics did not bring glory and monetary largesse. Rather they brought, as they invariably do, corruption, displacement, and hyper militarization. And each of these factors helped lay the groundwork for the rapid rise of the once fringe figure of Jair Bolsonaro.
As Brazil’s economystalled, the glittering new stadiums became a highly visible symbol of corruption. As big corporations landed sweetheart contracts and the rich looted the public coffers, promised social programs were neglected and ordinary Brazilians took to the streets in mass protests. Some of these protests were led by rightwing forces, others by political groups to the left of the PT.
As Chris Gaffney, a former professional soccer player who was a professor in Rio de Janiero as the World Cup and Olympic build up commenced, told me, “The corruption that unfolded as part of the mega-events could be considered an important part of the growing dissatisfaction with the PT and their inability to deliver on enduring structural reforms.” It set the stage, Gaffney said, for Bolsonaro to “rip down the remnants of representative democracy in Brazil.”
In truth, the erosion of democracy had already begun during the lead-up to the games. In the “state of exception” of frenetic construction and forced displacement of communities such as Vila Autodróomo, democratic checks were openly flaunted for the sake of accomodating the World Cup and Olympics.
The ability of Bolsonaro to “rip down the remnants” was also aided by the billions of dollars in surveillance technologies and crowd-control weapons brought into the country for the World Cup and Olympic Games. The companies most responsible for selling and educating Brazil in the brutish arts of “counter-insurgency” have been Rafael and Elbit, two Israeli firms that sell the idea that they have the tech most able to corral and oppress restive populations.
Bolsonaro and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not surprisingly, have developed an instant mutual admiration rooted in rightwing nationalism, arms dealing, and bigotry, with Bolsonaroannouncinghe will follow Trump’s lead and move the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, Brazil remains more violent than ever with63,000 murdersoccurring in 2017. This has been another key factor fueling the rise of Bolsonaro—who promises to rule with a strong hand and has told police that they should shoot “criminals” on sight.
The World Cup and Olympics have beaten Brazil down. It is a distraction with bright lights and a festival atmosphere, with something far more sinister lurking in the shadows.
The United States of America has no peace movement even though the country has been mired in unwinnable wars since 2001 and opinion polls suggest that there is only lukewarm support among the public for what is taking place in Afghanistan and Syria.
This is in part due to the fact that today’s corporate media virtually functions as a branch of government, which some might refer to as the Ministry of Lies, and it is disinclined to report on just how dystopic American foreign and national security policy has become. This leaves the public in the dark and allows the continued worldwide blundering by the US military to fly under the radar.
The irony is that America’s last three presidents quite plausibly can be regarded as having their margins of victory attributed to a peace vote. George W. Bush promised a more moderate foreign policy in his 2000 campaign, Obama pledged to undo much of the harsh response to 9/11 promulgated by Bush, and Donald Trump was seen as the less warlike candidate when compared to Hillary Clinton. So the public wants less war but the politicians’ promises to deliver have been little more than campaign chatter, meaning that the United States continues to be locked into the same cycle of seeking change through force of arms.
Just last week Secretary of State Mike Pompeospoke to a BBC journalistand said Iran must do what Washington demands “if they want their people to eat.” Pompeo’s comments should have shocked the public, but they were not widely reported. If Pompeo spoke for the Administration, that means that Washington is now ready, willing and often able to starve civilians and deny them medicines as a foreign policy tool. Iran is now on the receiving end, but the US has also been supporting similar action by the Saudi Arabians in Yemen, which has resulted in widespread starvation, particularly among children. The current policy recalls former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s infamous comment that the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children due to sanctions had been “worth it.”
It is hard to believe that most Americans support Pompeo. To be sure, there are a number of groups in the United States that have the word “peace” or “antiwar” somewhere in their titles. Most would describe themselves as “progressive,” wherein lies the problem in pulling together a more broadly-based coalition that would make America’s warfare state a key target in the national election in 2020. Progressives, or, as they used to be called, liberals, are not like everyone else. Some commentators observing their antics describe them scathingly as “social justice warriors” or SJWs. That means that they have a mandate to oppose all the evils in the world, to include racism, sexism, limits on immigration and capitalism to name only a few. War is somewhere on the list but nowhere near the top.
SJWs have no comfort zone for dealing with anyone who does not fully buy into their blueprint for global rejuvenation. This means in turn that the antiwar movement, such as it is, is fragmented into a gaggle of groups with grievances that have little ability to establish cohesion with other organizations that might agree completely with their worldview. Folks like me, who are socially and politically conservative but antiwar, do not fit well with their priorities and would prefer to focus on the wars, but that option is not on offer without accepting a lot of sanctimonious garbage.
Arecent emailfrom the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights illustrates precisely what is wrong. I would support the group based on my concern for justice for the Palestinians but have no interest in its ridiculous stereotyping of who is the enemy, i.e. the omnipresent evil “white supremacists” who are also male, Gentile and heterosexual. The email, sent by one Nusayba Hammad, Communications Director, begins: “In the past week, white supremacist gunmen murdered 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and two Black people in Louisville, and Trump announced his intention to try to erase trans, non-binary, and intersex folks… Our struggles for justice are inextricably linked: rejecting white supremacy means rejecting antisemitism, anti-Black racism, Zionism, Islamophobia, transphobia, and all forms of oppression. This is especially important knowing that many, many people carry overlapping identities and thus are marginalized at the intersection of overlapping oppressions.”
Yes, I know, it is impossible to understand what she is going on about unless one is educated in the progressive codewords. And also yes, the text could have been written by Monty Python. After that introduction the email goes on to provide some resources to “expand [one’s] knowledge,” including this gem:
“Palestine as a Queer Struggle (video) This webinar with Nada Elia, Falastine Dwikat, and Izzy Mustafa covers the intersecting struggles against heteropatriarchy and Zionism. With Trump’s most recent attack on trans, non-binary, and intersex folks, it’s imperative that we understand the importance of standing with queer and trans people in the US and in Palestine as they face multiple layers of oppression.”
As war, in this case the slaughter of the Palestinians by the Jewish state, is the ultimate evil and it brings with it many other forms of suffering, it would seemingly not be asking too much to worry about it as a first priority before getting into the “multiple layers of oppression” that seem to bother lefties so much. But, alas, they cannot jettison that baggage and for that reason many “normal” people who want the wars to stop will not be participating in their protests. It’s a shame really, as joining together and fighting to stop the next war is well worth doing for every human being on this planet.
We can all get better at being clever. And it’s worth trying, according to Geary, because playing with language—elevating mundane communication from mere talk into a creative process—is a form of innovation that sheds new light on old ideas. Plus, it makes life less boring and more fun for you and others.
The mechanics of cognition
By practicing and mastering wit, learning to turn words and phrases around in the mind and presenting new juxtapositions, we can change the way we and other people see. “[W]it consists in binding together remote and separate notions, finding similarity in dissimilar things (or dissimilarity in similar things), and drawing the mind from one word to another,” Geary explains.
The wittiest among us are simply people who make unusual connections between words and ideas. There’s a refreshing element of surprise to these observations that prompts a smile or a wince from the listener who didn’t see the link until it was presented.
In cognitive terms, the brain of the wit is less inhibited than that of a linguistic dullard. “Uncensored access to associations, conscious and unconscious, is essential to wit,” Geary writes. He notes that some people who experience brain damage or have neuropsychiatric diseases lose their ability to make these associations altogether, while others suffer from witzelsucht. This German term means “wit sickness” or “wit addiction” and results in a compulsion to make jokes that are often socially inappropriate.
Understanding the neurobiology of people who suffer witzelsucht, and those who are linguistically humorless due to brain damage, could shed light on the mechanisms of wit. The caudate nucleus is one area of the brain implicated in associative learning and control of inhibitions that may explain how wit is generated, Geary explains. Likewise, the frontotemporal region influences personality, language, and emotional development. Knowing precisely how these areas of the brain interact and regulate thinking will lead to better scientific comprehension of wit.
For now what we know is this. “Witty thinking seems to recruit a unique configuration of neural processes that engage in seemingly contradictory modes of thought; the spontaneous and the deliberate, the generative and evaluative,” according to Geary. In other words, a wit is someone who is disinhibited in linking ideas creatively but also capable of evaluating these connections thoughtfully, thereby presenting unexpected and clever combinations.
A guide to advanced banter
Still, we needn’t wait for a breakthrough in brain science to cultivate wit ourselves. First, just knowing that wit is a kind of associative process already makes you better equipped to be a verbal gymnast. And Geary lays out a variety of kinds of wit, showing the way this play manifests—puns, rhyme, metaphor, slang, rap, to name a few—in a book that is itself an exercise in wit.
Geary’s book is proof positive that being creative about language takes practice and can be mastered. It’s not just a natural talent.
Like other forms of creativity it isborne of knowledge. Having a rich vocabulary is a starting point. Curiosity is another important element. Appreciating language in all the places and ways it’s used—from pop music to literary fiction, scientific writing to slang—makes it easier to generate unusual combinations.
Geary began his effort by researching the history of wit. He discovered that there are no texts that truly delve into this linguistic cleverness, analyzing how it arises or why we might rely on it, although the oldest and most revered texts in the world, from the Tao Te Ching to the Bible to the plays of William Shakespeare are replete with language play.
Wit, Geary argues, isn’t just for fun. It’s also a political tool, used to subvert censorship. For example, as theFinancial Times(paywall) noted in August, in China, discussions of the #MeToo movement rely on wordplay. The hashtag #RiceBunny and emojis for rice and a bunny signify discussion of sexual harassment without alerting censors to sensitive topics. The words ‘rice bunny’ are pronounced as ‘mi tu’ in Mandarin, serving as code to those in the know.
With linguistic gymnastics, we can reach people who might not otherwise think they’re interested in certain ideas and break down barriers. Hip-hop and rap, for example, exposed generations of music listeners of all classes and races to black culture they didn’t encounter in their own lives.
Likewise, wit can reinforce boundaries, keeping out the humorless or those who aren’t steeped in the lingo and in the know. It’s an efficient way to say more with less, as in the case of a metaphor, or to expose unexpected meanings.
Yet writing a book about wit was harder than the writer imagined. Geary couldn’t very well be pedantic and dull while highlighting the need for wise, fun, creative communication. So he took a colleague’s challenge to show rather than tell readers about wit, turning each chapter into a manifestation of what he’s discussing.
He raps, rhymes, puns, quips, jives, and dialogues his way through this rich history and analysis. Each section of the book, which reveals the elements of different kinds of wit, and offers insight on developing it, is written in a distinct form. And the end result is an extended dance remix on the art of the quip that is bothhumorous and instructive.
The book is especially timely now, when so many of us feel we are at our wit’s end. The rate of exchange between strangers and acquaintances online has never been so high. But internet chatter is often toxic and commonly resorts to vitriolic retorts, angry declarations, and unnecessary observations.
Wit is the antidote for a culture being dulled by communication overload—it’s a kind of wisdom. In Aristotle’s words, it is a form of “educated insolence.” If we were cracking wise, rather than reacting angrily, and being wittier on Twitter, we might all have a much better time.
“The long and winding road is just starting. A Russia-China-driven peace process, Taliban included. Stable Afghanistan. Islamabad as guarantor. All-Asian solution. No Western invaders welcome.”
by Pepe Escobar
In the “graveyard of empires,” Afghanistan never ceases to deliver geopolitical and historical twists. Last week in Moscow, another crucial chapter in this epic story was written when Russia pledged to use its diplomatic muscle to spur peace efforts in the war-torn country.
Flanked by Afghan representatives and their Taliban rivals, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov talked about “working together with Afghanistan’s regional partners and friends who have gathered at this table.”
“I am counting on you holding a serious and constructive conversation that will justify the hopes of the Afghan people,” he said.
Back in the 1980s, the Soviet Union launched a disastrous war in the country. Thirty years later, Russia is now taking the lead role of mediator in this 21st-century version of the Great Game.
The line-up in Moscow was diverse.
Four members of the High Peace Council, which is responsible for attempting a dialogue with the Taliban, took part in the talks. Yet the Afghan foreign ministry went the extra mile to stress that the council does not represent the Afghan government.
Kabul and former Northern Alliance members, who form a sort of “protective” circle around President Ashraf Ghani, in fact refuse any dialogue with the Taliban, who were their mortal enemies up to 2001.
The Taliban for their part sent a delegation of five, although spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid was adamant there wouldn’t be “any sort of negotiations” with Kabul. This was “about finding a peaceful solution to the issue of Afghanistan.”
Diplomats in Pakistan confirm the Taliban will only negotiate on substantial matters after a deal is reached with the United States on a timetable for complete withdrawal.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova stressed this was the first time a Taliban delegation had attended such a high-level international meeting. The fact that the Taliban is classified by Moscow as a “terrorist organization” makes it even more stunning.
Moscow also invited China, Pakistan, India, Iran, the five Central Asian “stans” and the US. Washington sent just a diplomat from the American Embassy in Moscow, as an observer. The new US special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, widely known in the recent past as “Bush’s Afghan”, has not exactly made much progress in his meetings with Taliban officials in Qatar in the past few months.
India – not exactly keen on a Pakistan-encouraged “Afghan-led peace” process – sent an envoy at a “non-official level” and received a dressing down from Lavrov, along the lines of ‘Don’t moan, be constructive’.
Still, this was just the beginning. There will be a follow-up – although no date has been set.
Enduring so much freedom
Since the US bombing campaign and invasion of what was then Taliban-controlled Afghanistan 17 years ago, peace has proved elusive. The Taliban still has a major presence in the country and is essentially on a roll.
Diplomats in Islamabad confirm Kabul may exercise power over roughly 60% of the population, but the key fact is that only 55% of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, and perhaps even less, submit to Kabul. The Taliban are on the ascendancy in the northeast, the southwest and the southeast.
It took a long time for a new head of US and NATO operations, General Austin Scott Miller, to admit the absolutely obvious. “This is not going to be won militarily … This is going to a political solution,” he said.
The world’s most formidable military force simply cannot win the war.
Still, after no less than 100,000 US and NATO troops plus 250,000 US-trained Afghan army and police failing over the years to prevent the Taliban from ruling over whole provinces, Washington seems determined to blame Islamabad for this military quagmire.
The US believes Pakistan’s covert “support” for the Taliban has inflamed the situation and destabilized the Kabul government.
No wonder the Russian presidential envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, went straight to the jugular. “The West has lost the war in Afghanistan … the presence of the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] hasn’t only failed to solve the problem, but exacerbated it.”
Lavrov, for his part, is quite concerned by the expansion of Daesh, known regionally as ISIS-Khorasan. He warned, correctly, that “foreign sponsors” are allowing ISIS-K to “turn Afghanistan into a springboard for its expansion in Central Asia”. Beijing agrees.
A grand plan by China-Russia
It’s no secret to all the major players that Washington won’t abdicate from its privileged Afghan base in the intersection of Central and South Asia for a number of reasons, especially monitoring and surveillance of strategic “threats” such as Russia and China.
In parallel, the eternal “Pakistan plays a double game” narrative simply won’t vanish – even as Islamabad has shown in detail how the Pakistani Taliban have been consistently offered safe-havens in eastern Afghanistan by RAW (Indian intelligence) operatives.
That does not alter the fact that Islamabad has a serious Afghan problem. Military doctrine rules that Pakistan cannot manage the South Asian geopolitical chessboard and project power as an equal of India without controlling Afghanistan in “strategic depth.”
Add to it the absolutely intractable problem of the Durand Line, established in 1893 to separate Afghanistan and the British India empire. A hundred years later, Islamabad totally rejected Kabul’s appeal to renegotiate the Durand line, according to a provision in the original treaty. For Islamabad, the Durand line shall remain in perpetuity as a valid international border.
By the mid-1990s, the powers in Islamabad believed that by supporting the Taliban they would end up recognizing the Durand line and on top of it essentially dissolve the impetus of Pashtun nationalism and the call for a “Pashtunistan”.
Islamabad was always supposed to drive the narrative. History, though, turned it completely upside down. In fact, it was Pashtun nationalism plus hardcore Islamism of the Deobandi variety that ended up contaminating Pakistani Pashtuns.
Yet Pashtuns may not be the major actors in the, perhaps, final season of this Hindu Kush spectacular. That may turn out to be China.
What matters most for China is Afghanistan becoming part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). That’s exactly what Chinese envoy Yao Jingtoldthe opening session of the 4th Trilateral Dialogue in Islamabad earlier this week between China, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“Kabul can act as a bridge to help expand connectivity between East, South and Central Asian regions,” Jing said.
Pakistani Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed said: “The Greater South Asia has emerged as a geo-economic concept, driven by economy and energy, roads and railways and ports and pipelines, and Pakistan is the hub of this connectivity due to CPEC.”
For Beijing, CPEC can only deliver its enormous potential if Pakistan and India relations are normalized. And that road goes right through Afghanistan. China has been aiming for an opening for years. Chinese intel operatives have met the Taliban everywhere from Xinjiang to Karachi and from Peshawar to Doha.
The China card is immensely alluring. Beijing is the only player capable of getting along with all the other major actors: Kabul, the Taliban, the former Northern Alliance, Iran, Russia, Central Asia, the US, the EU, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and – last but not least – “all-weather” brothers Pakistan.
The only problem is India. But now, inside the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), they are all on the same table – with Iran and Afghanistan itself as observers. Everyone knows that an Afghan Pax Sinica would involve tons of investment, connectivity and trade integration. What’s not to like?
So this is the ultimate goal of the ongoing Moscow peace talks. It’s part of a concerted SCO strategy that has been discussed for years. The long and winding road is just starting. A Russia-China-driven peace process, Taliban included. Stable Afghanistan. Islamabad as guarantor. All-Asian solution. No Western invaders welcome.
BEIJING (AFP) – A female Chinese novelist has been sentenced to 10 years in jail for writing and distributing books containing explicit descriptions of gay male sex, state-run media said Monday, a punishment that drew criticism for its severity.
The author, who goes by the pen name “Tianyi”, attracted the scrutiny of authorities after one of her homoerotic novels, “Gongzhan”, went viral last year, according to the Global Times tabloid.
The book detailed the sexual relationship between a teacher and his male student.
Tianyi also distributed 7,000 “pornographic” books, most related to homosexuality, which garnered “illegal profits” of 150,000 yuan ($21,600), according to Wuhu city police cited by The Global Times. She has filed an appeal, according to local media.
Tianyi’s sentencing in eastern Anhui province on October 31 has drawn a wave of criticism on Twitter-like Weibo, where many people noted that the punishment was treated like other crimes such as rape. According to Chinese criminal law, rapists are charged with three to 10 year prison sentences.
“We don’t deny her crime — it’s just that we don’t accept this kind of unreasonable judgement,” wrote one Weibo user, whose post garnered more than 5,000 likes and 1,000 reposts.
Homoerotic novels are not uncommon in China and are easily accessible via different websites, but those who earn 50,000 yuan ($7,200) or more in producing or disseminating “obscene” material are subject to Chinese criminal law. Gay romance stories are popular in China too — in fact, there is a term in Chinese for women who are fans of gay love stories, or “funu”.
But in recent weeks, Beijing has cracked down on “illegal” publications, a broadly defined category that includes pornography, as well as work that “endangers national unity” and “disturbs social order”. Last week, government regulators increased the amount of cash rewards Chinese citizens can earn for reporting “illegal” publications to authorities — an upper limit of 600,000 yuan ($86,000).
The Cyberspace Administration of China said last Monday it had “cleaned up” 9,800 accounts on Chinese social media platforms which it accused of spreading “politically harmful” information and rumours. Gay-themed films struggle to make it into movie theatres, same-sex relationships are banned from television screens and gay content is forbidden on online streaming platforms.
China classified homosexuality as a crime until 1997 and a mental illness until 2001, but conservative attitudes and discrimination remain widespread.
Note: Enough is Enough is not organizing any of these events, we are publishing this text for people across the US and Europe to be able to see what is going on and for documentation only.
The group of five to six men who wore matching clothing and face masks attempted to enter the bookfair at approximately 4pm and began chanting anti-immigration slogans. One of the chants was “Blood and Soil,” which was a key slogan of the German Nazi party. The individuals are presumed to be members of the fascist organization Patriot Front, which uses fascist and Nazi symbolism, and which attempted a similar foiled effort to storm the Houston Anarchist Bookfair in September 2017.
Within minutes of the group entering, attendees and organizers quickly surrounded the fascists, began engaging them and chanting “Nazis out! Nazis out!” Never making it more than ten feet past the entrance and not entering the actual bookfair space itself, the entire confrontation lasted less than ten minutes as the group quickly backed down and made an exit. No physical altercations were known to have occurred.
Patriot Front, is a splinter group of American Vanguard which collapsed in the wake of the 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally. In the aftermath of the protest it was revealed that 20 year old James Alex Fields Jr., who murdered Heather Heyer and injured dozens of others by driving a car at high speed into a group of counter protesters, marched together with American Vanguard during the protest. Since then the group has worked to rebrand their fascist politics under the guise of patriotism and focuses on anonymous flyering and propagandistic attempts to intimidate left groups and social movements, such as several members vandalizing an “Occupy ICE” encampment in San Antonio, Texas in August.
The incident is an important reminder that organized security preparations and quick reactions are essential to protect the safety of our movements and organizations.
Video footage of the fascist being forced out of the bookfair venue.
The Electronic Intifada has obtained a complete copy of The Lobby – USA, a four-part undercover investigation by Al Jazeera into Israel’s covert influence campaign in the United States.
We are releasing the leaked film simultaneously with France’s Orient XXI and Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar, which have respectively subtitled the episodes inFrenchandArabic. The film was made by Al Jazeera during 2016 and was completed in October 2017. But it was censored after Qatar, the gas-rich Gulf emirate that funds Al Jazeera, came under intenseIsrael lobby pressurenot to air the film.
Since then, The Electronic Intifada has releasedthree other extracts, and several other journalists have watched the entire film and written about it – includingAlain GreshandAntony Loewenstein. Now The Electronic Intifada can reveal for the first time that it has obtained all four parts of the film.
You can watch the first two parts in the video embed below.
To get unprecedented access to the Israel lobby’s inner workings, undercover reporter “Tony” posed as a pro-Israel volunteer in Washington.
The film was suppressed after the government of Qatar came under intense pressure not to release it – ironically from the very same lobby whose influence and antics the film exposes.
Clayton Swisher, Al Jazeera’s head of investigations,revealedin an article for The Forward in March that Al Jazeera had sent more than 70 letters to individuals and organizations who appear in or are discussed in the film, providing them with an opportunity to respond.
Only three did so. Instead, pro-Israel groups have endeavored to suppress the film that exposes the lobby’s activities. In April, Al Jazeera’s management wasforced to deny a claimby the hard-right Zionist Organization of America that the film had been canceled altogether. In June, The Electronic Intifadalearned that a high level source in Doha had said the film’s indefinite delay was due to “national security” concerns of the Qatari government.
She discusses the Israeli government “giving our support” to front groups “in that behind-the-scenes way.” Reifkind also admits to using fake Facebook profiles to infiltrate the circles of Palestine solidarity activists on campus. The film also reveals that US-based groups coordinate their efforts directly with the Israeli government, particularly itsMinistry of Strategic Affairs. Run by a former military intelligence officer, the ministry is in charge ofIsrael’s global campaign of covert sabotagetargeting the BDS movement.
The film shows footage of the very same ex-military intelligence officer, Sima Vaknin-Gil, claiming to have mapped Palestinian rights activism “globally. Not just the United States, not just campuses, but campuses and intersectionality and labor unions and churches.”
She promises to use this data for “offense activity” against Palestine activists.
Jacob Baime, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition, claims in the undercover footage that his organization uses “corporate level, enterprise-grade social media intelligence software” to gather lists of Palestine-related student events on campus, “generally within about 30 seconds or less” of them being posted online. Baime also admits on hidden camera that his group “coordinates” with the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs.
Baime states that his researchers “issue early warning alerts to our partners” – including Israeli ministries. Baime’s colleague Ian Hersh admits in the film to adding Israel’s “Ministry of Strategic Affairs to our operations and intelligence brief.”
Baime describes how his group has used anonymous websites to target activists.
“With the anti-Israel people, what’s most effective, what we’ve found at least in the last year, is you do the opposition research, put up some anonymous website, and then put up targeted Facebook ads,” Baime explains inpart three of the film.
“Canary Mission is a good example,” he states. “It’s psychological warfare.”
Eric Gallagher, then fundraising director for The Israel Project, is seen in the undercover footage admitting that “Adam Milstein, he’s the guy who funds” Canary Mission. Milstein also funds The Israel Project, Gallagher states. Gallagher says that when he was working for AIPAC, Washington’s most powerful Israel lobby group, “I was literally emailing back and forth with [Adam Milstein] while he was in jail.”
Despite not replying to Al Jazeera’s request for comment, Milsteindeniedthat he and his family foundation “are funders of Canary Mission” on the same day The Electronic Intifada published the clip. Since then, Josh Nathan-Kazis of The Forward hasidentified several other groupsin the US who fund Canary Mission.
In March, The Electronic Intifadapublishedthe first details of what is in the film.
We reported that it showed Sima Vaknin-Gil claiming to have leading neoconservative think tank the Foundation for Defense of Democracies working for her ministry. The undercover footage shows Vaknin-Gil claiming that “We have FDD. We have others working on” projects including “data gathering, information analysis, working on activist organizations, money trail. This is something that only a country, with its resources, can do the best.”
As noted in part one of the documentary, the existence of the film and the identity of the undercover reporter became known after footage he had shot for it was used in Al Jazeera’sThe Lobby– about Israel’s covert influence campaign in the UK – aired in early 2017. Since then, Israel lobbyists have heavily pressured Qatar to prevent the US film from airing.
Clayton Swisher, Al Jazeera’s head of investigations,first confirmed in October 2017 that the network had run an undercover reporter in the US Israel lobby at the same time as in the UK. Swisher promised the film would be released “very soon,” but it never came out.
Multiple Israel lobby sourcestoldIsrael’s Haaretz newspaper in February that they had received assurances from Qatari leaders late last year that the documentary would not be aired.
Swisher’s op-ed in The Forward was his first public comment on the matter since he had announced the documentary. In it, he refutes Israel lobby allegations about the film and expresses frustration that Al Jazeera had not aired it, apparently due to outside pressure.
Several pro-Israel lawmakers in Washington have piled on more pressure by pushing the Department of Justice to force Al Jazeera to register as a “foreign agent” under a counterespionage law dating from the 1930s.
They have included some of the most right-wing and extreme figures among Israel’s defenders in the US, such as Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and Morton Klein, the head of the Zionist Organization of America. Swisher wrote in The Forward that he ran into Dershowitz at a Doha restaurant during one of these visits, and invited the professor to a private viewing of the film.
“I have no problem with any of the secret filming,” Swisher says Dershowitz told him afterwards. “And I can even see this being broadcast on PBS” – the US public broadcaster.
Yet it appears that Israel lobby efforts to quash the film were successful – until now.
Older and younger generations have always clashed about values (you can test yourshere). Typically, these clashes result from younger people being more liberal, and older people more conservative. This is somewhat ironic since older people were also quite liberal when they were young, and younger people will become more conservative when they grow old. So what explains age differences in conservatism, and why do people become more right wing, authoritarian, and rigid as they age?
The first reason ispersonality. Indeed, areview of 92 scientific studies shows that intellectual curiosity tends to decline in old age, and that this declineexplainsage-related increases in conservatism. At any age, people differ in their typical levels of curiosity, and these differences have been attributed to the broader personality trait of Openness to Experience. Higher levels of Openness have been associated not only with aesthetic and cultural interests, but also with a general tendency to seek emotionally stimulating and adrenalizing activities (e.g., from scuba diving to bungee jumping; fromdrugsto unprotectedsex). Furthermore, open people are also more likely to display counter-conformist attitudes, challenge the status quo and disrespect authority. Although these qualities make high Openness a potential threat to society, Openness is also the source ofcreativity, innovation and entrepreneurship, as well as an intellectual antidote to totalitarianism, injustice andprejudice.
The second is judgment, in particular information-processing capacity. In most people (and I’m sorry to break the news) the speed of information-processing, a core ingredient of judgment andintelligence, peaks around the mid 20’s. To make matters worse, most people become considerably slower after their mid 40’s, with a substantial deceleration after their 60’s. The good news, however, is that slower does not necessarily mean dumber. In fact, older people are better able to rely on knowledge, experience and expertise, so they are not as affected by slower information-processing capacity. However, in order to retrieve knowledge more efficiently it is essential that they economize thinking, and seeing things in more categorical or “black-or-white” terms does make for more frugal and efficient thinking.
In line, areviewof 88 studies in 12 countries shows that older people are generally less tolerant of ambiguity, and have a higher need for closure and structure. This is often manifested by their stronger set of principles and rules, and a tendency to dismiss information that conflicts with their views. In addition, older people are also more likely to make categorical judgments about events, things, or people. This often involves acting in more prejudiced ways – to pre-judge means to judge before really judging – because in older ages preserving old knowledge is more important than acquiring new knowledge.
The third and final reason is familiarity. As we grow older, our experiences become more constrained and predictable. This is partly adaptive; order and structure enable us to navigate the world in autopilot, whereas change requires proactive adaptation, effort, and improvisation. In fact, at any point in life change is disruptive and taxing, but it is especially stressful when we are old. Thus, conservatism increases familiarity, which in turn increases conservatism. In line, research has shown that in older age conservatism is positively related toself-esteem. The implication is that remaining open minded when you are old may cause not only counterproductive uncertainty, but also insecurity and self-doubt.
Of course, all these are just generalizations and they do not apply to all individuals, young or old. To some extent, every individual is unique, and the developmental patterns of change and stability in personality and political orientation will never be identical for any two individuals. Interestingly, there is also compellingevidencefor the idea that people become more exaggerated versions of themselves when they age. In that sense, people are just like wine: the good ones get better with age; the bad ones worse.
The Chinese economy has grown so fast for so long now that it is easy to forget how unlikely its metamorphosis into a global powerhouse was, how much of its ascent was improvised and born of desperation. The proposal that Mr. Xu took from the mountain retreat, soon adopted as government policy, was a pivotal early step in this astounding transformation.
China now leads the world in the number of homeowners, internet users, college graduates and, by some counts, billionaires. Extreme poverty has fallen to less than 1 percent. An isolated, impoverished backwater has evolved into the most significant rival to the United States since the fall of the Soviet Union.
China today might be unrecognizable to its Communist founders, but the past still holds a powerful allure. “Red tourism” is a big industry.
China is less worried now about catching up to the West. Instead, it wonders how to pull ahead.
China leads the world in the number of internet users and college graduates. It is now working to land a person on the moon.
Gone are the days when the state decided where everyone worked and what every factory made.
The capitalist world thought it would change China, but China’s success has been so spectacular that it has changed the world.
An epochal contest is underway. With President Xi Jinping pushing a more assertive agenda overseas and tightening controls at home, the Trump administration has launched a trade war and is gearing up for what could be a new Cold War. Meanwhile, in Beijing the question these days is less how to catch up with the West than how to pull ahead — and how to do so in a new era of American hostility.
The pattern is familiar to historians, a rising power challenging an established one, with a familiar complication: For decades, the United States encouraged and aided China’s rise, working with its leaders and its people to build the most important economic partnership in the world, one that has lifted both nations.
During this time, eight American presidents assumed, or hoped, that China would eventually bend to what were considered the established rules of modernization: Prosperity would fuel popular demands for political freedom and bring China into the fold of democratic nations. Or the Chinese economy would falter under the weight of authoritarian rule and bureaucratic rot.
But neither happened. Instead, China’s Communist leaders have defied expectations again and again. They embraced capitalism even as they continued to call themselves Marxists. They used repression to maintain power but without stifling entrepreneurship or innovation. Surrounded by foes and rivals, they avoided war, with one brief exception, even as they fanned nationalist sentiment at home. And they presided over 40 years of uninterrupted growth, often with unorthodox policies the textbooks said would fail.
In late September, the People’s Republic of China marked a milestone, surpassing the Soviet Union in longevity. Days later, it celebrated a record 69 years of Communist rule. And China may be just hitting its stride — a new superpower with an economy on track to become not just the world’s largest but, quite soon, the largest by a wide margin.
The world thought it could change China, and in many ways it has. But China’s success has been so spectacular that it has just as often changed the world — and the American understanding of how the world works.
There is no simple explanation for how China’s leaders pulled this off. There was foresight and luck, skill and violent resolve, but perhaps most important was the fear — a sense of crisis among Mao’s successors that they never shook, and that intensified after the Tiananmen Square massacre and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Even as they put the disasters of Mao’s rule behind them, China’s Communists studied and obsessed over the fate of their old ideological allies in Moscow, determined to learn from their mistakes. They drew two lessons: The party needed to embrace “reform” to survive — but “reform” must never include democratization.
China has veered between these competing impulses ever since, between opening up and clamping down, between experimenting with change and resisting it, always pulling back before going too far in either direction for fear of running aground.
Many people said that the party would fail, that this tension between openness and repression would be too much for a nation as big as China to sustain. But it may be precisely why China soared.
Whether it can continue to do so with the United States trying to stop it is another question entirely.
Apparatchiks Into Capitalists
None of the participants at the Moganshan conference could have predicted how China would take off, much less the roles they would play in the boom ahead. They had come of age in an era of tumult, almost entirely isolated from the rest of the world, with little to prepare them for the challenge they faced. To succeed, the party had to both reinvent its ideology and reprogram its best and brightest to carry it out.
Mr. Xu, for example, had graduated with a degree in journalism on the eve of Mao’s violent Cultural Revolution, during which millions of people were purged, persecuted and killed. He spent those years at a “cadre school” doing manual labor and teaching Marxism in an army unit. After Mao’s death, he was assigned to a state research institute tasked with fixing the economy. His first job was figuring out how to give factories more power to make decisions, a subject he knew almost nothing about. Yet he went on to a distinguished career as an economic policymaker, helping launch China’s first stock market in Shenzhen.
Among the other young participants in Moganshan were Zhou Xiaochuan, who would later lead China’s central bank for 15 years; Lou Jiwei, who ran China’s sovereign wealth fund and recently stepped down as finance minister; and an agricultural policy specialist named Wang Qishan, who rose higher than any of them.
Mr. Wang headed China’s first investment bank and helped steer the nation through the Asian financial crisis. As Beijing’s mayor, he hosted the 2008 Olympics. Then he oversaw the party’s recent high-stakes crackdown on corruption. Now he is China’s vice president, second in authority only to Xi Jinping, the party’s leader.
The careers of these men from Moganshan highlight an important aspect of China’s success: It turned its apparatchiks into capitalists.
Bureaucrats who were once obstacles to growth became engines of growth. Officials devoted to class warfare and price controls began chasing investment and promoting private enterprise. Every day now, the leader of a Chinese district, city or province makes a pitch like the one Yan Chaojun made at a business forum in September.
It was a remarkable act of reinvention, one that eluded the Soviets. In both China and the Soviet Union, vast Stalinist bureaucracies had smothered economic growth, with officials who wielded unchecked power resisting change that threatened their privileges.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, tried to break the hold of these bureaucrats on the economy by opening up the political system. Decades later, Chinese officials still take classes on why that was a mistake. The party even produced a documentary series on the subject in 2006, distributing it on classified DVDs for officials at all levels to watch.
Afraid to open up politically but unwilling to stand still, the party found another way. It moved gradually and followed the pattern of the compromise at Moganshan, which left the planned economy intact while allowing a market economy to flourish and outgrow it.
Once an impoverished backwater, China is now the most significant rival to the United States. Wuhan, a former river town, has swelled into a metropolis of over 10 million.
A businessman stretched before a round of video golf at a hotel he built in Kunming.
Rising incomes have turned China into a nation of consumers.
In cities like Shanghai, Chinese schoolchildren outperform peers around the world.
Western capitalist economists doubted that innovation could take place under China’s rigid bureaucracy. They were proved wrong.
Party leaders called this go-slow, experimental approach “crossing the river by feeling the stones” — allowing farmers to grow and sell their own crops, for example, while retaining state ownership of the land; lifting investment restrictions in “special economic zones,” while leaving them in place in the rest of the country; or introducing privatization by selling only minority stakes in state firms at first.
“There was resistance,” Mr. Xu said. “Satisfying the reformers and the opposition was an art.”
American economists were skeptical. Market forces needed to be introduced quickly, they argued; otherwise, the bureaucracy would mobilize to block necessary changes. After a visit to China in 1988, the Nobel laureate Milton Friedman called the party’s strategy “an open invitation to corruption and inefficiency.”
But China had a strange advantage in battling bureaucratic resistance. The nation’s long economic boom followed one of the darkest chapters of its history, the Cultural Revolution, which decimated the party apparatus and left it in shambles. In effect, autocratic excess set the stage for Mao’s eventual successor, Deng Xiaoping, to lead the party in a radically more open direction.
That included sending generations of young party officials to the United States and elsewhere to study how modern economies worked. Sometimes they enrolled in universities, sometimes they found jobs, and sometimes they went on brief “study tours.” When they returned, the party promoted their careers and arranged for others to learn from them.
At the same time, the party invested in education, expanding access to schools and universities, and all but eliminating illiteracy. Many critics focus on the weaknesses of the Chinese system — the emphasis on tests and memorization, the political constraints, the discrimination against rural students. But mainland China now produces more graduates in science and engineering every year than the United States, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan combined.
In cities like Shanghai, Chinese schoolchildren outperform peers around the world. For many parents, though, even that is not enough. Because of new wealth, a traditional emphasis on education as a path to social mobility and the state’s hypercompetitive college entrance exam, most students also enroll in after-school tutoring programs — a market worth $125 billion, according to one study, or as much as half the government’s annual military budget.
Another explanation for the party’s transformation lies in bureaucratic mechanics. Analysts sometimes say that China embraced economic reform while resisting political reform. But in reality, the party made changes after Mao’s death that fell short of free elections or independent courts yet were nevertheless significant.
The party introduced term limits and mandatory retirement ages, for example, making it easier to flush out incompetent officials. And it revamped the internal report cards it used to evaluate local leaders for promotions and bonuses, focusing them almost exclusively on concrete economic targets.
These seemingly minor adjustments had an outsize impact, injecting a dose of accountability — and competition — into the political system, said Yuen Yuen Ang, a political scientist at the University of Michigan. “China created a unique hybrid,” she said, “anautocracy with democratic characteristics.”
As the economy flourished, officials with a single-minded focus on growth often ignored widespread pollution, violations of labor standards, and tainted food and medical supplies. They were rewarded with soaring tax revenues and opportunities to enrich their friends, their relatives and themselves. A wave of officials abandoned the state and went into business. Over time, the party elite amassed great wealth, which cemented its support for the privatization of much of the economy it once controlled.
The private sector now produces more than 60 percent of the nation’s economic output, employs over 80 percent of workers in cities and towns, and generates 90 percent of new jobs, a senior official saidin a speech last year. As often as not, the bureaucrats stay out of the way.
“I basically don’t see them even once a year,” said James Ni, chairman and founder of Mlily, a mattress manufacturer in eastern China. “I’m creating jobs, generating tax revenue. Why should they bother me?”
In recent years, President Xi has sought to assert the party’s authority inside private firms. He has also bolstered state-owned enterprises with subsidies while preserving barriers to foreign competition. And he has endorsed demands that American companies surrender technology in exchange for market access.
In doing so, he is betting that the Chinese state has changed so much that it should play a leading role in the economy — that it can build and run “national champions” capable of outcompeting the United States for control of the high-tech industries of the future. But he has also provoked a backlash in Washington.
In December, the Communist Party will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the “reform and opening up” policies that transformed China. The triumphant propaganda has already begun, with Mr. Xiputting himself front and center, as if taking a victory lap for the nation.
He is the party’s most powerful leader since Deng and the son of a senior official who served Deng, but even as he wraps himself in Deng’s legacy, Mr. Xi has set himself apart in an important way: Deng encouraged the party to seek help and expertise overseas, but Mr. Xi preaches self-reliance and warns of the threats posed by “hostile foreign forces.”
In other words, he appears to have less use for the “opening up” part of Deng’s slogan.
Of the many risks that the party took in its pursuit of growth, perhaps the biggest was letting in foreign investment, trade and ideas. It was an exceptional gamble by a country once as isolated as North Korea is today, and it paid off in an exceptional way: China tapped into a wave of globalization sweeping the world and emerged as the world’s factory. China’s embrace of the internet, within limits, helped make it a leader in technology. And foreign advice helped China reshape its banks, build a legal system and create modern corporations.
The party prefers a different narrative these days, presenting the economic boom as “grown out of the soil of China” and primarily the result of its leadership. But this obscures one of the great ironies of China’s rise — that Beijing’s former enemies helped make it possible.
President Xi Jinping has shown no sign of abandoning what he calls “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” The observation deck of the Shanghai Tower, the world’s second-tallest building.
A Communist Party Congress. Mr. Xi seems to believe that China has been so successful that the party can return to its authoritarian past.
China tapped into a wave of globalization and emerged as the world’s factory. Advertising for day laborers in Shenzhen.
A fashion design employee at a bridal wear exhibition in Beijing may have taken the opportunity for a break, but no one calls China a sleeping giant anymore.
Installing solar panels on a 47-story residential development. China succeeded by leaving a planned economy intact and allowing a market economy to flourish and outgrow it.
The United States and Japan, both routinely vilified by party propagandists, became major trading partners and were important sources of aid, investment and expertise. The real game changers, though, were people like Tony Lin, a factory manager who made his first trip to the mainland in 1988.
Mr. Lin was born and raised in Taiwan, the self-governing island where those who lost the Chinese civil war fled after the Communist Revolution. As a schoolboy, he was taught that mainland China was the enemy.
But in the late 1980s, the sneaker factory he managed in central Taiwan was having trouble finding workers, and its biggest customer, Nike, suggested moving some production to China. Mr. Lin set aside his fears and made the trip. What he found surprised him: a large and willing work force, and officials so eager for capital and know-how that they offered the use of a state factory free and a five-year break on taxes.
Mr. Lin spent the next decade shuttling to and from southern China, spending months at a time there and returning home only for short breaks to see his wife and children. He built and ran five sneaker factories, including Nike’s largest Chinese supplier.
“China’s policies were tremendous,” he recalled. “They were like a sponge absorbing water, money, technology, everything.”
Mr. Lin was part of a torrent of investment from ethnic Chinese enclaves in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and beyond that washed over China — and gave it a leg up on other developing countries. Without this diaspora, some economists argue, the mainland’s transformation might have stalled at the level of a country like Indonesia or Mexico.
The timing worked out for China, which opened up just as Taiwan was outgrowing its place in the global manufacturing chain. China benefited from Taiwan’s money, but also its managerial experience, technology and relationships with customers around the world. In effect, Taiwan jump-started capitalism in China and plugged it into the global economy.
Before long, the government in Taiwan began to worry about relying so much on its onetime enemy and tried to shift investment elsewhere. But the mainland was too cheap, too close and, with a common language and heritage, too familiar. Mr. Lin tried opening factories in Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia but always came back to China.
Now Taiwan finds itself increasingly dependent on a much more powerful China, which is pushing ever harder for unification, and the island’s future is uncertain.
There are echoes of Taiwan’s predicament around the world, where many are having second thoughts about how they rushed to embrace Beijing with trade and investment.
The remorse may be strongest in the United States, which brought China into the World Trade Organization, became China’s largest customer and now accuses it of large-scale theft of technology — what one official called “the greatest transfer of wealth in history.”
Many in Washington predicted that trade would bring political change. It did, but not in China. “Opening up” ended up strengthening the party’s hold on power rather than weakening it. Theshock of China’s rise as an export colossus, however, was felt in factory towns around the world.
Over lunch at a luxurious private club on the 50th floor of an apartment tower in central Beijing, one of China’s most successful real estate tycoons explained why he had left his job at a government research center after the crackdown on the student-led democracy movement in Tiananmen Square.
“It was very easy,” said Feng Lun, the chairman of Vantone Holdings, which manages a multibillion-dollar portfolio of properties around the world. “One day, I woke up and everyone had run away. So I ran, too.”
Until the soldiers opened fire, he said, he had planned to spend his entire career in the civil service. Instead, as the party was pushing out those who had sympathized with the students, he joined the exodus of officials who started over as entrepreneurs in the 1990s.
“At the time, if you held a meeting and told us to go into business, we wouldn’t have gone,” he recalled. “So this incident, it unintentionally planted seeds in the market economy.”
Such has been the seesaw pattern of the party’s success.
The pro-democracy movement in 1989 was the closest the party ever came to political liberalization after Mao’s death, and the crackdown that followed was the furthest it went in the other direction, toward repression and control. After the massacre, the economy stalled and retrenchment seemed certain. Yet three years later, Deng used a tour of southern China to wrestle the party back to “reform and opening up” once more.
Many who had left the government, like Mr. Feng, suddenly found themselves leading the nation’s transformation from the outside, as its first generation of private entrepreneurs.
Now Mr. Xi is steering the party toward repression again, tightening its grip on society, concentrating power in his own hands and setting himself up to rule for life by abolishing the presidential term limit. Will the party loosen up again, as it did a few years after Tiananmen, or is this a more permanent shift? If it is, what will it mean for the Chinese economic miracle?
The fear is that Mr. Xi is attempting to rewrite the recipe behind China’s rise, replacing selective repression with something more severe.
For decades, China has veered between openness and repression, including of the ethnic Uighur minority.
Since the Tiananmen movement, the government has been vigilant about crushing potential threats. Surveillance cameras in Beijing.
China’s high-speed rail network, the largest in the world, has changed the way its people move. In Hangzhou, passengers waited outside the railway station.
As China opened up, farmers were allowed to grow and sell their own crops, while the state retained ownership of the land. Greenhouses filled with bok choy and yellow cabbage abut investment properties and golf courses.
Under Mao, many educated Chinese were sent to “cadre schools,” where they did manual labor. In May, these real estate agency employees went for a morning run as part of a company team-building exercise.
The internet is an example of how it has benefited by striking a balance. The party let the nation go online with barely an inkling of what that might mean, then reaped the economic benefits while controlling the spread of information that could hurt it.
In 2011, it confronted a crisis. After ahigh-speed train crashin eastern China, more than 30 million messages criticizing the party’s handling of the fatal accident flooded social media — faster than censors could screen them.
Panicked officials considered shutting down the most popular service, Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, but the authorities were afraid of how the public would respond. In the end, they let Weibo stay open but invested much more in tightening controls and ordered companies to do the same.
The compromise worked. Now, many companies assign hundreds of employees to censorship duties — and China has become a giant on the global internet landscape.
“The cost of censorship is quite limited compared to the great value created by the internet,” said Chen Tong, an industry pioneer. “We still get the information we need for economic progress.”
A ‘New Era’
China is not the only country that has squared the demands of authoritarian rule with the needs of free markets. But it has done so for longer, at greater scale and with more convincing results than any other.
The question now is whether it can sustain this model with the United States as an adversary rather than a partner.
The trade war has only just begun. And it is not just a trade war. American warships and planes are challenging Chinese claims to disputed waters with increasing frequency even as China keeps ratcheting up military spending. And Washington is maneuvering to counter Beijing’s growing influence around the world, warning that a Chinese spending spree on global infrastructure comes with strings attached.
The two nations may yet reach some accommodation. But both left and right in America have portrayed China as the champion of an alternative global order, one that embraces autocratic values and undermines fair competition. It is a rare consensus for the United States, which is deeply divided about so much else, including how it has wielded power abroad in recent decades — and how it should do so now.
Mr. Xi, on the other hand, has shown no sign of abandoning what he calls “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Some in his corner have been itching to take on the United States since the 2008 financial crisis and see the Trump administration’s policies as proof of what they have always suspected — that America is determined to keep China down.
At the same time, there is also widespread anxiety over the new acrimony, because the United States has long inspired admiration and envy in China, and because of a gnawing sense that the party’s formula for success may be faltering.
Prosperity has brought rising expectations in China; the public wants more than just economic growth. It wants cleaner air, safer food and medicine, better health care and schools, less corruption and greater equality. The party is struggling to deliver, and tweaks to the report cards it uses to measure the performance of officials hardly seem enough.
“The basic problem is, who is growth for?” said Mr. Xu, the retired official who wrote the Moganshan report. “We haven’t solved this problem.”
Growth has begun to slow, which may be better for the economy in the long term but could shake public confidence. The party is investing ever more in censorship to control discussion of the challenges the nation faces: widening inequality, dangerous debt levels, an aging population.
Mr. Xi himself has acknowledged that the party must adapt, declaring that the nation is entering a “new era” requiring new methods. But his prescription has largely been a throwback to repression, includingvast internment campstargeting Islamic ethnic minorities. “Opening up” has been replaced by an outward push, with huge loans that critics describe as predatory and other efforts to gain influence — or interfere — in the politics of other countries. At home, experimentation is out while political orthodoxy and discipline are in.
In effect, Mr. Xi seems to believe that China has been so successful that the party can return to a more conventional authoritarian posture — and that to survive and surpass the United States it must.
Certainly, the momentum is still with the party. Over the past four decades, economic growth in China has been 10 times faster than in the United States, and it is still more than twice as fast. The party appears to enjoy broad public support, and many around the world are convinced that Mr. Trump’s America is in retreat while China’s moment is just beginning.
Then again, China has a way of defying expectations.
Philip P. Pan is The Times’s Asia Editor and author of “Out of Mao’s Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China.” He has lived in and reported on China for nearly two decades.
Jonathan Ansfield and Keith Bradsher contributed reporting from Beijing. Claire Fu, Zoe Mou and Iris Zhao contributed research from Beijing, and Carolyn Zhang from Shanghai.
Russian figure skating star Elizaveta Tuktamysheva has delighted fans with her racy routines so far this season, but she’s revealed the one thing that for her can beat the highs of performing on the ice.
The 21-year-old former world and European champion opened up about her famous ‘striptease’ exhibition dance and the newfound attention and popularity it has brought her – including some controversial tweets that have got social media tongues wagging.
Tuktamysheva set pulses racing when she won the Skate Canada Grand Prix earlier this season, producing a brilliant performance to seal first before pulling off a gala routine which garnered even more attention.
The performance saw the skater strip off to her bra to the tune of Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’ – which Tuktamysheva says brought new life to the “conservative” world of figure skating.
“It was a breath of fresh air in figure skating because nobody stripped on the ice before me. I see nothing bad in this exhibition dance, on the contrary I think it was a great idea.
“The emphasis in this performance is not focused on showing my lingerie, we wanted to concentrate on my top. In show business much more provocative performances are allowed. I understand that figure skating is a conservative sport, we just wanted to make it a little bit hot (eccentric).”
The figure skater says it was actually her coach’s idea to strip off her jacket during the revealing routine.
“Yes, it was Alexei Mishin’s idea. He is a really wise and prudent coach who keeps pace with the times. He knows quite well what the crowd wants.
“We just wanted to perform ‘Toxic’. He suggested that I take off the jacket during my performance, and foreign fans were crazy about it.”
Tuktamysheva has now earned social media celebrity to go with her figure-skating fame, prompting increased scrutiny over her Twitter posts.
That was evidenced by the reaction when she joked that she would “kick the ass” of US President Donald Trump.
“Of course I knew that my comments would trigger emotional reactions, but I didn’t think about it. It was a mere joke and I just wanted to see how people would react to such kind of remarks. Trump is a bright political figure and I think the joke was quite funny,” she said of the ensuing media frenzy, especially in the Russian press.
The 2015 world and European champion finished first and third respectively at two Grand Prix stages so far this season, and is well aware that her remarkable renaissance has sent her social media following rocketing.
“Twenty-five thousand people have started to follow me on Instagram over the past month as well as several thousand on Twitter,” she said.
“It’s cool. I’m paying a lot of attention to my social media accounts to make my fans feel that I’m not an unreachable star. I want them to know they can communicate with me,” Tuktamysheva said, adding that she largely ignores the haters.
“Yes, I receive many negative comments, especially from women who ask me to put on clothes. I don’t reply to these messages. Some people just like to criticize others,” she says with a sagacity that belies her age.
Tuktamysheva’s openness was made clear by her response when asked to complete the phrase: “The only thing better than figure skating is…”
“Sex,” the skater replied without hesitation, before bursting into laughter.
She is clearly enjoying life and her resurgence in the sport she loves, which has been confirmed by her securing a place in the Grand Prix series final in Canada in December. There is plenty more to watch out for from the charismatic 21-year-old – on and off the ice.
The share of Americans who say sex between unmarried adults is “not wrong at all” is at an all-time high. New cases of HIV are at an all-time low. Most women can—at last—get birth control for free, and the morning-after pill without a prescription.
If hookups are your thing, Grindr and Tinder offer the prospect of casual sex within the hour. The phrase If something exists, there is porn of it used to be a clever internet meme; now it’s a truism. BDSM plays at the local multiplex—but why bother going? Sex is portrayed, often graphically and sometimes gorgeously, on prime-time cable. Sexting is, statistically speaking, normal.
Polyamory is a household word. Shame-laden terms like perversion have given way to cheerful-sounding ones like kink. Anal sex has gone from final taboo to “fifth base”—Teen Vogue (yes, Teen Vogue) even ran a guide to it. With the exception of perhaps incest and bestiality—and of course nonconsensual sex more generally—our culture has never been more tolerant of sex in just about every permutation.
But despite all this, American teenagers and young adults are having less sex.To the relief of many parents, educators, and clergy members who care about the health and well-being of young people, teens are launching their sex lives later. From 1991 to 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey finds, the percentage of high-school students who’d had intercourse dropped from 54 to 40 percent. In other words, in the space of a generation, sex has gone from something most high-school students have experienced to something most haven’t. (And no, they aren’t having oral sex instead—that rate hasn’t changed much.)Meanwhile, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate has plummeted to a third of its modern high. When this decline started, in the 1990s, it was widely and rightly embraced. But now some observers are beginning to wonder whether an unambiguously good thing might have roots in less salubrious developments. Signs are gathering that the delay in teen sex may have been the first indication of a broader withdrawal from physical intimacy that extends well into adulthood.
Over the past few years, Jean M. Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University, has published research exploring how and why Americans’ sex lives may be ebbing. In a series of journal articles and in her latest book, iGen, she notes that today’s young adults are on track to have fewer sex partners than members of the two preceding generations. People now in their early 20s are two and a half times as likely to be abstinent as Gen Xers were at that age; 15 percent report having had no sex since they reached adulthood.
Gen Xers and Baby Boomers may also be having less sex today than previous generations did at the same age. From the late 1990s to 2014, Twenge found, drawing on data from the General Social Survey, the average adult went from having sex 62 times a year to 54 times. A given person might not notice this decrease, but nationally, it adds up to a lot of missing sex. Twenge recently took a look at the latest General Social Survey data, from 2016, and told me that in the two years following her study, sexual frequency fell even further.Some social scientists take issue with aspects of Twenge’s analysis; others say that her data source, although highly regarded, is not ideally suited to sex research. And yet none of the many experts I interviewed for this piece seriously challenged the idea that the average young adult circa 2018 is having less sex than his or her counterparts of decades past. Nor did anyone doubt that this reality is out of step with public perception—most of us still think that other people are having a lot more sex than they actually are.When I called the anthropologist Helen Fisher, who studies love and sex and co-directs Match.com’s annual Singles in America survey of more than 5,000 unpartnered Americans, I could almost feel her nodding over the phone. “The data is that people are having less sex,” she said, with a hint of mischief. “I’m a Baby Boomer, and apparently in my day we were having a lot more sex than they are today!” She went on to explain that the survey has been probing the intimate details of people’s lives for eight years now. “Every year the whole Match company is rather staggered at how little sex Americans are having—including the Millennials.”
Fisher, like many other experts, attributes the sex decline to a decline in couplehood among young people. For a quarter century, fewer people have been marrying, and those who do have been marrying later. At first, many observers figured that the decline in marriage was explained by an increase in unmarried cohabitation—yet the share of people living together hasn’t risen enough to offset the decline in marriage: About 60 percent of adults under age 35 now live without a spouse or a partner. One in three adults in this age range live with their parents, making that the most common living arrangement for the cohort. People who live with a romantic partner tend to have sex more than those who don’t—and living with your parents is obviously bad for your sex life. But this doesn’t explain why young people are partnering up less to begin with.Over the course of many conversations with sex researchers, psychologists, economists, sociologists, therapists, sex educators, and young adults, I heard many other theories about what I have come to think of as the sex recession. I was told it might be a consequence of the hookup culture, of crushing economic pressures, of surging anxiety rates, of psychological frailty, of widespread antidepressant use, of streaming television, of environmental estrogens leaked by plastics, of dropping testosterone levels, of digital porn, of the vibrator’s golden age, of dating apps, of option paralysis, of helicopter parents, of careerism, of smartphones, of the news cycle, of information overload generally, of sleep deprivation, of obesity. Name a modern blight, and someone, somewhere, is ready to blame it for messing with the modern libido.
Some experts I spoke with offered more hopeful explanations for the decline in sex. For example, rates of childhood sexual abuse have decreased in recent decades, and abuse can lead to both precocious and promiscuous sexual behavior. And some people today may feel less pressured into sex they don’t want to have, thanks to changing gender mores and growing awareness of diverse sexual orientations, including asexuality. Maybe more people are prioritizing school or work over love and sex, at least for a time, or maybe they’re simply being extra deliberate in choosing a life partner—and if so, good for them.Many—or all—of these things may be true. In a famous 2007 study, people supplied researchers with 237 distinct reasons for having sex, ranging from mystical (“I wanted to feel closer to God”) to lame (“I wanted to change the topic of conversation”). The number of reasons not to have sex must be at least as high. Still, a handful of suspects came up again and again in my interviews and in the research I reviewed—and each has profound implications for our happiness.
1. Sex for One
The retreat from sex is not an exclusively American phenomenon. Most countries don’t track their citizens’ sex lives closely, but those that try (all of them wealthy) are reporting their own sex delays and declines. One of the most respected sex studies in the world, Britain’s National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, reported in 2001 that people ages 16 to 44 were having sex more than six times a month on average. By 2012, the rate had dropped to fewer than five times. Over roughly the same period, Australians in relationships went from having sex about 1.8 times a week to 1.4 times. Finland’s “Finsex” study found declines in intercourse frequency, along with rising rates of masturbation.
In the Netherlands, the median age at which people first have intercourse rose from 17.1 in 2012 to 18.6 in 2017, and other types of physical contact also got pushed back, even kissing. This news was greeted not with universal relief, as in the United States, but with some concern. The Dutch pride themselves on having some of the world’s highest rates of adolescent and young-adult well-being. If people skip a crucial phase of development, one educator warned—a stage that includes not only flirting and kissing but dealing with heartbreak and disappointment—might they be unprepared for the challenges of adult life?Meanwhile, Sweden, which hadn’t done a national sex study in 20 years, recently launched one, alarmed by polling suggesting that Swedes, too, were having less sex. The country, which has one of the highest birth rates in Europe, is apparently disinclined to risk its fecundity. “If the social conditions for a good sex life—for example through stress or other unhealthy factors—have deteriorated,” the Swedish health minister at the time wrote in an op-ed explaining the rationale for the study, it is “a political problem.”This brings us to fertility-challenged Japan, which is in the midst of a demographic crisis and has become something of a case study in the dangers of sexlessness. In 2005, a third of Japanese single people ages 18 to 34 were virgins; by 2015, 43 percent of people in this age group were, and the share who said they did not intend to get married had risen too. (Not that marriage was any guarantee of sexual frequency: A related survey found that 47 percent of married people hadn’t had sex in at least a month.)
For nearly a decade, stories in the Western press have tied Japan’s sexual funk to a rising generation of soushoku danshi—literally, “grass-eating boys.” These “herbivore men,” as they are known in English, are said to be ambivalent about pursuing either women or conventional success. The new taxonomy of Japanese sexlessness also includes terms for groups such as hikikomori (“shut-ins”), parasaito shinguru (“parasite singles,” people who live with their parents beyond their 20s), and otaku (“obsessive fans,” especially of anime and manga)—all of whom are said to contribute to sekkusu shinai shokogun (“celibacy syndrome”).Early on, most Western accounts of all this had a heavy subtext of “Isn’t Japan wacky?” This tone has slowly given way to a realization that the country’s experience might be less a curiosity than a cautionary tale. Dismal employment prospects played an initial role in driving many men to solitary pursuits—but the culture has since moved to accommodate and even encourage those pursuits. Roland Kelts, a Japanese American writer and longtime Tokyo resident, has described “a generation that found the imperfect or just unexpected demands of real-world relationships with women less enticing than the lure of the virtual libido.”Let’s consider this lure for a moment. Japan is among the world’s top producers and consumers of porn, and the originator of whole new porn genres, such as bukkake (don’t ask). It is also a global leader in the design of high-end sex dolls. What may be more telling, though, is the extent to which Japan is inventing modes of genital stimulation that no longer bother to evoke old-fashioned sex, by which I mean sex involving more than one person. A recent article in The Economist, titled “Japan’s Sex Industry Is Becoming Less Sexual,” described onakura shops, where men pay to masturbate while female employees watch, and explained that because many younger people see the very idea of intercourse as mendokusai—tiresome—“services that make masturbation more enjoyable are booming.”
In their 2015 book, Modern Romance, the sociologist Eric Klinenberg and the comedian Aziz Ansari (who earlier this year became infamous for a hookup gone awry) describe Ansari’s visit to Japan seeking insights into the future of sex. He concluded that much of what he’d read about herbivore men missed the mark. Herbivores, he found, were “interested in sexual pleasure”—just not “through traditional routes.” Among Japan’s more popular recent innovations, he notes, is “a single-use silicone egg that men fill with lubricant and masturbate inside.” One night in Tokyo, Ansari picks one up at a convenience store, heads back to his hotel, and—sorry for the visual—gives it a go. He finds it cold and awkward, but understands its purpose. “It was a way,” he writes, “to avoid putting yourself out there and having an actual experience with another person.”
From 1992 to 2014, the share of American men who reported masturbating in a given week doubled, to 54 percent, and the share of women more than tripled, to 26 percent. Easy access to porn is part of the story, of course; in 2014, 43 percent of men said they’d watched porn in the past week. The vibrator figures in, too—a major study 10 years ago found that just over half of adult women had used one, and by all indications it has only grown in popularity. (Makes, models, and features have definitely proliferated. If you don’t know your Fun Factory Bi Stronic Fusion pulsator from your Power Toyfriend, you can find them on Amazon, which has these and some 10,000 other options.)
This shift is particularly striking when you consider that Western civilization has had a major hang-up about masturbation going back at least as far as Onan. As Robert T. Michael and his co-authors recount in Sex in America, J. H. Kellogg, the cereal maker, urged American parents of the late 19th century to take extreme measures to keep their children from indulging, including circumcision without anesthetic and application of carbolic acid to the clitoris. Thanks in part to his message, masturbation remained taboo well into the 20th century. By the 1990s, when Michael’s book came out, references to masturbation were still greeted with “nervous titters or with shock and disgust,” despite the fact that the behavior was commonplace.Today, masturbation is even more common, and fears about its effects—now paired with concerns about digital porn’s ubiquity—are being raised anew by a strange assortment of people, including the psychologist Philip Zimbardo, the director of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, who is enjoying an unlikely second act as an antiporn activist. In his book Man, Interrupted, Zimbardo warns that “procrasturbation”—his unfortunate portmanteau for procrastination via masturbation—may be leading young men to fail academically, socially, and sexually. Gary Wilson, an Oregon man who runs a website called Your Brain on Porn, makes a similar claim. In a popular tedx talk, which features animal copulation as well as many (human) brain scans, Wilson argues that masturbating to internet porn is addictive, causes structural changes in the brain, and is producing an epidemic of erectile dysfunction.
These messages are echoed and amplified by a Salt Lake City–based nonprofit called Fight the New Drug—the “drug” being porn—which has delivered hundreds of presentations to schools and other organizations around the country, including, this spring, the Kansas City Royals. The website NoFap, an offshoot of a popular Reddit message board founded by a now-retired Google contractor, provides community members (“fapstronauts”) a program to quit “fapping”—masturbating. Further outside the mainstream, the far-right Proud Boys group has a “no wanks” policy, which prohibits masturbating more than once a month. The group’s founder, Gavin McInnes, who also co-founded Vice Media, has said that pornography and masturbation are making Millennials “not even want to pursue relationships.”The truth appears more complicated. There is scant evidence of an epidemic of erectile dysfunction among young men. And no researcher I spoke with had seen compelling evidence that porn is addictive. As the authors of a recent review of porn research note in The Archives of Sexual Behavior, “The notion of problematic pornography use remains contentious in both academic and popular literature,” while “the mental health community at large is divided as to the addictive versus non-addictive nature of Internet pornography.”This isn’t to say there’s no correlation between porn use and desire for real-life sex. Ian Kerner, a well-known New York sex therapist and the author of several popular books about sex, told me that while he doesn’t see porn use as unhealthy (he recommends certain types of porn to some patients), he works with a lot of men who, inspired by porn, “are still masturbating like they’re 17,” to the detriment of their sex life. “It’s taking the edge off their desire,” he said. Kerner believes this is why more and more of the women coming to his office in recent years report that they want sex more than their partners do.
In reporting this story, I spoke and corresponded with dozens of 20- and early-30-somethings in hopes of better understanding the sex recession. I can’t know that they were representative, though I did seek out people with a range of experiences. I talked with some who had never had a romantic or sexual relationship, and others who were wildly in love or had busy sex lives or both. Sex may be declining, but most people are still having it—even during an economic recession, most people are employed.
The recession metaphor is imperfect, of course. Most people need jobs; that’s not the case with relationships and sex. I talked with plenty of people who were single and celibate by choice. Even so, I was amazed by how many 20-somethings were deeply unhappy with the sex-and-dating landscape; over and over, people asked me whether things had always been this hard. Despite the diversity of their stories, certain themes emerged.
One recurring theme, predictably enough, was porn. Less expected, perhaps, was the extent to which many people saw their porn life and their sex life as entirely separate things. The wall between the two was not absolute; for one thing, many straight women told me that learning about sex from porn seemed to have given some men dismaying sexual habits. (We’ll get to that later.) But by and large, the two things—partnered sex and solitary porn viewing—existed on separate planes. “My porn taste and partner taste are quite different,” one man in his early 30s told me, explaining that he watches porn about once a week and doesn’t think it has much effect on his sex life. “I watch it knowing it is fiction,” a 22-year-old woman said, adding that she didn’t “internalize” it.
I thought of these comments when Pornhub, the top pornography website, released its list of 2017’s most popular searches. In first place, for the third year running, was lesbian (a category beloved by men and women alike). The new runner-up, however, was hentai—anime, manga, and other animated porn. Porn has never been like real sex, of course, but hentai is not even of this world; unreality is the source of its appeal. In a New York–magazine cover story on porn preferences, Maureen O’Connor described the ways hentai transmogrifies body parts (“eyes bigger than feet, breasts the size of heads, penises thicker than waists”) and eroticizes the supernatural (“sexy human shapes” combine with “candy-colored fur and animal horns, ears, and tails”). In other words, the leading search category for porn involves sex that half the population doesn’t have the equipment to engage in, and the runner-up isn’t carnal so much as hallucinatory.Many of the younger people I talked with see porn as just one more digital activity—a way of relieving stress, a diversion. It is related to their sex life (or lack thereof) in much the same way social media and binge-watching TV are. As one 24-year-old man emailed me:
The internet has made it so easy to gratify basic social and sexual needs that there’s far less incentive to go out into the “meatworld” and chase those things. This isn’t to say that the internet can give you more satisfaction than sex or relationships, because it doesn’t … [But it can] supply you with just enough satisfaction to placate those imperatives … I think it’s healthy to ask yourself: “If I didn’t have any of this, would I be going out more? Would I be having sex more?” For a lot of people my age, I think the answer is probably yes.
Even people in relationships told me that their digital life seemed to be vying with their sex life. “We’d probably have a lot more sex,” one woman noted, “if we didn’t get home and turn on the TV and start scrolling through our phones.” This seems to defy logic; our hunger for sex is supposed to be primal. Who would pick messing around online over actual messing around?
Teenagers, for one. An intriguing study published last year in the Journal of Population Economics examined the introduction of broadband internet access at the county-by-county level, and found that its arrival explained 7 to 13 percent of the teen-birth-rate decline from 1999 to 2007.Maybe adolescents are not the hormone-crazed maniacs we sometimes make them out to be. Maybe the human sex drive is more fragile than we thought, and more easily stalled.
2. Hookup Culture and Helicopter Parents
I started high school in 1992, around the time the teen pregnancy and birth rates hit their highest levels in decades, and the median age at which teenagers began having sex was approaching its modern low of 16.9. Women born in 1978, the year I was born, have a dubious honor: We were younger when we started having sex than any group since.
But as the ’90s continued, the teen pregnancy rate began to decline. This development was welcomed—even if experts couldn’t agree on why it was happening. Birth-control advocates naturally pointed to birth control. And yes, teenagers were getting better about using contraceptives, but not sufficiently better to single-handedly explain the change. Christian pro-abstinence groups and backers of abstinence-only education, which received a big funding boost from the 1996 welfare-reform act, also tried to take credit. Yet the teen pregnancy rate was falling even in places that hadn’t adopted abstinence-only curricula, and research has since shown that virginity pledges and abstinence-only education don’t actually beget abstinence.
Still, the trend continued: Each wave of teenagers had sex a little later, and the pregnancy rate kept inching down. You wouldn’t have known either of these things, though, from all the hyperventilating about hookup culture that started in the late ’90s. The New York Times, for example, announced in 1997 that on college campuses, casual sex “seems to be near an all-time high.” It didn’t offer much data to support this, but it did introduce the paper’s readers to the term hooking up, which it defined as “anything from 20 minutes of strenuous kissing to spending the night together fully clothed to sexual intercourse.”Pretty much ever since, people have been overestimating how much casual sex high-school and college students are having (even, surveys show, students themselves). In the past several years, however, a number of studies and books on hookup culture have begun to correct the record. One of the most thoughtful of these is American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus, by Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Occidental College. The book draws on detailed journals kept by students at two liberal-arts colleges from 2010 to 2015, as well as on Wade’s conversations with students at 24 other colleges and universities.Wade sorts the students she followed into three groups. Roughly one-third were what she calls “abstainers”—they opted out of hookup culture entirely. A little more than a third were “dabblers”—they hooked up sometimes, but ambivalently. Less than a quarter were “enthusiasts,” who delighted in hooking up. The remainder were in long-term relationships.
This portrait is compatible with a 2014 study finding that Millennial college students weren’t having more sex or sexual partners than their Gen X predecessors. It also tracks with data from the Online College Social Life Survey, a survey of more than 20,000 college students that was conducted from 2005 to 2011, which found the median number of hookups over a four-year college career to be five—a third of which involved only kissing and touching. The majority of students surveyed said they wished they had more opportunities to find a long-term boyfriend or girlfriend.When I spoke with Wade recently, she told me that she found the sex decline among teens and 20-somethings completely unsurprising—young people, she said, have always been most likely to have sex in the context of a relationship. “Go back to the point in history where premarital sex became more of a thing, and the conditions that led to it,” she said, referring to how post–World War II anxiety about a man shortage led teen girls in the late 1940s and ’50s to pursue more serious romantic relationships than had been customary before the war. “Young women, at that point, innovate ‘going steady,’ ” Wade said, adding that parents were not entirely happy about the shift away from prewar courtship, which had favored casual, nonexclusive dating. “If you [go out with someone for] one night you might get up to a little bit of necking and petting, but what happens when you spend months with them? It turns out 1957 has the highest rate of teen births in American history.”
In more recent decades, by contrast, teen romantic relationships appear to have grown less common. In 1995, the large longitudinal study known as “Add Health” found that 66 percent of 17-year-old men and 74 percent of 17-year-old women had experienced “a special romantic relationship” in the past 18 months. In 2014, when the Pew Research Center asked 17-year-olds whether they had “ever dated, hooked up with or otherwise had a romantic relationship with another person”—seemingly a broader category than the earlier one—only 46 percent said yes.
So what thwarted teen romance? Adolescence has changed so much in the past 25 years that it’s hard to know where to start. As Jean Twenge wrote in The Atlantic last year, the percentage of teens who report going on dates has decreased alongside the percentage who report other activities associated with entering adulthood, like drinking alcohol, working for pay, going out without one’s parents, and getting a driver’s license.These shifts coincide with another major change: parents’ increased anxiety about their children’s educational and economic prospects. Among the affluent and educated, especially, this anxiety has led to big changes in what’s expected of teens. “It’s hard to work in sex when the baseball team practices at 6:30, school starts at 8:15, drama club meets at 4:15, the soup kitchen starts serving at 6, and, oh yeah, your screenplay needs completion,” said a man who was a couple of years out of college, thinking back on his high-school years. He added: “There’s immense pressure” from parents and other authority figures “to focus on the self, at the expense of relationships”—pressure, quite a few 20-somethings told me, that extends right on through college.Malcolm Harris strikes a similar note in his book, Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. Addressing the desexing of the American teenager, he writes:
A decline in unsupervised free time probably contributes a lot. At a basic level, sex at its best is unstructured play with friends, a category of experience that … time diaries … tell us has been decreasing for American adolescents. It takes idle hands to get past first base, and today’s kids have a lot to do.
Marriage 101, one of the most popular undergraduate classes at Northwestern University, was launched in 2001 by William M. Pinsof, a founding father of couples therapy, and Arthur Nielsen, a psychiatry professor. What if you could teach about love, sex, and marriage before people chose a partner, Pinsof and Nielsen wondered—before they developed bad habits? The class was meant to be a sort of preemptive strike against unhappy marriages. Under Alexandra Solomon, the psychology professor who took over the course six years ago, it has become, secondarily, a strike against what she sees as the romantic and sexual stunting of a generation. She assigns students to ask someone else out on a date, for example, something many have never done.
This hasn’t hurt the class’s appeal; during registration, it fills within minutes. (It may or may not have helped that a course with overlapping appeal, Human Sexuality, was discontinued some years back after its professor presided over a demonstration of something called a fucksaw.) Each week during office hours, students wait in line to talk with Solomon, who is also a practicing therapist at the university’s Family Institute, not only about the class but about their love woes and everything they don’t know about healthy and pleasurable sex—which, in many cases, is a lot.Over the course of numerous conversations, Solomon has come to various conclusions about hookup culture, or what might more accurately be described as lack-of-relationship culture. For one thing, she believes it is both a cause and an effect of social stunting. Or, as one of her students put it to her: “We hook up because we have no social skills. We have no social skills because we hook up.” For another, insofar as her students find themselves choosing between casual sex and no sex, they are doing so because an obvious third option—relationship sex—strikes many of them as not only unattainable but potentially irresponsible. Most Marriage 101 students have had at least one romantic relationship over the course of their college career; the class naturally attracts relationship-oriented students, she points out. Nonetheless, she believes that many students have absorbed the idea that love is secondary to academic and professional success—or, at any rate, is best delayed until those other things have been secured. “Over and over,” she has written, “my undergraduates tell me they try hard not to fall in love during college, imagining that would mess up their plans.”
One Friday afternoon in March, I sat in on a discussion Solomon was hosting for a group of predominantly female graduate students in the Family Institute’s counseling programs, on the challenges of love and sex circa 2018. Over rosé and brownies, students shared thoughts on topics ranging from Aziz Ansari’s notorious date (which had recently been detailed on the website Babe) to the ambiguities of current relationship terminology. “People will be like, ‘We’re dating, we’re exclusive, but we’re not boyfriend and girlfriend.’ What does that mean?” one young woman asked, exasperated. A classmate nodded emphatically. “What does that mean? We’re in a monogamous relationship, but …” She trailed off. Solomon jumped in with a sort of relationship litmus test: “If I get the flu, are you bringing me soup?” Around the conference table, heads shook; not many people were getting (or giving) soup.The conversation proceeded to why soup-bringing relationships weren’t more common. “You’re supposed to have so much before you can get into a relationship,” one woman offered. Another said that when she was in high school, her parents, who are both professionals with advanced degrees, had discouraged relationships on the grounds that they might diminish her focus. Even today, in graduate school, she was finding the attitude hard to shake. “Now I need to finish school, I need to get a practice going, I need to do this and this, and then I’ll think about love. But by 30, you’re like, What is love? What’s it like to be in love?”
In early May, I returned to Northwestern to sit in on a Marriage 101 discussion section. I had picked that particular week because the designated topic, “Sex in Intimate Relationships,” seemed relevant. As it happened, though, there wasn’t much talk of sex; the session was mostly consumed by a rapturous conversation about the students’ experiences with something called the “mentor couple” assignment, which had involved interviewing a couple in the community and chronicling their relationship.
“To see a relationship where two people are utterly content and committed,” one woman said, with real conviction, “it’s kind of an aha moment for me.” Another student spoke disbelievingly of her couple’s pre-smartphone courtship. “I couldn’t necessarily relate to it,” she said. “They met, they got each other’s email addresses, they emailed one another, they went on a first date, they knew that they were going to be together. They never had a ‘define the relationship’ moment, because both were on the same page. I was just like, Damn, is that what it’s supposed to be like?” About two-thirds of the way through the allotted discussion time, one of the teaching assistants finally interrupted. “Should we transition?” she asked, tentatively. “I wanted to transition to talk about sex. Which is the topic of this week.”
3. The Tinder Mirage
Simon, a 32-year-old grad student who describes himself as short and balding (“If I wasn’t funny,” he says, “I’d be doomed”), didn’t lack for sex in college. (The names of people who talked with me about their personal lives have been changed.) “I’m outgoing and like to talk, but I am at heart a significant nerd,” he told me when we spoke recently. “I was so happy that college had nerdy women. That was a delight.” Shortly before graduation, he started a relationship that lasted for seven years. When he and his girlfriend broke up, in 2014, he felt like he’d stepped out of a time machine.
Before the relationship, Tinder didn’t exist; nor did iPhones. Simon wasn’t particularly eager to get into another serious relationship right away, but he wanted to have sex. “My first instinct was go to bars,” he said. But each time he went to one, he struck out. He couldn’t escape the sense that hitting on someone in person had, in a short period of time, gone from normal behavior to borderline creepy. His friends set up a Tinder account for him; later, he signed up for Bumble, Match, OkCupid, and Coffee Meets Bagel.
He had better luck with Tinder than the other apps, but it was hardly efficient. He figures he swiped right—indicating that he was interested—up to 30 times for every woman who also swiped right on him, thereby triggering a match. But matching was only the beginning; then it was time to start messaging. “I was up to over 10 messages sent for a single message received,” he said. In other words: Nine out of 10 women who matched with Simon after swiping right on him didn’t go on to exchange messages with him. This means that for every 300 women he swiped right on, he had a conversation with just one.
At least among people who don’t use dating apps, the perception exists that they facilitate casual sex with unprecedented efficiency. In reality, unless you are exceptionally good-looking, the thing online dating may be best at is sucking up large amounts of time. As of 2014, when Tinder last released such data, the average user logged in 11 times a day. Men spent 7.2 minutes per session and women spent 8.5 minutes, for a total of about an hour and a half a day. Yet they didn’t get much in return. Today, the company says it logs 1.6 billion swipes a day, and just 26 million matches. And, if Simon’s experience is any indication, the overwhelming majority of matches don’t lead to so much as a two-way text exchange, much less a date, much less sex.
When I talked with Simon, he was seven months into a relationship with a new girlfriend, whom he’d met through another online-dating service. He liked her, and was happy to be on hiatus from Tinder. “It’s like howling into the void for most guys,” he explained, “and like searching for a diamond in a sea of dick pics for most girls.”So why do people continue to use dating apps? Why not boycott them all? Simon said meeting someone offline seemed like less and less of an option. His parents had met in a chorus a few years after college, but he couldn’t see himself pulling off something similar. “I play volleyball,” he added. “I had somebody on the volleyball team two years ago who I thought was cute, and we’d been playing together for a while.” Simon wanted to ask her out, but ultimately concluded that this would be “incredibly awkward,” even “boorish.”At first, I wondered whether Simon was being overly genteel, or a little paranoid. But the more people I talked with, the more I came to believe that he was simply describing an emerging cultural reality. “No one approaches anyone in public anymore,” said a teacher in Northern Virginia. “The dating landscape has changed. People are less likely to ask you out in real life now, or even talk to begin with,” said a 28-year-old woman in Los Angeles who volunteered that she had been single for three years.
This shift seems to be accelerating amid the national reckoning with sexual assault and harassment, and a concomitant shifting of boundaries. According to a November 2017 Economist/YouGov poll, 17 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 now believe that a man inviting a woman out for a drink “always” or “usually” constitutes sexual harassment. (Among older groups, much smaller percentages believe this.)
Laurie Mintz, who teaches a popular undergraduate class on the psychology of sexuality at the University of Florida, told me that the #MeToo movement has made her students much more aware of issues surrounding consent. She has heard from many young men who are productively reexamining their past actions and working diligently to learn from the experiences of friends and partners. But others have described less healthy reactions, like avoiding romantic overtures for fear that they might be unwelcome. In my own conversations, men and women alike spoke of a new tentativeness and hesitancy. One woman who described herself as a passionate feminist said she felt empathy for the pressure that heterosexual dating puts on men. “I think I owe it to them, in this current cultural moment particularly, to try to treat them like they’re human beings taking a risk talking to a stranger,” she wrote me. “There are a lot of lonely, confused people out there, who have no idea what to do or how to date.”
I mentioned to several of the people I interviewed for this piece that I’d met my husband in an elevator, in 2001. (We worked on different floors of the same institution, and over the months that followed struck up many more conversations—in the elevator, in the break room, on the walk to the subway.) I was fascinated by the extent to which this prompted other women to sigh and say that they’d just love to meet someone that way. And yet quite a few of them suggested that if a random guy started talking to them in an elevator, they would be weirded out. “Creeper! Get away from me,” one woman imagined thinking. “Anytime we’re in silence, we look at our phones,” explained her friend, nodding. Another woman fantasized to me about what it would be like to have a man hit on her in a bookstore. (She’d be holding a copy of her favorite book. “What’s that book?” he’d say.) But then she seemed to snap out of her reverie, and changed the subject to Sex and the City reruns and how hopelessly dated they seem. “Miranda meets Steve at a bar,” she said, in a tone suggesting that the scenario might as well be out of a Jane Austen novel, for all the relevance it had to her life.
Video: The Sex Drought
How could various dating apps be so inefficient at their ostensible purpose—hooking people up—and still be so popular? For one thing, lots of people appear to be using them as a diversion, with limited expectations of meeting up in person. As Iris, who’s 33, told me bitterly, “They’ve gamified interaction. The majority of men on Tinder just swipe right on everybody. They say yes, yes, yes to every woman.”
Stories from other app users bear out the idea of apps as diversions rather than matchmakers. “Getting right-swiped is a good ego boost even if I have no intention of meeting someone,” one man told me. A 28-year-old woman said that she persisted in using dating apps even though she had been abstinent for three years, a fact she attributed to depression and low libido: “I don’t have much inclination to date someone.”
“After a while it just feels exactly the same as getting good at a bubble-popping game. I’m happy to be good at it, but what am I really achieving?” said an app user who described herself as abstinent by choice. Another woman wrote that she was “too lazy” to meet people, adding: “I usually download dating apps on a Tuesday when I’m bored, watching TV … I don’t try very hard.” Yet another woman said that she used an app, but only “after two glasses of white wine—then I promptly delete it after two hours of fruitless swiping.”
Many critiques of online dating, including a 2013 article by Dan Slater in The Atlantic, adapted from his book A Million First Dates, have focused on the idea that too many options can lead to “choice overload,” which in turn leads to dissatisfaction. Online daters, he argued, might be tempted to keep going back for experiences with new people; commitment and marriage might suffer. Michael Rosenfeld, a sociologist who runs a longitudinal study out of Stanford called “How Couples Meet and Stay Together,” questions this hypothesis; his research finds that couples who meet online tend to marry more quickly than other couples, a fact that hardly suggests indecision.
Maybe choice overload applies a little differently than Slater imagined. Maybe the problem is not the people who date and date some more—they might even get married, if Rosenfeld is right—but those who are so daunted that they don’t make it off the couch. This idea came up many times in my conversations with people who described sex and dating lives that had gone into a deep freeze. Some used the term paradox of choice; others referred to option paralysis (a term popularized by Black Mirror); still others invoked fobo (“fear of a better option”).
And yet online dating continues to attract users, in part because many people consider apps less stressful than the alternatives. Lisa Wade suspects that graduates of high-school or college hookup culture may welcome the fact that online dating takes some of the ambiguity out of pairing up (We’ve each opted in; I’m at least a little bit interested in you). The first time my husband and I met up outside work, neither of us was sure whether it was a date. When you find someone via an app, there’s less uncertainty.
As a 27-year-old woman in Philadelphia put it: “I have insecurities that make fun bar flirtation very stressful. I don’t like the Is he into me? moment. I use dating apps because I want it to be clear that this is a date and we are sexually interested in one another. If it doesn’t work out, fine, but there’s never a Is he asking me to hang as a friend or as a date? feeling.” Other people said they liked the fact that on an app, their first exchanges with a prospective date could play out via text rather than in a face-to-face or phone conversation, which had more potential to be awkward.
Anna, who graduated from college three years ago, told me that in school, she struggled to “read” people. Dating apps have been a helpful crutch. “There’s just no ambiguity,” she explained. “This person is interested in me to some extent.” The problem is that the more Anna uses apps, the less she can imagine getting along without them. “I never really learned how to meet people in real life,” she said. She then proceeded to tell me about a guy she knew slightly from college, whom she’d recently bumped into a few times. She found him attractive and wanted to register her interest, but wasn’t sure how to do that outside the context of a college party. Then she remembered that she’d seen his profile on Tinder. “Maybe next time I sign in,” she said, musing aloud, “I’ll just swipe right so I don’t have to do this awkward thing and get rejected.”
Apart from helping people avoid the potential embarrassments (if also, maybe, the exhilaration) of old-fashioned flirting, apps are quite useful to those who are in what economists call “thin markets”—markets with a relatively low number of participants. Sexual minorities, for example, tend to use online dating services at much higher rates than do straight people. (Michael Rosenfeld—whose survey deliberately oversampled gays and lesbians in an effort to compensate for the dearth of research on their dating experiences—finds that “unpartnered gay men and unpartnered lesbians seem to have substantially more active dating lives than do heterosexuals,” a fact he attributes partly to their successful use of apps. This disparity raises the possibility that the sex recession may be a mostly heterosexual phenomenon.)
In all dating markets, apps appear to be most helpful to the highly photogenic. As Emma, a 26-year-old virgin who sporadically tries her luck with online dating, glumly told me, “Dating apps make it easy for hot people—who already have the easiest time.” Christian Rudder, a co-founder of OkCupid (one of the less appearance-centric dating services, in that it encourages detailed written profiles), reported in 2009 that the male users who were rated most physically attractive by female users got 11 times as many messages as the lowest-rated men did; medium-rated men received about four times as many messages. The disparity was starker for women: About two-thirds of messages went to the one-third of women who were rated most physically attractive. A more recent study by researchers at the University of Michigan and the Santa Fe Institute found that online daters of both genders tend to pursue prospective mates who are on average 25 percent more desirable than they are—presumably not a winning strategy.
So where does this leave us? Many online daters spend large amounts of time pursuing people who are out of their league. Few of their messages are returned, and even fewer lead to in-person contact. At best, the experience is apt to be bewildering (Why are all these people swiping right on me, then failing to follow through?). But it can also be undermining, even painful. Emma is, by her own description, fat. She is not ashamed of her appearance, and purposefully includes several full-body photos in her dating profiles. Nevertheless, men persist in swiping right on her profile only to taunt her—when I spoke with her, one guy had recently ended a text exchange by sending her a gif of an overweight woman on a treadmill.
An even bigger problem may be the extent to which romantic pursuit is now being cordoned off into a predictable, prearranged online venue, the very existence of which makes it harder for anyone, even those not using the apps, to extend an overture in person without seeming inappropriate. What a miserable impasse.
4. Bad Sex (Painfully Bad)
One especially springlike morning in May, as Debby Herbenick and I walked her baby through a park in Bloomington, Indiana, she shared a bit of advice she sometimes offers students at Indiana University, where she is a leading sex researcher. “If you’re with somebody for the first time,” she said evenly, “don’t choke them, don’t ejaculate on their face, don’t try to have anal sex with them. These are all things that are just unlikely to go over well.”
I’d sought out Herbenick in part because I was intrigued by an article she’d written for TheWashington Post proposing that the sex decline might have a silver lining. Herbenick had asked whether we might be seeing, among other things, a retreat from coercive or otherwise unwanted sex. Just a few decades ago, after all, marital rape was still legal in many states. As she pushed her daughter’s stroller, she elaborated on the idea that some of the sex recession’s causes could be a healthy reaction to bad sex—a subset of people “not having sex that they don’t want to have anymore. People feeling more empowered to say ‘No thanks.’ ”
Bloomington is the unofficial capital of American sex research, a status that dates back to the 1940s, when the Indiana University biologist Alfred Kinsey’s pioneering sex surveys inaugurated the field. It retains its standing thanks partly to the productivity of its scientists, and partly to the paucity of sex research at other institutions. In 2009, Herbenick and her colleagues launched the ongoing National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior, which is only the second nationally representative survey to examine Americans’ sex lives in detail—and the first to try to chart them over time. (The previous national survey, out of the University of Chicago, was conducted just once, in 1992. Most other sex research, including Kinsey’s, has used what are known as convenience samples, which don’t represent the population at large. The long-running General Social Survey, which much of Jean Twenge’s research is based upon, is nationally representative, but poses only a few questions about sex.)
I asked Herbenick whether the NSSHB’s findings gave her any hunches about what might have changed since the 1990s. She mentioned the new popularity of sex toys, and a surge in heterosexual anal sex. Back in 1992, the big University of Chicago survey reported that 20 percent of women in their late 20s had tried anal sex; in 2012, the NSSHB found a rate twice that. She also told me about new data suggesting that, compared with previous generations, young people today are more likely to engage in sexual behaviors prevalent in porn, like the ones she warns her students against springing on a partner. All of this might be scaring some people off, she thought, and contributing to the sex decline.
“If you are a young woman,” she added, glancing down at her daughter, “and you’re having sex and somebody tries to choke you, I just don’t know if you’d want to go back for more right away.”
Some of Herbenick’s most sobering research concerns the prevalence of painful sex. In 2012, 30 percent of women said they’d experienced pain the last time they’d had vaginal intercourse; during anal intercourse, 72 percent had. Whether or not these rates represent an increase (we have no basis for comparison), they are troublingly high. Moreover, most women don’t tell their partners about their pain. J. Dennis Fortenberry, the chief of adolescent medicine at Indiana University’s medical school and a co-leader of the NSSHB, believes that many girls and women have internalized the idea that physical discomfort goes with being female.
A particularly vivid illustration of this comes from Lucia O’Sullivan, a University of New Brunswick psychology professor who has published research documenting high rates of sexual dysfunction among adolescents and young adults. That work grew out of a lunch several years ago with a physician from the university’s student-health center, who told O’Sullivan that she was deeply concerned by all the vulvar fissures she and her colleagues were seeing in their student patients. These women weren’t reporting rape, but the condition of their genitals showed that they were enduring intercourse that was, literally, undesired. “They were having sex they didn’t want, weren’t aroused by,” O’Sullivan says. The physician told her that the standard of care was to hand the women K‑Y Jelly and send them on their way.
Painful sex is not new, but there’s reason to think that porn may be contributing to some particularly unpleasant early sexual experiences. Studies show that, in the absence of high-quality sex education, teen boys look to porn for help understanding sex—anal sex and other acts women can find painful are ubiquitous in mainstream porn. (This isn’t to say that anal sex has to be painful, but rather that the version most women are experiencing is.) In a series of in-depth interviews, Cicely Marston of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that teenage boys experimenting with anal sex—perhaps influenced by what they’ve seen in porn—may find that sudden, unlubricated penetration is more difficult than it looks, and more agonizing for the recipient. Some of her subjects appear to have pressured their partner; others seem to have resorted to what another researcher described to me, clinically, as “nonconsensual substitution of anal for vaginal sex.”
In my interviews with young women, I heard too many iterations to count of “he did something I didn’t like that I later learned is a staple in porn,” choking being one widely cited example. Outside of porn, some people do enjoy what’s known as erotic asphyxiation—they say restricting oxygen to the brain can make for more intense orgasms—but it is dangerous and ranks high on the list of things you shouldn’t do to someone unless asked to. Tess, a 31-year-old woman in San Francisco, mentioned that her past few sexual experiences had been with slightly younger men. “I’ve noticed that they tend to go for choking without prior discussion,” she said. Anna, the woman who described how dating apps could avert awkwardness, told me she’d been choked so many times that at first, she figured it was normal. “A lot of people don’t realize you have to ask,” she said.
As Marina Adshade, a professor at the University of British Columbia who studies the economics of sex and love, said to me, “Men have bad sex and good sex. But when sex is bad for women, it’s really, really bad. If women are avoiding sex, are they trying to avoid the really bad sex?”
Sex takes time to learn under the best of circumstances, and these are not the best of circumstances. Modeling your behavior after what you’ve seen on-screen can lead to what’s known as “spectatoring”—that is, worrying about how you look and sound while you’re having sex, a behavior the sex researchers William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson long ago posited was bad for sexual functioning. Some young women told me they felt pressured to emulate porn actresses—and to achieve orgasm from penetration alone, which most women can’t do. “It took me a while to be comfortable with the fact that I don’t have to be as vocal during sex as the girls seem to be in porn,” a 24-year-old woman in Boston said. A 31-year-old in Phoenix explained that in her experience, porn has made men “expect that they can make any woman orgasm by just pounding away.”
Learning sex in the context of one-off hookups isn’t helping either. Research suggests that, for most people, casual sex tends to be less physically pleasurable than sex with a regular partner. Paula England, a sociologist at NYU who has studied hookup culture extensively, attributes this partly to the importance of “partner-specific sexual skills”—that is, knowing what your partner likes. For women, especially, this varies greatly. One study found that while hooking up with a new partner, only 31 percent of men and 11 percent of women reached orgasm. (By contrast, when people were asked about their most recent sexual encounter in the context of a relationship, 84 percent of men and 67 percent of women said they’d had an orgasm.) Other studies have returned similar results. Of course, many people enjoy encounters that don’t involve orgasms—a third of hookups don’t include acts that could reasonably be expected to lead to one—but the difference between the two contexts is striking. If young people are delaying serious relationships until later in adulthood, more and more of them may be left without any knowledge of what good sex really feels like.
As I was reporting this piece, quite a few people told me that they were taking a break from sex and dating. This tracks with research by Lucia O’Sullivan, who finds that even after young adults’ sex lives start up, they are often paused for long periods of time. Some people told me of sexual and romantic dormancy triggered by assault or depression; others talked about the decision to abstain as if they were taking a sabbatical from an unfulfilling job.
Late one afternoon in February, I met up with Iris, the woman who remarked to me that Tinder had been “gamified,” at the Lemon Collective, a design studio and workshop space in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The collective hosts DIY and design classes as well as courses geared toward the wellness of Millennial women; Valentine’s Day had been celebrated with a wildly oversubscribed real-estate workshop called “House Before Spouse.” (“We don’t need partners to be financially savvy and create personal wealth,” the event’s description said. “Wine and cheese will be served, obviously.”)
As we chatted (over, obviously, wine), Iris despaired at the quality of her recent sexual interactions. “I had such bad sex yesterday, my God, it was so bad,” she said wearily. “He basically got it in and—” She banged a fist against her palm at a furious tempo. It was the first time she’d slept with this man, whom she had met on Tinder, and she wondered aloud whether she could coach him. She was doubtful, though; he was in his 30s—old enough, she thought, to know better.
Iris observed that her female friends, who were mostly single, were finding more and more value in their friendships. “I’m 33, I’ve been dating forever, and, you know, women are better,” she said. “They’re just better.” She hastened to add that men weren’t bad; in fact, she hated how anti-male the conversations around her had grown. Still, she and various platonic female friends—most of whom identified as straight—were starting to play roles in one another’s lives that they might not be playing if they had fulfilling romantic or sexual relationships. For instance, they’d started trading lesbian-porn recommendations, and were getting to know one another’s preferences pretty well. Several women also had a text chain going in which they exchanged nude photos of themselves. “It’s nothing but positivity,” she said, describing the complimentary texts they’d send one another in reply to a photo (“Damn, girl, your tits!”). She wasn’t ready to swear off men entirely. But, she said, “I want good sex.” Or at least, she added, “pretty good sex.”
“Millennials don’t like to get naked—if you go to the gym now, everyone under 30 will put their underwear on under the towel, which is a massive cultural shift,” Jonah Disend, the founder of the branding consultancy Redscout, told Bloomberg last year. He said that designs for master-bedroom suites were evolving for much the same reason: “They want their own changing rooms and bathrooms, even in a couple.” The article concluded that however “digitally nonchalant” Millennials might seem—an allusion, maybe, to sexting—“they’re prudish in person.” Fitness facilities across the country are said to be renovating locker rooms in response to the demands of younger clients. “Old-timers, guys that are 60-plus, have no problem with a gang shower,” one gym designer told The New York Times, adding that Millennials require privacy.
Some observers have suggested that a new discomfort with nudity might stem from the fact that, by the mid-1990s, most high schools had stopped requiring students to shower after gym class. Which makes sense—the less time you spend naked, the less comfortable you are being naked. But people may also be newly worried about what they look like naked. A large and growing body of research reports that for both men and women, social-media use is correlated with body dissatisfaction. And a major Dutch study found that among men, frequency of pornography viewing was associated with concern about penis size. I heard much the same from quite a few men (“too hairy, not fit enough, not big enough in terms of penis size,” went one morose litany). According to research by Debby Herbenick, how people feel about their genitals predicts sexual functioning—and somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of people, perhaps influenced by porn or plastic-surgery marketing, feel negatively. The business of labiaplasty has become so lucrative, she told me in an email, “that you will actually see billboards (yes, billboards!) in some cities advertising it.”
As one might imagine, feeling comfortable in your body is good for your sex life. A review of 57 studies examining the relationship between women’s body image and sexual behavior suggests that positive body image is linked to having better sex. Conversely, not feeling comfortable in your own skin complicates sex. If you don’t want your partner to see you getting out of the shower, how is oral sex going to work?
Maybe, for some people, it isn’t. The 2017 iteration of Match.com’s Singles in America survey (co-led by Helen Fisher and the Kinsey Institute’s Justin Garcia) found that single Millennials were 66 percent less likely than members of older generations to enjoy receiving oral sex. Which doesn’t bode particularly well for female pleasure: Among partnered sex acts, cunnilingus is one of the surest ways for women to have orgasms.
Ian Kerner, the New York sex therapist, told me that he works with a lot of men who would like to perform oral sex but are rebuffed by their partner. “I know the stereotype is often that men are the ones who don’t want to perform it, but I find the reverse,” he said. “A lot of women will say when I’m talking to them privately, ‘I just can’t believe that a guy wants to be down there, likes to do that. It’s the ugliest part of my body.’ ” When I asked 20-somethings about oral sex, a pretty sizable minority of women sounded a similar note. “Receiving makes me nervous. It feels more intimate than penetration,” wrote one woman. “I become so self-conscious and find it difficult to enjoy,” wrote another.
Over the past 20 years, the way sex researchers think about desire and arousal has broadened from an initially narrow focus on stimulus to one that sees inhibition as equally, if not more, important. (The term inhibition, for these purposes, means anything that interferes with or prevents arousal, ranging from poor self-image to distractedness.) In her book Come as You Are, Emily Nagoski, who trained at the Kinsey Institute, compares the brain’s excitement system to the gas pedal in a car, and its inhibition system to the brakes. The first turns you on; the second turns you off. For many people, research suggests, the brakes are more sensitive than the accelerator.
That turn-offs matter more than turn-ons may sound commonsensical, but in fact, this insight is at odds with most popular views of sexual problems. When people talk about addressing a lack of desire, they tend to focus on fuel, or stimulation—erotica, Viagra, the K‑Y Jelly they were handing out at the New Brunswick student-health center. These things are helpful to many people in many cases, but they won’t make you want to have sex if your brakes are fully engaged.
In my interviews, inhibition seemed a constant companion to many people who’d been abstinent for a long time. Most of them described abstinence not as something they had embraced (due to religious belief, say) so much as something they’d found themselves backed into as a result of trauma, anxiety, or depression. Dispiritingly but unsurprisingly, sexual assault was invoked by many of the women who said they’d opted out of sex. The other two factors come as no great shock either: Rates of anxiety and depression have been rising among Americans for decades now, and by some accounts have risen quite sharply of late among people in their teens and 20s. Anxiety suppresses desire for most people. And, in a particularly unfortunate catch‑22, both depression and the antidepressants used to treat it can also reduce desire.
“I have a therapist and this is one of the main things we’re working on,” a 28-year-old woman I’ll call April wrote to me, by way of explaining that, owing to intense anxiety, she’d never slept with anyone or been in a relationship. “I’ve had a few kisses & gone to second base (as the kids say) and it really has never been good for me.” When we later spoke by phone, she told me that in adolescence, she’d been shy, overweight, and “very, very afraid of boys.” April isn’t asexual (she gives thanks for her Magic Bullet vibrator). She’s just terrified of intimacy. From time to time she goes on dates with men she meets through her job in the book industry or on an app, but when things get physical, she panics. “I jumped out of someone’s car once to avoid him kissing me,” she said miserably. As we were ending the conversation, she mentioned to me a story by the British writer Helen Oyeyemi, which describes an author of romance novels who is secretly a virgin. “She doesn’t have anyone, and she’s just stuck. It’s kind of a fairy tale—she lives in the garret of a large, old house, writing these romantic stories over and over, but nothing ever happens for her. I think about her all the time.”
In exchanges like these, I was struck by what a paralyzing and vicious cycle unhappiness and abstinence can be. The data show that having sex makes people happier (up to a point, at least; for those in relationships, more than once a week doesn’t seem to bring an additional happiness bump). Yet unhappiness inhibits desire, in the process denying people who are starved of joy one of its potential sources. Are rising rates of unhappiness contributing to the sex recession? Almost certainly. But mightn’t a decline in sex and intimacy also be leading to unhappiness?
Moreover, what research we have on sexually inactive adults suggests that, for those who desire a sex life, there may be such a thing as waiting too long. Among people who are sexually inexperienced at age 18, about 80 percent will become sexually active by the time they are 25. But those who haven’t gained sexual experience by their mid-20s are much less likely to ever do so. The authors of a 2009 study in The Journal of Sexual Medicine speculated that “if a man or woman has not had intercourse by age 25, there is a reasonable chance [he or she] will remain a virgin at least until age 45.” Research by Stanford’s Michael Rosenfeld confirms that, in adulthood, true singledom is a far more stable category than most of us have imagined. Over the course of a year, he reports, only 50 percent of heterosexual single women in their 20s go on any dates—and older women are even less likely to do so.
Other sources of sexual inhibition speak distinctly to the way we live today. For example, sleep deprivation strongly suppresses desire—and sleep quality is imperiled by now-common practices like checking one’s phone overnight. (For women, getting an extra hour of sleep predicts a 14 percent greater likelihood of having sex the next day.) In her new book, Better Sex Through Mindfulness, Lori Brotto, an obstetrics-and-gynecology professor at the University of British Columbia, reviews lab research showing that background distraction of the sort we’re all swimming in now likewise dampens arousal, in both men and women.
How can such little things—a bad night’s sleep, low-grade distraction—defeat something as fundamental as sex? One answer, which I heard from a few quarters, is that our sexual appetites are meant to be easily extinguished. The human race needs sex, but individual humans don’t.
Among the contradictions of our time is this: We live in unprecedented physical safety, and yet something about modern life, very recent modern life, has triggered in many of us autonomic responses associated with danger—anxiety, constant scanning of our surroundings, fitful sleep. Under these circumstances, survival trumps desire. As Emily Nagoski likes to point out, nobody ever died of sexlessness: “We can starve to death, die of dehydration, even die of sleep deprivation. But nobody ever died of not being able to get laid.”
When Toys “R” Us announced this spring—after saying it had been struggling because of falling birth rates—that it would be shutting down, some observers mordantly remarked that it could be added to the list of things that Millennials had destroyed.
Societal changes have a way of inspiring generational pessimism. Other writers, examining the same data I’ve looked at, have produced fretful articles about the future; critics have accused them of stoking panic. And yet there are real causes for concern. One can quibble—if one cares to—about exactly why a particular toy retailer failed. But there’s no escaping that the American birth rate has been falling for a decade.
At first, the drop was attributed to the Great Recession, and then to the possibility that Millennial women were delaying motherhood rather than forgoing it. But a more fundamental change may be under way. In 2017, the U.S. birth rate hit a record low for a second year running. Birth rates are declining among women in their 30s—the age at which everyone supposed more Millennials would start families. As a result, some 500,000 fewer American babies were born in 2017 than in 2007, even though more women were of prime childbearing age. Over the same period, the number of children the average American woman is expected to have fell from 2.1 (the so-called replacement rate, or fertility level required to sustain population levels without immigration) to 1.76. If this trend does not reverse, the long-term demographic and fiscal implications will be significant.
A more immediate concern involves the political consequences of loneliness and alienation. Take for example the online hate and real-life violence waged by the so-called incels—men who claim to be “involuntarily celibate.” Their grievances, which are illegitimate and vile, offer a timely reminder that isolated young people are vulnerable to extremism of every sort. See also the populist discontent roiling Europe, driven in part by adults who have so far failed to achieve the milestones of adulthood: In Italy, half of 25-to-34-year-olds now live with their parents.
When I began working on this story, I expected that these big-picture issues might figure prominently within it. I was pretty sure I’d hear lots of worry about economic insecurity and other contributors to a generally precarious future. I also imagined, more hopefully, a fairly lengthy inquiry into the benefits of loosening social conventions, and of less couple-centric pathways to a happy life. But these expectations have mostly fallen to the side, and my concerns have become more basic.
Humans’ sexual behavior is one of the things that distinguish us from other species: Unlike most apes, and indeed most animals, humans have sex at times and in configurations that make conception not just unlikely but impossible (during pregnancy, menopause, and other infertile periods; with same-sex partners; using body parts that have never issued babies and never will). As a species, we are “bizarre in our nearly continuous practice of sex,” writes the UCLA professor Jared Diamond, who has studied the evolution of human sexuality. “Along with posture and brain size, sexuality completes the trinity of the decisive aspects in which the ancestors of humans and great apes diverged.” True, nobody ever died of not getting laid, but getting laid has proved adaptive over millions of years: We do it because it is fun, because it bonds us to one another, because it makes us happy.
A fulfilling sex life is not necessary for a good life, of course, but lots of research confirms that it contributes to one. Having sex is associated not only with happiness, but with a slew of other health benefits. The relationship between sex and wellness, perhaps unsurprisingly, goes both ways: The better off you are, the better off your sex life is, and vice versa. Unfortunately, the converse is true as well. Not having a partner—sexual or romantic—can be both a cause and an effect of discontent. Moreover, as American social institutions have withered, having a life partner has become a stronger predictor than ever of well-being.
Like economic recessions, the sex recession will probably play out in ways that are uneven and unfair. Those who have many things going for them already—looks, money, psychological resilience, strong social networks—continue to be well positioned to find love and have good sex and, if they so desire, become parents. But intimacy may grow more elusive to those who are on less steady footing.
When, over the course of my reporting, people in their 20s shared with me their hopes and fears and inhibitions, I sometimes felt pangs of recognition. Just as often, though, I was taken aback by what seemed like heartbreaking changes in the way many people were relating—or not relating—to one another. I am not so very much older than the people I talked with for this story, and yet I frequently had the sense of being from a different time.
Sex seems more fraught now. This problem has no single source; the world has changed in so many ways, so quickly. In time, maybe, we will rethink some things: The abysmal state of sex education, which was once a joke but is now, in the age of porn, a disgrace. The dysfunctional relationships so many of us have with our phones and social media, to the detriment of our relationships with humans. Efforts to “protect” teenagers from most everything, including romance, leaving them ill-equipped for both the miseries and the joys of adulthood.
In October, as I was finishing this article, I spoke once more with April, the woman who took comfort in the short story about the romance novelist who was secretly a virgin. She told me that, since we’d last talked, she’d met a man on Tinder whom she really liked. They’d gone on several dates over the summer, and fooled around quite a bit. As terrified as she had been about getting physically and emotionally intimate with another person, she found, to her surprise, that she loved it: “I never thought I would feel that comfortable with someone. It was so much better than I thought it was going to be.”
As things progressed, April figured that, in the name of real intimacy, she should explain to the man that she hadn’t yet had sex. The revelation didn’t go over well. “I told him I was a virgin. And he broke up with me. Beforehand, I figured that was the worst thing that could happen. And then it happened. The worst thing happened.” She paused, and when she spoke again her voice was steadier and more assured. “But I’m still here.”
There are four original manuscripts containing poetry in Old English—the now-defunct language of the medieval Anglo-Saxons—that have survived to the present day. No more, no less. They are: the Vercelli Book, which contains six poems, including the hallucinatory “Dream of the Rood”; the Junius Manuscript, which comprises four long religious poems; the Exeter Book, crammed with riddles and elegies; and the Beowulf Manuscript, whose name says it all. There is no way of knowing how many more poetic codices (the special term for these books) might have existed once upon a time, but have since been destroyed.
Until last week, I had seen two of these manuscripts in person and turned the pages of one. But then I visited “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War,” a new show of artifacts at the British Library in London. It’s a vast exhibition, covering the art, literature, and history of the people whose kingdoms spread across Britain between the sixth and the eleventh centuries. The impetus for the show came from the library’s 2012 acquisition of the St Cuthbert Gospel, the “earliest intact European book,” in the words of the show’s catalog.
Seeing the earliest European book alone would be the event of a lifetime, for a certain kind of museum-goer. But for this viewer, the main attraction lay in a quiet little vitrine: all four Old English poetic codices, side by side. They don’t look that impressive to the casual eye. The exhibition room is dark and cold, to keep the books safe from damage. The manuscripts are brown, small, almost self-effacing. There’s no outward sign of how important they are, how unprecedented their meeting.
So why are these four books so special? It has to do, I think, with the concept of the original—a concept we have almost entirely lost touch with. The Beowulf Manuscript is not just composed of words that serve as the basis for every translation of the epic poem. It’s foremost an object, the only one of its kind. It is not merely a representation of a story; it is the story. In this respect, the manuscript resembles the Crown Jewels more than any document written in today’s world, any word that moves through the crazy fractal of the internet. The manuscripts confront us with a former version of our literary selves; identities that we barely recognize, and which estrange us from ourselves.
Each of the poetic codices has a specific history engraved into the text’s physical form. The very space they occupy on earth is meaningful. The Vercelli Book is named for Vercelli, a town in Northern Italy whose cathedral library holds the manuscript. Nobody knows for sure how the book got there, although the prevailing theory is that a pilgrim left it behind or gave it away on his travels. Who? Why? When? Unknown.
The BeowulfManuscript’s permanent home is the British Library. Unlike Vercelli, we know exactly why it’s there. The manuscript’s pages have been remounted onto new ones, because the book was singed around the edges in a library fire in 1731. The fire consumed much of the collection of Robert Cotton—his unburned books were later all given to the British Museum, forming its foundational collection—but Beowulf only suffered a little. (The original Cotton collection was kept, with a horrible kind of accuracy, in a building called Ashburnham House.)
If we compare the Vercelli Book to the Beowulf Manuscript, we see different kinds of mysteries. The Vercelli Book is in fabulous condition, its English lines neatly written and sitting, inexplicably, in a region of Italy famous for its rice. The Beowulf Manuscript is a half-burned thing whose survival is a miracle. Its provenance is unknown: It was probably written down in the tenth or eleventh centuries, but it’s impossible to tell when it was actually composed.
Where did the fire come from? Where did the poetry come from? We do not know the identity of the authors of any Old English poems, any more than we know where the first spark flew. Why are these the manuscripts that have survived, and what wandering spirit has guarded them down the centuries? The mysteries start to pile up into a mountain, intimidating in its inaccessibility.
Our current relationship to the written word could not be more different. We remain in the age of mechanical reproduction, the name famously given by the theorist Walter Benjamin to the way that works are replicated via photography, the printing press, and film. In his 1936 essay on the subject, Benjamin wrote, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”
Our concept of authenticity is derived from the “presence of the original,” he writes, such as “proof that a given manuscript of the Middle Ages stems from an archive of the fifteenth century.” Without such proof, an original becomes a forgery. But when we reproduce a work (via a photocopy or an ebook, say), we create not a forgery but something new. We can “put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself”—the manuscript can leave the cathedral and enter our own homes.
Benjamin argued that this process of reproduction inevitably diminishes the artwork’s presence. He calls that quality an aura: “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” That withering kills our connection to tradition, to the ineffable magic of the original, and—in short—to the entire history of how humans once related to art.
In 2018, we are in a much more elaborate and abstracted phase of Benjamin’s reproduction theory. We are accustomed to reading without reference to any physical object specific to the act of reading. We might have a romantic association with libraries, or prefer to turn real pages rather than electronic ones, but those are tastes borne of nostalgia. They have no real meaning for our experience of literature’s power.
This is why the reunion of the Old English poetic codices is so overwhelming. We have no mental equipment—or, at best, a very rusty apparatus—to process the existence of a physical original. Even our encounters with paintings in a museum are ultimately filtered through mass media and the devices with which we read the written word. It is difficult even to summon in our minds the circumstances of Benjamin’s 1936 essay; the technology has simply moved too quickly.
If we are that disconnected from 1936, but the Old English poetic codices predate Benjamin by an entire millennium, then it is no wonder that being confronted by these manuscripts leads to a feeling of numbed, startled astonishment. I’ve spent years dreaming of these books, but when all five of us finally met I couldn’t do anything but cry. I thought I knew them, through digital replicas. These books should have been a mirror, some kind of catalyst to self-recognition. But when I looked at them I saw nothing. I only saw the yawning void of everything in human history that I cannot understand, everything that has been taken from our culture by the incredible acceleration of technology over the course of my lifetime.
There are too many miracles to count inside the British Library’s exhibition. You can see the Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving complete Christian Bible in Latin. It’s enormous, weighing over 75 pounds. Here you will see the Domesday Book, the earliest public record in existence. Here is the River Erne horn, an eighth-century trumpet found in the waters of its name in the 1950s. Here is gold from the sixth century.
But as I walked out of this dazzling exhibition, I also realized the miracle that is the survival of Old English itself. If all we share with the Anglo-Saxon literature is language, then that is a remarkable consolation. The words are difficult to understand, but—miracle of miracles—we can translate them all.
Historians might care more about the singeing of the Beowulf Manuscript, the unknown pilgrim who walked through Italy. For the student of literature, however, Beowulf’s existence on the internet is as startling as the single book sitting by its sisters in a London library. If the book burned today, then the poem would still survive. The new permanence that reproduction gives us is the hope contained in Benjamin’s dirge. But it might be worth putting a replica in a bunker, just in case.
German singer Hannes Wader sings ‘Auf, auf zum Kampf, zum Kampf’ (‘Up, up, let’s fight’). It’s a classic song of the German left, with an early version coming to prominence during the Franco-Prussian War (1870- 71).
In 1919, poet Bertolt Brecht wrote a new version in reaction to the murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. This is the version sung by Wader, and an English translation of the lyrics is below:
“Up, up let´s fight! Up, up let´s fight, let´s fight! We are born to fight!
Up, up let´s fight, let´s fight! We are ready to fight!
We have sworn to Karl Liebknecht, that we give Rosa Luxemburg a helping hand.
We have sworn to Karl Liebknecht, that we give Rosa Luxemburg a helping hand.
There stands a man, a man, as strong as an Oak!
He has surely, surely, survived many Storms!
Maybe tomorrow he will be a corpse, like so many other Freedom fighters before.
Maybe tomorrow he will be a corpse, like so many other Freedom fighters before.
We don´t fear, don´t fear, the thunder of the cannons!
We don´t fear, don´t fear, the green uniformed Police!
Karl Liebknecht we have lost, Rosa Luxemburg fell by the hand of a murder!
Karl Liebknecht we have lost, Rosa Luxemburg fell by the hand of a murder!
Up, up let´s fight, let´s fight! We are born to fight!
Up, up let´s fight, let´s fight!We are ready to fight!
We have sworn to Karl Liebknecht, that we give Rosa Luxemburg a helping hand.
We have sworn to Karl Liebknecht, that we give Rosa Luxemburg a helping hand.”
Auf, auf zum Kampf, zum Kampf!
Zum Kampf sind wir geboren!
Auf, auf zum Kampf, zum Kampf!
Zum Kampf sind wir bereit!
Dem Karl Liebknecht, dem haben wir’s geschworen!
Der Rosa Luxemburg reichen wir die Hand!
Wir fürchten nicht, ja nicht! Den Donner der Kanonen! Wir fürchten nicht, ja nicht! Die grüne Polizei! Den Karl Liebknecht, den haben wir verloren! Die Rosa Luxemburg fiel durch Mörderhand!
Es steht ein Mann, ein Mann! So fest wie eine Eiche! Er hat gewiß, gewiß! Schon manchen Sturm erlebt! Vielleicht ist er schon morgen eine Leiche! Wie es so vielen Freiheitskämpfern geht!
Auf, auf zum Kampf, zum Kampf! Zum Kampf sind wir geboren! Auf, auf zum Kampf, zum Kampf! Zum Kampf sind wir bereit! Dem Karl Liebknecht, dem haben wir’s geschworen! Der Rosa Luxemburg reichen wir die Hand!
Moscow: The government only permitted 5,000 people to attend the opposition Communist Party led street march celebrating the 101 anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917. A heavy armed police presence flanked the march. One government official said, “we don’t want a ‘color revolution.'”
Also on 7 Nov 2018 in Moscow
The government utilized Red Square to re-enact a Soviet parade from WW2 – utilizing Communist symbols but as historic emblems of a particular fight at a particular time.
I was in eighth grade when The Aviator came out. Too young to go to a movie alone (can’t drive) and too old to go with my parents (not “cool”), I asked my friend Amanda to go see it with me. I was very excited about the movie. Though she shared my love of Leonardo DiCaprio, Amanda did not share my enthusiasm for historical biopics. She fell asleep almost immediately and never got to see Howard Hughes carefully arrange his little blue peas on a plate. When she woke up about halfway through the movie, she told me she was bored and called her mom to pick her up. She really left! I finished the movie and walked home.
I decided right then that the best way to see a movie was alone. But I was 14, and that proved difficult. Now I’m 29 and I will only see movies with other people if there are extenuating circumstances.
Watching a movie is best as a solitary experience, which is something that we just need to admit to ourselves. And yet, going to dinner and a movie is still heeded as an ideal date. (Movies are a terrible date idea. Really, truly awful. Please tell me about a time you enjoyed seeing a movie with a human you know approximately 14 things about, and most of those 14 things are siblings and food preferences.)
When you read a book, you read it by yourself and later discuss it with other people who have also read that book. This is how we should watch movies. Whenever I watch a movie with someone else, I find myself watching it through their eyes and brains and emotions in addition to my own. Sometimes this is enough to ruin a first-time viewing of a movie experience (The Aviator). I want my first impression of a movie to be filtered through my brain and my brain only.
Are you wondering if there is a single correct way to go to the movies? Of course there is. Please consult this list that has been honed over 15 years of practice:
You show up to the theater by yourself a half-hour before showtime. You purchase your ticket, and because you showed up so early, you have your pick of seats. You select one in the very middle of the third-to-last row. You get snacks: a medium popcorn and a package of Twizzlers. You purchase a bottle of water that you can sip from in case a rogue piece of popcorn kernel gets caught in your throat and makes you cough. Or you get thirsty. But! This is not the time to drink for fun. You can’t be trusted to drink too much because then you’ll have to pee. You walk to your seat and deposit your snacks and your various weather-related accoutrements. You go to the bathroom. You walk back to the theater. You open your package of Twizzlers by peeling down the entire back seam of the package, opening it, and laying them flat on the armrest. Now you shan’t disturb anyone with the piercing crackle of plastic wrap when you want your licorice treat. You scroll through your phone for a little bit. You go to the bathroom again (just in case!) You come back to your seat and turn your phone off — yes, off! The lights dim. You are now properly prepared to watch a movie.
I haven’t done a ton of research, but anecdotally this method will improve your movie viewing experience by about 500 percent. Or maybe you are fine with showing up late with three other people and unwrapping individual hard candies for two hours. Either way, I am correct.
Earlier this year, I read Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman for the first time, and was immediately delighted—I mean, if you want to seduce me as a reader, you could do no better than to mention W. G. Sebald on page three. Except perhaps by following up with Roberto Bolaño and Italo Calvino, which Alameddine does in short order. You see, the protagonist of An Unnecessary Woman is an amateur translator of great texts—no one reads her work, but her entire life revolves around books. (Relatable.) I was halfway though before I realized that I should probably be keeping a list of the books mentioned in the text, but as it turns out, there was little need—I found one online. Afterwards, I was inspired to look into other book-filled books. Spoiler alert: there are quite a number. It’s almost as if writers love books or something.
Note that I am counting plays as books here, as well as book-length poems and epics, but short stories and single poems are listed separately. I make no claims that these lists are definitive, though I’ve made them as complete as possible. Obviously, there are many more novels and memoirs that mention long lists of books than are included here, but I’m limited, as ever, by time, availability of data, and the demands of maintaining sanity. So below, please find twelve books that are filled to the gills with mentions of other books, and feel free to add further suggestions in the comments.
Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman
Austerlitz, W. G. Sebald The Emigrants, W. G. Sebald 2666, Roberto Bolaño The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño A Heart So White, Javier Marías Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, Javier Marías Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, Javier Marías A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino Cinnamon Shops, Bruno Schulz The Conformist, Alberto Moravia Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid The Shipping News, Annie Proulx The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, José Saramago Murphy, Samuel Beckett Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin Corydon, André Gide Sepharad, Antonio Muñoz Molina Sophie’s Choice, William Styron Nightwood, Djuna Barnes The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa Kaddish for an Unborn Child, Imre Kertész Fateless (or Fatelessness), Imre Kertész Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky The Kingdom of God Is Within You, Fyodor Dostoyevsky Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert The Waves, Virginia Woolf Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa The Fall, Albert Camus The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje Dubliners, James Joyce Herzog, Saul Bellow For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway The Encyclopedia of the Dead, Danilo Kiš Ransom, David Malouf The Color Purple, Alice Walker This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, Tadeusz Borowski Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll Flight Without End, Joseph Roth Hunger, Knut Hamsun A Book of Memories, Péter Nádas The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark A House for Mr. Biswas, V. S. Naipaul Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie Waiting for the Barbarians, J. M. Coetzee Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee
A video montage of the book covers –
Plus the stories “Hills Like White Elephants,” by Ernest Hemingway, and “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” by Eudora Welty, as well as the poem “The Vanity of Human Wishes” by Samuel Johnson.
Other writers mentioned include:
Albert Camus, Marguerite Duras, Junot Díaz, Aleksandar Hemon, Nadine Gordimer, Nuruddin Farah, Patrick White, Milan Kundera, Ismail Kadare, Nikolai Gogol, Jorge Luis Borges, Cees Nooteboom, Bilge Karasu, Marguerite Yourcenar, Constantine P. Cavafy, Alice Munro, Sadegh Hedayat, Marcel Proust, Jean Améry, Novalis, William Burroughs, Joseph Conrad, Federico García Lorca
Losing yourself in a great novel is one of life’s joys. Here our critics Ceri Radford and Chris Harvey pick the books you need to read
Books, books, books. They will increase your lifespan, lower your stress and boost your intelligence. They will give you fuller, thicker hair.
Whatever the breathless claims about reading, one thing is certain: losing yourself in a great novel is one of life’s most enduring and dependable joys. Job satisfaction comes and goes, partners enrapture and abscond, but you can always fall back on the timeless ability of literature to transport you to a different world. From Jane Austen’s mannered drawing rooms to the airless tower blocks of 1984, novels do something unique. They simultaneously speak to the heart and mind. They teach you about the history of our world, the possibilities of our future and the fabric of our souls.
So where do you start? It’s a fraught question, because the obvious answer – “the literary canon” – means a pantheon of predominantly dead, white dudes. The power structures at play for centuries have meant that a very narrow band of people have been given the opportunity to say something universal about the human condition. It’s impossible to ignore these biases: the least we can do is acknowledge them, include different perspectives, and point to some excellent resources here, here and here to discover more writers we should be reading.
As it stands, whittling this list down to 40 novels has been a process that makes Brexit negotiations look simple and amicable. We hope you enjoy the selection – or at least enjoy arguing about who should or should not have made the cut.
40 books to read before you die
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
It is a fact universally acknowledged that every list of great books must include Pride and Prejudice. Don’t be fooled by the bonnets and balls: beneath the sugary surface is a tart exposé of the marriage market in Georgian England. For every lucky Elizabeth, who tames the haughty, handsome Mr Darcy and learns to know herself in the process, there’s a Charlotte, resigned to life with a drivelling buffoon for want of a pretty face. Ceri Radford
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾, Sue Townsend
Read this one when you’re decrepit enough, and chances are you’ll die laughing. No one has lampooned the self-absorption, delusions of grandeur and sexual frustration of adolescence as brilliantly as Sue Townsend, and no one ever will. Beyond the majestic poetry and the pimples, there’s also a sharp satire of Thatcherist Britain. CR
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
It’s not often an idiom coined in a novel becomes a catchphrase, but Joseph Heller managed it with his madcap, savage and hilarious tour de force. War is the ultimate dead end for logic, and this novel explores all its absurdities as we follow US bombardier pilot Captain John Yossarian. While Heller drew on his own experience as a WWII pilot, it was the McCarthyism of the Fifties that fuelled the book’s glorious rage. CR
Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
A good 125 years before #MeToo, Thomas Hardy skewered the sexual hypocrisy of the Victorian age in this melodramatic but immensely moving novel. Tess is a naïve girl from a poor family who is raped by a wealthy landowner. After the death of her baby, she tries to build a new life, but the “shame” of her past casts a long shadow. Read this if you want to understand the rotten culture at the root of victim blaming. CR
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
A classic exposé of colonialism, Achebe’s novel explores what happens to a Nigerian village when European missionaries arrive. The main character, warrior-like Okonkwo, embodies the traditional values that are ultimately doomed. By the time Achebe was born in 1930, missionaries had been settled in his village for decades. He wrote in English and took the title of his novel from a Yeats poem, but wove Igbo proverbs throughout this lyrical work. CR
1984, George Orwell
The ultimate piece of dystopian fiction, 1984 was so prescient that it’s become a cliché. But forget TV’s Big Brother or the trite travesty of Room 101: the original has lost none of its furious force. Orwell was interested in the mechanics of totalitarianism, imagining a society that took the paranoid surveillance of the Soviets to chilling conclusions. Our hero, Winston, tries to resist a grey world where a screen watches your every move, but bravery is ultimately futile when the state worms its way inside your mind. CR
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
Dickens was the social conscience of the Victorian age, but don’t let that put you off. Great Expectations is the roiling tale of the orphaned Pip, the lovely Estella, and the thwarted Miss Havisham. First written in serial form, you barely have time to recover from one cliffhanger before the next one beckons, all told in Dickens’ luxuriant, humorous, heartfelt prose. CR
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
A timeless plea for justice in the setting of America’s racist South during the depression years, Lee’s novel caused a sensation. Her device was simple but incendiary: look at the world through the eyes of a six-year-old, in this case, Jean Louise Finch, whose father is a lawyer defending a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. Lee hoped for nothing but “a quick and merciful death at the hands of the reviewers”: she won the Pulitzer and a place on the curriculum. CR
The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
Roy won the 1997 Booker Prize with her debut novel, a powerful intergenerational tale of love that crosses caste lines in southern India, and the appalling consequences for those who break the taboos dictating “who should be loved, and how. And how much.” Sex, death, religion, the ambivalent pull of motherhood: it’s all there in this beautiful and haunting book. CR
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
In an astonishing act of literary ventriloquism, Mantel inhabits a fictionalised version of Thomas Cromwell, a working-class boy who rose through his own fierce intelligence to be a key player in the treacherous world of Tudor politics. Historical fiction so immersive you can smell the fear and ambition. CR
The Code of the Woosters, PG Wodehouse
If you haven’t read PG Wodehouse in a hot bath with a snifter of whisky and ideally a rubber duck for company, you haven’t lived. Wallow in this sublimely silly tale of the ultimate comic double act: bumbling aristocrat Bertie Wooster and his omniscient butler, Jeeves. A book that’s a sheer joy to read and also manages to satirise British fascist leader Oswald Mosley as a querulous grump in black shorts. CR
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Shelley was just 18 when she wrote Frankenstein as part of a challenge with her future husband, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron, to concoct the best horror story. Put down the green face paint: Frankenstein’s monster is a complex creation who yearns for sympathy and companionship. Some 200 years after it was first published, the gothic tale feels more relevant than ever as genetic science pushes the boundaries of what it means to create life. CR
Lord of the Flies, William Golding
Anyone who has ever suspected that children are primitive little beasties will nod sagely as they read Golding’s classic. His theory is this: maroon a bunch of schoolboys on an island, and watch how quickly the trappings of decent behaviour fall away. Never has a broken pair of spectacles seemed so sinister, or civilisation so fragile. CR
Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
The protagonist of Rushdie’s most celebrated novel is born at the exact moment India gains independence. He’s also born with superpowers, and he’s not the only one. In an audacious and poetic piece of magical realism, Rushdie tells the story of India’s blood-soaked resurgence via a swathe of children born at midnight with uncanny abilities. CR
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
You will need a cold, dead heart not to be moved by one of literature’s steeliest heroines. From the institutional cruelty of her boarding school, the “small, plain” Jane Eyre becomes a governess who demands a right to think and feel. Not many love stories take in a mad woman in the attic and a spot of therapeutic disfigurement, but this one somehow carries it off with mythic aplomb. CR
Middlemarch, George Eliot
This is a richly satisfying slow burn of a novel that follows the lives and loves of the inhabitants of a small town in England through the years 1829–32. The acerbic wit and timeless truth of its observations mark this out as a work of genius; but at the time the author, Mary Anne Evans, had to turn to a male pen name to be taken seriously. CR
The Secret History, Donna Tartt
Stick another log on the fire and curl up with this dark, peculiar and quite brilliant literary murder tale. A group of classics students become entranced by Greek mythology – and then take it up a level. Remember, kids: never try your own delirious Dionysian ritual at home. CR
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A subtle and engrossing look at racial identity, through the story of a charismatic young Nigerian woman who leaves her comfortable Lagos home for a world of struggles in the United States. Capturing both the hard-scrabble life of US immigrants and the brash divisions of a rising Nigeria, Adichie crosses continents with all her usual depth of feeling and lightness of touch. CR
Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
An absolute unadulterated comic joy of a novel. Stella Gibbons neatly pokes fun at sentimental navel-gazing with her zesty heroine Flora, who is more interested in basic hygiene than histrionics. In other words, if you’ve “seen something nasty in the woodshed”, just shut the door. CR
Beloved, Toni Morrison
Dedicated to the “60 million and more” Africans and their descendants who died as a result of the slave trade, this is a cultural milestone and a Pulitzer-winning tour de force. Morrison was inspired by the real-life story of an enslaved woman who killed her own daughter rather than see her return to slavery. In her plot, the murdered child returns to haunt a black community, suggesting the inescapable taint of America’s history. CR
Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
Evelyn Waugh bottles the intoxicating vapour of a vanished era in this novel about middle-class Charles Ryder, who meets upper-class Sebastian Flyte at Oxford University in the 1920s. Scrap the wartime prologue, and Charles’s entire relationship with Sebastian’s sister Julia (Dear Evelyn, thank you for your latest manuscript, a few suggested cuts…) and you’re looking at one of the most affecting love affairs in the English language. Chris Harvey
Dune, Frank Herbert
You can almost feel your mouth dry with thirst as you enter the world of Frank Herbert’s Dune and encounter the desert planet of Arrakis, with its giant sandworms and mind-altering spice. It’s the setting for an epic saga of warring feudal houses, but it’s as much eco-parable as thrilling adventure story. Rarely has a fictional world been so completely realised. CH
Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
Will there ever be a novel that burns with more passionate intensity than Wuthering Heights? The forces that bring together its fierce heroine Catherine Earnshaw and cruel hero Heathcliff are violent and untameable, yet rooted in a childhood devotion to one another, when Heathcliff obeyed Cathy’s every command. It’s impossible to imagine this novel ever provoking quiet slumbers; Emily Brontë’s vision of nature blazes with poetry. CH
The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
The savage reviews that greeted F Scott Fitzgerald’s third novel – “no more than a glorified anecdote”; “for the season only” – failed to recognise something truly great; a near-perfect distillation of the hope, ambition, cynicism and desire at the heart of the American Dream. Other novels capture the allure of the invented self, from Stendhal’s The Red and the Black to Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull, but Fitzgerald’s enigmatic Jay Gatsby casts a shadow that reaches to Mad Men’s Don Draper and beyond. CH
A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
From the moment we meet Alex and his three droogs in the Korova milk bar, drinking moloko with vellocet or synthemesc and wondering whether to chat up the devotchkas at the counter or tolchock some old veck in an alley, it’s clear that normal novelistic conventions do not apply. Anthony Burgess’s slim volume about a violent near-future where aversion therapy is used on feral youth who speak Nadsat and commit rape and murder, is a dystopian masterpiece. CH
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Banned from entering the UK in its year of publication, 1955, Vladimir Nabokov’s astonishingly skilful and enduringly controversial work of fiction introduces us to literary professor and self-confessed hebephile Humbert Humbert, the perhaps unreliable narrator of the novel. He marries widow Charlotte Haze only to get access to her daughter, 12-year-old Dolores, nicknamed Lo by her mother, or as Humbert calls her “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” Cloaking his abuse in the allusive language of idealised love does not lessen Humbert’s crimes, but allows Nabokov to skewer him where he hides. CH
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K Dick
Here be Roy Baty, Rick Deckard and Rachael Rosen – the novel that inspired Blade Runner is stranger even than the film it became. Back in an age before artificial intelligence could teach itself in a few hours to play chess better than any grandmaster that ever lived, Philip K Dick was using the concept of android life to explore what it meant to be human, and what it is to be left behind on a compromised planet. That he could do it in 250 pages that set the mind spinning and engage the emotions with every page-turn make this a rare science-fiction indeed. CH
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
Inspired by Conrad’s own experiences of captaining a trading steamer up the Congo River, Heart of Darkness is part adventure, part psychological voyage into the unknown, as the narrator Marlow relays the story of his journey into the jungle to meet the mysterious ivory trader Mr Kurtz. The novel – although debate continues to rage about whether its attitude to Africa and colonialism is racist – is deeply involving and demands to be read. CH
Dracula, Bram Stoker
Whatever passed between Irish theatre manager Bram Stoker and the Hungarian traveller and writer Ármin Vámbéry when they met in London and talked of the Carpathian Mountains, it incubated in the Gothic imagination of Stoker into a work that has had an incalculable influence on Western culture. It’s not hard to read the Count as a shadowy sexual figure surprising straitlaced Victorian England in their beds, but in Stoker’s hands he’s also bloody creepy. CH
The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
It only takes one sentence, written in the first person, for Salinger’s Holden Caulfield to announce himself in all his teenage nihilism, sneering at you for wanting to know his biographical details “and all that David Copperfield kind of crap”. The Catcher in the Rye is the quintessential novel of the adolescent experience, captured in deathless prose. CH
Most iconic book covers
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The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
Dashiell Hammett may have been harder boiled, his plots more intricate but, wow, does Raymond Chandler have style. The push and pull at the start of The Big Sleep between private detective Philip Marlowe, in his powder-blue suit and dark blue shirt, and Miss Carmen Sternwood, with her “little sharp predatory teeth” and lashes that she lowers and raises like a theatre curtain, sets the tone for a story of bad girls and bad men. CH
Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
All the teeming life of 19th century London is here in Thackeray’s masterpiece, right down to the curry houses frequented by Jos Sedley, who has gained a taste for the hot stuff as an officer in the East India Trading Company. But it is Becky Sharp, one of literature’s great characters, who gives this novel its enduring fascination. As a woman on the make, Becky is the perfect blend of wit, cunning and cold-hearted ruthlessness. Try as film and TV might to humanise and make excuses for her, Becky needs victims to thrive! And she’s all the more compelling for that. CH
The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
The only novel written by the poet Sylvia Plath is a semi-autobiographical account of a descent into depression that the book’s narrator Esther Greenwood describes as like being trapped under a bell jar – used to create a vacuum in scientific experiments – struggling to breathe. Almost every word is arresting, and the way that Plath captures the vivid life happening around Esther – news events and magazine parties – accentuates the deadening illness that drives her towards suicidal feelings. Plath herself would commit suicide one month after the novel’s publication in 1963. CH
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
Harry Potter may be more popular, but Willy Wonka is altogether weirder. From the overwhelming poverty experienced by Charlie Bucket and his family, to the spoilt, greedy, brattish children who join Charlie on his trip to Willy Wonka’s phantasmagorical sweet factory there is nothing artificially sweetened in Roald Dahl’s startling work of fantasy. CH
Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
Andrew Davies’s recent TV adaptation of War and Peace reminded those of us who can’t quite face returning to the novel’s monstrous demands just how brilliantly Tolstoy delineates affairs of the heart, even if the war passages will always be a struggle. In Anna Karenina – enormous, too! – the great Russian novelist captures the erotic charge between the married Anna and the bachelor Vronsky, then drags his heroine through society’s scorn as their affair takes shape, without ever suggesting we move from her side. CH
Dangerous Liaisons, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
The most deliciously wicked experience in literature, this epistolary novel introduces us to the Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont, who play cruel games of sexual conquest on their unwitting victims. The Marquise’s justification for her behaviour – “I, who was born to revenge my sex and master yours” – will strike a chord in the #MeToo era, but emotions, even love, intrude, to the point where Laclos’s amorality becomes untenable. Sexy but very, very bad. CH
100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The energy and enchantment of Garcia Marquez’s story of seven generations of the Buendia family in a small town in Colombia continue to enthral half a century on. Hauntings and premonitions allied to a journalistic eye for detail and a poetic sensibility make Marquez’s magical realism unique. CH
The Trial, Franz Kafka
“Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K…” So begins Kafka’s nightmarish tale of a man trapped in an unfathomable bureaucratic process after being arrested by two agents from an unidentified office for a crime they’re not allowed to tell him about. Foreshadowing the antisemitism of Nazi-occupied Europe, as well as the methods of the Stasi, KGB, and StB, it’s an unsettling, at times bewildering, tale with chilling resonance. CH
Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
The second Mrs de Winter is the narrator of Du Maurier’s marvellously gothic tale about a young woman who replaces the deceased Rebecca as wife to the wealthy Maxim de Winter and mistress of the Manderley estate. There she meets the housekeeper Mrs Danvers, formerly devoted to Rebecca, who proceeds to torment her. As atmospheric, psychological horror it just gets darker and darker. CH
The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Published posthumously in 1958, Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel is set in 19th century Sicily, where revolution is in the air. The imposing Prince Don Fabrizio presides over a town close to Palermo during the last days of an old world in which class stratifications are stable and understood. Garibaldi’s forces have taken the island and a new world will follow. It’s a deep and poetic meditation on political change and the characters that it produces. CH
Sometimes, minutes after I have posted an article, someone on the other side of the globe reads the article. ‘What hath God wrought?’ was the first message sent over the telegraph wires in the US. The map below shows where people are who have clicked to this blog in one 24 hour period. When I opened the map I was taken aback. How can I communicate with people around the world so easily? I know how…but still.
I think of the board game Risk. I need to attract some views from Africa. South Africa has an English reading population…
I’ve had this blog for over five years, I think. I was going to put my esoteric personal writing here. I wanted to make a kind of novel in pieces that could be read in any order. But I was not focused on posting here on WordPress. One year, 2014 I think, I did not post a single thing. I had a steady trickle of two or three views a day. Some lost souls.
But, lately I have been banned from so many sites and message boards where I liked to post topical news of the day. I had a number of ‘subreddits’ on Reddit that I was the moderator of and main poster. But, I was warned that I posted too much. I was banned almost everyday from other subreddit topic threads. Finally I was banned from Reddit completely without explanation. I decided to use the WordPress website that I pay $99 a year for as the place where I would post the news and general interest stories that I came across and wanted to share with a broad, or narrow, audience. So now I might be posting ten articles in a day. Some of the pieces are written by me, most are not. Some stories get a few views, and others get thousands. I put links on Twitter and Reddit, and other sites to generate some traffic and publicize issues that I am interested in.
What a thrill to see that I can interest people around the world. I think of Christian Huygens who wrote: “The world is my country, science my religion.”
Update: Later on I got some views in South Africa, somehow.
As an Indian-American, I learned to embrace Apu. I hope he stays on The Simpsons
After progressively diminishing the character, it appears that The Simpsons might be gearing up to drop Kwik-E-Mart clerk and Indian-American icon, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.
Well, kind of Indian-American. He’s a brown character with an exaggerated Indian accent voiced by a white guy (Hank Azaria).
Apu has gotten a lot of flak lately for being racist depiction of Indian-Americans. One of my favorite comedians, Hari Kondabolu, even released a documentary about it (The Problem with Apu) last year.
But growing up in the 1990s, Apu was something of a hero for me. I watched hundreds of Simpsons’ episodes back then and thousands of scenes are seared into my mind – but none more than the end of a season four episode.
Homer decides to skip church, and falls asleep at home while smoking a cigar. He almost dies in the ensuing fire, but he’s saved by Apu – chief of the volunteer fire department – and a host of other characters. Reverend Lovejoy tells the relieved Homer that God didn’t set his house on fire but that he certainly was working through the hearts of his friends – Christian (Ned Flanders), Jew (Krusty the Clown), and “miscellaneous” (Apu) alike.
Hindu! Apu objects. There are 700 million of us.
It felt nice as a member of tiny minority in a mostly white and Christian country to be reminded that there were almost a billion other people on Earth who had to learn bhajans, suffer through seemingly interminable pujas, or touch their elders’ feet as a sign of respect.
To be represented at all seemed like progress. My relationship with Apu was like my relationship with my Indian-born father or my Indo-Trinidadian mother: filled with moments of cringeworthy embarrassment (among others, we used to call erasers “rubbers” in the house, which didn’t go over well in middle school), but also moments of pride and gratitude.
Apu was an emotionally developed character, much more so than other Simpsons characters, he cared about his family and worked tirelessly to support them. He was also allowed to be zany and kooky – he wasn’t just there in the background, he had his own plotlines, he was neurotic, unique, not just a prop for diversity.
The United States is incredibly economically divided today, but perhaps no group more so than Indian-Americans. We’re either pumping your gas or we’re performing open-heart surgery. For Indian-American actor Utkarsh Ambudkar having Apu represent us is a disgrace. An “idiot, potbelly dude, who can’t even speak English”. Obama-era surgeon general Vivek Murthy expresses similar shame in Kondabolu’s documentary.
It would seem that the solution is to have every media depiction of an Indian guy in America be Kal Penn playing a doctor. But a lot of us pump gas too. A lot of us say things like “Thank you come again,” because good service counts when you’re living on the razor edge of a society that doesn’t care about struggling people – wherever they’re originally from.
Kondabolu, to his credit, is nuanced throughout the documentary and has expressed dismay at the idea that killing off Apu would be a solution to “the Apu problem”. But his film never can really tell us what he wants to see – it’s just circular complaints about representation.
In its worst bits, Kondabolu’s documentary compares Apu to a blackface minstrel show, as if there was no difference between the experience of black Americans and that of South Asian immigrants then or now. “We’re all PoCs fighting against the white man,” might attract applause from today’s liberal commentariat, but it’s a glib and ahistorical understanding of oppression in America.
It might have helped if Kondabolu spoke to a different set of people about what Apu meant to them. The Problem with Apu mostly interviews famous Indian-American actors. The people who seem the least fazed by seeing an Apu clip are Kondabolu’s parents. I imagine most Indian-Americans feel the same way.
But hey, luckily we got more than Apu nowadays. We got Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari – and don’t let the white devils make you forget that Sir Ben Kingsley is really Krishna Pandit Bhanji.
That said, I’ll cling to my best memories of Apu. In an episode from season seven of The Simpsons, our Indian hero faces possible deportation after a xenophobic campaign is whipped up by Mayor Quimby. In solidarity, Homer builds support against the mayor’s anti-immigrant proposition and Lisa helps Apu pass a citizenship test.
After becoming a citizen, Apu gets a letter summoning him to jury duty. He casually throws it in a wastebasket. I can’t think of a better depiction of a person of color in the media – neither an object of scorn nor fetishized, just trying to get by like everyone else.
A US mayor from Utah has been killed in an apparent ‘insider attack’ in Afghanistan while serving with the state’s National Guard.
Associated PressNovember 4, 20182:36pm
The mayor of a Utah city and father of seven has been killed in an attack in Afghanistan while he was serving with the state’s National Guard. Afghan soldiers who are armed and trained by the US and NATO forces have on numerous occasions turned on the foreign troops with murderous gunfire.
North Ogden Mayor Brent Taylor died on Saturday in an apparent “insider attack” in Kabul, the Salt Lake Tribune and other media reported. Another US service member is being treated for wounds sustained in the attack, American military officials said. The Utah National Guard has identified the service member killed as a member of the Guard. The Guard member’s name is being withheld pending notification of next of kin. But Utah Lieutenant Governor Spencer J. Cox wrote on his Facebook page that Taylor, 39, had been killed.
“Devastating news. North Ogden Mayor Brent Taylor was killed today while serving in Afghanistan,” Cox said. “I hate this. I’m struggling for words. I love Mayor Taylor, his amazing wife Jennie and his seven sweet kids. Utah weeps for them today. This war has once again cost us the best blood of a generation. We must rally around his family.”
Taylor was deployed to Afghanistan in January with the Utah National Guard for what was expected to be a 12-month tour of duty. Taylor, an officer in the National Guard, previously served two tours in Iraq and one tour in Afghanistan. At the time of his deployment in January, Taylor told local media that, as an intelligence