#Prisonstrike: A Rebellion Inside America’s Profitable Gulag Archipelago

On the website for Unicor, the newly renamed Federal Prison Industries — the 84-year-old government-run corporation that utilizes incarcerated people for labor — there’s a section called “Shopping.” There, you can benefit from the fruits of the company’s “Factories With Fences” program, which produces items manufactured by the 182,797 inmates of the nation’s federal prisons: socks, solar panels, goggles, shelving, license plates, office furniture. For $139, you can buy the Chrome Frame Matrix HD Chair for your office or home in ebony, wine, sapphire, or indigo, knowing it was made by prisoners who serve Unicor at dozens of facilities from Canaan, Pennsylvania, to Atwater, California. If you are looking for labor, prisoners can also be contracted for your company, for services ranging from manufacturing to call center duties. After all, it’s a fantastic deal: The pay rate for inmates ranges from 23 cents to $1.15 an hour. This, partners are told, offers companies “minimized overhead costs to help drive bottom-line improvements. (Seeing this bargain laid out in the crisp, airless language of convenience capitalism both elides the skin-crawling horror of incarceration and somehow underscores it.) Unicor has a capsule history of the federal U.S. prison labor program on its website, which notes that prison work programs originated in the United States with the nation’s founding in the 1700s, and that “despite periods of criticism from detractors, increasingly constrictive procurement laws, misinformation and stigma,” they have “endured.”

The latest “test” to prison labor comes not from outside detractors or procurement laws, but from within the prisons themselves. On August 21, a loosely connected network of incarcerated activists, led by the group Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, announced a nationwide prison strike. One of the ten demands released by the protesters is an end to prison slavery – a demand for a full and fair wage just noting it specifies as based on the prevailing wage in their state or territory for any labor performed while incarcerated.

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The strike was inspired by a riot at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina, on April 15, which left seven inmates — Corey Scott, Eddie Casey Gaskins, Raymond Angelo Scott, Damonte Rivera, Michael Milledge, Cornelius McClary, and Joshua Jenkins — dead. Prisoners stated that the surge of violence was due to inhumane living conditions, punitive sentences, and the prison warehousing rival gangs in the same units.

The date was set for August 21, the day Nat Turner’s slave revolt began in 1831. It’s meant to last until September 9, the anniversary of the Attica State Peniteniary uprising, a mass prisoner takeover of an upstate New York prison in 1971 that ultimately led to significant reforms in the New York carceral system.

“We are men! We are not beasts, and we do not intend to be beaten or driven as such,” said Attica inmate Elliot “L.D.” Barkley, in one of the first public statements made by the protesting prisoners in 1971. Barkley, the most visible face of the Attica uprising, was shot in the back and killed when authorities stormed the prison to quell the uprising, leaving thirty prisoners and ten prison guards dead.

The first demand of the 2018 strike echoes Barkley’s words across decades: It is a call for “immediate improvements to the conditions of prisons and prison policies that recognize the humanity of imprisoned men and women.” The rest are concretizations of this demand: that the label of “violent offender” should not result in anyone being barred from rehabilitation programs; that current and former prisoners regain their voting rights; an end to racist over-charging of black and brown people; and an end to the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which severely restricts the ability of prisoners to file federal lawsuits, among others.

The strike is as sprawling and difficult to track as America’s prison state itself, a system that encompasses some 2.3 million people. Its participants are largely anonymized by the activists who publicize their resistance, for fear of retaliation by prison authorities. By its very nature, it vexes publications, as the incarcerated individuals taking part are purposefully tucked out of sight and kept from communicating with the press. But reports have trickled out — particularly in activist-aligned outlets like Democracy Now! and It’s Going Down — of ICE detainees hunger-striking in Washington State; prison work stoppages in South Carolina; boycotts of commissaries in Florida; and more hunger strikers, in Colorado, North Carolina, Georgia, and California. Many groups of strikers have released local demands. These reports are smuggled out like the contraband they are, to whichever ears on the outside are willing to receive them.

At New Folsom Prison in California, 26-year-old Heriberto Garcia, in the tenth year of a fifteen-years-to-life sentence for voluntary manslaughter, recorded himself refusing food in his cell and smuggled the video to a revolutionary press in Chicago, which posted the video to Twitter. “I was introduced to the gang life at the age of 11. I ended incarcerated at the age of 16 and have been down ever since,” he wrote to correspondents at True Leap Press last year. “I’m still evolving with the struggle and will continue as long as I’m alive.

Sympathizers on the outside have staged a variety of actions to show solidarity to incarcerated strikers. In Minneapolis, protesters set off fireworks outside one of the city’s juvenile detention centers, accompanied by music by the anarchist marching band Unlawful Assembly. In Brooklyn, marchers banged drums while Metropolitan Detention Center inmates flashed contraband cellphones through narrow windows; in other states, activists have participated in banner drops, created solidarity graffiti, and clashed with police in marches.

Inside prison walls, incarcerated individuals who engage in active resistance must contend with a system designed to impose punishment and tighten the vice of privation. Activists have reported retaliatory solitary confinement, transfers, and the deprivation of clean clothes and showers for prisoners who have helped to organize hunger strikes and work stoppages. In America’s prisons — the gray archipelago of warehoused men and women tucked in towns, behind great casements of cement — a great shadow economy moves forward. Every consumer annoyance in the outside world — phone-company fees, health insurance premiums — has a parallel that exists in the prison economy, only contractors are free to exploit a captive audience. Prisoners stripped of their liberty have to further contend with exorbitant fees for outside phone calls; charges for medical care; erratic or extortionate prices in prison commissaries; and perhaps most grotesquely, in 43 states, “room and board fees” for incarceration itself.

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Imprisoned men and women are the drivers of this multibillion-dollar shadow economy: its laborers and its prey. The work stoppages and hunger strikes are the weapons of those from whom all others have been stripped. The hands that assemble thousands of chairs and tables and solar panels, that sew socks and table linens, that print and bind books for pennies, have no recourse beyond stilling themselves from that work, in the face of fearful punishment. Over the past decades, prisoners have packaged holiday coffees for Starbucks, stitched lingerie for Victoria’s Secret, and answered calls for AT&T, and farmed tilapia for Whole Foods, among dozens of other blue-chip brands. The small luxuries — cheese, chocolate, soap — of the commissary are all they have to boycott, and those who can are doing so. Hunger itself is the last offensive of the incarcerated person, when the only freedom left for a body is the freedom to devour itself. It’s the freedom once expressed by the poet Marina Tsvetaeva, who wrote, after her husband was shot and her daughter imprisoned by Stalin:

In this madhouse of the inhuman
I refuse to live. With the wolves of the marketplace
I refuse to be. I refuse to swim
with the sharks, on a current of human spines.

In America, our gulags are run not just to punish, but for private companies’ profit, for the sake of the smooth and ugly Chrome Frame Matrix HD Office Chair and its buyers, made in prison. The act of striking is a rebuke not just of individual prison conditions, but of the grinding, predatory march of the prison economy itself. America is punitive — we have the largest number of incarcerated individuals in the world — and it is harsh to those it punishes. It is not a coincidence that those subject to the abysmal conditions of the carceral state are disproportionately racial minorities. Black Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites across the country, and at ten times the rate of whites in some states. Modern prison slavery, as criminal-justice reform advocates have pointed out again and again, is an extension of our nation’s original sin, the forced labor of black bodies. The acts of defiance smuggled to our eyes and ears from within the system are necessarily small, necessarily isolated from one another, necessarily borne of the cramped and violent framework in which they are contained. It is on us to amplify them to their appropriate enormity, to let the fire of that fierce, noble hunger rise in us, and turn insatiably to justice.


Paul Manafort Is Going to Jail. But in Ukraine, He Has Left Ghosts in His Wake.

On the morning of February 24, 2014, hundreds of Ukrainians streamed through the doors of the famed presidential palace of Mezhyhirya. The billion-dollar residence, finished in wood, as if to mimic a rustic cottage, was propped up by incongruous white columns; the crowd that flowed between them was witnessing, for the first time, the uses state coffers had been put to under the corrupt guidance of their ousted president. Viktor Yanukovych had fled overnight, vanishing into the depths of Russia, and his guards had deserted their posts. They had watched over the estate, its garages filled with luxury cars, a scale-model Spanish galleon bobbing in the manmade pond, on which Yanukovych had hosted guests for luxurious dinners, with sturgeon caviar served in golden dishes and libations from cellars stocked with priceless brandies; Now the place was left open for a crowd of ordinary citizens, whose average wage was less than $200 a month.

The crowd was awed, but relatively tame. There was no looting, just selfies in the five guesthouses, with the peacocks and pet ostriches and Burmese fowl, on the vast grounds a Washington Post reporter said reminded him “of Marie Antoinette’s idealized peasant village at Versailles.”

Days earlier, on February 20, 48 protesters had died in fierce clashes with Yanukovych’s paramilitary forces, the culmination of a months-long series of rolling street battles centered in Kyiv’s iconic Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square — site of the Ukrainian parliament. In 2014, facing pressure from his benefactor, Vladimir Putin, to crack down on civil unrest, Yanukovych had directed riot police to use live ammunition and snipers to fire into the crowd of thousands that had gathered to demand his resignation. The square, with its soaring pillar topped with a golden angel, was scarred with ash and littered with corpses.

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It was the climax of Yanukovych’s reign — and its end; he fled three days later, leaving his residence and all its trappings behind, as the protests continued to swell. In many ways, that bloody winter owed its tragic toll to the work of another man, one for whom Yanukovych had been one of many protégés: Paul Manafort.

Manafort began advising Yanukovych in 2004, the year Yanukovych became Ukraine’s prime minister. Manafort’s career had begun decades earlier as a shrewd and unscrupulous young Republican in the 1970s, and his star rose with the establishment of the firm Black, Manafort and Stone, a lobbying outfit Time magazine once dubbed “a supermarket of influence-peddling.” Notorious operative Lee Atwater, a Nixon-style dirty trickster for the ages, joined Manafort and Roger Stone in the business; together, they cleared millions nudging the levers of government on behalf of massive corporations. By the 1990s, Manafort’s appetite for luxury and excitement had outgrown domestic politics, and he turned his gaze abroad. He worked to soften the image of brutal Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos; Angolan guerrilla leader Jonas Savimbi, whose armies committed atrocities and conscripted women into sexual slavery; and Zaire’s infamous Mobutu Sese Seko, among others. The back-channel operations were wildly lucrative; moral lines meant as little as borders to the jet-setting power broker.

Yanukovych was elected president of Ukraine in 2010, under Manafort’s oily guidance; a country that had been the first to break from the Soviet Union, ushering in its collapse, found itself drifting closer and closer to Moscow. The reforms brought about by a popular revolt against Yanukovych in 2004 dissipated under his renewed rule. Activists bridled against the appalling graft of the Yanukovych regime. In a country where women sell dill-flowers by the metro for kopeks, in which more than a quarter of the population was living in poverty, the capital was studded with exemplars of Yanukovych’s open corruption. From the long promenade at Mariinsky Park, Kyiv’s loveliest municipal garden, a breathtaking view of the banks of the Dnieper River was marred by the blocky gray bulk of a presidential helipad.

After Yanukovych’s ouster, evidence of Manafort’s activities — and the rich payments he received for them — were pieced together from drowned or half-burned documents in Mezhyhirya and the abandoned offices of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. Manafort’s name cropped up again and again as the recipient of illicit payments. Manafort’s associate Rick Gates had boasted to friends, “in every ministry, he has a guy” in Ukraine, in what amounted to a “shadow government.” But the ledgers showed that even shadows sometimes leave receipts.

In 2016, investigative journalist and now-parliamentarian Serhiy Leshchenko received one such document anonymously: the infamous “black ledger,” which detailed, in chicken-scratch Cyrillic, some $12.7 million in payments to Manafort from 2007 to 2012. By the time Leshchenko made the document public, Manafort had stepped in to smooth the ascendance of another troubled and amoral politico: Donald Trump.

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Manafort is en route to a long prison term now, after a jury found him guilty on eight counts of tax and bank fraud. For decades, Manafort gave guidance to murderers around the world. It was only in America, the country that had shaped his tactics, that he found a partial comeuppance. But in Ukraine — and Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Philippines — there are bodies in the ground that will never rise again.

The 2014 revolution, known colloquially as “Maidan” or “Euromaidan,” after Independence Square, was led by students and activists; it swelled to become a grassroots movement that encompassed hundreds of thousands of protestors. These days, a war with Russia still rages in the east of the country, as Putin seeks to reclaim by force the influence over Ukraine he once achieved with grease. Some ten-thousand Ukrainians, soldiers, and civilians alike, have died, while 4.4 million have been impacted by displacement, famine, and continual shelling. In Kyiv, the ash has been washed from the cobblestones of Independence Square, and the angel spreads her wings on the top of a pillar that is once again white, presiding over the city’s living and the revolution’s dead.

The ill-gotten mementos of Paul Manafort’s life have been used as exhibits in trial: his stiff legions of suits; his numerous residences; an infamous $15,000 ostritch-leather jacket. Just outside Kyiv, where once-awed protestors touched with hesitant palms the gaudy fripperies of a life sustained on loot, Mezhyhirya remains, unscathed. It’s available for commercial tours, for the curious, but its colloquial name now illustrates precisely what it is: the Museum of Corruption. Perhaps one day, if the era Manafort and his ilk ushered in ever ends, Mar-a-Lago will serve a similar purpose.


It’s OK to Be White, but It’s Not Enough

Toward the end of Spike Lee’s staggering new film, BlacKkKlansman, there’s a revelatory sequence in which two speeches are placed in juxtaposition.

One is an oration by David Duke (Topher Grace), then grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, as he initiates a number of new members into the organization. The other is a haunting recollection of the real-life lynching of a young black boy, Jesse Washington, as told by weathered activist Jerome Turner (Harry Belafonte) to a riveted audience at the Colorado College Black Student Union.

The camera intercuts between the two speeches — Duke declaring the need for racial purity, Turner describing the devastation the policing of that spurious purity has caused — and serves, as much of the film does, to offer a lucid appraisal of the violent boundaries of whiteness, and the sucking, vacuous nullity at the center of that concept. “White power,” as championed by Duke, is the urge toward violence for the sake of the preservation of unearned dominance. “Black power,” as spoken by the young activists in the film, is the reclamation of strength stolen by an oppressive state, a celebration of physicality denigrated as undesirable, degenerate. That much hasn’t changed in the decades since the incidents that inspired the film took place in 1979. But in a time of social upheaval, the grim little soldiers of white power have re-emerged emboldened.

It has been just over one year since the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally was held in Charlottesville, Virginia, at which one counterprotestor was killed and several more were injured; an anniversary event organized by the same white supremacist who led last year’s rally, Jason Kessler, fizzled into infamy last weekend. But all over the web, in the fetid corners where race theorists gather, the ideologues for whom whiteness is the only source of pride have been gathering for years. Since Donald Trump’s emergence on the national political scene, with his persistent and undeniable denigration of Latinos, immigrants, and black people, these running hounds of whiteness have been howling. In the havoc of a tempestuous presidency, the dogs of race war are ready to sink their teeth into the flanks of anyone they hate — and their hatred is broad and immense.

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As a researcher on extremism, I’ve learned the ins and outs of how whiteness is both constructed and defended online, through bad-faith campaigns on social media, and on sites and message boards devoted to the amplification of hate. I’ve studied the white supremacist candidates running for GOP seats all over the country, a group whose numbers extend well into the double digits. But it’s worth examining the concept of whiteness beyond our explosive moment, as it has existed throughout American history.

The idea of a “Caucasian” race dates back to the late 1700s, when the German anthropologist Friedrich Blumenbach examined the skulls of Eastern Europeans to build a taxonomy of the races, dividing humankind into five groups; white Caucasian, yellow Mongolian, black Ethiopian, red American, brown Malayan. Although Blumenbach himself didn’t posit a hierarchy of the races, his work was used as the basis for racist pseudoscience that emphatically did, such as that of the Dutch anatomist Petrus Camper and the American doctor Josiah Nott, who sought to create a scientific basis for the inferiority of those with nonwhite skin.

This scientific veneer served to prop up a status quo that was already violently racist; the Middle Passage slave trade that trafficked in African bodies had been prospering for centuries. The slavery that allowed the early American economy to flourish as a producer of textiles was based on a thin scrim of justification that drew on both race science and the Bible — Africans were descendants of Ham, a cursed son of Noah — and was driven by greed. Human bondage was the economic engine of early America; race science, and the violent rhetoric of racism, was the grease that allowed the bitter machine to function. Slavers purposely separated Africans from the same town and culture, who spoke the same language. In this way they created blackness: By thieving individuality and heritage from those whose bodies they exploited, they created a category of people who could only be identified by the color of their skin. There were many who did not survive the onslaught of white greed and the terror that upheld it; but those who did, did so together, in solidarity.

When the Civil War ended, racist terrorism — the lynching and brutality white Southerners called “the Redemption” — and the quieter but no less consequential racist policies of the North conspired to maintain a status quo of black poverty and white supremacy.

For all the rigidity with which its bounds are policed, whiteness has been a surprisingly elastic category. Immigrant groups — Irish and Italians in particular — who were initially cast as ethnically inferior found themselves assimilated into whiteness over the course of the twentieth century. Whiteness expands and contracts as necessary to police its bounds, and keep its enemies subjugated. Even Jews, in the last decades of the twentieth century, found themselves conditionally admitted. The elasticity of whiteness is rooted in its essential lack of substance, its existence as a negation of the other.

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At its hollow core, whiteness is nothing in particular: It’s an airless vacuum, bereft of any affirmative quality. To be white in America is merely to benefit from the absence of racial discrimination. To be white in America is to walk a path that contains no hurdles based on the color of one’s skin, one’s name, one’s outward presentation to the world. To be white is to benefit from a history of slavery, theft, and colonization that transpired before you were born; it’s to reap the harvest, without any effort on your own part, of centuries of religious and intellectual justification for violence. It’s playing life, like a video game, on the easiest setting. There’s no shame in being born white, but there’s no pride in it either, because it is by definition a category bereft of specificity.

Whiteness exists to punish blackness; whiteness exists to hurt those who are not white; whiteness exists to exert its own supremacy, in a great feral and bitter taunt against those it loathes. Whiteness has no language of its own; whiteness has no homeland, no cuisine, none of the markers that distinguish a culture worth celebrating. “White pride” — the notion that whiteness itself is something to boast about — is rooted in this vacuity, and that’s why it manifests as violence. White pride is a license to patrol the boundaries of whiteness, to inflict violence on those who seek to live, as white people do, unencumbered by racial prejudice. And the “White Power” of David Duke and his contemporary analogues is precisely this power: the power to inflict harm and to create fear. That’s what Spike Lee hammers home so well in BlackKlansman: If black power is about the reclamation of a stolen history, a stolen sense of self-esteem and worth, white power is about perpetrating that theft over and over again.

If you are white in America, you have nothing to apologize for — but you have much to learn. If you wish to celebrate yourself, to feel part of something bigger, to express pride in a heritage, you can do better than the cruel sucking nullity of whiteness. Surely you were born somewhere; surely your ancestors came from somewhere; surely your hometown has a history you can plumb; surely there is music in its annals. Perhaps you can be an American; or you can be a Pole or an Irishman, a Scot, a German, a Finn, or bits of each rolled into a delicious composite that is you. Love your family, love your ancestors. Love where you live and your neighbors.

White pride and white power seduce by means of an easy solidarity, a call to arms against a formless threat, an appeal to inchoate anger. But they are essentially empty; they have nothing to give you but rage, and in this world rage is bountiful enough.

Work toward justice, and center yourself in the movement to create a better world, so you can be proud of the work of your hands, and not merely their color.


Let Us Now Praise the Radical Women of New York

It has been six weeks since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated Joe Crowley in the Democratic Primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District. Ever since, the nation’s thinkpiece writers have been working overtime, spilling untold barrels of ink in the pursuit of explicating, denigrating, or emblematizing her. Just this week, a piece at CNN seemed to lay blame at her feet alone for the failure of several progressive candidates in Tuesday’s special and legislative elections. The extraordinary focus on a neophyte nominee is in part due to the unusual circumstance of an incumbent being dislodged at all in America’s top-heavy system, much less by a very young woman of color. But critics keep returning to just one way in which Ocasio-Cortez has distinguished herself from the multitude of Democratic candidates this cycle: She identifies as a socialist. 

The word has been tossed around for decades as a slur against even the most bloodless, corporate Democrat; it was used so liberally on Fox News in the Obama years as to render the term totally hollow. Seizing the chance to fill this vacuum of meaning, Ocasio-Cortez — along with Cynthia Nixon, candidate for New York’s governorship; Julia Salazar, a candidate for New York State Senate; and the man who popularized the term with his 2016 campaign, Bernie Sanders — has reclaimed the label, affixing it to a slate of policies that make eminent sense to many Americans: socialized medicine, free college tuition, an end to cash bail.

Throughout her still-brief political career, Ocasio-Cortez has been dogged by a slate of tsk-ing pundits muttering about her policies being too far to the left — and potentially a liability for the entire Democratic party in the crucial November elections. But those who seek to paint a young woman drawing on the legacy of FDR’s social policies as a wild and dangerous radical ought to look just a bit further back. In all the multitudinous pieces seeking to understand the phenomenon of her candidacy, few have looked at the history of the city Ocasio-Cortez is from. New York has a long history of radical women who have stood at the helm of social movements, often in times of great social ferment. Is it such a surprise that again, on these steaming streets, in the second decade of a young century, women tired of a grift-raddled and regressive status quo have chosen again to take up the banner of progress?

A century ago, New York City was the primary residence of “the most dangerous woman in America”: a firebrand who preached a line far more volatile than free college. Behind her tiny wire-rimmed spectacles, her seething mind drew hordes into the streets. Down on the Lower East Side, at the turn of the last century, a woman came to this country and made an indelible mark on it. Her name was Emma Goldman, and exactly one hundred years ago, she was in prison for preaching anarchy in the streets of New York.

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In 1885, at the age of sixteen, Emma Goldman stepped off a boat in New York Harbor, fleeing a father in St. Petersburg who had told her she had little more to learn than how to make gefilte fish.

She departed the city not long after, for Rochester, where she worked in a factory; but after the Haymarket riots and the subsequent execution of four anarchists, she fled the factory and her then-husband and returned to the city. There, in a tenement house, she fell in love; defended gay rights; published the radical magazine Mother Earth; and advocated for every woman’s right “to support herself; to live for herself; to love whomever she pleases, or as many as she pleases.”

She possibly inspired the mad Leon Czolgosz to assassinate President William McKinley. She certainly did plot with her lover Alexander Berkman to shoot and wound Carnegie Steel manager Henry Frick during a spate of brutally repressed steel strikes.

She stumped so proudly against the First World War that a young J. Edgar Hoover had her deported to the Soviet Union. There she confronted Lenin about his censorship of the press; she left the Soviet Union brokenhearted, and traveled about the world for the rest of her life, never finding a settling-place. She returned just once to New York, in 1934, on a speaking tour. On the umber brick of the narrow building on East 13th Street where she once lived hangs a placard lauding her as an “anarchist and orator.” New York, after all, was the city in which she stood before a jury at her trial and said: “The history of human growth is at the same time the history of every new idea heralding the approach of a brighter dawn, and the brighter dawn has always been considered illegal, outside of the law.”  

In the century since Goldman’s deportation, New York — with its welter of cultures, its bright slashes of art amid gray avenues, its ability to encompass great wealth and abject poverty — has played host to innumerable radical women. Anita Block, editor of the women’s page of the socialist New York Call, was the first editor in America to print Margaret Sanger’s advocacy of birth control, in 1911. Block was a theater critic at a time when, her instructors said, “no nice girl would dream of reading Ibsen.” It was Theresa Malkiel’s chronicle of her experience working in textile sweatshops, 1910’s Diary of a Shirtwaist Maker, that helped fuel public support for workplace reforms; she later became the first female factory worker to ascend to leadership in the U.S. Socialist Party, where she bristled at the sexist myopia of male socialists. After fleeing the Holocaust, the Yiddish socialist poet Sophia Dubnow-Ehrlich made her name in the United States as an aggressive agitator against the Vietnam War.

In 2018, amazingly, there are still female firsts to be had. The recently elected socialist Rashida Tlaib may be the first Muslim woman in Congress. Sharice Davids, squaring off against Kansas’ Kevin Yoder in the fall, may be the first Native American woman in the national legislature — a lesbian, former MMA fighter, and radical departure from the Kansas norm by any measure, if not a socialist. But a trailblazer that preceded them by decades was born and bred in Brooklyn — the remarkable, indomitable Shirley Chisholm.

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Chisholm, whose parents were immigrants from the Caribbean, began her career as an early-childhood educator, then ran — and won — as the second-ever African American elected to the New York State legislature.  She was the first black woman elected to Congress, in 1968, while the country was convulsed with heated protest against racism. Conducting her primary against a male state senator, William Thompson, Chisholm made inroads not just in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a majority-black neighborhood deeply desirous of a black representative. Thanks to a recent redrawing of the Congressional district, she had to conquer the hearts and minds of the white and Puerto Rican residents of Greenpoint, Bushwick, Williamsburg, and Crown Heights. Her slogan, “Unbought and Unbossed,” signaled her independence from the formidable — and sclerotic — Brooklyn political machine. She conducted swathes of her Bushwick campaign in Spanish, distinguishing herself from predecessors, who hadn’t bothered.   

In the end, it was that grassroots organizing — and the support of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s black women — that allowed her to triumph over Thompson and make history. “She can pick up the phone and call 200 women and they’ll be here in an hour,” her husband, Conrad Chisholm, said of her electoral army.

“I went out on the trucks, told the people we could all be liberated from the machine,” Chisholm said, describing her hard-fought primary campaign. She went on to serve seven terms in office.

Half a century later, Ocasio-Cortez faced a similar circumstance: a long-shot campaign against an establishmentarian with an iron-clad lock on the local Democratic Party and a full-throated endorsement from the Democratic machine. Crowley declined to debate her, instead racking up reams of endorsements from some two dozen labor unions and women’s organizations.

After her stunning upset, Ocasio-Cortez told off critics who dismissed the painstaking electoral effort she had mounted. “Some folks are saying I won for ‘demographic’ reasons,” she tweeted, affixing photos of a pair of ruined sneakers. “Here’s my first pair of campaign shoes. I knocked doors until rainwater came through my soles. Respect the hustle.”

For New Yorkers, living in a city of corruption and patronage, idealism and protest, activism and regression, hustle might just be the only thing we all respect. One hundred years ago, Emma Goldman hustled across states and counties and cities across America to spread her message of labor and love; Shirley Chisholm hit the pavement to sell herself as the pioneer she was. Ocasio-Cortez, despite the sweeping scale of her platform, draws from a rich and variegated history of women who dared to dream big in this city — and who walked the long rough walk, in brogues and heels and sneakers and boots, on streets and avenues, in every borough — to make it work.


How to Survive Midsummer in New York

In the summer in New York, everything is covered in airborne grit; it’s not anything so clean and fine as dust, and not quite ash, just ambient black specks pirouetting through the air in a kind of Brownian motion toward any uncovered surface. Every arm and thigh in the city is slick with sweat: When the air isn’t still and glassed-in like a hot bell jar, it’s buffeted by moist, swollen zephyrs. It takes a thunderstorm to wring all that humidity out of the air, let the crust of grime wash from buildings down to the street, where by noon it will dry out enough to flake to bits, and be cast forth on the wet hot wind.

Everyone with enough money deserts the city for weeks at a time. Select portions of Upper Manhattan look not dissimilar to an evangelical church after the Rapture: Behind the high windows is an enormous absence. Those left behind are free to envision orthodontically perfect grins and bronzed limbs sprawled out by the sea, while we gasp for air.

By August, it’s the proles and tourists that control the sidewalks. The entire psychiatric profession hits pause. The air gets thick as caramel; the sun a disc of violent light; the thunder starts long before the rain arrives, if it ever does. The bodega line grows to conga length, and everybody’s buying ice. It gets hard to eat.

There are days when it’s so hot outside — or the A/C is on the fritz or just dripping feebly — that the whole damp fabric of the heat hovers like a chloroformed rag around my face. On days like this, my throat feels pinched and arid. It begrudgingly accepts cold water and cold coffee and little else.

Running on cigarettes and stimulants, I get shaky. My brain feeds on itself and excretes neuroses. Bad memories waft up in brackish gusts — loves lost and friendships ended, searing fumes of shame and regret. It’s too hot to become a madwoman in an attic — heat rises — but it’s also too hot to control my nerves and my anger, my fear of the future and rumination on the past.

All this is my betrayal of an essentially American doctrine of resilience. In this country, we are supposed to turn suffering into motivation; the will to work ought to stay intact no matter the time of year. The flow of capital never ceases, and neither should you. In New York, city of wealth and capitol of capital, the doctrine of work reigns in the congested streets from the north Bronx down to Brooklyn, condenses in the air and runs down our clenched jaws in salty drops. The pursuit of success — in work, in love, in investments — should never stop or sleep; neither should you, even if, in the heat, all you want to do is halt your bloom.

On days like this, I have precisely one solution to get out of this crucible of inner bile. It’s not medicine or moderate exercise or even HVAC repair. It’s not Superman’s icy Fortress of Solitude, or a ticket to the tropics. In fact it will cost less than ten dollars and only a few blocks’ worth of fortitude. It will require a blender, a few tomatoes, a piece of old bread, a little oil and vinegar and salt. It will require someone to feed, even if that someone is only hungry, baking, trembling little you.

There’s a quiet alchemy to cooking — a stillness of the mind brought on by rhythmic actions of the hands. There’s a congruity of mental and physical effort that’s rare in my life, so driven by a restless and self-cannibalizing mind, that I come to crave it. I enjoy cooking more than I enjoy eating; when drunk or anxious or sad, I cook too much, more than I can eat, and scramble to find hungry friends. Peeling garlic — slipping the pale cloves out one by one, prying the skins loose with my thumbnail – is a small act; peeling a head of garlic, mincing it, letting it foam aromatically in sizzling butter, is a little reclamation.

I got divorced a few years ago and fell apart spectacularly. I cried in public so often I learned the etiquette of crying in public — minimize noise, carry tissues, mutely shake your head if ever offered help. (New York City is a wonderful city in which to cry in public, as no one wants to offer any help.) A month ago I left a very good job in less-than-ideal circumstances, and I found out the muscle memory of grief was intact in me. Each circumstance represented my life diverting from a path that was easy to explain, appealing on paper; if not authentically ennobling, or enough to make me happy, being married and working at an institution with an excellent reputation were circumstances I could point to as external evidence of my worth.

In the aftermath of each I had to learn — slower than I’d hoped — how to rebuild myself piecemeal. Absent a husband, I had to muster friends who didn’t mind my ghostly presence on their couches, as I struggled not to disappear into my own grief. Absent the good job, I found out who cared about me only because of the job, or who would let the taint of scandal drive them away.

Each time, I learned to let fragments of me die and turned to nourish other parts. When the clamor in my head overcame me, I let my hands work at the cutting board, in the slow, sawing rhythm of return.

In the full and ghastly heat of summer, or in the grip of powerful emotion, it can be too much to ask of yourself to stand in front of a stove. Enter the cold soup — friend of the weary and the scorched. I have built a repertoire over the years — gazpacho foremost, but also other exemplars of the genre: Russian yogurt-and-radish soup, Hungarian sour-cherry soup, French vichyssoise topped with a fan of chives. Each asks so little of you and gives so much. There are few things on this Earth that can quench your thirst and fill your belly and soothe your restless heart at once.

In each crisis of mine in recent years, there was one friend who distinguished herself — who visited me in my mouse-infested first post-divorce apartment; who gathered my things and helped me move away from it; who slept in my bed when I couldn’t stop shaking, and watched marathons of sleazy true-crime shows with me. In Russian, one term for a perennial companion is a sobutilnik — “a friend who will share a bottle with you.” My own spin on this excellent word would be someone willing to make soup with you; to chop and blend and pour into the bowl. My best friend’s avid delight at the punch of garlic in the mix is better than rubies. There is little better than someone who understands that what you offer, when you offer a perfect soup, is all your love.

I first tasted Andalusian gazpacho in Spain with my mother; I made it for the first time with the man who would become my husband. It differs from most gazpachos I have encountered in America in that it is thick and smooth, a soup, not a salsa in a glass. The key is a heel of stale bread, which, when combined with olive oil, binds the broth, thick and cool and pale. When my husband left me I waited a year and made it again. Now I have made it for my mother, for friends, and even for myself, the first to receive my ire, the last to receive my gifts.

In the dog days of summer, when the grass dries pasta-pale, wildfires fill the news, and the skies portend collapse, find yourself a soup companion, and make gazpacho. Make too much — ideally, enough to fill the biggest container you have. Like resilience, you have to make it yourself; like healing, it will look a little different each time. Like forgiving yourself, it will brace you, make you stand upright again, cease the tremor in your hands. With each cold sour spoonful I restore myself, dilute the bile in my mind and my heart, return. Vinegar and oil and bread, bell pepper, cucumber, tomato, whirred and poured into a jar and sealed for tomorrow, and eaten at midnight anyway. One trip to the grocery store is all it takes me to remember that — even wending my way circuitously in a world of straight lines — I am moving forward, that there is cool and comfort to be had in this ashen city I love.

Andalusian-Style Gazpacho
Serves 2 to 4

1 pound vine tomatoes (don’t use beefsteak tomatoes, please)
2 medium-size cucumbers
1 fresh green bell pepper
1 small red onion
2 cloves fresh garlic
1 chunk stale bread, ideally French or Italian
A few generous glugs of olive oil (about a cup)
Two generous pours (about 2 tablespoons) of red wine or sherry vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Soak the bread in water for five or ten minutes, then squeeze it out with your fist till it’s a soggy solid.

2. Chop up all the vegetables and the garlic. De-seed the cucumbers and tomatoes unless you like tomato seeds getting stuck in your teeth.

3. Put all of the above in your blender or food processor.

4. Add the liquid ingredients and spices.

5. Pulse until it turns a pale red, reminiscent of vodka sauce.

6. Chill till it feels cold to your finger.

7. Eat when it’s too hot to eat anything else.

Health Healthcare Living NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES The Harpy

How to Live in a Female Body

There’s a moment in every woman’s life when she discovers her body isn’t her own.

At the first uninvited touch, the first catcall, the first time the word “no” is said but not heard, she realizes it was never hers. Or not entirely — not like she thought it was, elbows and knees and thighs moving under her power, the whole many-celled complex of flesh subject solely to her will. To some it will always be property, to be moved and manipulated, admired or denigrated, for their own fleeting pleasure or gain. To move in a female body is to carry yourself through the world as a flicker of will in a machine others consider a tool for public use.

I was fourteen the first time I let something happen to my body. I hovered just inside myself, in the space where I knew what was happening to me had little to do with what I wanted, or what would give me pleasure. I lay back feeling the minutes pass with unsultry slowness, letting the whole thing commence with little involvement. All I wanted was to keep the peace and keep what I thought, back then, was love. The assignations continued for months. He was older; technically, it was illegal; practically, I channeled the dual forces of self-loathing and love, so potent in me then, into the process of making myself disappear for twenty minutes at a time, and letting my body remain on the bed.

I was too young even to be angry at him.

I displaced my anger at him, transferred it to anger at the strict religion I grew up within that quite literally prohibited women’s voices from being heard and from leading prayer; that partitioned us off in holy spaces, that told us our bodies were unclean. I ate on fast days and hid in the bathroom during morning prayers at school. I turned my anger at him into anger at myself. I burned myself with matches. I learned how much pressure one must apply to cut oneself with a safety razor: Breaking the skin is easy; making a thick scar is much harder. The physical piercing of my skin made the wave of pain I felt crest and break; physically anchored somewhere in the world, it could no longer flood my mind.

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The official doctrine of Orthodox Judaism prohibits all contact between members of the opposite sex outside of the covenant of marriage, even a brush of the hand or a tap on the shoulder, because women exist in a perpetual state of menstrual impurity.

In practice, of course, animal urges dart through the thickets of desire; hands touch hands and more than hands. But throughout those early encounters I grew used to what would define so much of my contact with men in the subsequent fourteen years. My body was a vehicle for the fulfillment of male desires. The ghost of my will flickered in the machine, tapped out for whole incidents, returned. Each time there was a little less of me when I came back to my body. To those I wanted to love so much, my breasts and my thighs were more welcome than I would ever be.

I didn’t know to expect any better.

I still wanted to be touched and to be adored, wanted sexual fulfillment, even if I wouldn’t have phrased it that way back then. That thirst returned me again and again to the brackish, putrid pool of bad love.

But it’s one thing to yield to an advance in the name of peace — to go along out of appeasement or even curiosity, or the hope that what happens will give you pleasure, even if it doesn’t. It is another thing entirely to say “No,” and say it loudly, and have it ignored. It removes all plausible deniability, and exposes the bad bargain for what it is.

I don’t remember all the details of the night that first happened to me; it happened to me precisely because I was in a state not to remember all the details. All he wanted, said my classmate who was mostly a stranger, was a kiss. He pulled me onto his lap and I wriggled away, as I stumbled out of my dorm room and he followed, as I took the back stairs and he pinned me against the wall of the staircase, as I turned my head away so forcefully my neck hurt the next day, as I pursed my lips so hard they swelled. The world wheeled drunkenly around me but I knew I had felt the word “no” in my throat; my vocal cords had vibrated, my tongue made the appropriate motions, my mouth opened, the word arced toward him in the air, and it didn’t matter. It is one thing to be thrust against as you lie there so indifferently you try imagine yourself into bodilessness. It is another thing to have your voice taken from you — to have your dominion over your body challenged. I extricated myself from him like a splinter taken from an eye: painfully, painfully.

The man who raped me, years later, had been my lover for months. He was not a stranger. He had doled out pleasure in miserly fashion and I had taken what I could. But I was drunk — not catastrophically; I could walk; I felt safe enough to have gotten drunk, to be a little dazed, a little dreamy — and I realized too late that he had entered me without a condom, the condom I took from my purse and gave to him and asked him to wear; I had agreed to sex but not this sex, not unsafe sex, I had agreed to sex with a man who had made me feel safe and then had waited until I was weak enough to violate. He tried to placate me but I couldn’t be consoled, not by him, at any rate. I went to his roof and cried until the windows of Manhattan were too blurry to see on the horizon, and melded together into a wobbly blush of light. For a decade I had vacated my body when I chose to, letting men use my limbs for their pleasure; but I had allowed it, I had chosen it, I had known what I was in for. This act of theft rendered my body not my own.

Looking back over fourteen years of involvement with men feels like flipping through a catalogue of trysts and violations. A small Rolodex of assaults, each one still searing to remember — groped by strangers on a train and in a backroom and a city park; fingers appearing where they had no permission to be, or where they had been forbidden to be; kisses taken, not given; an array of wheedling and incessant demands reluctantly acceded to and later regretted. Good and bad love are each represented there, but when I am alone at night the bad love thrums up from my memory, reminding me I am less than I was.

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When I hear women talk about the frustrating ways our voices seem to disappear into a void when we speak with men — when our areas of expertise are explained to us; when our work is undermined; when our contributions are dismissed in meetings, our credentials doubted, the very tones of our voices subject to criticism — I think of how much these complaints overlap with the ways our control of our own bodies is denied us. I wonder how many women have said “no” and had it deliberately go unheard, like so many other words we speak. When I talk about what I know — about the history of the Hebrew language, or Russian literature, or the strange depths of the Internet — sometimes I think of asserting control over my body and having it denied me, and wonder if I should speak at all.

The laws of this country so often dictate what happens to women’s bodies. The noose around our freedom to control our wombs is tightening, with the prospect of the nation’s highest court dictating from above that we are vessels for the growth of men’s seed, prevented by law from reversing the processes that happen just under our skins.

The notions that we are vessels for pleasure or for procreation are intertwined, and the overarching message is identical: Your body is not your body. Your body is a means to an end; the ghost inside that is your will doesn’t matter. You can say no; you can scream it; you can shatter your larynx like glass screaming no, and there will be those who out of sheer indifference or avarice for pleasure or unhearing zealotry treat it like silence.

I am twice the age I was when I first learned how to disappear inside my body. I wish I could say I have attained some combination of wisdom and clairvoyance that would allow me to foresee who may be a caring lover, and who will treat the word “no” as an inconvenience or as nothing at all. All I have gained is rage: rage that I can feel blazing in every limb, rage at a world that would rather I be a voiceless sac for fetal growth, a mindless conduit for the pleasure of others. I have taken the mourning I feel for the larger and less frightened self I could have been and forged it into a hot little dagger, one that I would like to plunge into the fat and self-satisfied flank of a world so willing to steal my voice. There are days and weeks when I feel like crumbling into ash. But I have chosen instead to fight, to raise a big and hideous and ungovernable howl for the girl I was and the girls who have yet to be. I don’t want them to ever have to pass through the ghastly syllabus of bad-love lessons etched on my skin; I want to erase it, rewrite it, dictate a will and testament that grants every woman absolute dominion over her own four limbs and every cell in between. I want to live with pen in hand, mouth open, reclaiming my voice at a volume that can shatter stone.


The Real Link Between the White House and the Kremlin

In the late 1980s, a scandal began to unfold in the Soviet Union that would ultimately engulf members of the highest levels of government and the military, a case of corruption that was astounding in its brazenness.

For decades, the leader of the Communist Party in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, Sharaf Rashidov, had overseen Uzbekistan’s cotton production. With the help of Yuri Churbanov — Leonid Brezhnev’s son-in-law and a four-star general — and a slate of local KGB officers, Uzbek officials had fed the Kremlin a steady stream of statistics detailing excellent harvests, quotas met and exceeded, new fields planted, and irrigation networks created. Some 3 billion rubles in crop subsidies flowed back to Uzbekistan to help keep this agricultural bonanza flourishing; the state’s resources poured into the cotton fields to such an extent that the crop earned the moniker “white gold” among Uzbek elites, according to Mark Galeotti’s magisterial history of Russian crime, The Vory. There was just one problem with the Uzbek bounty: The harvests were faked in their entirety, as hollow as the “dead souls” once collected by Gogol’s hero Chichikov. In 1982, the new general secretary, Yury Andropov — on the warpath against corruption since succeeding Brezhnev — resorted to desperate measures to break through the cozy patronage networks and cheerfully shameless conspiracy that defined the gambit: He directed spy satellites to photograph the fields where Uzbekistan’s cotton wealth supposedly flourished. The photos turned up endless swathes of scrub and steppe. The cotton had never existed.

At the heart of the Uzbek scandal was a vastly overpromoted son-in-law, one with unprecedented responsibility over national security. Churbanov, who had worked as a security guard before marrying Brezhnev’s daughter Galina, served as the well-placed Moscow connection for the cotton scheme; he was sentenced to twelve years in a prison camp in 1988. But the Uzbek cotton scandal, while dramatic, was merely the natural outgrowth of a culture of corruption that defined late-Soviet life. From ordinary citizens bribing doctors and shopkeepers for basic necessities to the ostentatious black-market ventures of party officials, the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union thinly veiled an economy that hinged on under-the-table transactions. The state was the prime mover of that society while, at the same time, serving as the personal bank of its highest-placed stewards.

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Here in the United States, bribery is a rarity in ordinary life; money is everything, but by and large it’s exchanged over the table. And yet over the past two years, we’ve watched an unprecedented culture of corruption take over the highest levels of the executive branch of our government. Unlike the Uzbek cotton conspiracy, American corruption is happening right out in the open. Our very own overpromoted son-in-law, Jared Kushner, takes in high-level national security information while raking in millions from outside ventures, including real estate deals with foreign countries. President Trump followed up on a disastrous NATO summit and a meeting with British prime minister Theresa May by spending a weekend at his own golf resort in Scotland, Trump Turnberry; the U.S. government reportedly paid nearly $70,000 directly to Trump’s private business for the privilege. As has become numbingly routine, Trump took advantage of his presidential audience to tout his own business: “This place is incredible! Tomorrow I go to Helsinki for a Monday meeting with Vladimir Putin,” he wrote on Twitter.  

In Helsinki, sure enough, Trump and Putin stood shoulder to shoulder at identical podiums. Despite the effort by the United States Department of Justice to uncover Russia’s campaign to influence the 2016 election, and a punishing slate of sanctions leveled by the U.S. on Russia, there was a defiant intimacy between the two presidents; Trump’s open servility caused faces to blanch across the Atlantic. It was predictable, but still shocking: A U.S. president siding with a foreign adversary over his country’s intelligence community might suit Trump’s brawling temperament and personal pique, but it retained its power to appall, if only for a news cycle or two. It has become politically necessary over the past few days for Republican leaders to cluck their tongues in disapprobation, like a flock of startled pigeons, though, as ever, they have not acted.

Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, began to openly state a long-held suspicion among Trump’s political opponents: that he is beholden to Russia, and his actions smack of a Manchurian candidacy. “Millions of Americans are left wondering if Putin indeed has something over the president,” Chuck Schumer tweeted on Tuesday. Senator Tammy Duckworth openly stated that there was a possibility that Putin had “compromised” Trump and turned him into a “Russian asset.” This is not a new idea — the idea that an unsavory bargain, fueled by blackmail, exists between Trump and the Russian government has been floating around for years — but in the aftermath of Helsinki, a dam seems to have broken when it comes to the openness of such speculation.

What was most striking about the juxtaposition of Trump and Putin was not the suggestion of hidden conspiracy, but the open, undeniable parallels between the two men. The very issues that most enrage Trump’s opponents — his flagrant corruption, and his tendency to indulge in blatant lies — characterize Putin’s administration as well, and have been given ample time to flourish over the last two decades. It’s precisely Trump’s well-documented propensity toward graft and deception — honed over a boastful but tumultuous career in New York real estate and enmeshed with his ties to the mobbed-up construction industry in the Seventies and Eighties — that allow speculation about his ties to Russia to flourish. A president actively enriching himself via an opaque network of finances, and one who regularly indulges in overt and shameless deception, is one so untrustworthy as to be plausibly serving foreign interests over those of his own country.

Putin is all too familiar with the mechanisms of personal enrichment while in office. There have been persistent if unproven rumors over his nearly twenty years in power that his net worth has ballooned to enormity — critics have speculated that he may secretly be the richest man in the world, with a Bezos-eclipsing net worth of some $200 billion — despite his modest on-paper salary. What is certain, however, is that his close associates have profited enormously from their connections with him. The Panama Papers, a leak from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, revealed that the godfather of Putin’s daughter, cellist Sergei Roldugin, and a close childhood friend of Putin’s, Arkady Rotenberg, have each made millions from suspicious deals linked to a prominent Russian bank. During a brief marriage to Putin’s daughter, Kirill Shamalov acquired shares in Gazprom, Russia’s largest company, reportedly worth billions. 

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Putin, an ex-KGB agent, was formed in a Soviet system that ran on graft. Following the “wild Nineties,” in which criminal syndicates and unethical businessmen alike rushed to loot the wealth of the collapsed Soviet empire, petty black marketeers have prospered into oligarchs worth billions, and those oligarchs have been forced to submit to an increasingly centralized and brutal authoritarian regime. Systems of patronage, fealty, and rivers of illicit rubles flowing through Moscow have ossified into a state whose inequality is staggering and whose elite revel in ill-gotten gains — perhaps the most stratified the country has been since the abolition of serfdom. The massive scale of the corruption of Putin’s Russia makes the Uzbek cotton scandal seem quaint.

This system is propped up by a marvel of propaganda. Russian state television has been groomed into a state of such bullish defensiveness of Putin, and preening obsequiousness, that Rupert Murdoch himself would blush. Two decades of brutal repression of independent journalism, beginning less than a year into Putin’s presidency, have resulted in the unobstructed dissemination of state agitprop. The complete dominance of the Putin regime over most media is illustrated neatly by reactions to the Helsinki summit. Responding to Trump’s walk-back of his comments at the summit — intimating that a grammatical screwup had been responsible for his apparent coziness with Russia — an analyst on the Russia-24 channel explained that Putin’s charms had been responsible: “It may well have been dyslexia brought out by the charisma of our president.”

A state unaccountable to a free press is one that is unhindered in its ability to disseminate lies. Infamously, Putin insisted, against all available evidence and reams of documentation, that the Russian troops that began to invade Crimea in 2014 were actually native Ukrainian insurgent militias. Observers had noted that the invaders were carrying Russian military weapons; within months, after a sham referendum, Crimea had been annexed by Russia, an astonishing violation of the sovereignty of Ukraine. The blatancy of the deception, and its gleeful, winking nature, was such that Russians and Ukrainians alike began to joke that it was just as plausible that the invasion of Crimea had been carried out by aliens — and dubbed the troops “little green men.”

Over the eighteen months since Trump’s inauguration, the American populace has become accustomed to open graft and open lies. The president has a penchant for repeating baseless conspiracy theories, propagating maddening misunderstandings, and telling outright lies with alarming frequency. His administration is opaque to the point of deceptiveness with regard to even its most controversial policies — the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, refuses to release precise numbers about how many immigrant children have been reunited with their families after being separated at the border. Three cabinet officials have been ousted amid reports of lavish flights, vacations, and, in the case of Scott Pruitt, a raft of goodies, from Ritz-Carlton lotion to “tactical pants.” An array of officials and hangers-on who remain in the administration have also come under public scrutiny for alleged corrupt acts: from Ryan Zinke, currently under investigation for a shady deal with a Halliburton executive, to Wilbur Ross, senescent commerce secretary with an affinity for opaque financial dealings. The American taxpayer continues to subsidize Trump’s golf and real estate habits; foreign diplomats and lobbyists alike stay at the Trump International Hotel in D.C. and at Mar-a-Lago, depending on the season. All this has ossified into the status quo with alarming rapidity.

We can hope, if only faintly, to attain clarity at some point about Trump’s real relationship with Russia — a hope that a reinvigorated post-election Democratic Congress will engage in forceful investigation, and that the Mueller probe will continue its work. One hopes that whatever doesn’t pass the smell test will be found, rotting away, and scoured clean. But at the root of the Russia scandal are the parallels between Trump and Putin that animate all our president’s unsavory behavior: a willingness to loot and an eagerness to lie. Any solution must begin with enforced transparency with regard to the president’s finances, and continue with an unyielding commitment to deflect and debunk each lie. All this must happen before graft and deception calcify into a civic norm of open corruption; otherwise, any notion of public service in the United States will be our own version of that fictitious Uzbek cotton, a pale mirage over a barren steppe.

Healthcare THE FRONT ARCHIVES The Harpy

Elon Musk and the Cult of the Celebrity Savior

On Wednesday, Elon Musk — celebrity tech genius, aspiring space mogul, and Tesla chief — made a dramatic announcement: He was going to help the people of Flint, Michigan.

It was an unexpected development in an ongoing crisis; two and a half years have passed since the initial declaration of a state of emergency in Flint, in January of 2016. In April, Michigan ended a program distributing free bottled water to the city’s residents, though by the end of June, only 37 percent of the lead pipes in the city had been replaced.

Musk’s concrete plan remains unclear, though he added that he would organize a weekend in Flint to “add filters to those houses with issues.” The proposal rapidly rang up likes, and replies oozing with admiration, including one Twitter fan who expressed concern that Musk was letting his humanitarian impulses interfere with the work of creating very expensive electric cars. “You’re the most influential person on earth right now and you’re already working on some of the most challenging problems facing mankind. If you don’t stay focused, it will take you longer to achieve,” the fan remonstrated

Elon Musk’s adoring fans — who flock to his Tweets in the hundreds, laud his successes, and even write erotica about him — typify a deeply American idolization of the wealthy. His direct engagement of fans and foes alike gives him an outsize footprint online, even for a much-lauded Silicon Valley billionaire, and fans have responded in kind. Musk devotees savage his detractors, portraying him as a savior, someone on the verge of changing humanity’s future. An individual who has made good — even if the foundation for his fortune came from his father’s emerald mines in Zambia — can do little wrong. Musk’s fans (Muskrats? Elon Rangers?) seem to identify so strongly with him that they want to become him: In their ordinary lives, they are, to paraphrase John Steinbeck, merely temporarily embarrassed billionaires. 

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Musk’s instincts as a showman help cultivate this slavish following. His announcement about Flint marked the second time in a week Musk had stepped in to a well-publicized crisis with the goal of playing savior. Five days ago, as the world fixed its eyes on twelve boys trapped in a cave complex in Thailand, Musk began ideating to his 22 million Twitter followers about ways he could contribute. “Maybe worth trying: insert a 1m diameter nylon tube (or shorter set of tubes for most difficult sections) through cave network & inflate with air like a bouncy castle,” he wrote on Twitter.

As rescue efforts got under way, Musk was working on a small submarine, designed for underwater rescue. On Twitter, he posted brief videos of a child-size, torpedo-like tube, dragged by divers through the crystal waters of a Los Angeles pool. Meanwhile, skilled divers from the Thai navy rescued all twelve boys. Perhaps it was a newly ignited messiah complex — or just a simple taunt — that led to Musk’s new overture to Flint residents. His initial pledge was in response to a simple challenge: “Hey @elonmusk I heard a bunch of people saying there’s NO WAY you could help get clean water to Flint, Michigan,” wrote twitter user @DylanSheaMusic. With his boy-size submarine marooned in Southeast Asian waters, the billionaire had found a new puzzle to solve, closer at hand.

It seems more fitting that Musk would be able to enact his desire to rescue desperate people in America. We’re a nation that perhaps uniquely relies on infusions of cash from strangers to meet our basic needs. Americans without health insurance, or health insurance inadequate to meet their medical expenses, routinely turn to crowdfunding sites to appeal for cash. Between 2010 and 2016, $930 million was raised on for medical campaigns — nearly half the entire amount raised on the site during that period. In the wealthiest country in the world, hundreds of thousands of citizens hope for haphazard, unpredictable public philanthropy to provide them with blood, breath, and water.

Others have appealed directly to celebrities to deal with financial troubles — including those who number among the 44 million Americans who hold a collective $1.4 trillion in student debt. The rapper Nicki Minaj has paid off thousands of dollars in student loans owed by fans who have appealed to her directly on Twitter. Taylor Swift sent a check for $1,989 to help pay off a fan’s student debt shortly after the release of her album 1989.

In this context, the concept of a big-hearted celebrity publicly stepping in where the government has failed seems almost ordinary. There’s a rich seam of tradition when it comes to the wealthy laundering their mixed reputations via good deeds in this country — from Andrew Carnegie papering over his bloody union-busting past with a spate of sponsored libraries, to prodigiously corrupt political operative Boss Tweed distracting New Yorkers by handing out extra coal and Thanksgiving turkeys. Musk’s gesture to help Flint suits his flair for spectacle; it typifies his attitude toward public action, providing a direct gift to both an adoring public and media outlets, who rushed to cover the statement. Jeff Bezos, the famously parsimonious founder of Amazon, tried out a more muted version of direct-to-consumer philanthropy when he asked for Twitter’s input last year in how to direct his vast fortune toward the public good. His request received nearly 60,000 comments, which boosted everything from tech education for women to voter-registration drives to multiple requests for universal healthcare.

But a society run on the benevolence of celebrities — or even the earnest helpfulness of strangers on the Internet — is a society in a state of permanent precariousness. The distribution of public goodwill is an economy not of labor but of attention. Personal fundraisers are ubiquitous on social — for rent, for debt, for hospital stays. A scroll through GoFundMe’s page for leukemia fundraisers is a heart-wrenching endeavor: hundreds of children in hospital gowns, women with shadowed eyes and patchy hair, men holding dogs and smiling wanly, seeking thousands of dollars from strangers. Of course, these are only a fraction of America’s cancer patients, but in a fractured and inadequate healthcare system — in which American cancer patients spend far more and have a higher mortality rate than their European counterparts — the rise of online medical appeals is striking.

Of the quarter-million medical campaigns on GoFundMe each year, which will raise hundreds of thousands, and which will raise none? In 2017, a diabetic artist named Shane Patrick Boyle died alone in Arkansas after coming up $50 short on a crowdfunding campaign for a month’s worth of insulin. In an attention economy, who will live and who will die is at least partly determined by how attractive or tragic they look in a single picture

I do not mean to denigrate the power of public philanthropy. The rush of goodwill on social media toward worthy causes can be phenomenally inspiring; it can transform the lives of cancer patients, desperate parents, and victims of violence. But crowdfunding medical expenses has real and obvious limits. Life and death, debt and homelessness are questions too big to be left to the curious, alchemical happenstance of going viral — or the lucky chance of catching a wealthy savior’s eye.

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In a country which fails to meet its citizens’ basic needs, the public purse is afflicted with a perennial parsimony, opening swiftly to fund war, but hesitating over the alleviation of pain. The “American dream” is one of hard and unrelenting work to make good; its dark converse is the ubiquitous American idea that those who haven’t made good, who struggle, who suffer, who need, simply haven’t worked hard enough. Against all evidence, many Americans believe that hard work is all that’s required to attain stratospheric wealth, a fortune the size of Elon Musk’s.

It’s far too early to judge Musk’s efforts in Flint. They may achieve wild success in a single weekend where the government of Michigan has failed; they may be a flash in the pan, or an unrealized dream, like his plan for a Mars colony. At the outset, it seems unlikely that he will be willing to replace the remaining 63 percent of the city’s lead pipes, a complex, expensive, multi-year process, or to painstakingly rebuild residents’ trust in water that poisoned them for months before the government copped to its contamination. What seems certain is that it should not take the intervention of a billionaire for Americans to have clean water. It should not take deft Twitter skills or soft-focus photos to be able to pay for cancer surgery, or take until retirement to pay off the cost of a college education. It seems to me it is past time to create a political system that doesn’t leave our lives and deaths to luck. That is the potent, secret promise of sweeping social policies like Medicare for All, free public college, and a universal jobs guarantee: It doesn’t have to be this hard, this desperate. Perhaps it’s time for all of us “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” and real millionaires, and billionaires, too — to see each other as worth investing permanently in.

Healthcare THE FRONT ARCHIVES The Harpy

Donald Trump and the Coming War on Women’s Rights

The history of women in America before Roe v. Wade is a history of blood.

When Caroline had an abortion in 1963, she went alone to a “ramshackle little house” in a disreputable neighborhood of Youngstown, Ohio. Later, in her college dormitory, she labored for twelve hours, alone, and began to bleed uncontrollably. “There was more blood than I ever imagined,” she told the Cut. When, at last, she overcame her fear of seeing a doctor for the aftereffects of the abortion, she was told her life had been at risk.

A reader of Ms. recalled his mother telling him that, after an illegal abortion in her teens, she bled so profusely that her boyfriend at the time collected newspapers for her to sit on, as she waited out the pain in a hotel room, unable to seek medical care without facing potential criminal charges. 

In 2018, after decades of erosion, the last levee protecting reproductive rights in the U.S. seems poised to break. The impending retirement of Anthony Kennedy, and his imminent replacement with a Trump-appointed Supreme Court judge, seems to portend the end of Roe v. Wade, which struck down anti-abortion laws in forty-six states and the District of Columbia in 1973.

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The United States government, seeking to restrict women’s reproductive rights, is bucking a global trend, as countries that have criminalized abortion for decades begin to ease their stringent laws in the face of determined feminist outcry.

Just two months ago, across the Atlantic, women all over Ireland rose up in celebration of a hard-won victory: By an overwhelming margin, the country’s 3.2 million registered voters supported a referendum to overturn a 1983 constitutional amendment that effectively outlawed abortion. From as far away as Sydney and Tokyo and Los Angeles, members of the Irish diaspora returned home to vote on May 25 in favor of a woman’s right to choose, detailing their journeys on social media. The voters, arriving to the whoops of supportive crowds, served as a direct parallel to the women who for decades took lonely journeys out of their home country to get abortions.

“We have voted to provide compassion where there was once a cold shoulder, and to offer medical care where once we turned a blind eye,” Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, said in a speech the morning the results were announced.

Last month, in Argentina, a bill to decriminalize abortion narrowly passed the lower chamber of that nation’s Congress, and is currently under debate in the Argentinian Senate. The decriminalization campaign was driven by a multiyear wave of feminist activism, in a movement entitled “Ni Una Menos (Not One Less),” that has demanded a stop to the needless deaths of women at the hands of male partners and as a result of unsafe illegal abortions. Argentina’s vote comes just under a year after Chile voted to reverse its absolute prohibition on abortion, despite vehement opposition from Catholic groups in that country.

In Argentina, jubilant crowds of women in city squares celebrated the passage of the decriminalization bill, wearing the signature green bandanas of Argentina’s abortion rights movement; in Ireland, videos of women weeping with joy at the referendum’s outcome flooded social networks.

Here in the United States, the mood among women’s rights advocates is justly somber. With more than 60 percent of the public indicating, in recent polls, that they wish to see the decision remain intact, the coalition in charge of the government seems to be salivating to fully strip women of access to abortion, at which a series of increasingly restrictive state laws has already chipped away. The legal groundwork for a challenge to Roe is already being laid. In Iowa, Louisiana, and Mississippi, state legislatures have advanced strict limits on abortion that could wind up being the instruments in a Supreme Court case — one decided by a conservative majority.

This prospect is the fulfillment of an official promise by the administration. In February, Vice President Mike Pence told the Susan B. Anthony List & Life Issues Institute, an anti-abortion group, that a change to “the center of American law” would happen “in our time.” Now it’s July, and that time seems near at hand.

But a change in the law is only that. It doesn’t change human nature —  or desire, or love, or desperation, or disease, or loss.

There are as many ways to get pregnant as there are to have sex: in bliss, in recklessness, in despair, in traumatic circumstances. The end of legal abortion in states across the country won’t end rape or domestic abuse; it won’t create more money in families’ budgets for more children; it won’t make birth control more effective or affordable. The end of legal abortion doesn’t mean the end of the consumption of alcohol or drugs; it doesn’t mean the end of heated trysts on stairways and in offices and parking lots and narrow, overheated bedrooms. There were extramarital affairs before 1973 and there will be extramarital affairs after Roe is overturned. The end of legal abortion is merely the end of legal abortion. It won’t change the number of wombs yearly inseminated in this country. 

But when Roe is overturned, more women will die.

There will be unwanted pregnancies carried to term with severe complications or postpartum infections. There will be knitting needles and coat hangers and off-label pills. There will be secret decisions, with a bank balance open and a tear in the heart; there will be fledgling careers to preserve, marriages to save, traumas to expunge. There will be herbs, forceful massage, a sudden fall down a flight of stairs. And some of the women who do what they feel they must will die. Every year, across the world, nearly 70,000 women die as a result of complications from unsafe abortions. A country without legal abortion is not a country without abortion. It’s just a country in which more women die.

To know this is to know that what we face is a long walk into the dark, in the cynical, silencing, hideous, hypocritical name of the “sanctity of life.”

And the true cruelty of such laws becomes more clear when you know — as we know, because history is open to us such as it never has been before, a few taps of a keyboard away — that such laws always, always, always spare the wealthy.

There are planes to different states, just a few hundred dollars away. There are other countries with sterile, friendly clinics for the right man’s mistress, the right man’s wife, the right man’s daughter. There will be salvation, for those who can afford it, in the guise of a well-timed vacation to Europe or Canada.

For millions of American women, Roe v. Wade has already been functionally overturned. More than 400 state laws have been passed to restrict abortion since 2010, when a wave of conservative legislators and governors took power. The theoretical existence of a right means little to those who have no ability to act upon it —  those who lack the financial ability or personal flexibility to travel long distances to receive access to abortion care. There is one abortion clinic in the state of Mississippi, for a population of almost 3 million. Mississippi has one of the highest pregnancy-related mortality rates in the United States, and it is rising.

What’s more: Every law in the United States is enforced unevenly across racial lines. Anti-abortion laws won’t buck that trend. What woman is punished and what woman goes free; what woman lives, what woman dies; what woman can feed her children and what woman cannot — in America, little about these answers is incidental.

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It’s difficult to know all this without feeling pure doom; difficult to look at your belly and know that its flesh will be beyond your control, that the soft, yielding, and familiar terrain of your own body will be bound by laws made by men who know their actions might cause you to die, and who do not care.

But all along the long, dark walk we face, there will be those who risk everything to help, in the tradition of those who have battled unjust governance throughout history. There will be women who fight in the streets and in the courts and in state legislatures. There are already networks of abortion funds, some hyper-local, some national, that finance the secret trips and the stays in the motels and the bus tickets and the plane tickets and the journeys home. There are open purses ready to pay the price for a woman not to have a child if she doesn’t want to. There will be women who swap abortifacient recipes; there will be, as there were before Roe, midwives and chiropractors and family doctors who will perform the procedure nearly a quarter of American women have already experienced, in secret, and under legal threat. Perhaps there will be a revival of the secret feminist network that provided underground abortions to the women of Chicago: All you had to do was pick up the phone, dial a certain numberand ask for Jane.

In time, and after many deaths, and irreversible losses; after blood, and pain, and shame, and careers prematurely ended, and women killed for getting pregnant, and women dying in childbirth, the ban — like Ireland’s and Chile’s — will be lifted. Any path to legislative reversal on the subject will be paved with women’s bodies. We know this. The “sanctity of life” touted by opponents of abortion is extended to an embryo but not to the woman who carries it. And that’s why, despite the seeming inevitability of a federal ban on abortion, women and the men who fuck them and love them will fight to the end; and if and when such a ban is imposed, we will claw our way out of that darkness, until we walk in free bodies again.


The Moral Case for Incivility

It’s always interesting to see when the question of civility arises in a profoundly uncivil country, and who raises it. As the federal government rushes to punish journalists and restaurateurs that rebuke their vicious policies, the leaders of the Democratic Party, in the true tradition of Neville Chamberlain, advocate for politesse, servility, and “unity,” as if large swathes of their base ought to placate those who seek to destroy them.

To those on the left, who are not adequately represented by the executive, legislative, or — increasingly — judicial branches of the government, the command in the nation’s op-ed pages and network broadcasts to seek “civility” feels like a command to surrender the only weapon they have left: outcry and confrontation. With the news of Justice Kennedy’s retirement, it has become abundantly clear that the fate of generations rests on this moment’s struggle. As more than 2,000 migrant children remain separated from their parents; as racial gerrymandering and a Muslim ban is enshrined by the Supreme Court; as the cyclone of corruption, deregulation, and racist rhetoric emerging from the Trump administration whirls faster and faster across our taxed consciousnesses, the call to be meek and passive feels only like an insult. Even a turned cheek burns when it’s slapped.

There is, of course, a peevish case to be made for incivility — the notion that a political wing whose watchword seems to be “triggering the libs” does not deserve the politeness it never affords its opponents. Beyond the questionable tactical value of continuing to give ground to those who never relinquish their own, there is a sense of reciprocity in the desire to ostracize and shame members of the administration. After all, they have caused suffering; should they not suffer, even in the smallest and most fleeting ways, a little themselves?

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But there is another case to be made for incivility, one that goes deeper, and further back — millennia, in fact. I would like to submit as an example the prophet Jeremiah, author of the eponymous Book of Jeremiah, a prophet of the Old Testament. In the 52 chapters of his moral opus, which begins around 627 BCE, he lashes out at Jerusalem with such ferocity that the modern English word for a castigating speech is jeremiad. His prophetic mission overlapped with, then responded to, the utter destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE; it was an empire, as he saw it, on the precipice of doom due to its moral failings. And in his anger, the absolute nature of his moral clarity, and its ultimate futility, there is an example for us, if we choose to see it.

Jeremiah is coarse, urgent, repetitive. When it comes to “the blood of innocents” — a favorite phrase of the prophet — he is uncompromising. At the top of his ragged voice, he condemns the rich who “are waxen fat” and fail to plead the cause of the fatherless. From them, he demands shame. He demands they cringe at their failure to protect those who need protection, at their cruelty, “as fowlers lie in wait; they set a trap, they catch men.” Those he verbally assails are doubly condemned for their lack of self-awareness and repentance. “Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? Nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush: Therefore they shall fall among them that fall.” Those who embrace cruelty — those who are cruel to those separated from their fathers — deserve the worst vagaries of fate.

For this — the lack of compassion, and humility — the punishment promised is to be total. There is no quarter given in the divine vision Jeremiah passes through his mouth to the men of Earth. The Earth will be bronze, the sky lead; “both the great and the small shall die in this land; they shall not be buried,” and no one will be left to mourn. To the men that surround him Jeremiah cries his warning, and the wages of not heeding it are suffering without surcease.

Jeremiah walks on the edge of society. He is commanded by God not to take a wife or bear children, for sons and daughters and the mothers who bore them are destined to die by the sword and be fodder for beasts. With the precision of a surgeon he severs his life from adherence to what is expected. He walks on the edge of himself and finds God there.

“Cry of prophet Jeremiah on the Ruins of Jerusalem” by Ilya Repin

What does it feel like when God speaks to a man? Is it like the thrilling curl of a drug through a vein, a blood-pain rushing down to the tip of each limb? Jeremiah says, “There is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones”; he is impelled to speak each searing word.

Jeremiah is not impressed with the pomp of civil authority or its riches. From the first chapter onward, his most frequent metaphor for Israel is that of a sexually transgressive woman: an adulteress, a shepherdess with many suitors, and, again and again, a whore. The prophet likens idolatry to promiscuity — a lust so profound as to be inhuman. “A wild ass used to the wilderness, that snuffeth up the wind in her desire; her lust, who can hinder it?” he asks, of his own people. In the age of a golden temple with priests fattened on sacrificial meats, in an age of thriving pilgrimage, the form divine inspiration takes in him is the clear and piercing sight of condemnation. All the lavish accoutrements of Jerusalem have no more dignity than a donkey in heat, snorting unheeded in the wild desert.

Jeremiah, a powerless man, confronts the agent of the state. In Jeremiah 19, he is instructed by God to take an earthen vessel, and approach “the elders of the people” and “the elders of the priests,” and shatter it in front of them, declaring it a symbol of the fate of Israel. He does not waver. He does not consider their standing, nor their material worth, nor debate civility or submissiveness. He smashes the pot and speaks his prophesy.

For his act of daring, Jeremiah is punished by the state: He is placed in the stocks, in full view of passersby. He cries out: “I am become a laughing-stock all the day, everyone mocketh me.” He laments his own life, wishing that his mother’s womb had been his grave. Nonetheless, he speaks, and speaks, knowing that his words could hold the unimaginable destruction of his home at bay. His command is simple, even after his suffering:

“Execute ye justice and righteousness, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor; and do no wrong, do no violence, to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow, neither shed innocent blood in this place.”

It would be easy to mistake Jeremiah’s uncompromising stance, his tongue-lashing, with hatred for Israel and its people. After all, he predicts their deaths unceasingly; after all, he looks into their souls and sees profound injustice. After all, he does not respect the agents that fashion the kingdom’s edicts. But this is not so. After the destruction of Jerusalem, the kingdom’s harshest critic becomes its chief mourner.

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When Jerusalem was destroyed — the destruction of the Temple and its golden host — Jeremiah issued a second book. It’s called Lamentations, and it is five sparse chapters of terrible grace and grief. Jews recite it once a year on a day of fasting for past tragedy; into this little book, we imbue all our losses, every atrocity inflicted on us. The text — fierce and loving, a howl in biblical parallelisms — spares nothing in its mourning, just as Jeremiah spared nothing in his futile desire to keep horrors at bay. In the Book of Jeremiah, the prophet takes on the voice of a scorned God; in Lamentations, he assumes the voice of Jerusalem, a woman in mourning: “I called for my lovers, but they deceived me; my priests and mine elders perished in the city,” he cries out. The burning of prophesy becomes the burning of grief. “Mine eyes do fail with tears, mine inwards burn,” says Jeremiah. The piercing nature of his sorrow stems from love — the same love that animated his rage.

Love can be fierce. Love can be critical. Love for country in a time of moral turmoil must be fierce and critical.

This is a time to smash the vessel of vanity, to heed the moral urge of the soul, and to speak, knowing it will be met with retribution. To despair when it is called for, then raise oneself and speak again.

There is no punishment from the state that should deter us from condemning injustice, no matter how freely the federal authorities use their platforms to crush dissent.

There is no value to meekness or servility, no moral purpose served by figures like Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi denouncing their more outspoken colleagues. The most moral figure in the Bible is its least civil. Jeremiah never considers electoral strategy, or even the popularity of his cause. He speaks what he knows to be just.

Truth and justice don’t care about what polls highest, don’t care about popularity, don’t care for decorum, don’t get measured by Quinnipiac.

What does it feel like when God speaks to a man, when the urge toward morality triumphs over social convention, over politesse? For Jeremiah, it meant walking a burning, lonely walk. For those who care to see clearly where we are standing now, at the precipice of the abyss, perhaps there can be fellowship in knowing our cause: The cause of the stranger, the widow, the fatherless, is our own.