Monday, July 16, 2018

The Making of Caddyshack

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Historic Win and the Future of the Democratic Party

This is the summer in which the Presidency of Donald Trump has begun to cohere. Disdain for voting rights, for women’s rights, for the protection of the environment, and for our alliances abroad is becoming American policy. There is nothing Trump will not do or say to flaunt his primacy. Not long ago, at a tense G-7 gathering in Quebec, he reportedly tossed a couple of Starburst candies at the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, and told her, “Don’t say I never give you anything.” By then, Merkel and the other Western allies had grown accustomed to the President’s contempt and his preference for autocrats, and so the moment passed as unremarkable, another paragraph in the story of the Trump era.

There are many ways to wallow in the everyday devolution. Prolonged viewing of MSNBC is a highly rated option. There are even various means of escape to recommend. The Yankees are awfully exciting this year, and Season 2 of “Glow” is strong. In the meantime, where can the outraged and the dispirited turn for a glimmer of hope?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is twenty-eight. She was born in the Parkchester neighborhood of the Bronx and lives there now, in a modest one-bedroom apartment. Parkchester was originally a planned community conceived by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and was for decades segregated, predominantly Irish and Italian. Today, it’s largely African-American, Hispanic, and South Asian. Ocasio-Cortez comes from a Puerto Rican family in which the parents’ self-sacrifice has been rewarded by their daughter’s earnest striving, and, now, a historic achievement. Come November, Ocasio-Cortez is almost certain to become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. As recently as ten months ago, she was waiting tables at a taco place near Union Square called Flats Fix. On June 26th, she pulled off a political upset in the Democratic primary for the Fourteenth Congressional District, soundly defeating the incumbent, Joseph Crowley, the most powerful politician in Queens County and the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives.

In the general election this fall, Ocasio-Cortez will face Anthony Pappas, a professor at the Peter J. Tobin College of Business. Pappas’s platform appears to center on tax cuts and an obsession with the legal ramifications of his unpleasant divorce, many years ago. It is unlikely that those concerns will be widely shared by voters of the Fourteenth District, which takes in parts of the eastern Bronx and northwest Queens and votes almost uniformly Democratic. (In an oddity of New York election laws, Crowley, who was also the Working Families Party candidate, will remain on that party’s line in November, but his spokesperson said that “this is a total non-thing,” emphasizing that Crowley is a Democrat, endorses Ocasio-Cortez, and “is totally supporting her. She is going to be a member of Congress.”) Ocasio-Cortez has natural presence. She is also well mannered, disciplined, shrewd, and self-possessed. When I asked her if Pappas has a chance, she smiled but would not bite.
Ocasio-Cortez lives around the corner from her favorite restaurant, Taqueria Tlaxcalli, on Starling Avenue. We met there for dinner on a steambath Sunday night just after her victory. The surrounding commercial area is among the most eclectic in the borough: it includes a sari emporium, the Al-Aqsa Restaurant, Bangla Bazaar, the Chang Li Supermarket, halal grocery stores, Iglesia Bautista Fundamental del Bronx, Crown Fried Chicken, the Asian Driving School, and Jerry’s Pizzeria.

When Ocasio-Cortez arrived, the owner greeted her as a local celebrity. In an instant, people crowded around. She is quick to shake hands, hug, hold a constituent’s shoulder. When kids come near, she kneels and talks on their level. Everyone wanted to tell her their reaction to her win, their shock and delight. “Thank you so much!” she told one after the other. These kinds of encounters were happening to her everywhere she went. At a pizza parlor in Grand Central, her waiter nearly swooned. Since the primary, she’s been fielding calls of congratulation “from everyone you can name,” including her ideological lodestar, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton, who, she said, “seemed to come from a mentoring place.”

We sat down at a table near the window. She allowed that she was getting worn down. “You’re speaking to me when I am still emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and logistically processing all of this,” she said. “The whole thing’s got me knocked a little flat.”

With good reason. Not long ago, Ocasio-Cortez was mixing margaritas. Today, she is the embodiment of anti-corporate politics and a surge of female candidates in the midterm elections. “It’s a lot to carry,” she said. As a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, she was on the receiving end of Murdoch-media hysteria. The Post greeted her win with the headline “red alert.” Sean Hannity pronounced her “downright scary.” And Ben Shapiro called her a member of the “howling at the moon” segment of the Democratic Party. On the anti-Trump right, Bret Stephens wrote in the Times that “Hugo Ch├ívez was also a democratic socialist,” and warned that, in a national election, the likes of Ocasio-Cortez will be “political hemlock for the Democratic Party.” None of it seemed exactly real. When I asked her where she was going to live in D.C., her eyes widened in surprise, as if it had not occurred to her that she would no longer be spending most of her time in the Bronx. “Not a clue,” she said.

Ocasio-Cortez was born in the neighborhood, but, as she puts it, she “grew up between two worlds.” Before she started school, her father, an architect who was born poor in the South Bronx, and her mother, who was born poor in Puerto Rico, decided that the public education around Parkchester wasn’t good enough. They wanted Alexandria to get a leg up, and so, with help from relatives, they scraped together enough money for a down payment on a small two-bedroom house in Yorktown Heights, a prosperous suburb in Westchester County. By the time she entered Yorktown High School, Alexandria had become a driven student. She was aware of being an anomaly—the Puerto Rican kid from a hard-up family in a nearly all-white school—but, she says now, “I don’t think I had that class consciousness as a child.” She was intent on becoming an obstetrician-gynecologist.

Not all of Ocasio-Cortez’s teachers at Yorktown High were encouraging. One told her that the Times was too hard for her to absorb; another said that the Intel science fair was beyond her grasp. In fact, she read the Times daily and won second prize at the Intel fair, with a project on the anti-aging effect of antioxidants in roundworms. Back in the Bronx, some in her family struggled, particularly her cousins. “Their stories are not really mine to tell,” she said, “but growing up they were wearing T-shirts with pictures of their friends who had died—and that’s just scraping the surface.” The extended family in New York ranges across the experience of city life: some are police officers, “and the other half have gotten stopped and frisked.”

When Ocasio-Cortez was seventeen, she put together enough loans and scholarship money to go to Boston University. In the first week of her sophomore year, she got a call from home: her father was dying of lung cancer. His death was “destabilizing in every way,” she said. “My mother was done. My brother was lost. I took it hard, too, but I channelled it into my studies. That’s how I dealt with it. I was home for a week and went right back to school. The last thing my father had told me in the hospital was ‘Make me proud.’ I took it very literally. My G.P.A. skyrocketed.” She changed majors, from biochemistry to economics and international relations, and worked part time in Senator Edward Kennedy’s Boston office, dealing with constituent concerns, including immigrant issues.

What really shaped her politically, though, was coming home: “The crucible was the aftermath—moving back to the Bronx.” With her father gone, her mother had taken jobs cleaning houses and driving a school bus. The family went into debt and the house was on the verge of foreclosure. The experience, she said, was humiliating, paralyzing. Ocasio-Cortez put her career ambitions on hold. Her long days as a waitress and bartender, dealing with sexual harassment (“people touch you, they tell you things”)—the experience was hard, but it was formative. The family eventually sold the house, and Ocasio-Cortez’s mother, in order to save money, moved to Florida, where she now works as a secretary.

Just out of high school, Ocasio-Cortez had done some volunteer work as a phone-bank caller for the Obama campaign in 2008, but she devoted much more time to the Sanders campaign in 2016. She helped find a site for a Bronx campaign headquarters, in an old nail salon, and started knocking on doors. She met activists from all over the city: community organizers, Black Lives Matter leaders, members of various unions, environmentalists, feminists, L.G.B.T.Q. campaigners, democratic socialists. After Sanders failed to overtake Clinton, some of his staff started an organization, called Brand New Congress, with the aim of recruiting candidates in the Bernie mold to run for the House and the Senate. For the B.N.C. activists, Sanders had shown that a non-corporate, “small dollar” campaign based on a left-wing agenda could win, and not only in traditionally left-leaning districts.

At first, B.N.C. wanted to field candidates for every congressional seat. One of the group’s founders, a Harvard graduate and former Silicon Valley techie named Saikat Chakrabarti, went on “The Rachel Maddow Show” to launch the effort. Soon, applications flooded the B.N.C. Web site, eleven thousand in all. One of them came in the fall of 2016 from Gabriel Ocasio-Cortez. He was writing on behalf of his older sister. Alexandria smiled and recalled that her brother had asked her if he could send in the form and, on a lark, she said O.K. “But I was also working in a restaurant!” she said. “I mean, it’s one of these things where it was, like, ‘Eff it. Sure. Whatever.’ ” (...)

Crowley, who had not faced a primary opponent in fourteen years, had grown complacent. He focussed almost solely on what one of his aides told me was “the universe of prime voters,” people who had made a habit of coming to the polls for off-year ballots. Meanwhile, Ocasio-Cortez was reaching new voters, young people and older residents who had generally stayed away. She was, in the parlance of her campaign, “widening the electorate”—if not by tens of thousands then by just enough. And Crowley kept stumbling. At what was meant to be their first debate, Crowley didn’t show; his spokesperson lamely blamed scheduling issues. Ocasio-Cortez debated an empty chair with the incumbent’s name on it. Even a few weeks before the election, however, Crowley was getting polling information that showed him leading by more than thirty points.

The next debate was scheduled for a television studio, at the hyper-local channel NY1. “Early in the day, I was losing my mind, I was so nervous,” Ocasio-Cortez recalled. “By the time I sat down, I thought he could see my heart leaping out of my chest.” At first, Crowley was indulgent toward Ocasio-Cortez, treating her like a daughter who had come back from college with a lot of wacky ideas she’d picked up in Political Theory 201. But, as she pressed him on one issue after another, Crowley assumed a sour expression. Who was this young woman to lecture him on where he lived and raised his kids? Finally, tired of the attack, Crowley said that he was willing to endorse Ocasio-Cortez, if she were to win the primary. Would she do likewise?

“Well, Representative Crowley, I represent not just my campaign but a movement,” she replied. “I would be happy to take that question to our movement for a vote.” This seemed to gall him. He accused her of being weak on gun control. Where did you get that? Ocasio-Cortez asked. From a Reddit forum, he said. One could sense every voter under forty giggling. A Reddit forum.

Eight days before the election, Crowley and Ocasio-Cortez were to have another debate, this time in Parkchester. There were rumors that Crowley might bag it again, but, when Ocasio-Cortez saw that he’d tweeted pictures of himself at a subway platform nearby, she figured that he was coming. He was not. Instead, he sent Annabel Palma, a Latina former city councilwoman. He paid for his absence with a blistering editorial in the Times: “A spokeswoman for Mr. Crowley said he had scheduling conflicts that wouldn’t allow him to attend the two debates, inevitably leading voters to wonder—what are we, chopped liver?” On Twitter, Ocasio-Cortez noted that Crowley had sent as his surrogate “a woman with a slight resemblance to me.” The implication of a racist insult was lost on no one.

by David Remnick, New Yorker | Read more:
Image: Mark Peterson

Genetically Modified Tomatoes Give Fish a Futuristic Hue

Imagine a society in which fish are raised in pens and fed food laced with dyes from genetically modified tomatoes in order to trick consumers into thinking that the fish on their plates grew up in the wild, swimming free, hunting, and being hunted. It sounds like something out of dystopian sci-fi, but that future is, potentially, right around the corner.

In the wild, fish such as salmon or trout eat crustaceans or insects with natural pigments that lend their flesh a pink or red tint. Fish raised in ponds or sea pens, however, receive no such natural coloration. Their flesh is often pale pink or even gray—not so appetizing to consumers used to a healthy pink. Fish farmers routinely add dyes derived from petroleum to the fish’s feed to mask this lack of wild coloration. But researchers think they’ve found a better way to procure these colorful edible additives. Rather than making dyes from petrochemicals, they’re growing the colorants in genetically modified tomatoes.

Marilise Nogueira, a graduate student at the Royal Holloway, University of London who led the project, says the goal was to find an alternate way to produce ketocarotenoids, the class of colorful compounds used to dye fish, in a way that doesn’t rely on environmentally harmful petrochemicals.

The enterprise says something about the cultural and scientific moment we’re in—turning to genetic modification to replace a petroleum-based product that is used to compensate for the removal of a natural process.

Humans have been dying foods produced by farmed animals for centuries or longer—often for similarly deceptive reasons. Butter, for instance, was routinely enhanced with annatto, a yellow dye derived from the seeds of the achiote tree. While undyed butter fluctuated in color, becoming more or less yellow depending on the time of year and diet of the cow producing it, using annatto extract allowed farmers to establish the color of “good” butter. Color was also added to cheeses and prepared meats such as sausages.

By the 1900s, organic dyes made from edible substances such as annatto, spinach, and saffron were largely superseded by synthetic dyes, which are cheaper to produce and more consistent in quality.

In the past few years, however, society has been shifting back from synthetic dyes to plant-derived ones, says food historian Ai Hisano from Kyoto University in Japan. Hisano sees the tomato-derived fish dye as fitting in with this shift, though in a very modern way.

Whether the genetically modified tomatoes are part of a dystopian vision or just the latest in a long line of agricultural deception, the work required some clever manipulations of the tomatoes’ genes to get the dyes required.

Naturally, tomatoes produce similar dyes called carotenoids, which give them their signature red color. But tomatoes do not make these compounds in high enough concentrations to make them a viable colorant for fish feed.

So, using a variety of tomato called Moneymaker that had been genetically edited to add bacterial DNA associated with producing ketocarotenoids, the researchers engineered a tomato to make those different colorful compounds. But the gene editing by itself wasn’t enough to get the necessary high-yield tomato.

by Kat Eschner , Hakai | Read more:
Image: Olena Danileiko/Alamy

Travel Bargains are Often Hiding in Plain Sight

It's always a thrill when I talk to a traveler who took advantage of a good airfare — or used a bunch of points to fly to a far-off land. But it's frustrating to hear from folks who struggle to nab a deal once they've read about it. Sometimes the deal expired. But often the bargain was just hiding in plain sight. Let's review some basic tools to help you find a good travel deal.

1. Google's ITA Matrix: This is my first stop when I'm researching airfares. The ITA software is used by all of the big airlines, including Alaska, American, United and Delta. One of the big benefits is the "calendar of lowest fares" option so you can see a month at a glance. Further, you can put in a length-of-stay spread of up to seven days. That way you can see if there's a lower fare if you stayed five days instead of six. Another important feature of this software is the ability to see the rules of a fare, including any "sell by" or "travel by" dates. These rules are not normally displayed in consumer-facing travel tools. Rather, it's reserved primarily for travel agents and airline sales agents.

Another important feature to the ITA Matrix: you cannot purchase airline tickets on the site. You have to take the information and plug it in on another site (like the airline's own website) or take it to a travel agent to write the ticket for an additional fee.

2. Google Flights: Google has improved its retail flight search/sales site. There are several powerful features to help you lock in the lowest rates. I like the "price graph" feature, where you can see at a glance how the prices change over the course of three or four months. It's easy to modify your length of stay, the specific airline and the number of stops.

Even though it's simple enough to change from a six-day to a seven-day stay, it's often necessary to search for one-way fares to see the cheapest options. This is simple in Google Flights. At the top bar where you enter your departure and destination cities, there's a button to select one-way or round trip. Then, when you find a good outbound flight, you can quickly choose to reverse the routing and show the return flights. This works best for domestic flights. For many international destinations, a one-way ticket still can be more expensive than a round-trip ticket.

You can purchase your tickets from Google Flights if you wish. Sometimes, though, the best price does not show up. So, you have to take the information from the fare display and either go to another online travel agency like Expedia or Priceline or a brick-and-mortar travel agency. Additional ticketing fees may apply.

3. Kayak's "Explore" feature: Some people really like the Kayak model of comparing prices on different websites. I don't. However, there is one feature on the Kayak site that's very helpful: the fare map. It's called the "Explore" section and you can start your search from any city. There's a "budget" slider that you can move back and forth to choose how much you're willing to pay for a ticket. And there's also a feature to choose the lowest fare for a particular month, a season or anytime.

The information provided by Kayak's map is pretty good. It's not perfect and sometimes it comes up with wacky combinations that nobody would use. But I find myself scrolling across the ocean to cities in Asia or Europe.

Once you see a fare you like, you can click on the "find flights" button next to the price. That's the moment of truth. Only about half the time does the actual price match the price that Kayak lists on its map. Then you have to check carefully to see the connections. For example, I just checked on a $297 round-trip fare between Anchorage and Las Vegas. Sounds good, doesn't it? Well, the outbound flight is 9.5 hours on JetBlue, flying first to Portland, then to Long Beach and finally to Las Vegas. But it's the return routing that gets the "stinker" award: leave Las Vegas at 10:55 p.m. on Spirit, arriving in Seattle at 1:25 a.m. Then, hang around until 8:59 p.m. for the JetBlue flight back to Anchorage. Of course, you can't check your bags all the way through, but with your 19.5-hour layover at SEA-TAC, you've got plenty of time to pick them up and re-check them. The whole package is sold on Kayak by CheapOair.

So, this is not exactly a "bait and switch" situation. But it's common for Kayak to display fares that either are unavailable or undesirable.

4. On-demand fare alerts: Many websites, including Kayak, offer to send out alerts if a fare drops between two cities. For example, if you're searching for tickets between Anchorage and Los Angeles, a little window will pop up offering to send you an alert. This can be handy. also sends out alerts when prices change. Airfare Watchdog is another company that can send you an alert when prices change. Kayak, Airfare Watchdog and offer these alerts for free.

by Scott McMurren, ADN |  Read more:
Image: via
[ed. I didn't know Google even had travel apps.]

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Burberry Investors Question Destruction of $38 Million in Goods
Image: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
[ed. Question?]

George Carlin

[ed. Nothing against honest Mom and Pop's (which are foundational to every culture and getting screwed just like the rest of us). See also: If You Love Capitalism, Worry About Small Business.]

Nevis: How the World’s Most Secretive Offshore Haven Refuses to Clean Up

Tax havens hate attention. Places such as Jersey, Switzerland and the British Virgin Islands made a handsome living from helping their clients break other countries’ laws for decades, without anyone really noticing. And they liked it that way. Then came the 2007-8 financial crisis, and the good times ended. Rich nations, angry over the loss to their budgets caused by tax dodging, put diplomatic pressure on the havens. Activists, furious over the theft of hundreds of billions of pounds from poor countries, exposed them in the press. The release of vast troves of confidential information – SwissLeaks, the HSBC files, the Panama Papers, the Paradise Papers – cemented a public perception that offshore financial centres exist to help the powerful dodge their obligations to the rest of us, and governments have queued up to punish them. In May, when Britain’s parliament voted to force transparency on its Caribbean islands, it was just the latest blow to the offshore havens.

This concerted campaign has threatened the tax haven business model. Since Swiss banks were forced to open up by the US Department of Justice in 2010, their share of the world’s offshore wealth has dropped from almost half to less than a third. In the British Virgin Islands (BVI), where UK investigators now have access to corporate ownership information, the number of new companies created annually has fallen by more than 50% since 2012. Jersey’s banking sector is barely half the size that it was in 2007.

Although cooperating with outsiders in this way has proven expensive, the havens clearly concluded there was little choice. If denied access to the global financial system, or sanctioned by Brussels or Washington, an offshore centre could be put out of business altogether.

This is good. Tax havens have helped the world’s wealthiest and most powerful keep a disproportionate share of the benefits of globalisation, by preventing the rest of us from seeing how much they own. This, in turn, has eroded trust in democracy and capitalism all over the world. Restricting the operations of tax havens, and enforcing true transparency on the ownership of property, is crucial if citizens are truly to take back control of their countries’ destinies.

Yet, at the heart of this increasingly encouraging picture, there remain a few holdouts – places that have stuck to the old habit of keeping the secrets of the powerful. Foremost among them is Nevis, a solitary volcano in the Caribbean with a population of just 11,000, which has been implicated in some of the most sordid financial scams of modern times, from Britain’s biggest-ever tax fraud to the fleecing of 620,000 vulnerable Americans in a $220m payday loan scam. The story of Nevis reveals the difficulties the world faces in trying to put an end to tax evasion, fraud and kleptocracy.

While Nevis’s rivals have lost business by opening up, Nevis has doubled down on secrecy. Not long ago, I spoke to a lawyer with extensive experience of the island, who asked not to be identified because he still needs to work with Nevisian officials. “The only good thing that Donald Trump could do, if he was ever so inclined,” he said, “is take a battleship and roll it up to Nevis, and literally train the guns and say: ‘Get rid of these bullshit laws or I’ll blow you to kingdom come.’”

In short, he said, “A bright light needs to be shone on this cockroach.”

Tax havens are often lumped together as if they all do the same job. In reality, they are distinctive and highly specialised predators in the financial shark tank. At the top of the food chain – as far as the western world goes, anyway – are places such as London, Switzerland and New York. These apex predators are surrounded by clouds of pilot fish that snap up the scraps: places such as Monaco, Jersey and the Cayman Islands.

These smaller centres all play different aspects of the offshore game: Jersey specialises in trusts, the BVI in incorporation, Liechtenstein in foundations. They also differ in their tolerance for criminality. Among the British territories: Gibraltar is dodgier than Guernsey, but cleaner than Anguilla. And they serve different geographical regions: Mauritius for Africa and India; Cyprus for the former Soviet Union; the Bahamas for the US.

In the world of offshore, Nevis is a bottom-feeder. It specialises in letting its clients create corporations with greater anonymity than almost anywhere else on earth. Last year, information on 70,000 Nevisian companies was leaked as part of the Paradise Papers investigation, but that didn’t help us find out who owns them: ownership information is so secret there that even the island’s own corporate registry doesn’t know. In other words, there was nothing substantial to leak. (...)

In simple terms, Nevis’s laws allow rich people to put ramparts around their property, to protect it from someone who might want to use the courts to take it away, whether that be a business partner, a spouse, an estranged child, or indeed anyone. All tax havens do this, but Nevis turned the ratchet many clicks further than its rivals, in its efforts to tempt business away from its rivals.

To bring legal proceedings on Nevis, you have to file a bond of $100,000 with the court as proof that your case isn’t frivolous. If you win, that is only the beginning of your quest for the assets. Nevis’s regulator holds no information on either the ownership of the company or its assets. Nevis’s LLCs – Neufeld’s innovation – can’t be wound up, meaning you won’t be able to confiscate any assets they own, and you would have to seek redress elsewhere. If you seek to challenge the legality of a property being put in a Nevis-registered trust – for example, if you thought the property actually belonged to you – you have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the trust’s creation was fraudulent, and you would have to begin that legal challenge within a year of its creation. This is tricky, since Nevis law requires all information on the trust to be confidential, so you would be unlikely to know it even existed.

These ludicrously formidable defences are not really intended to be used, but instead – like the bright colouring of a poisonous tree frog – they exist to warn you off attacking in the first place. If they can persuade a plaintiff to settle out of court for less than is owed, then, for a rich person with vulnerable assets, they are well worth paying for.

by Oliver Bullough, The Guardian | Read more:
Image:Planet Observer/UIG/Getty/Universal images

Cat Sense

The Secrets of Leonard Leo

When President Donald Trump nominates a justice to the Supreme Court on Monday night, he will be carrying out the agenda of a small, secretive network of extremely conservative Catholic activists already responsible for placing three justices (Alito, Roberts, and Gorsuch) on the high court.

And yet few people know who they are—until now.

At the center of the network is Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society, the association of legal professionals that has been the pipeline for nearly all of Trump’s judicial nominees. (Leo is on leave from the Federalist Society to personally assist Trump in picking a replacement for Justice Anthony Kennedy.) His formal title is executive vice president, but that role belies Leo’s influence.

Directly or through surrogates, he has placed dozens of life-tenure judges on the federal bench; effectively controls the Judicial Crisis Network, which led the opposition to President Obama’s high court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland; he heavily influences the Becket Fund law firm that represented Hobby Lobby in its successful challenge of contraception; and now supervises admissions and hires at the George Mason Law School, newly renamed in memory of Justice Antonin Scalia.

“Leonard Leo was a visionary,” said Tom Carter, who served as Leo’s media relations director when he was chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast. “He figured out twenty years ago that conservatives had lost the culture war. Abortion, gay rights, contraception—conservatives didn’t have a chance if public opinion prevailed. So they needed to stack the courts.”

Amazingly, said Carter, Leo has succeeded in this mission with few people taking notice. (...)

Leo is a member of the secretive, extremely conservative Knights of Malta, a Catholic order founded in the 12th century that functions as a quasi-independent sovereign nation with its own diplomatic corps (separate from the Vatican), United Nations status, and a tremendous amount of money and land.

The Knights, which recently have tussled with Pope Francis and resisted his calls for reform, take their own set of vows, as monks do. On the surface, the primary work of the order is humanitarian work around the globe, but it is also home to noted Catholic conservatives including Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, a frequent foe of the reformist pope.

“Leonard’s faith is paramount to him,” Carter said. “When he traveled, staff members had to find him a church near where he was staying so he could say [attend] Mass every day.”

To be sure, none of this is to repeat the odious claims of anti-Catholicism of papist conspiracies and dual loyalty. But Leo has spent a career shaping the federal judiciary to reflect rigid, conservative religious dogmas. (...)

Three Justices and Counting

Leo is most closely associated with the Federalist Society, which he joined in the 1990s. Sometimes thought of as a legal association, the Federalist Society is actually a large right-wing network that grooms conservative law students still in law school (sponsoring everything from free burrito lunches to conferences, speakers, and journals), links them together, mentors them, finds them jobs, and eventually places them in courts and in government. It’s like a large-scale fraternity, knitted together by ideological conformity. (The Federalist Society did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.)

The Federalist Society network is now estimated to include over 70,000 people. In 2016, they reported $25 million in net assets.

Leo played the decisive role in the appointments of Justice Alito (whom few people had heard of before Leo first promoted him), Chief Justice Roberts, and Justice Gorsuch—as well as in the unprecedented stonewalling of would-be Justice Merrick Garland.

Now, of the 25 people on Trump’s Supreme Court list, all but one are Federalist Society members or affiliates. Justice Gorsuch was the speaker at the 2017 Federalist Society gala. And when Gorsuch was asked how he had come to Trump’s attention, he told Congress, “On about December 2, 2016, I was contacted by Leonard Leo” (PDF). (...)

Ironically, while trying to downplay the Federalist Society’s influence, White House counsel Don McGahn, the point man on judicial nominees, managed to confirm it.

“Our opponents of judicial nominees frequently claim the president has outsourced his selection of judges,” McGahn said at a Federalist Society event last year. “That is completely false. I’ve been a member of the Federalist Society since law school, still am, so frankly it seems like it’s been in-sourced.”

by Jay Michaelson, Daily Beast |  Read more:
Image: Lyne Lucien

Saturday, July 14, 2018

[ed. Easy for you to say.]

Sven Kroner, Ohne Titel, 2001

‘Find Your Passion’ Is Awful Advice

Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, remembers asking an undergraduate seminar recently, “How many of you are waiting to find your passion?”

“Almost all of them raised their hand and got dreamy looks in their eyes,” she told me. They talked about it “like a tidal wave would sweep over them,” he said. Sploosh. Huzzah! It’s accounting!

Would they have unlimited motivation for their passion? They nodded solemnly.

“I hate to burst your balloon,” she said, “but it doesn’t usually happen that way.”

What Dweck asked her students is a common refrain in American society. The term “Follow your passion” has increased ninefold in English books since 1990. “Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life” is another college-counseling standby of unknown provenance.

But according to Dweck and others, that advice is steering people wrong.

“What are the consequences of that?” asked Paul O’Keefe, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale—NUS College. “That means that if you do something that feels like work, it means you don’t love it.” He gave me the example of a student who jumps from lab to lab, trying to find one whose research topic feels like her passion. “It’s this idea that if I’m not completely overwhelmed by emotion when I walk into a lab, then it won’t be my passion or my interest.”

That’s why he and two co-authors—Dweck and Greg Walton of Stanford—recently performed a study that suggests it might be time to change the way we think about our interests. Passions aren’t “found,” they argue. They’re developed.

In a paper that is forthcoming in Psychological Science, the authors delineate the difference between the two mind-sets. One is a “fixed theory of interests”—the idea that core interests are there from birth, just waiting to be discovered—and the other is a “growth theory,” the idea that interests are something anyone can cultivate over time. (...)

“If passions are things found fully formed, and your job is to look around the world for your passion—it’s a crazy thought,” Walton told me. “It doesn’t reflect the way I or my students experience school, where you go to a class and have a lecture or a conversation, and you think, That’s interesting. It’s through a process of investment and development that you develop an abiding passion in a field.”

Another reason not to buy into the fixed theory is that it can cause people to give up too easily. If something becomes difficult, it’s easy to assume that it simply must not have been your passion, after all. In one portion of this study, the students who thought interests were fixed were also less likely to think that pursuing a passion would be difficult at times. Instead, they thought it would provide “endless motivation.”

Dweck, one of the paper’s authors, has previously studied different types of mind-sets as they relate to intelligence. People who have a growth mind-set about their own intelligence tend to be less afraid of failure, according to her research, because they believe smarts are cultivated, not inherent. Interests are related to, but distinct from, abilities, the study authors told me: You can be interested in something but not very good at it. “I’ve been playing guitar for 25 years, but I can’t say that my abilities have gotten that much better in the past 10 years,” O’Keefe said.

Dweck told me that “find your passion” has a laudable history. “Before that, people were saying, ‘Find your genius,’ and that was so intimidating. It implied that only people who were really brilliant at something could succeed,” she said. “‘Find your passion’ felt more democratic. Everybody can have an interest.” But this study suggests that even the idea of finding your “true” interest can intimidate people and keep them from digging further into a field. (...)

K. Ann Renninger, a professor at Swarthmore College who was not involved with the study, has researched the development of interests and said that “neuroscience has confirmed that interests can be supported to develop.” In other words, with the right help, most people can get interested in almost anything. Before the age of 8, she said, kids will try anything. Between the ages of 8 and 12, they start to compare themselves with others and become insecure if they’re not as good as their peers at something. That’s when educators have to start to find new ways to keep them interested in certain subjects.

by Olga Khazan, The Atlantic | Read more:
Image: Toby Melville/Reuters

License to Clip

Rosemarie Abruzzese feared losing her cosmetology license and her job in 2017 after the Pennsylvania Board of Cosmetology said her past felony drug conviction made her a threat to public safety.

Her story is familiar, a license being threatened or denied outright because of a past crime.

Abruzzese was fortunate, though. She had access to a lawyer and appealed the decision to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. In April, the court ordered the board to grant her a probationary license, which means she can keep her job. If no other problems occur, the full license will be reinstated.

Eliminating licensing regulations that block people with criminal histories from getting work has gained support on the federal and state level. In 2015, the Obama administration released a list of best practices for states on occupational licensing. And President Donald Trump’s labor department is providing funding to states that want to study their licensing laws.

“If a person commits a crime, and they pay their debt to society, when does that debt end?” asked Jeff Robinson, director of the Trone Center for Justice and Equality, of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Does it end when you come out of prison? Because apparently it’s just beginning when you come out of prison. And that makes no sense.” (...)

Since 2016, 14 states — Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Tennessee — have passed laws revising offender licensing restrictions or requiring boards to track how many people are rejected based on a past criminal conviction. A licensing reform bill is pending in the California Legislature.

The National Employment Law Project has put an emphasis on changing licensing laws for the big industries that can lead to good jobs for people leaving prison, said Maurice Emsellem, its fair chance program director.

“Transportation, healthcare, education — industries like that, where there's a lot of background check restrictions. And if folks can get those jobs, they can really move up the income ladder,” Emsellem said. (...)

Background checks became a licensing hurdle for Pennsylvania barbers in 2015 after the licensing board added a question about criminal history to the application. Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections saw the number of inmates getting licensed through its training program take a severe dip. The overall number of barber and barber manager licenses awarded in the state annually dropped by almost 25 percent, according to the corrections department. Even after prison officials got the board to review mitigating factors, there were still fewer student inmates getting licensed.

In June, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf proposed repealing a law that allows certain boards to ban anyone who has a felony drug record from being able to work in the field for 10 years after completion of a sentence. He has also proposed abolishing 13 licensing boards, including those governing natural hair braiders and barbers.

Licensing can result in higher wages and more credibility for an industry, and reviewing criminal history is “vital” to the board’s ability to protect public health and safety, according to a statement from the Pennsylvania Department of State. The department oversees 29 of the state’s licensing boards. A spokesperson said the department favors removing unnecessary barriers to licensure. Board members do not answer questions from the press, the spokesperson said.

In 2015, Rosemarie Abruzzese was arrested on charges of trading pills with an undercover police officer, according to court records. Before being sentenced, she completed two court ordered treatment programs and applied for her cosmetology license.

She was sentenced to five years probation in September 2015. Nine months later, Abruzzese was working two cosmetology jobs and was the sole provider for her two kids. Then she got a letter that her license was in jeopardy. Despite the board’s state attorney recommending Abruzzese continue working, the board chose to suspend her license indefinitely.

When Abruzzese appealed, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court President Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt wrote that the board had abused its discretion and made findings not based on fact.

“I love what I do,” Abruzzese said. “I love where I work. It helps me on a daily basis.”

With a job, Abruzzese said she can stay focused; stay accountable; and stay a productive member of society.

by Ashley Nerbovig, The Marshall Project |  Read more:
Image: Robert Donald/Barcroft Images

Friday, July 13, 2018

Vengeance Is Mine

Watching the results on Election Night was like what I’d imagine living in an eighties teen horror movie would be like — the summer camp air curdling into one of vague suspicion, as a strange dawning sensation of doom takes hold. Slaughter: Ohio, Florida, Michigan — all bloody and prone. Who will be picked off next? Pennsylvania? Wisconsin? Minnesota? Your state? The vote is coming from inside the house.

Trump didn’t think he was going to win — not him, not his cracked, wincing campaign manager, not the sozzled Nazi werewolf chairing his presidential bid, not the jackal pack advising him, not the rival camp, not the media. Trump, that demented circus peanut, knew that he had lost every debate, that he had failed to appeal to the mystical moderate voters who determine elections, that he had trailed in most every poll.

And yet when the ballot boxes were locked and the results came filtering back, Clinton was in trouble. A few hours later, she was dead meat. DOA.

There was no grand strategy here. Trump was obviously petrified and unsure of himself, woozily winding his way onto the Hilton dais to claim victory at 3:00 in the morning. This plainly wasn’t supposed to happen. Trump, pea-brained gurnard that he is, only swims downstream; he’s never supposed to reach the spawning ground.

Meeting with Obama, Trump looked awkward and reticent, his blazer button straining against his gut, his tie snaking under and over his crotch like a long, red tongue. He had no mastery of the moment, no sense of prestige, no long-awaited vindication. Trump looked like he was awkwardly stuck in a waiting room with the president of the United States, dreading the doctor who’d soon be plumbing his asshole for cancer.

But then, the fact that this busted orange mule never knew what he was doing hadn’t slowed him or his ilk down before. Donald Trump is not the anomaly he’s been made out to be — he’s as American as apple pie and measles blankets, the real Jay Gatsby, a bogeyman half Horatio Alger, half Bernie Madoff.

Nor is he unprecedented in American politics. There is no brighter era of America in which Trump’s spiritual fathers cannot be found, ranging from Andrew Jackson to Teddy Roosevelt, and crescendoing with Ronald Reagan — that simpering, vicious moron of whom America is so fond.

Perhaps it seemed impossible Trump could win. I thought Hillary had it put away. The metrics were broken. Clocks no longer worked. The wheel of time had spun off its axis. These excuses are all valid to some extent. But some humility is called for here. I was wrong, and the fact that I saw some of the seeds of destruction, but not the crushing denouement, make my errors worse.

You may have been wrong. Few were right, and those that were tended to belong to the repellent, remorseless core of Trump’s chickenshit klavern. The worst people in the country won. I see no point in false optimism or silver linings here; this is seriously fucked up.

But this catastrophe was not inevitable. This apocalypse can be combated.

In order to defeat Trumpism — that strange bundle of live wires currently electrocuting the country — it is necessary to first understand how it prevailed on Election Day. That its victory is, right now, more tenuous than its most loyal adherents believe does not make it any less potent a threat to the most vulnerable people in America, or to the country’s few remaining worthwhile norms and functioning civic institutions. Or, indeed, to life itself on this planet.

It starts with accepting a simple fact: the Republican Party nominated a candidate better suited to winning a presidential race in 2016.

In an election in which both candidates disgusted most of the country, one excited their base, while the other did not. One candidate seemed authentic, fresh, and energizing to many; the other did not. One candidate spoke, in dark, meandering screeds, of fears not usually reconciled in political speech, and of concerns and issues rarely addressed by either party; the other did not.

There was a variance in energies between the two sides, and enough of a magnetic pull to the demagogue, and away from the gray avatar of everything decrepit and failed in politics, for the most improbable of victories to occur.

That this winning candidate is also one of the biggest assholes on the face of the Earth, an authoritarian fraud who might destroy the world, is irrelevant. Find me a self-proclaimed “rational voter,” and I will show you a liar. A vote for Trump was not some endlessly reasoned and debated decision for many American voters — but an impulsive one.

Many Trump voters went for him for simple reasons that ran a gamut: they didn’t know what else to do, they were fearful, they were entitled, they were angry and embittered, they were racist and malicious, they were confused and without malice, they were ignorant, they were not ignorant — they do not accept life in America as it is today, and they will vote, if courted, for the one guy willing to walk through life as a six foot upraised middle finger to everything known and despised. Maybe some of his promises will come true — and failing that, at least we sent a big “fuck you” up the flagpole.

It was appealing. It was a decision that couldn’t be ignored by the elite who usually rule American life unperturbed.

This shock to the system did not occur in a vacuum. The crisis of President Donald John Trump is the bill coming due on a four-decade social, political, and economic project that has succeeded in worsening, coarsening, and ending the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans. This disease permeates the air in America, crystallizing into a constellation of pain: loneliness, frustration, despair, as immutable as the stars in the night sky — distant, implacable, and hanging over every town in the country.

Yet we don’t even have a name for it. Liberals rear back in horror at the insane climate denialism of their opposite numbers — but what then is the liberal reaction to the reality that our country is a cesspit for the vast majority of its inhabitants, an everyday gambit of fear and humiliation? That “America is already great,” or even more cloying and nonsensical, that “America is great because America is good” — is it any wonder the Democrats lost?

These are insults added to the injury, smug testimony from our leaders that the pain and confusion so many Americans feel is somehow not real — even as, when the cameras are turned away, these same leaders beggar and impoverish more Americans. Much of the post-election nattering has focused on the role of the white working class in voting for Trump, but I would go further: this election was proof of the utter failure of either party to be relevant to 99 percent of American life — to even acknowledge the desperation that is a fact of life for most of the country.

There was an enormous disparity in the energies fueling each major candidacy. The GOP was stormed by a charismatic strongman who delighted in shooting his mainline rivals in the backs of their heads, cheerfully driving a backhoe over the mass grave, to the noisy acclamation of his faithful — the pied piper of a brutal and a popular awakening.

And why not? Jeb Bush and John Kasich and Marco Rubio and the dozen-odd graspers on those awful debate platforms were the architects of so much grief and misery in this country, that even a show trial would’ve stretched on for decades. Better that a wealthy Cheshire Cat cut each of them to the quick on live television. This is not rocket science here. It was enjoyable for people to see this happen. And the promises he made — oh! Baron, like love to me!

For electoral reasons, the Democrats must pretend they care about ordinary people’s well-being — that they are not a party of capital, as the Republicans obviously are. How ironic it was then that Trump’s message, which occasionally cut against the grain of typical GOP messaging, occupied their usual terrain: paeans to manufacturing, to the resurrection of American industry, to vague, all-inclusive health care, under a system in which “I will not allow people to die on the sidewalks and streets of our country.” Marry this to a virulent program of murder, deportation, and scapegoating, and you have the makings of a pretty decent dictator.

It was Trump’s hellish, dystopian vision — that “our country does not feel ‘great already’ to the millions of wonderful people living in poverty, violence and despair” — which nevertheless verged closer to the unspeakable truth. Trump, in his restorative mode, of “making America great again,” unwittingly did what his opponents could not in any plausible sense display: he recognized that this country does not feel great to many people living in it.

In his chauvinistic squeal of a campaign, in which he mobilized white nationalism as a binding force for his faithful, he promised the world to those poor working whites, with a lunatic’s lack of foresight and self-control. Trump cruelly raised the hopes of enough of them to eke out a sidelong victory.

What powered Trump to victory was a maintenance of the Republican coalition, and a hundred thousand voters in several economically depressed northern and midwestern states that had previously gone for Obama. There were racists, there were nascent fascists, there were diseased rich fucks — but, I am sorry to tell you, there were also people who’d have chosen a better option were it presented. If you can’t understand that, you risk two terms of this insanity.

These are the facts of Trump’s narrow electoral victory. He did not win the popular vote. He won where it mattered, among people who don’t feel they matter.

It’s funny, isn’t it, who was right and who was wrong. The Samantha Bees and John Olivers and Trevor Noahs of the world had their fun little jokes about Trump, didn’t they — humorless, vapid Trump, resolutely unable to laugh at himself. He’s orange, with a two-digit IQ, and takes shits in a gold toilet bowl. And his followers, oh, what a gift for comedy — unhinged, unwell, violent — and best of all, loathsome, the perfect target of derision, because who would feel bad mocking the worst people in the world?

And yet. In the words of Trump’s slimey limey, the odious Nigel Farage, crowing to the European Parliament in the wake of the Brexit vote: “You’re not laughing now, are you?”

It’s what you see in front of you and pretend isn’t there that gets you — not what you don’t know, but can’t find out. Case in point: the Democratic standard-bearer this year, Hillary Rodham Clinton — one of the worst presidential candidates in American history.

To hear the Clinton loyalists tell it from the artificial moon they live on, orbiting our corporeal reality in a dissociative fugue state, voters in Fond Du Lac and Saginaw and Scranton voted against Clinton only because of a malicious media, James Comey, Benghazi, emails, and Vladimir Putin — and not because, by every metric, they hate her fucking guts and have done so for thirty years.

This is the reality anybody with two volts of brainpower and a Rust Belt address might’ve stumbled across, yet which somehow eluded every major Democrat in an election year.

Why is Hillary Clinton despised? Misogyny, of course, a deep running vein of it — Clinton is right in her suspicion that her persistence in public life has bred contempt in a way no man could ever invite. The violent extremity and gendered viciousness visited upon her is no accident; it speaks to a deep sickness in American men. She is, after all, a woman who demanded a man’s career, no small source of resentment to many Americans of both genders.

But there’s the rub. The Democrats are, plainly, co-conspirators in the destruction of American life, “history’s second-most enthusiastic capitalist party” — the willing executioners for free-market zealots, warmongers, and Wall Street. A career engaged in such politics is a morally undesirable career, no matter your gender. Especially so when you are the type of politician Hillary Clinton was born to be: an ignorant hawk with no conception of how her feckless adventurism might destroy entire societies; a greedlord, in love with the accumulation of wealth; and, most vividly, a lying hack who couldn’t sound sincere with the Sword of Damocles hanging over her.

She cannibalized Sanders’s platform when it suited her, with the shamelessness of a starving vulture, then discarded it again. She had no ideas, and ran a campaign suggesting as much. I don’t think anybody really deserves Trump — but Hillary Clinton deserved to lose.

The endless celebrity deification, the forced jocularity, the feigned hipness, the idiotic sops to pop culture, the lifeless, stage-managed jokes, the pervading sense that this was all perfunctory to her, an inconvenient hurdle to be cleared, en route to the office that was somehow hers by right — the abiding sense that whoever Hillary Clinton actually is, she is not going to be found in public. It seemed like this inclination was only worsened by her advisers, one of the most rancid collections of suck-ups, influence-peddlers, and incompetents since the Harding Administration. (In fairness, Trump is about to give her a run for the money.)

This echo chamber of sycophants didn’t seem to get that not everyone viewed Hillary’s run as so historic, or deserving of reverence — and in their near-pathological inability to accept criticism or fault, ensured they ran a weak candidate, wounded by a thousand cuts, with no compelling reason for running.

No compelling reason for running — I’m not sure Trump has one either, but what he lacks in design, he makes up for in creepy fascist agitprop. With Clinton, it was never clear what the hell she was doing on stage.

Reading the leaked emails showing the Democratic elite had connived and conspired to boost the fortunes of one of the most widely disliked charlatans in recent political history, in a primary campaign that had all the trappings of a good, old-fashioned Dem machine ratfucking, but with none of the skill, it wasn’t merely that Team Hillary came off as venal and corrupt — it was how stupid they were. For all their whining about the email scandal, it was an entirely self-inflicted wound, a classic Clinton scandal: one part wrongdoing, two parts arrogant refusal to admit wrongdoing.

Not that the email scandal really mattered. Though the Clinton gang will never admit it, Comey was a paper-pusher desperate to avoid appearing to influence the election one way or the other; in covering his ass, it came down slightly against Clinton.

Imagine the hue and cry if Comey hadn’t blurted out the existence of new, unexamined emails, and one of his psycho special agents leaked the news. The Trump mob would’ve flash-fried Comey in hot oil. If anything took hold from that investigation, it only reinforced what a significant number of Americans already believed: that Clinton was really as inauthentic and untrustworthy as she seemed.

The bill of goods was no good at all, from day one. Nobody really wanted her to be president.

Unless you were very excited for Hillary to be the first female president — a proclivity most young women found secondary during the primaries — the only reason to vote for her was to deny Trump access to the nuclear codes. The fact that Team Clinton ran a tactically incompetent campaign, up and down, with no meaningful awareness of the conditions most propitious for victory, was icing on the cake.

The result is, they lost the race for the most powerful office on Earth to a version of Count Dracula that hates reading. If you lose to Donald Trump — serial sex predator and gold-plated bankruptcy pest Donald Trump — after he runs the campaign equivalent of eating paste, you are the biggest loser in the history of loserdom.

What would Hillary Clinton have done as president? Why was she running for president? I suspect the answers to these questions have nothing to do with policy — a subject conspicuously ignored by her most loyal acolytes, intent as they were on constructing a fantasy heroine image of Clinton unconcerned with her total mediocrity.

As with the many governors and senators who ran for president, seeking to fill the bottomless hole of ambition and ego upon which they’ve built the foundation of their empty lives, Hillary reached a point where she ran out of rungs on the ladder.

In this sense, she really did transcend the sexism that has dogged her entire career; she was one of those unlucky few captive to the delusions of high office. There was nowhere else to turn but towards the White House. The only alternative lay, perhaps, in admitting at last that such egomania devoid of principle is deadly — that in some deep and profound way, this is no way to live one’s life.

by Dan O'Sullivan, Jacobin |  Read more:
Image: uncredited
[ed. How did I miss this the first time around? Still relevant.  h/t Naked Capitalism]

A Person Alone: Leaning Out with Ottessa Moshfegh

The narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a 24-year-old New Yorker, wants to shut the world out — by sedating herself into a near-constant slumber made possible by a cornucopia of prescription drugs. In various states of semi-consciousness, she begins “Sleepwalking, sleeptalking, sleep-online-chatting, sleepeating… sleepshopping on the computer and sleepordered Chinese delivery. I’d sleepsmoked. I’d sleeptexted and sleeptelephoned.” Her daily life revolves around sleeping as much as possible, and when she’s not sleeping, she’s pretty much obsessed with strategizing how to knock herself out for even longer the next time, constantly counting out her supply of pills.

Her behavior is so extreme — at one point, she seals her cell phone into a tupperware container, which she discovers floating in a pool of water in the tub the following morning — that a New York Times reviewer dubbed Moshfegh’s work an “antisocial” novel. Moshfegh, the author of Homesick for Another World and Eileen, which was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker Prize, has a knack for creating offbeat characters who don’t fit into neat categories. Like other women in Moshfegh’s stories, the heroine in My Year of Rest and Relaxation is unsettling. She is beautiful, thin, privileged — and deeply troubled.

Moshfegh’s work has earned praise from critics for her unflinching portrayal of characters who can make us uncomfortable, and she has become an author to watch. I spoke to Moshfegh on the phone while she was at home in Los Angeles preparing for her book launch. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. (...)

Some novels, like Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, have been put in this category of autofiction. What do you think of that as a category? Do you feel that your novel falls into that in any way?

I don’t even know what autofiction is so I will refuse the category outright and let scholars and critics do the categorizing for themselves.

It’s been used to refer to fiction that has a strong autobiographical foundation. Is that true of this novel? Was that why, in part, it was difficult for you to write?

I think the thing that I have in common with this character is that I am acutely aware of how much I do not like my own mind. When I’m not distracted by my imagination or by something external, time passing feels like I’m just waiting for the time to pass until I die. It’s kind of like vigilant awareness of mortality and mindfulness.

I don’t know how other people feel, but I’m assuming that that feeling is the thing that triggers personality traits and reasons for being certain ways.

The secondary character, Riva, has all these obsessions and issues that she’s filled her life with in order to keep herself from feeling that oceanic dread of emptiness, which is just like you are an enclosed mind in a mortal body that’s going to die. All of that frustration is really what motivated me personally to take an interest in the book.

I’m also interested in the timing of the book. It’s set in New York City, leading up to 9/11. Why did you chose that time period?

I chose that time period because I think New York City before 9/11 was very different. The effect of 9/11 on the entire geographic location — which was experiencing major trauma and then also being abused by the media and politics to believe that this was the reason we were making violence in the world — the way that 9/11 shaped our national identity, I think, was really fucked up and not the proper way to deal with trauma. Just psychologically for the people that experienced it. I don’t know how much healing we actually did.

People talk about 9/11 like a tragedy, but it was also celebrated every time we went to take some action in the Middle East. It became a justification for a lie. I think that’s really exploitative and evil. I think that it’s American evil. That’s what people don’t want to look at.

I mean, sure. People want to look at it now and we have all these neoliberal fascist people taking that to the next level. I don’t know how to reconcile those kinds of images with my reality. I don’t know how to be in New York City without thinking that over there somebody had to make a decision to either choke to death on toxic smoke or jump 70 stories. How the fuck am I ordering my latte? You know?

I don’t know how much New Yorkers are aware of that on a daily basis. I’ve certainly thought about it a lot. In some ways it’s this sort of teenager-y angst. Why is everybody always pretending that everything is okay? Nothing is okay.

In that sense it is about my life. But if people are talking about the connections between people’s fiction and their own life why is that a new concept? That’s been happening since the dawn of storytelling. (...)

You’ve said that you’re somebody who abandons things. You move or you have objects in your life and you go through periods where you purge them. That’s also something this character does towards the ending — gets rid of everything except the essentials. What’s the significance of that move?

Well, I think that the theme is about nostalgia and attachment, and how that can trap us into being somebody that we actually aren’t anymore. And I mean, I don’t want to be like an advocate for throwing everything away, but I’m interested in how objects and places can keep us beholden to a self that isn’t who we want to be, and who maybe wasn’t who we ever were.

I could have been born anywhere. You know? So I’m attached to something because I have experience with it. But if I was born in, I don’t know Madagascar, I would have a totally different set of associations. I wouldn’t be writing this book.

But maybe I would. Maybe I would be writing a book, I just wouldn’t know what New York had been like. I don’t know. But I also think that when you strip everything away, I think it’s an attempt to get at what’s true. Like, you know the feeling when you break up with somebody? Even if you’re in a lot of pain, you also go somewhere really deep because you have to attach to the core of who you are again instead of sharing some part of you that was like more in the middle of your core and your outside personality. And just like a way of getting deeper into who you really are. When you’ve gotten rid of all the accouterments you’ve used to describe your world. (...)

She’s pretty aware of her privilege. So she talks about her inheritance. She has checks that are deposited to her bank account. So this is something that she can afford to do. And you write about the privilege of the art world community. “The next generation of rich kids and art hags,” you write. What did privilege mean in New York nearly 20 years ago, and what does it mean today?
I don’t know if it’s changed from the beginning of time, but I think that when you’re born into wealth you’re, in some ways, at a disadvantage. Because you don’t really need to take part in that instinctual thing that’s bred into every living thing — which is I need to figure out how to survive — if your parents are just doing it for you. Some people are really good at that and I think for some people it’s very confusing.

I think that’s pretty consistent and I think it’s maybe why there’s so much room for absurdity or egomania, like look at our president. If he had to start off working in a factory, I think he would have developed into a different kind of person. Maybe he would still be — he’s kind of an egomaniac.

But I think where we’re at with the discussion of privilege is getting kind of annoying. Whatever privilege you have is suddenly something to be ashamed of in liberal circles. Like nobody really wants to admit that they’re fortunate.
How have you evolved as a writer?

I don’t think I have one answer, but I think that, by the time I finished the book, I sort of exhausted my curiosity with internalism and I’m moving on to some place a little bit more contextual and plot driven.

The book was challenging because of the essence of it being a woman in an apartment. You know, it’s like writing about someone being in jail, which is my first book. And you don’t get out of it unless you’re thinking about the past. So, that paradigm for looking at narratives — I feel a little exhausted by it at this point.

But I know I needed to write that book to give myself a chance to look at the things that are difficult about being a person alone. I mean it’s really about the isolation, you know?

And how to deal with that or whether it’s even to deal with it. I mean, you know now there’s that term “leaning in,” and I feel like she leans in, which I don’t judge her for, but I also know that that doesn’t work. It’s just real life.

And maybe when I was writing it, I kind of hoped that it would. I think I hoped that the answers are always within me. If I have a problem, the answer is within me. And I think when I reached the end of the book, it was like there are no answers. You can only kind of just try to damage your brain in a way that makes you stupid. Which is I think the release that she finds at the end.

by Hope Reese, Longreads | Read more:
Image: Penguin Press
[ed. See also: 'Rest And Relaxation' Is As Sharp As Its Heroine Is Bleary (NPR)]