2020-09-The_Atlantic - Black people-Black americans-Trump (2024)

At times, Americans have seemed to collectively surrender to is pregnancy, she says, which is “a time when women’s lives are COVID-19. The White House’s coronavirus task force wound changing, and they can absorb a ton of information. A pandemic down. Trump resumed holding rallies, and called for less testing, is similar: People are actually paying attention, and learning.” so that official numbers would be rosier. The country behaved like a horror-movie character who believes the danger is over, even Redbird’s survey suggests that Americans indeed sought out though the monster is still at large. The long wait for a vaccine will new sources of information—and that consumers of news from likely culminate in a predictable way: Many Americans will refuse conservative outlets, in particular, expanded their media diet. to get it, and among those who want it, the most vulnerable will People of all political bents became more dissatisfied with the be last in line. Trump administration. As the economy nose-dived, the health- care system ailed, and the government fumbled, belief in Ameri- Still, there is some reason for hope. Many of the people I can exceptionalism declined. “Times of big social disruption call interviewed tentatively suggested that the upheaval wrought into question things we thought were normal and standard,” by COVID-19 might be so large as to permanently change the Redbird told me. “If our institutions fail us here, in what ways are they failing elsewhere?” And whom are they failing the most? nation’s disposition. Experience, after all, sharpens the mind. East Asian states that had lived through the SARS and MERS epidem- Americans were in the mood for systemic change. Then, on ics reacted quickly when threatened by SARS-CoV-2, spurred May25, George Floyd, who had survived COVID-19’s assault on by a cultural memory of what a fast-moving coronavirus can do. his airway, asphyxiated under the crushing pressure of a police offi- But the U.S. had barely been touched by the major epidemics cer’s knee. The excruciating video of his killing circulated through of past decades (with the exception of the H1N1 flu). In 2019, communities that were still reeling from the deaths of Breonna more Americans were concerned about terrorists and cyberattacks Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and disproportionate casualties from than about outbreaks of exotic diseases. Perhaps they will emerge COVID-19. America’s simmering outrage came to a boil and from this pandemic with immunity both cellular and cultural. spilled into its streets. There are also a few signs that Americans are learning impor- Defiant and largely cloaked in masks, protesters turned out tant lessons. A June survey showed that 60 to 75 percent of in more than 2,000 cities and towns. Support for Black Lives Americans were still practicing social distancing. A partisan Matter soared: For the first time since its founding in 2013, the gap exists, but it has narrowed. “In public-opinion polling movement had majority approval across racial groups. These pro- in the U.S., high-60s agreement on anything is an amazing tests were not about the pandemic, but individual protesters had accomplishment,” says Beth Redbird, a sociologist at Northwest- been primed by months of shocking governmental missteps. Even ern University, who led the survey. Polls in May also showed that people who might once have ignored evidence of police brutality most Democrats and Republicans supported mask wearing, and recognized yet another broken institution. They could no longer felt it should be mandatory in at least some indoor spaces. It is look away. almost unheard-of for a public-health measure to go from zero to majority acceptance in less than half a year. But pandemics It is hard to stare directly at the biggest problems of our age. are rare situations when “people are desperate for guidelines Pandemics, climate change, the sixth extinction of wildlife, food and rules,” says Zoë McLaren, a health-policy professor at the and water shortages—their scope is planetary, and their stakes University of Maryland at Baltimore County. The closest analogy are overwhelming. We have no choice, though, but to grapple with them. It is now abundantly clear what happens when global disasters collide with historical negligence. COVID-19 is an assault on America’s body, and a referendum on the ideas that animate its culture. Recovery is possible, but it demands radical introspection. America would be wise to help reverse the ruination of the natural world, a process that contin- ues to shunt animal diseases into human bodies. It should strive to prevent sickness instead of profiting from it. It should build a health-care system that prizes resilience over brittle efficiency, and an information system that favors light over heat. It should rebuild its international alliances, its social safety net, and its trust in empiricism. It should address the health inequities that flow from its history. Not least, it should elect leaders with sound judg- ment, high character, and respect for science, logic, and reason. The pandemic has been both tragedy and teacher. Its very etymology offers a clue about what is at stake in the greatest challenges of the future, and what is needed to address them. Pandemic. Pan and demos. All people. Ed Yong is a staff writer at The Atlantic. 47


THE OF Donald Trump has revealed the country’s prejudice—and forced Americans to confront a racist system. BY

I. done for African Americans, no president, “I’M THE I would say, has done… And the African LEAST RACIST Marine One waited for the president American community is so thankful.” of the United States on the South Lawn PERSON of the White House. It was July 30, 2019, It was an absurd statement. But in THERE IS not long past 9 a.m. a twisted way, Trump was right. As his ANYWHERE IN administration’s first term comes to an end, THE WORLD,” Donald Trump was headed to historic Black Americans—indeed, all Americans— TRUMP SAID. Jamestown to mark the 400th anniver- should in one respect be thankful to him. sary of the first representative assembly He has held up a mirror to American soci- were more likely to use excessive force of European settlers in the Americas. But ety, and it has reflected back a grotesque against Black “culprits” than they were Black Virginia legislators were boycotting image that many people had until now against white ones. That’s an increase the visit. Over the preceding two weeks, refused to see: an image not just of the from just 33percent in December 2014, the president had been engaged in one of racism still coursing through the country, after a grand jury declined to indict a New the most racist political assaults on mem- but also of the reflex to deny that reality. York City police officer in the killing of bers of Congress in American history. Though it was hardly his intention, no Eric Garner. president has caused more Americans to Like so many controversies during stop denying the existence of racism than What’s more, by early June, roughly Trump’s presidency, it had all started with Donald Trump. three out of four Americans were saying an early-morning tweet. that “racial and ethnic discrimination” is II. a “big problem” in the United States— “So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Dem- up from only about half of Americans in ocrat Congresswomen, who originally came W e a re l i v i n g in the midst of an anti- 2015, when Trump launched his presiden- from countries whose governments are a racist revolution. This spring and summer, tial campaign. complete and total catastrophe, the worst, demonstrations calling for racial justice most corrupt and inept anywhere in the attracted hundreds of thousands of people world (if they even have a functioning gov- in Los Angeles, Washington, New York, ernment at all), now loudly and viciously and other large cities. Smaller demonstra- telling the people of the United States, the tions erupted in northeastern enclaves greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, such as Nantucket, Massachusetts, and how our government is to be run,” Trump Bar Harbor, Maine; in western towns tweeted on Sunday, July14, 2019. “Why such as Havre, Montana, and Hermiston, don’t they go back and help fix the totally Oregon; in midsize cities such as Waco, broken and crime infested places from Texas, and Topeka, Kansas; and in wealthy which they came. Then come back and suburbs such as Chagrin Falls, Ohio, and show us how it is done. These places need Darien, Connecticut. your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough.” Veteran activists and new recruits to the Trump was referring to four freshman cause pushed policy makers to hold violent members of Congress: Ilhan Omar of Min- police officers accountable, to ban choke nesota, a Somali American; Ayanna Pressley holds and no-knock warrants, to shift fund- of Massachusetts, an African American; ing from law enforcement to social services, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, a Palestinian and to end the practice of sending armed American; and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of and dangerous officers to respond to inci- New York, a Puerto Rican. Pressley screen- dents in which the suspect is neither armed shotted Trump’s tweet and declared, “THIS nor dangerous. But these activists weren’t is what racism looks like.” merely advocating for a few policy shifts. They were calling for the eradication of rac- On the South Lawn, Trump now faced ism in America once and for all. reporters and cameras. Over the drone of the helicopter rotors, one reporter asked The president attempted to portray the Trump if he was bothered that “more and righteous demonstrations as the work of more people” were calling him racist. looters and thugs, but many of the people watching at home didn’t see it that way. “I am the least racist person there is This summer, a majority of Americans— anywhere in the world,” Trump replied, 57percent, according to a Monmouth hands up, palms facing out for emphasis. University poll—said that police officers His hands came down. He singled out a vocal critic, the Reverend Al Sharpton. “Now, he’s a racist,” Trump said. “What I’ve 50 SEPTEMBER 2020

GAGE SKIDMORE; SECRETNAME101; SENATE DEMOCRATS; OFFICE OF REPRESENTATIVE KAREN BASS; DANIEL SCHWEN It would be easy to see these shifts as sparring with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi Turner of Ohio and Will Hurd the direct result of the horrifying events over a $4.6billion border-aid package that of Texas, had called the presi- that have unfolded in 2020: a pandemic they thought did not sufficiently restrain dent’s tweets racist. But Trump, that has had a disproportionate effect on Trump’s immigration policies. emboldened by the silence from people of color; the video of George Floyd the rest of his caucus, doubled dying beneath the knee of an impassive Yet Pelosi promptly defended her fel- down on his attacks. Minneapolis police officer; the ghastly kill- low Democrats on July 14, 2019. “When ing of Breonna Taylor, shot to death in her @realDonaldTrump tells four American “IF YOU ARE NOT own home. Congresswomen to go back to their coun- HAPPY HERE,” Trump wrote tries,” Pelosi tweeted, “he reaffirms his plan to the four women on Twitter, Yet fundamental shifts in American to ‘Make America Great Again’ has always “YOU CAN LEAVE.” views of race were already under way been about making America white again.” before the COVID-19 disparities became The president added: “If clear and before these latest examples of It has always been a racial slur for Democrats want to unite police violence surfaced. The percentage white Americans to tell Americans of around the foul language & of Americans who told Monmouth poll- color, “Go back to your country.” Because racist hatred spewed from sters that racial and ethnic discrimination their country is New York City, where the mouths and actions of is a big problem made a greater leap from Ocasio-Cortez was born. Their coun- these very unpopular & January 2015 (51percent) to July 2016 try is Detroit, Tlaib’s birthplace. Their unrepresentative Congress- (68percent) than from July 2016 to June country is greater Boston, where Pressley women, it will be interesting 2020 (76percent). What we are witnessing lives. Their country is the United States, to see how it plays out.” right now is the culmination of a longer to which Omar’s family immigrated when process—a process that tracks closely with she was young. By Monday night, House the political career of Donald Trump. Democrats had had enough. As Democratic politicians raged at They introduced a resolution III. the president that Sunday, Republicans to “strongly” condemn the were silent. “It’s become frighteningly president’s racist tweets. I n t h e d ay s leading up to Trump’s common for many of my Republican attack on Omar, Pressley,Tlaib, and Ocasio- colleagues to let these moments sail by Trump woke up the next Cortez, Fox News slammed the “Squad,” without saying even a word,” Minority morning once again in a state of angry especially Omar. All four had been publicly Leader Chuck Schumer said on the Sen- denial. “Those Tweets were NOT Racist,” ate floor. he tweeted. “I don’t have a Racist bone in my body!” To be fair, by Monday, a few Repub- licans, including Representatives Mike IV. F o r b e t t e r o r wo r s e , Americans see themselves—and their country—in the president. From the days of George Washington, the president has personi- fied the American body. The motto of the United States is E pluribus unum—“Out of many, one.” The “one” is the president. To Trump, and to many of his sup- porters, the American body must be a white body. When he launched his presi- dential campaign, on June 16, 2015, he began with attacks on immigrants of color and on the person whose citizen- ship he’d falsely questioned as a peddler of birtherism: Barack Obama. They were all desecrating the American body. Of Mexican immigrants, he said: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Of Obama, he said: “He’s been a negative force. We need somebody that can take the brand of the United States and make it great again.” ILLUSTRATIONS BY JON KEY 51

Trump presented himself as that TRUMP HELD patients. Later, I would read about how, RICHARD NIXON PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM; MOLLY ADAMS; ROSA PINEDA somebody. To make America great again, UP A MIRROR around 2:50 a.m., Trump greeted his he would make it seem as if a Black man TO AMERICAN exuberant supporters in New York City had never been president, erasing him SOCIETY, with a victory speech. He pledged to be from history by repealing and replacing “a president for all Americans.” his signature accomplishments, from AND IT the Affordable Care Act to DACA, the REFLECTED V. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. He would also build a wall to keep BACK W i t h i n d ay s of being sworn in, out immigrants, and he would ban Mus- A GROTESQUE Trump broke that promise. He reversed lims from entering the country. holds on two oil-pipeline projects, IMAGE including one through the Standing Days after first proposing his Muslim THAT MANY Rock Indian Reservation, which was ban, in December 2015—still early in HAD REFUSED opposed by more than 200 Indigenous his candidacy—Trump told CNN’s Don TO SEE. nations. He issued executive orders call- Lemon, “I am the least racist person that ing for the construction of a wall along you have ever met.” the southern border and the deportation of individuals who “pose a risk to public Trump’s denial was audacious, but safety or national security.” He enacted back then, his audacity only contributed his first of three Muslim bans. to the complacent sense among many Americans that this interloper from By the end of the spring, Attorney reality television posed no serious threat. General Jeff Sessions had directed fed- Yet the Americans who dismissed Trump’s eral prosecutors to seek the harshest chances were living in denial themselves. prison sentences whenever possible. Ses- sions had also laid the groundwork for For many, Obama’s presidency was the suspension of all the consent decrees proof that the country was rising to its that provided federal oversight of law- ideals of liberty and equality. When a enforcement agencies that had demon- Black man climbed to the highest office strated a pattern of racism. in the land, it signified that the nation was postracial, or at least that history was Led by Steve Bannon and Stephen inexorably bending in that direction. The Miller, the administration worked on Obama administration itself boasted that ways to restrict immigration by people it was fighting the remnants of racism—a of color. There was a sense of urgency, mop-up operation in a war that was all because, as Trump said at a private White but won. House meeting in June2017, Haitians “all have AIDS” and Nigerians would I was less sanguine. In the months never “go back to their huts” once they leading up to the 2016 election, I told came to the United States. family and friends that Trump had a good chance of winning. Across American his- Then came Charlottesville. On tory, racial progress has normally been August11, 2017, about 250 white followed by its opposite. supremacists marched on the Univer- sity of Virginia campus, carrying torches So I was glad to be alone on Elec- that lit up the night sky with racism and tion Night. I did not want to see people anti-Semitism. Demonstrating against I loved shocked that a racist nation had Charlottesville’s plan to remove statues elected a racist president. On Novem- honoring Confederates, they chanted, ber8, 2016, I watched the returns come “Blood and soil!” They chanted, “Jews in by myself, on the couch. My daugh- will not replace us!” They chanted, “White ter, Imani, was sleeping in her crib. My lives matter!” wife, Sadiqa, was at the hospital, treating patients during an overnight shift in the The white supremacists clashed with pediatric emergency department. anti-racist demonstrators that night and the next afternoon. White lives did not I stayed up until 1:35 a.m. When matter to the white supremacist James Alex Trump carried Pennsylvania, I turned off FieldsJr. He drove his Dodge Challenger the television and called Sadiqa to hear how her shift was going. Our conversa- tion was brief; she had to get back to her 52 SEPTEMBER 2020


into a crowd of counterprotesters, murder- In 2008, as Obama was headed for declared it valued equality, a disenfranchis- ing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. the White House, only 34.5percent ing nation that branded itself a democracy, of respondents answered “yes,” a num- a segregated nation that styled itself sepa- “We condemn, in the strongest pos- ber I’ll call the anti-racist rate. This was rate but equal, an excluding nation that sible terms, this egregious display of the second-lowest anti-racist rate of the boasted of opportunity for all. A nation is hatred, bigotry, and violence on many 41-year polling period. The rate rose to what it does, not what it originally claimed sides, on many sides,” Trump said in 37.7percent in 2010, perhaps because it would be. Often, a nation is precisely response. He spoke about there being the emergence of the Tea Party forced a what it denies itself to be. “very fine people” on “both sides.” reckoning for some white Americans, but it fell back down to 34.9percent in 2012 There was a grand moment, however, On September 5, 2017, Trump began and 34.6percent in 2014. when a large swath of Americans walked his long and unsuccessful attempt to elim- away from a history of racial denial. inate DACA, which deferred deporta- In 2016, as Trump loomed over Amer- In the 1850s, slaveholders expanded tions for roughly 800,000 undocumented ican politics, the anti-racist rate rose to their reach into the North. Their slave- immigrants who had arrived in the U.S. 42.6percent. It went up to 46.2percent catchers, backed by federal power, were as children. The Trump administration in 2018, a double-digit increase from the superseding state and local law to cap- also began rescinding the Temporary start of the Obama administration. In large ture runaways (and free Blacks) who had Protected Status of thousands of refugees part, shifts in white public opinion explain escaped across the Mason-Dixon Line. from wars and natural disasters years ago the jump. The white anti-racist rate was Formerly enslaved people such as Fred- in Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti, El Salvador, barely 29.8percent in 2008. It jumped to erick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, as Nepal, and Honduras. 37.7percent in 2016 and to 40.5percent well as journalists such as William Lloyd two years into Trump’s presidency. Garrison, stood in pulpits across the Near the end of his first year in office, North and West describing the brutality Trump wondered aloud at a White House The deniers of racism, those who and inhumanity of slavery. Meanwhile, meeting: “Why are we having all these blame people of color for racial inequity slaveholders fought to expand their power people from sh*thole countries come and injustice, have mostly been white, out west—where white people who did here?” He was referring to Haiti, El Salva- but not exclusively so. Between 1977 and not want to compete with enslaved Black dor, and nations in Africa. He suggested 2018, the lowest anti-racist rate among labor were calling for free soil. Begin- that the U.S. should bring in more people Black respondents—47.2 percent—came ning in 1854, slaveholders went to war from countries like Norway. in 2012, the midpoint of Obama’s presi- with free-soilers (and abolitionists like dency. That rate climbed to 61.1percent John Brown) in Kansas over whether the Three days later, on January 14, 2018, in 2016 and 66percent in 2018, a nearly state—and the United States—would be speaking before reporters in West Palm 20-point swing from the Obama years. free or slave. The Supreme Court’s Dred Beach, Florida, he was again asked if Scott decision, in 1857, implied that Black he was racist. “No, I’m not a racist,” he It has become harder, in the Trump people and northern states “had no rights” responded. “I am the least racist person years, to blame Black people for racial that slaveholders were “bound to respect.” you have ever interviewed.” inequity and injustice. It has also become harder to tell Black people that the fault Slaveholders seemed intent on spread- VI. lies with them, and to urge them to ing their plantations from sea to shining improve their station by behaving in an sea. As a result, more and more white T h e A m e r i c a t h at denied its racism upstanding or respectable manner. In the Americans became antislavery, whether through the Obama years has struggled Trump years, the problem is obvious, and out of concern for the enslaved or fear to deny its racism through the Trump it isn’t Black people’s behavior. of the encroaching slave power. Black years. From 1977 to 2018, the Gen- Americans, meanwhile, fled the country eral Social Survey asked whether Black VII. for Canada and Liberia—or stayed and Americans “have worse jobs, income, and pressed the cause of radical abolitionism. housing than white people… mainly T h e U n i t e d S tat e s has often been A critical mass of Americans rejected the due to discrimination.” There are only called a land of contradictions, and to be South’s claim that enslavement was good two answers to this question. The racist sure, its failings sit alongside some nota- and came to recognize the peculiar institu- answer is “no”—it presumes that racist ble achievements—a New Deal for many tion as altogether bad. discrimination no longer exists and that Americans in the 1930s, the defeat of fas- racial inequities are the result of some- cism abroad in the 1940s. But on racial The slaveholders’ attempts to perpetu- thing being wrong with Black people. matters, the U.S. could just as accurately ate their system backfired; in the years The anti-racist answer is “yes”—it pre- be described as a land in denial. It has been before the Civil War, the inhumanity and sumes that nothing is wrong or right, a massacring nation that said it cherished cruelty of enslavement became too bla- inferior or superior, about any racial life, a slaveholding nation that claimed tant for northerners to ignore or deny. group, so the explanation for racial dis- it valued liberty, a hierarchal nation that Similarly, Trump’s racism—and that of parities must be discrimination. his allies and enablers—has been too 54 SEPTEMBER 2020

blatant for Americans to ignore or deny. TRUMP’S North Carolina, railing against the four And just as the 1850s paved the way for PRESIDENCY congresswomen. As he was pummeling the revolution against slavery, Trump’s HAS PAVED Omar with a round of attacks, the crowd presidency has paved the way for a revo- THE WAY started chanting, “Send her back! Send her lution against racism. back! Send her back!” FOR A VIII. REVOLUTION Trump stopped speaking. He made no AGAINST effort to stop the chant as it grew louder. O n J u ly 1 6 , 2 0 1 9 , the House bit- RACISM. He basked in the racial slur for 13 seconds. terly debated the resolution to rebuke Trump for his racist tweets against the Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “Send her back! Send her back! Send four congresswomen of color. The four that “the president’s not a racist.” her back!” were members of the most diverse class of Democrats in American history, which To call out the president’s racism would On Thursday, Republicans were quick had retaken the House in a midterm repu- have been to call out their own racism. to denounce the chant. “There’s no place for diation of the president. McConnell had been quietly killing anti- that kind of talk,” Tom Emmer of Minne- racist bills that had come out of the House sota said to reporters. But, he added, “there’s “Every single member of this institu- since January 2019, starting with the new not a racist bone in the president’s body.” tion, Democratic and Republican, should House’s first bill, which aimed to protect join us in condemning the president’s rac- Americans against voter suppression. Trump disavowed the “Send her back” ist tweets,” Speaker Pelosi said from the chant, but by Friday he had disavowed his House floor. Republicans sounded off in The day after being rebuked by House disavowal, calling the chanters “incredible protest. Pelosi turned to them, voice rising, Democrats, Trump held the first rally patriots” and denying their racism along and added: “To do anything less would be of his reelection campaign. He spent a with his own. Many Americans saw a shocking rejection of our values and a large portion of his speech in Greenville, through these patently false claims, how- shameful abdication of our oath of office ever. By the end of July, for the first time, a to protect the American people.” majority of voters said the president of the United States was, in fact, a racist. Republicans claimed that Pelosi had violated a House rule by characterizing an IX. action as “racist.” They moved to have the word struck from the congressional record. I t h o u g h t I a p p re c i at e d the power of denial from studying the history The motion to strike racist from the of racist ideas. But I learned to under- record failed along party lines. “I know stand it in a personal way during the first racism when I see it, I know racism when year of Trump’s presidency. In 2017, I fell I feel it, and at the highest level of govern- ill; I felt as sick as I’d ever been. But I told ment, there’s no room for racism,” Repre- myself the hourly trips to the bathroom sentative John Lewis, the civil-rights icon, were nothing. The blood wasn’t serious. I said during the debate. ignored the symptoms for months. One after another, Republicans rose to I waited until the pain was unbearable defend their president. “What has really before I admitted that I had a problem. And happened here is that the president and even then, I wasn’t able to acknowledge it his supporters have been forced to endure on my own. My partner saved my life. months of allegations of racism,” said Rep- resentative Dan Meuser of Pennsylvania. Sadiqa saw the totality of my symp- “This ridiculous slander does a disservice toms during a weeklong vacation over to our nation.” New Year’s. It was the first time in months that we were together all day, every day. In the end, only four Republicans and As soon as we returned home, in Janu- the House’s lone independent voted with ary2018, she dragged me to the doctor. all the Democrats to condemn the presi- dent of the United States. That means 187 I acquiesced to the appointment, but House Republicans, or 98percent of the I still wouldn’t permit the thought that caucus, denied that telling four congress- my condition was serious. I did not have women of color to go back to their coun- any of the commonly known risk factors tries was racist. They believed, as Senate for the worst possibility—colon cancer. I was 35, and I exercised regularly, didn’t smoke, rarely drank, and had no family history. I was a vegan, for goodness’ sake. 55

I realize now that I was engaged in a JUST AS THE One path forward leads to a mere res- powerful bout of denial. Americans, too, toration. Barack Obama’s vice president can easily summon a litany of reasons their ABOLITIONISTS unseats Trump, removing the bad apple country is not racist: Look at the enlight- from the barrel. With Trump dispatched, ened principles upon which the nation was OF THE 1850S the nation believes it is again headed in the founded. Look at the progress the country right direction. On this path, Americans has made. Look at the election of Barack DEMANDED THE consider racism to be a significant prob- Obama. Look at the dark faces in high lem. But they deny the true gravity of the places. Look at the diversity of the 2020 IMMEDIATE problem and the need for drastic action. Democratic field. ERADICATION On this path, monuments to racism are OF SLAVERY, dismantled, but Americans shrink from Even after the doctor found the tumor, IMMEDIATE the awesome task of reshaping the coun- my denial persisted. Once I accepted that EQUALITY try with anti-racist policies. With Trump I had cancer, I was convinced that it had MUST BE THE gone, Americans decide they don’t need to to be Stage1, for all the reasons I had been be actively anti-racist anymore. convinced that I did not have cancer at all. DEMAND A routine surgery was in order, and then TODAY. Or Americans can realize that they are all would be good. at a point of no return. No returning to the bad old habit of denial. No returning I fear that this is how many Ameri- to cynicism. No returning to normal—the cans are thinking right now: Routine normal in which racist policies, defended surgery—the defeat of Donald Trump by racist ideas, lead to racial inequities. at the polls—will heal the American body. No need to look deeper, at police On this path, Trump’s denialism has departments, at schools, at housing. Are permanently changed the way Americans Americans now acknowledging racism, view themselves. The Trump effect is real, but telling themselves the problem is and lasting. The reckoning we have wit- contained? Are they telling themselves nessed this spring and summer at public that it is a big problem, but it can’t have demonstrations transforms into a reckon- spread to almost every part of the body ing in legislatures, C-suites, university- politic? Will this become the new form admissions offices. of American denial? On this path, the American people False hope was my new normal, until demand equitable results, not speeches it wasn’t. When they scanned my body, that make them feel good about them- doctors found that the cancer had spread. selves and their country. The American I had Stage4 colon cancer. I had two people give policy makers an ultima- choices: denial and death, or recognition tum: Use your power to radically reduce and life. America now has two choices. inequity and injustice, or be voted out. X. The abolition of slavery seemed as impossible in the 1850s as equality seems Trump’s denials of his racism today. But just as the abolitionists of the will never stop. He will continue to claim 1850s demanded the immediate eradica- that he loves people of color, the very tion of slavery, immediate equality must people his policies harm. He will con- be the demand today. Abolish police vio- tinue to call himself “not racist,” and lence. Abolish mass incarceration. Abol- turn the descriptive term racist back on ish the racial wealth gap and the gap in anyone who has the temerity to call out school funding. Abolish barriers to citizen- his own prejudice. Trump clearly hopes ship. Abolish voter suppression. Abolish that racist ideas—paired with policies health disparities. Not in 20 years. Not in designed to suppress the vote—will lead 10 years. Now. to his reelection. But now that Trump has pushed a critical mass of Americans to a Ibram X. Kendi is a contributing writer point where they can no longer explain at The Atlantic, the Andrew W. Mellon away the nation’s sins, the question is Professor in the Humanities at Boston Uni- what those Americans will do about it. versity, and the director of the BU Center for Antiracist Research. 56 SEPTEMBER 2020

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outside the Third Ring Road, the Chi- though satisfied with having freed China and embed surveillance measures. In the nese Academy of Sciences has spent seven from the Western yoke. Next to him was a run-up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, decades building a campus of national labo- fuzzy black-and-white shot of Deng Xiao- Chinese security services achieved a new ratories. Near its center is the Institute of ping visiting the institute in his later years, level of control over the country’s internet. Automation, a sleek silvery-blue building after his economic reforms had set China During China’s coronavirus outbreak, Xi’s surrounded by camera-studded poles. The on a course to reclaim its traditional global government leaned hard on private compa- institute is a basic research facility. Its com- role as a great power. nies in possession of sensitive personal data. puter scientists inquire into artificial intel- Any emergency data-sharing arrangements ligence’s fundamental mysteries. Their more The lobby’s most prominent poster made behind closed doors during the pan- practical innovations—iris recognition, depicted Xi Jinping in a crisp black suit. demic could become permanent. cloud-based speech synthesis—are spun off China’s current president and the general to Chinese tech giants, AI start-ups, and, in secretary of its Communist Party has taken China already has hundreds of mil- some cases, the People’s Liberation Army. a keen interest in the institute. Its work is lions of surveillance cameras in place. Xi’s part of a grand AI strategy that Xi has laid government hopes to soon achieve full I visited the institute on a rainy morn- out in a series of speeches akin to those video coverage of key public areas. Much ing in the summer of 2019. China’s best John F.Kennedy used to train America’s of the footage collected by China’s cam- and brightest were still shuffling in post- techno-scientific sights on the moon. Xi eras is parsed by algorithms for security commute, dressed casually in basketball has said that he wants China, by year’s end, threats of one kind or another. In the near shorts or yoga pants, AirPods nestled in to be competitive with the world’s AI lead- future, every person who enters a public their ears. In my pocket, I had a burner ers, a benchmark the country has arguably space could be identified, instantly, by phone; in my backpack, a computer already reached. And he wants China to AI matching them to an ocean of per- wiped free of data—standard precautions achieve AI supremacy by 2030. sonal data, including their every text for Western journalists in China. To visit communication, and their body’s one- China on sensitive business is to risk being Xi’s pronouncements on AI have a sin- of-a-kind protein-construction schema. barraged with cyberattacks and malware. ister edge. Artificial intelligence has appli- In time, algorithms will be able to string In 2019, Belgian officials on a trade mis- cations in nearly every human domain, together data points from a broad range of sion noticed that their mobile data were from the instant translation of spoken lan- sources—travel records, friends and asso- being intercepted by pop-up antennae guage to early viral-outbreak detection. ciates, reading habits, purchases—to pre- outside their Beijing hotel. But Xi also wants to use AI’s awesome ana- dict political resistance before it happens. lytical powers to push China to the cutting China’s government could soon achieve After clearing the institute’s security, I edge of surveillance. He wants to build an an unprecedented political stranglehold was told to wait in a lobby monitored by all-seeing digital system of social control, on more than 1billion people. cameras. On its walls were posters of China’s patrolled by precog algorithms that iden- most consequential postwar leaders. Mao tify potential dissenters in real time. Early in the coronavirus outbreak, Chi- Zedong loomed large in his characteris- na’s citizens were subjected to a form of tic four-pocket suit. He looked serene, as China’s government has a history of risk scoring. An algorithm assigned people using major historical events to introduce a color code—green, yellow, or red—that determined their ability to take transit or enter buildings in China’s megacities. In a sophisticated digital system of social con- trol, codes like these could be used to score a person’s perceived political pliancy as well. A crude version of such a system is already in operation in China’s north- western territory of Xinjiang, where more than 1million Muslim Uighurs have been imprisoned, the largest internment of an ethnic-religious minority since the fall of the Third Reich. Once Xi perfects this sys- tem in Xinjiang, no technological limita- tions will prevent him from extending AI surveillance across China. He could also export it beyond the country’s borders, entrenching the power of a whole gen- eration of autocrats. China has recently embarked on a num- ber of ambitious infrastructure projects 60 SEPTEMBER 2020

abroad—megacity construction, high- China’s citizens can stop it. I’d come to Bei- communist rebellions could be stamped speed rail networks, not to mention the jing to look for some sign that they might. out in their infancy. When Mao took over, country’s much-vaunted Belt and Road he arranged cities into grids, making each Initiative. But these won’t reshape history THIS TECHNO-POLITICAL MOMENT square its own work unit, where local spies like China’s digital infrastructure, which kept “sharp eyes” out for counterrevolution- could shift the balance of power between has been long in the making. China has ary behavior, no matter how trivial. During the individual and the state worldwide. spent all but a few centuries of its 5,000- the initial coronavirus outbreak, Chinese year history at the vanguard of infor- social-media apps promoted hotlines where American policy makers from across mation technology. Along with Sumer people could report those suspected of hid- the political spectrum are concerned about and Mesoamerica, it was one of three ing symptoms. this scenario. Michael Kratsios, the former places where writing was independently Peter Thiel acolyte whom Donald Trump invented, allowing information to be Xi has appropriated the phrase sharp eyes, picked to be the U.S. government’s chief stored outside the human brain. In the with all its historical resonances, as his cho- technology officer, told me that techno- second centurya.d., the Chinese invented sen name for the AI-powered surveillance logical leadership from democratic nations paper. This cheap, bindable information- cameras that will soon span China. With has “never been more imperative” and that storage technology allowed data—Silk AI, Xi can build history’s most oppressive “if we want to make sure that Western val- Road trade records, military communi- authoritarian apparatus, without the man- ues are baked into the technologies of the qués, correspondence among elites—to power Mao needed to keep information future, we need to make sure we’re leading crisscross the empire on horses bred for about dissent flowing to a single, central- in those technologies.” speed by steppe nomads beyond the Great ized node. In China’s most prominent AI Wall. Data began to circulate even faster start-ups—SenseTime, CloudWalk, Meg- Despite China’s considerable strides, a few centuries later, when Tang-dynasty vii, Hikvision, iFlytek, Meiya Pico—Xi has industry analysts expect America to retain artisans perfected woodblock printing, a found willing commercial partners. And in its current AI lead for another decade at mass-information technology that helped Xinjiang’s Muslim minority, he has found least. But this is cold comfort: China is administer a huge and growing state. his test population. already developing powerful new surveil- lance tools, and exporting them to dozens As rulers of some of the world’s largest The Chinese Communist Party has of the world’s actual and would-be autoc- complex social organizations, ancient Chi- long been suspicious of religion, and not racies. Over the next few years, those tech- nese emperors well understood the relation- just as a result of Marxist influence. Only nologies will be refined and integrated into ship between information flows and power, a century and a half ago—yesterday, in the all-encompassing surveillance systems that and the value of surveillance. During the memory of a 5,000-year-old civilization— dictators can plug and play. 11th century, a Song-dynasty emperor real- Hong Xiuquan, a quasi-Christian mys- ized that China’s elegant walled cities had tic converted by Western missionaries, The emergence of an AI-powered become too numerous to be monitored launched the Taiping Rebellion, an apoc- authoritarian bloc led by China could warp from Beijing, so he deputized locals to alyptic 14-year campaign that may have the geopolitics of this century. It could pre- police them. A few decades before the digi- killed more people than the First World vent billions of people, across large swaths tal era’s dawn, Chiang Kai-shek made use of War. Today, in China’s single-party politi- of the globe, from ever securing any mea- this self-policing tradition, asking citizens to cal system, religion is an alternative source sure of political freedom. And whatever the watch for dissidents in their midst, so that of ultimate authority, which means it must pretensions of American policy makers, only be co-opted or destroyed. XI WANTS TO USE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE By 2009, China’s Uighurs had become TO BUILD A DIGITAL SYSTEM OF SOCIAL weary after decades of discrimination and CONTROL, PATROLLED BY PRECOG ALGORITHMS land confiscation. They launched mass pro- THAT IDENTIFY DISSENTERS IN REAL TIME. tests and a smattering of suicide attacks against Chinese police. In 2014, Xi cracked down, directing Xinjiang’s provincial gov- ernment to destroy mosques and reduce Uighur neighborhoods to rubble. More than 1million Uighurs were disappeared into concentration camps. Many were tor- tured and made to perform slave labor. Uighurs who were spared the camps now make up the most intensely surveilled population on Earth. Not all of the sur- veillance is digital. The Chinese govern- ment has moved thousands of Han Chi- nese “big brothers and sisters” into homes 61

in Xinjiang’s ancient Silk Road cities, to that match faces with snapshots taken by piece of China’s coalescing mega-network monitor Uighurs’ forced assimilation to police at “health checks.” At these checks, of human-monitoring technology. mainstream Chinese culture. They eat police extract all the data they can from meals with the family, and some “big Uighurs’ bodies. They measure height and China is an ideal setting for an experi- brothers” sleep in the same bed as the wives take a blood sample. They record voices ment in total surveillance. Its population of detained Uighur men. and swab DNA. Some Uighurs have even is extremely online. The country is home been forced to participate in experiments to more than 1billion mobile phones, all Meanwhile, AI-powered sensors that mine genetic data, to see how DNA chock-full of sophisticated sensors. Each one lurk everywhere, including in Uighurs’ produces distinctly Uighurlike chins and logs search-engine queries, websites visited, purses and pants pockets. According to ears. Police will likely use the pandemic and mobile payments, which are ubiqui- the anthropologist Darren Byler, some as a pretext to take still more data from tous. When I used a chip-based credit card to Uighurs buried their mobile phones con- Uighur bodies. buy coffee in Beijing’s hip Sanlitun neighbor- taining Islamic materials, or even froze hood, people glared as if I’d written a check. their data cards into dumplings for safe- Uighur women are also made to endure keeping, when Xi’s campaign of cultural pregnancy checks. Some are forced to have All of these data points can be time- erasure reached full tilt. But police have abortions, or get an IUD inserted. Oth- stamped and geo-tagged. And because a since forced them to install nanny apps on ers are sterilized by the state. Police are new regulation requires telecom firms to their new phones. The apps use algorithms known to rip unauthorized children away scan the face of anyone who signs up for to hunt for “ideological viruses” day and from their parents, who are then detained. cellphone services, phones’ data can now night. They can scan chat logs for Quran Such measures have reduced the birth- be attached to a specific person’s face. verses, and look for Arabic script in memes ratein some regions of Xinjiang more than SenseTime, which helped build Xinjiang’s and other image files. 60percent in three years. surveillance state, recently bragged that its software can identify people wearing masks. Uighurs can’t use the usual work- When Uighurs reach the edge of their Another company, Hanwang, claims that arounds. Installing a VPN would likely neighborhood, an automated system takes its facial-recognition technology can recog- invite an investigation, so they can’t down- note. The same system tracks them as they nize mask wearers 95percent of the time. load WhatsApp or any other prohibited move through smaller checkpoints, at China’s personal-data harvest even reaps encrypted-chat software. Purchasing prayer banks, parks, and schools. When they pump from citizens who lack phones. Out in the rugs online, storing digital copies of Mus- gas, the system can determine whether they countryside, villagers line up to have their lim books, and downloading sermons from are the car’s owner. At the city’s perimeter, faces scanned, from multiple angles, by pri- a favorite imam are all risky activities. If they’re forced to exit their cars, so their face vate firms in exchange for cookware. a Uighur were to use WeChat’s payment and ID card can be scanned again. system to make a donation to a mosque, Until recently, it was difficult to imag- authorities might take note. The lucky Uighurs who are able to ine how China could integrate all of these travel abroad—many have had their pass- data into a single surveillance system, but The nanny apps work in tandem with ports confiscated—are advised to return no longer. In 2018, a cybersecurity activist the police, who spot-check phones at check- quickly. If they do not, police interrogators hacked into a facial-recognition system that points, scrolling through recent calls and are dispatched to the doorsteps of their rel- appeared to be connected to the government texts. Even an innocent digital association— atives and friends. Not that going abroad and was synthesizing a surprising combina- being in a group text with a recent mosque is any kind of escape: In a chilling glimpse tion of data streams. The system was capable attendee, for instance—could result in at how a future authoritarian bloc might of detecting Uighurs by their ethnic features, detention. Staying off social media alto- function, Xi’s strongman allies—even and it could tell whether people’s eyes or gether is no solution, because digital inactiv- those in Muslim-majority countries such mouth were open, whether they were smil- ity itself can raise suspicions. The police are as Egypt—have been more than happy ing, whether they had a beard, and whether required to note when Uighurs deviate from to arrest and deport Uighurs back to the they were wearing sunglasses. It logged the any of their normal behavior patterns. Their open-air prison that is Xinjiang. date, time, and serial numbers—all trace- database wants to know if Uighurs start able to individual users—of Wi-Fi-enabled leaving their home through the back door X I S E E M S T O H A V E U S E D Xinjiang as phones that passed within its reach. It was instead of the front. It wants to know if they a laboratory to fine-tune the sensory and hosted by Alibaba and made reference to spend less time talking to neighbors than analytical powers of his new digital panop- City Brain, an AI-powered software plat- they used to. Electricity use is monitored by ticon before expanding its reach across the form that China’s government has tasked an algorithm for unusual use, which could mainland. CETC, the state-owned com- the company with building. indicate an unregistered resident. pany that built much of Xinjiang’s surveil- lance system, now boasts of pilot projects City Brain is, as the name suggests, a Uighurs can travel only a few blocks in Zhejiang, Guangdong, and Shenzhen. kind of automated nerve center, capable before encountering a checkpoint outfitted These are meant to lay “a robust founda- of synthesizing data streams from a multi- with one of Xinjiang’s hundreds of thou- tion for a nationwide rollout,” according to tude of sensors distributed throughout an sands of surveillance cameras. Footage from the company, and they represent only one urban environment. Many of its proposed the cameras is processed by algorithms uses are benign technocratic functions. Its 62 SEPTEMBER 2020

algorithms could, for instance, count peo- enjoy broad public support: City Brain Earpiece-wearing police officers ple and cars, to help with red-light tim- could be trained to spot lost children, or could be directed to the scene ing and subway-line planning. Data from luggage abandoned by tourists or terrorists. by an AI voice assistant. sensor-laden trash cans could make waste It could flag loiterers, or homeless people, pickup more timely and efficient. or rioters. Anyone in any kind of danger City Brain would be espe- could summon help by waving a hand in a cially useful in a pandemic. But City Brain and its successor tech- distinctive way that would be instantly rec- (One of Alibaba’s sister com- nologies will also enable new forms of ognized by ever-vigilant computer vision. panies created the app that integrated surveillance. Some of these will color-coded citizens’ disease risk, while silently sending their health and travel data to police.) As Beijing’s outbreak spread, some malls and restaurants in the city began scanning poten- tial customers’ phones, pulling data from mobile carriers to see whether they’d recently traveled. Mobile carriers also sent munic- ipal governments lists of people who had come to their city from Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected. And Chinese AI companies began making networked facial-recognition helmets for police, with built- in infrared fever detectors, capable of sending data to the government. City Brain could automate these processes, or integrate its data streams. Even China’s most complex AI systems are still brittle. City Brain hasn’t yet fully integrated its range of surveillance capa- bilities, and its ancestor systems have suffered some embarrass- ing performance issues: In 2018, one of the government’s AI-powered cameras mistook a face on the side of a city bus for a jaywalker. But the software is getting better, and there’s no technical reason it can’t be implemented on a mass scale. The data streams that could be fed into a City Brain–like system are essentially unlim- ited. In addition to footage from the 1.9million facial-recognition cameras that the Chinese telecom firm China Tower is installing in cooperation with SenseTime, City Brain could absorb feeds from cameras fastened to lampposts and hanging above street corners. It could make use of the cameras that Chinese police hide in traffic cones, and those strapped to 63

officers, both uniformed and plainclothes. AN AUTHORITARIAN STATE WITH ENOUGH The state could force retailers to provide PROCESSING POWER COULD FEED EVERY data from in-store cameras, which can now BLIP OF A CITIZEN’S NEURAL ACTIVITY detect the direction of your gaze across a INTO A GOVERNMENT DATABASE. shelf, and which could soon see around corners by reading shadows. Precious little neural activity into a government database. The government might soon have a public space would be unwatched. China has recently been pushing citizens rich, auto-populating data profile for all to download and use a propaganda app. of its 1billion–plus citizens. Each profile America’s police departments have The government could use emotion- would comprise millions of data points, begun to avail themselves of footage from tracking software to monitor reactions to including the person’s every appearance in Amazon’s home-security cameras. In their a political stimulus within an app. A silent, surveilled space, as well as all of her com- more innocent applications, these cameras suppressed response to a meme or a clip munications and purchases. Her threat risk adorn doorbells, but many are also aimed from a Xi speech would be a meaningful to the party’s power could constantly be at neighbors’ houses. China’s government data point to a precog algorithm. updated in real time, with a more granu- could harvest footage from equivalent lar score than those used in China’s pilot Chinese products. They could tap the All of these time-synced feeds of on- “social credit” schemes, which already cameras attached to ride-share cars, or the the-ground data could be supplemented aim to give every citizen a public social- self-driving vehicles that may soon replace by footage from drones, whose gigapixel reputation score based on things like social- them: Automated vehicles will be covered cameras can record whole cityscapes in media connections and buying habits. in a whole host of sensors, including some the kind of crystalline detail that allows Algorithms could monitor her digital data that will take in information much richer for license-plate reading and gait recog- score, along with everyone else’s, continu- than 2-D video. Data from a massive fleet nition. “Spy bird” drones already swoop ously, without ever feeling the fatigue that of them could be stitched together, and and circle above Chinese cities, disguised hit Stasi officers working the late shift. False supplemented by other City Brain streams, as doves. City Brain’s feeds could be syn- positives—deeming someone a threat for to produce a 3-D model of the city that’s thesized with data from systems in other innocuous behavior—would be encour- updated second by second. Each refresh urban areas, to form a multidimensional, aged, in order to boost the system’s built- could log every human’s location within the real-time account of nearly all human in chilling effects, so that she’d turn her model. Such a system would make uniden- activity within China. Server farms across sharp eyes on her own behavior, to avoid tified faces a priority, perhaps by sending China will soon be able to hold multiple the slightest appearance of dissent. drone swarms to secure a positive ID. angles of high-definition footage of every moment of every Chinese person’s life. If her risk factor fluctuated upward— The model’s data could be time-synced whether due to some suspicious pattern to audio from any networked device with It’s important to stress that systems of in her movements, her social associations, a microphone, including smart speakers, this scope are still in development. Most of her insufficient attention to a propaganda- smartwatches, and less obvious Internet of China’s personal data are not yet integrated consumption app, or some correlation Things devices like smart mattresses, smart together, even within individual compa- known only to the AI—a purely auto- diapers, and smart sex toys. All of these nies. Nor does China’s government have a mated system could limit her movement. sources could coalesce into a multitrack, one-stop data repository, in part because of It could prevent her from purchasing plane location-specific audio mix that could be turf wars between agencies. But there are or train tickets. It could disallow passage parsed by polyglot algorithms capable of no hard political barriers to the integration through checkpoints. It could remotely interpreting words spoken in thousands of all these data, especially for the security commandeer “smart locks” in public or of tongues. This mix would be useful to state’s use. To the contrary, private firms private spaces, to confine her until security security services, especially in places with- are required, by formal statute, to assist forces arrived. out cameras: China’s iFlytek is perfecting a China’s intelligence services. technology that can recognize individuals by their “voiceprint.” In the decades to come, City Brain or its successor systems may even be able to read unspoken thoughts. Drones can already be controlled by helmets that sense and transmit neural signals, and research- ers are now designing brain-computer interfaces that go well beyond autofill, to allow you to type just by thinking. An authoritarian state with enough process- ing power could force the makers of such software to feed every blip of a citizen’s 64 SEPTEMBER 2020

I N R E C E N T Y E A R S , a few members of “Do you have anything stronger than to possess any information stream, so long the Chinese intelligentsia have sounded that consultative process?” I asked. “Sup- as threats to “stability” could be detected the warning about misused AI, most nota- pose there are times when the government among the data points. Or it can demand bly the computer scientist Yi Zeng and has interests that are in conflict with your data from companies behind closed doors, the philosopher Zhao Tingyang. In the principles. What mechanism are you count- as happened during the initial coronavirus spring of 2019, Yi published “The Beijing ing on to win out?” outbreak. No independent press exists to AI Principles,” a manifesto on AI’s poten- leak news of these demands to. tial to interfere with autonomy, dignity, “I, personally, am still in a learning privacy, and a host of other human values. phase on that problem,” Yi said. Each time a person’s face is recognized, or her voice recorded, or her text messages It was Yi whom I’d come to visit at Bei- Chinese AI start-ups aren’t nearly as intercepted, this information could be jing’s Institute of Automation, where, in addi- bothered. Several are helping Xi develop AI attached, instantly, to her government-ID tion to his work on AI ethics, he serves as the for the express purpose of surveillance. The number, police records, tax returns, property deputy director of the Research Center for combination of China’s single-party rule filings, and employment history. It could be Brain-Inspired Intelligence. He retrieved me and the ideological residue of central plan- cross-referenced with her medical records from the lobby. Yi looked young for his age, ning makes party elites powerful in every and DNA, of which the Chinese police 37, with kind eyes and a solid frame slimmed domain, especially the economy. But in the boast they have the world’s largest collection. down by black sweatpants and a hoodie. past, the connection between the govern- ment and the tech industry was discreet. YI AND I talked through a global scenario On the way to Yi’s office, we passed one Recently, the Chinese government started that has begun to worry AI ethicists and of his labs, where a research assistant hov- assigning representatives to tech firms, to China-watchers alike. In this scenario, ered over a microscope, watching electro- augment the Communist Party cells that most AI researchers around the world chemical signals flash neuron-to-neuron exist within large private companies. come to recognize the technology’s risks through mouse-brain tissue. We sat down to humanity, and develop strong norms at a long table in a conference room adjoin- Selling to the state security services is around its use. All except for one coun- ing his office, taking in the gray, fogged-in one of the fastest ways for China’s AI start- try, which makes the right noises about cityscape while his assistant fetched tea. ups to turn a profit. A national telecom AI ethics, but only as a cover. Meanwhile, firm is the largest shareholder of iFlytek, this country builds turnkey national sur- I asked Yi how “The Beijing AI Principles” China’s voice-recognition giant. Synergies veillance systems, and sells them to places had been received. “People say, ‘This is just an abound: When police use iFlytek’s software where democracy is fragile or nonexistent. official show from the Beijing government,’” to monitor calls, state-owned newspapers The world’s autocrats are usually felled by he told me. “But this is my life’s work.” provide favorable coverage. Earlier this year, coups or mass protests, both of which the personalized-news app Toutiao went so require a baseline of political organization. Yi talked freely about AI’s potential far as to rewrite its mission to articulate a But large-scale political organization could misuses. He mentioned a project deployed new animating goal: aligning public opin- prove impossible in societies watched by to a select group of Chinese schools, where ion with the government’s wishes. Xu Li, pervasive automated surveillance. facial recognition was used to track not the CEO of SenseTime, recently described just student attendance but also whether the government as his company’s “largest Yi expressed worry about this scenario, individual students were paying attention. data source.” but he did not name China specifically. He didn’t have to: The country is now the “I hate that software,” Yi said. “I have Whether any private data can be world’s leading seller of AI-powered sur- to use that word: hate.” ensured protection in China isn’t clear, veillance equipment. In Malaysia, the gov- given the country’s political structure. The ernment is working with Yitu, a Chinese He went on like this for a while, enu- digital revolution has made data monopo- AI start-up, to bring facial-recognition merating various unethical applications of lies difficult to avoid. Even in America, technology to Kuala Lumpur’s police as AI. “I teach a course on the philosophy of which has a sophisticated tradition of anti- a complement to Alibaba’s City Brain AI,” he said. “I tell my students that I hope trust enforcement, the citizenry has not yet platform. Chinese companies also bid to none of them will be involved in killer summoned the will to force information outfit every one of Singapore’s 110,000 robots. They have only a short time on about the many out of the hands of the lampposts with facial-recognition cameras. Earth. There are many other things they powerful few. But private data monopolies could be doing with their future.” are at least subject to the sovereign power In South Asia, the Chinese government of the countries where they operate. A has supplied surveillance equipment to Sri Yi clearly knew the academic literature nation-state’s data monopoly can be pre- Lanka. On the old Silk Road, the Chi- on tech ethics cold. But when I asked him vented only by its people, and only if they nese company Dahua is lining the streets about the political efficacy of his work, his possess sufficient political power. of Mongolia’s capital with AI-assisted sur- answers were less compelling. veillance cameras. Farther west, in Serbia, China’s people can’t use an election to Huawei is helping set up a “safe-city sys- “Many of us technicians have been rid themselves of Xi. And with no indepen- tem,” complete with facial-recognition invited to speak to the government, and dent judiciary, the government can make an even to Xi Jinping, about AI’s potential argument, however strained, that it ought risks,” he said. “But the government is still in a learning phase, just like other govern- ments worldwide.” 65

cameras and joint patrols conducted by control those networks and their data,” describes as a “core economic interest.” Serbian and Chinese police aimed at help- Michael Kratsios, America’s CTO, told China financed Ecuador’s $240million ing Chinese tourists to feel safe. me. When countries need to refinance the purchase of a surveillance-camera system. terms of their loans, China can make net- Bolivia, too, has bought surveillance equip- In the early aughts, the Chinese tele- work access part of the deal, in the same ment with help from a loan from Beijing. com titan ZTE sold Ethiopia a wireless way that its military secures base rights Venezuela recently debuted a new national network with built-in backdoor access for at foreign ports it finances. “If you give ID-card system that logs citizens’ politi- the government. In a later crackdown, dis- [China] unfettered access to data networks cal affiliations in a database built by ZTE. sidents were rounded up for brutal inter- around the world, that could be a serious In a grim irony, for years Chinese com- rogations, during which they were played problem,” Kratsios said. panies hawked many of these surveillance audio from recent phone calls they’d made. products at a security expo in Xinjiang, the Today, Kenya, Uganda, and Mauritius are In 2018, CloudWalk Technology, a home province of the Uighurs. outfitting major cities with Chinese-made Guangzhou-based start-up spun out of surveillance networks. the Chinese Academy of Sciences, inked IF CHINA IS able to surpass America in a deal with the Zimbabwean govern- AI, it will become a more potent geopoliti- In Egypt, Chinese developers are look- ment to set up a surveillance network. Its cal force, especially as the standard-bearer ing to finance the construction of a new terms require Harare to send images of of a new authoritarian alliance. capital. It’s slated to run on a “smart city” its inhabitants—a rich data set, given that platform similar to City Brain, although a Zimbabwe has absorbed migration flows China already has some of the world’s vendor has not yet been named. In south- from all across sub-Saharan Africa—back largest data sets to feed its AI systems, a ern Africa, Zambia has agreed to buy more to CloudWalk’s Chinese offices, allowing crucial advantage for its researchers. In than $1billion in telecom equipment from the company to fine-tune its software’s cavernous mega-offices in cities across the China, including internet-monitoring tech- ability to recognize dark-skinned faces, country, low-wage workers sit at long tables nology. China’s Hikvision, the world’s larg- which have previously proved tricky for for long hours, transcribing audio files and est manufacturer of AI-enabled surveillance its algorithms. outlining objects in images, to make the cameras, has an office in Johannesburg. data generated by China’s massive popula- Having set up beachheads in Asia, tion more useful. But for the country to China uses “predatory lending to sell Europe, and Africa, China’s AI compa- best America’s AI ecosystem, its vast troves telecommunications equipment at a sig- nies are now pushing into Latin Amer- of data will have to be sifted through by nificant discount to developing countries, ica, a region the Chinese government algorithms that recognize patterns well which then puts China in a position to beyond those grasped by human insight. And even executives at China’s search giant Yi Zeng, photographed in his office at the Institute Baidu concede that the top echelon of AI of Automation, in Beijing, July 2020. Yi, the author talent resides in the West. of “The Beijing AI Principles,” has been a lonely voice in China warning that government misuse of AI could pose Historically, China struggled to retain a threat to humanity. elite quants, most of whom left to study in America’s peerless computer-science departments, before working at Silicon Valley’s more interesting, better-resourced companies. But that may be changing. The Trump administration has made it difficult for Chinese students to study in the United States, and those who are able to are viewed with suspicion. A lead- ing machine-learning scientist at Google recently described visa restrictions as “one of the largest bottlenecks to our collective research productivity.” Meanwhile, Chinese computer-science departments have gone all-in on AI. Three of the world’s top 10 AI universities, in terms of the volume of research they pub- lish, are now located in China. And that’s before the country finishes building the 50 new AI research centers mandated by Xi’s “AI Innovation Action Plan for Institutions 66 PHOTOGRAPH BY ZHOU NA

America’s first-strike nuclear advantage. AI could upturn the global balance of power. “I TELL MY STUDENTS THAT I HOPE NONE OF O N M Y W A Y O U T of the Institute of THEM WILL BE INVOLVED IN KILLER ROBOTS. Automation, Yi took me on a tour of his THEY HAVE ONLY A SHORT TIME ON EARTH. robotics lab. In the high-ceilinged room, THERE ARE MANY OTHER THINGS THEY COULD grad students fiddled with a giant disem- BE DOING WITH THEIR FUTURE.” bodied metallic arm and a small human- oid robot wrapped in a gray exoskeleton of Higher Education.” Chinese companies microchips to ZTE in April 2018, Frank while Yi told me about his work model- attracted 36percent of global AI private- Long, an analyst who specializes in China’s ing the brain. He said that understanding equity investment in 2017, up from just AI sector, described it as a wake-up call for the brain’s structure was the surest way to 3percent in 2015. Talented Chinese engi- China on par with America’s experience of understand the nature of intelligence. neers can stay home for school and work the Arab oil embargo. for a globally sexy homegrown company I asked Yi how the future of AI would like TikTok after graduation. But the AI revolution has dealt China unfold. He said he could imagine software a rare leapfrogging opportunity. Until modeled on the brain acquiring a series China will still lag behind America in recently, most chips were designed with of abilities, one by one. He said it could computing hardware in the near term. Just flexible architecture that allows for many achieve some semblance of self-recognition, as data must be processed by algorithms types of computing operations. But AI and then slowly become aware of the past to be useful, algorithms must be instanti- runs fastest on custom chips, like those and the future. It could develop motivations ated in physical strata—specifically, in the Google uses for its cloud computing to and values. The final stage of its assisted innards of microchips. These gossamer sil- instantly spot your daughter’s face in thou- evolution would come when it understood icon structures are so intricate that a few sands of photos. (Apple performs many of other agents as worthy of empathy. missing atoms can reroute electrical pulses these operations on the iPhone with a cus- through the chips’ neuronlike switches. The tom neural-engine chip.) Because everyone I asked him how long this process most sophisticated chips are arguably the is making these custom chips for the first would take. most complex objects yet built by humans. time, China isn’t as far behind: Baidu and They’re certainly too complex to be quickly Alibaba are building chips customized for “I think such a machine could be built pried apart and reverse-engineered by Chi- deep learning. And in August2019, Hua- by 2030,” Yi said. na’s vaunted corporate-espionage artists. wei unveiled a mobile machine-learning chip. Its design came from Cambricon, Before bidding Yi farewell, I asked him Chinese firms can’t yet build the best perhaps the global chip-making industry’s to imagine things unfolding another way. of the best chip-fabrication rooms, which most valuable start-up, which was founded “Suppose you finish your digital, high- cost billions of dollars and rest on decades by Yi’s colleagues at the Chinese Academy resolution model of the brain,” I said. of compounding institutional knowledge. of Sciences. “And suppose it attains some rudimentary Nitrogen-cooled and seismically isolated, to form of consciousness. And suppose, over prevent a passing truck’s rumble from ruin- By 2030, AI supremacy might be within time, you’re able to improve it, until it out- ing a microchip in vitro, these automated range for China. The country will likely performs humans in every cognitive task, rooms are as much a marvel as their fin- have the world’s largest economy, and new with the exception of empathy. You keep ished silicon wafers. And the best ones are money to spend on AI applications for its it locked down in safe mode until you still mostly in the United States, Western military. It may have the most sophisticated achieve that last step. But then one day, Europe, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. drone swarms. It may have autonomous the government’s security services break weapons systems that can forecast an adver- down your office door. They know you America’s government is still able sary’s actions after a brief exposure to a the- have this AI on your computer. They want to limit the hardware that flows into ater of war, and make battlefield decisions to use it as the software for a new hardware China, a state of affairs that the Commu- much faster than human cognition allows. platform, an artificial humanoid soldier. nist Party has come to resent. When the Its missile-detection algorithms could void They’ve already manufactured a billion of Trump administration banned the sale of them, and they don’t give a damn if they’re wired with empathy. They demand your password. Do you give it to them?” “I would destroy my computer and leave,” Yi said. “Really?” I replied. “Yes, really,” he said. “At that point, it would be time to quit my job and go focus on robots that create art.” If you were looking for a philosopher- king to chart an ethical developmental 67

trajectory for AI, you could do worse than CHINA’S ASCENT TO AI SUPREMACY Yi. But the development path of AI will IS A MENACING PROSPECT: be shaped by overlapping systems of local, THE COUNTRY’S POLITICAL STRUCTURE national, and global politics, not by a wise ENCOURAGES, RATHER THAN RESTRAINS, and benevolent philosopher-king. That’s THIS TECHNOLOGY’S WORST USES. why China’s ascent to AI supremacy is such a menacing prospect: The country’s political domestic critics used to make fun of him free state newspaper in my Beijing hotel structure encourages, rather than restrains, with images of Winnie the Pooh, but described them, falsely, as police support- this technology’s worst uses. those too are now banned in China. The ers.) A great many held umbrellas over party’s ability to edit history and culture, their heads, in solidarity with student pro- Even in the U.S., a democracy with by force, will become more sweeping and testers from years prior, and to keep their constitutionally enshrined human rights, precise, as China’s AI improves. faces hidden. A few tore down a lamp- Americans are struggling mightily to pre- post on the suspicion that it contained vent the emergence of a public-private Wresting power from a government a facial-recognition camera. Xi has since surveillance state. But at least America has that so thoroughly controls the informa- tightened his grip on the region with a political structures that stand some chance tion environment will be difficult. It may “national-security law,” and there is little of resistance. In China, AI will be restrained take a million acts of civil disobedience, that outnumbered Hong Kongers can do only according to the party’s needs. like the laptop-destroying scenario imag- about it, at least not without help from a ined by Yi. China’s citizens will have to movement on the mainland. It was nearly noon when I finally left stand with their students. Who can say the institute. The day’s rain was in its last what hardships they may endure? During my visit to Tiananmen Square, hour. Yi ordered me a car and walked me I didn’t see any protesters. People mostly to meet it, holding an umbrella over my China’s citizens don’t yet seem to be milled about peacefully, posing for selfies head. I made my way to the Forbidden radicalized against surveillance. The pan- with the oversize portrait of Mao. They held City, Beijing’s historic seat of imperial demic may even make people value pri- umbrellas, but only to keep the August sun power. Even this short trip to the city cen- vacy less, as one early poll in the U.S. sug- off their faces. Walking in their midst, I ter brought me into contact with China’s gests. So far, Xi is billing the government’s kept thinking about the contingency of his- surveillance state. Before entering Tianan- response as a triumphant “people’s war,” tory: The political systems that constrain a men Square, both my passport and my another old phrase from Mao, referring to technology during its early development face were scanned, an experience I was the mobilization of the whole population profoundly shape our shared global future. becoming numb to. to smash an invading force. The Chinese We have learned this from our adventures people may well be more pliant now than in carbon-burning. Much of the planet’s In the square itself, police holding they were before the virus. political trajectory may depend on just body-size bulletproof shields jogged in how dangerous China’s people imagine single-file lines, weaving paths through But evidence suggests that China’s AI to be in the hands of centralized power. throngs of tourists. The heavy police pres- young people—at least some of them— Until they secure their personal liberty, at ence was a chilling reminder of the stu- resented the government’s initial secrecy some unimaginable cost, free people every- dent protesters who were murdered here in about the outbreak. For all we know, some where will have to hope against hope that 1989. China’s AI-patrolled Great Firewall new youth movement on the mainland the world’s most intelligent machines are was built, in part, to make sure that mas- is biding its time, waiting for the right made elsewhere. sacre is never discussed on its internet. To moment to make a play for democracy. dodge algorithmic censors, Chinese activ- The people of Hong Kong certainly Ross Andersen is a deputy editor of ists rely on memes—Tank Man approach- sense the danger of this techno-political The Atlantic. ing a rubber ducky—to commemorate the moment. The night before I arrived in students’ murder. China, more than 1million protesters had poured into the island’s streets. (The The party’s AI-powered censorship extends well beyond Tiananmen. Earlier this year, the government arrested Chi- nese programmers who were trying to preserve disappeared news stories about the coronavirus pandemic. Some of the articles in their database were banned because they were critical of Xi and the party. They survived only because inter- net users reposted them on social media, interlaced with coded language and emo- jis designed to evade algorithms. Work- arounds of this sort are short-lived: Xi’s 68 SEPTEMBER 2020


MasterClass Actually Selling? 70 SEPTEMBER 2020


high-level learning experience via a series of glossy videos taught OPENING SPREAD: GRAHAM DENHOLM / GETTY; by the world’s best. In some classes, instructors address the cam- JÉRÔME FAVRE / BLOOMBERG / GETTY; MASTERCLASS era for a few hours. In others, they are more hands-on, demon- Sometimes an advertisem*nt is so perfectly tailored to a cultural strating techniques or leading workshops. You can take writing moment that it casts that moment into stark relief, which is how classes with Margaret Atwood, Dan Brown, David Baldacci, Joyce I felt upon first seeing an ad for the mega-best-selling writer Carol Oates, David Sedaris, Shonda Rhimes, Malcolm Gladwell, James Patterson’s course on MasterClass a few years ago. In the or Aaron Sorkin. You can take photography with Annie Leibo- ad, Patterson is sitting at a table, reciting a twisty opening line in vitz; acting with Natalie Portman; comedy with Judd Apatow or voice-over. Then an overhead shot of him gazing out a window, Steve Martin; and cooking with Thomas Keller, Gordon Ram- lost in thought like a character in a movie. A title card appears: say, or Alice Waters. There’s a directing class with Ron Howard, “Imagine taking a writing class from a master.” It didn’t matter a makeup class with Bobbi Brown, a negotiation class with the that I’d never read a book by Patterson before—I was hooked. former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss, and a class on how to What appealed to me was not whatever actionable thriller-writing be a boss with Anna Wintour. RuPaul has a class on authenticity tips I might glean, but rather the promise of his story, the story and self-expression, and Neil deGrasse Tyson has one on scien- of how a writer becomes a mogul. Any hapless, hand-to-mouth tific thinking. Two classes—taught by Kevin Spacey and mid-lister can provide instructions on outlining a novel. Master- Hoffman—have been removed following allegations of Class dangled something else, a clear-cut path out of the precariat, sexual misconduct against the actors (which both have the magic-bean shortcut to a fairy-tale ending—the secret to denied). MasterClass is a brand built on other people’s ever-elusive success. impeccable brands. MasterClass launched in 2015 with just three classes: Dustin DAVID ROGIER, who co-founded MasterClass, likes to Hoffman on acting, Serena Williams on tennis, and Patterson tell the story of his grandmother who as a young woman on writing. Since then the company has grown exponentially, fled the Nazis, emigrating to the United States with her raising $135million in venture capital from 2012 to 2018. It mother. After working in a factory for years, she applied to now has more than 85 classes across nine categories. (Last year medical schools and was rejected by dozens of them—one it added 25 new classes, and this year it intends to add even dean flat-out told her that she had three strikes against more.) After the pandemic hit, as people started spending more her: She was a woman, she was Jewish, and she was an time at home, its subscriptions surged, some weeks increasing immigrant—until she finally found one that would accept tenfold over the average in 2019; subscribers spent twice as much her. She always impressed upon her grandson that an time on the platform as they did earlier this year. In April, the education could never be taken away from you. That was company moved from offering individual classes for $90 a pop, the grain of the idea for MasterClass. with an all-access annual pass for $180, to a subscription-only model, and in May, it raised another $100million. Its trailers It’s a great origin story, the kind perfectly suited for a have become so familiar and ubiquitous that they spawned their MasterClass trailer, and also the kind that every young own SNL parodies, “MasterClass: Quarantine Edition,” in which Silicon Valley founder is more or less ready to recite Chloe Fineman appears as Phoebe Waller-Bridge for a class on when the press comes along. But the story sits somewhat journaling, as Timothée Chalamet for a class on fashion, and as uncomfortably alongside the actual product, which is to Britney Spears for a class on… something. a medical degree what an apple is to an orange planet. MasterClass trailers tend to follow a certain playbook: the Rogier grew up on the Westside of Los Angeles, the introduction of a famous person; a peek behind the curtain; an son of two lawyers who became artists in retirement. overview of their setbacks and failures; the promise of what you After getting his M.B.A. at Stanford, he asked one of his might learn; the emotional, soaring soundtrack. But the courses professors—the angel investor Michael Dearing, who are distinct from one another—there’s no standard format or founded Harrison Metal, a seed-stage venture-capital formula. What MasterClass purports to provide is a premium, fund in San Francisco—for a job. Rogier got the posi- tion, but after a year or so realized it wasn’t for him. He went to Dearing and told him he planned to quit. When Dearing asked what he had lined up, Rogier responded, “‘I’m going to build something.’ He’s like, ‘What?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ So he wrote me a check for about half a million dollars.” Rogier formed a holding company and called it Yanka Industries, after his grandmother. The question of who (and what and how and why) gets funded in Silicon Valley might not be asked often enough, considering the impact of technology on our society, economy, politics, and daily lives. But patterns are discernible: Mainly, the ideas that rise to the top are 72 SEPTEMBER 2020

those that seek to address deficiencies in an industry by creat- education. He asked subjects about the schools they’d gone to, ing a new category from within the old one, the way caterpillars whom they’d learned from the most, the topics they wished they consume themselves to become butterflies. (Also, most of these had studied more. What things did they want to learn now? How ideas are had by young white guys.) Turning the housing mar- did they want to learn now? ket into an infinite unregulated hotel, for instance, or everyone’s Rogier already knew life was changing at a much faster rate cars into an unregulated fleet of taxis. Or aggregating mastery than it had for his parents’ generation. What you learn in school across disciplines. no longer lasts you through your career. His research showed that “I felt a lot of pressure,” Rogier told me of the windfall invest- people are willing to invest in personal growth and education, ment. He was aware that he’d been given a gift. “You can’t whine but many feel “ripped off” by their education. He isn’t referring about it or complain about it, because there’s nothing to whine only to formal education. “People pay tremendous amounts to MASTERCLASS or complain about, right? This guy threw me a blank check.” take not-great classes,” he said. “And then there are also the scam Rogier knew he wanted to do something related to education, stories. Somebody went to school to be a receptionist, and she but he wasn’t sure what. So he posted ads on Craigslist offering paid for it, but the ‘school’ was answering phone calls for two to pay people $25 an hour to talk about their experiences with weeks at an office.” Rogier had an idea: What if anybody could learn from the best? “That would be kind of awesome,” he said. Especially if he could offer the class at a relatively low price. After two rounds of fundraising, getting the first instruc- tors on board (Hoffman was the first to agree— Rogier was school friends with his daughter), filming some test classes, and hiring a small team, Rogier asked a friend, the entrepreneur Aaron Rasmussen, to join the company as co- founder and chief technology officer, which he did. (Rasmussen left the company in Janu- ary2017 and later founded the for-college- credit education platform Outlier.org.) At first, Rogier said, many people told him his idea would never work. It was unclear whether people would pay to watch high- end tutorials when they could view lower- budget ones on YouTube for free. It was also unclear whether celebrity teachers could be recruited in meaningful numbers. The best in the world will never want to teach, people told him. They’re not going to be good at teach- ing. People aren’t going to want to learn from them. It’s going to be too expensive. People won’t pay for production—they won’t care if it’s higher production quality. Everything’s free on the web. Why are you trying to do everything from mak- ing the classes to putting the classes out? You should just take one small slice. One of the things Rogier is still often asked is whether he’s selling education or entertainment. The question annoys him. “Why can’t education also be entertaining?” Rogier always knew that part of being an entrepreneur is believing in something that nobody else believes in, but still, he was scared. Opening spread, clockwise from top left: MasterClass instructors Serena Williams Within a few days of MasterClass’s launch in (who teaches tennis on the platform); Natalie Portman (acting); Gordon Ramsay (cooking); May2015, however, the numbers told him he Malcolm Gladwell (writing). This page, from left: Shonda Rhimes (writing for television) was onto something. Within four months, he and RuPaul (self-expression and authenticity). had 30,000 students. 73

MASTERCL ASS’S MISSION, as it was originally defined, was you can see the people you’re teaching. You know how old they are. You have some idea about what background they may have to “democratize access to genius.” But the service actually offers come from. You usually start asking them what were the last five books that they read… But if you’re doing something online, it something different—although what that is, exactly, is hard to could be anybody. It’s more like publishing a book. It’s out there. It’s accessible. You don’t know who may be accessing it.” put your finger on. Strictly speaking, a master class is a small class As an educational platform, MasterClass is limited by its for very advanced students taught by a master in their field. But instructors’ inaccessibility. But as a repository for career advice and discussions about the creative process and how to navigate very advanced students in particular subject areas are vanishingly life as an artist (or athlete, chef, magician, entrepreneur), it’s a gold mine. When you are just starting out—especially if you lack small cohorts—certainly not enough to attract hundreds of mil- connections in your areas of interest—it can be helpful to hear how other people “did it,” what obstacles they faced and how lions of dollars in investments. And so, MasterClass courses are they overcame them. You might get a hit of encouragement or see yourself reflected for the first time in a field you thought was not really designed for a specific skill level, but instead are aimed off-limits to you. The ballet dancer Misty Copeland says Master- Class was a way of doing this. at the most general of general audiences. Copeland’s class is typical of MasterClass’s more inspirational MasterClass doesn’t disclose how much it pays instructors, offerings. It’s a mix of instruction and aspiration, covering subjects on everything from owning your power and being confident, although a 2018 Bloomberg article reported that they are paid to barre exercises (pliés, tendus), to working with Prince, to the importance of mentorship and diversity, to showing people that a guaranteed sum, plus up to 25 percent of revenue generated ballet is more approachable than they think. by their classes. (In 2017, The Hollywood Reporter claimed that “The fine arts and classical dance have been kind of categorized as this elite form that is only for an elite, exclusive category of peo- instructors were paid roughly $100,000.) But money is not the ple,” Copeland—the first Black principal dancer of the prestigious American Ballet Theatre—told me over the phone. She wanted to only motivation. For many of the instructors, MasterClass presents show that dance didn’t have to be so intimidating—“that it’s for every person, with any background and body type.” For Copeland, an opportunity to take stock of a remarkable career. Wintour, the the tools, perseverance, strength, and passion that you need to be an artist are derived from doing the work, engaging in the process. longtime editor of Vogue, kicks off her MasterClass by saying, “I That’s what she aimed to share in her class, to “give people some insight into what it is to be an artist and an athlete.” know many people are curious about who I am, how I approach I’ve taken Atwood’s class, Rhimes’s class, and most of my work, and what I believe… I have never had the opportunity to Gladwell’s, among others. I’ve watched Part One of Keller’s course, and a little bit of Part Two. I’ve watched Brown’s “smoky share the many lessons I have learned as an editor and as a creative eye” tutorial, tried the technique on myself, and came out look- ing like a prizefighting panda. The classes are visually sumptuous, leader in one place before.” Her class feels, more than anything, transporting, uplifting, and yet, frankly, a little boring, especially if you try to watch them all the way through. Doing so feels like like a historical document. being seated next to the dinner guest of your dreams—the Dalai Lama or Oscar Wilde or Barack Obama—and discovering that For Atwood, the celebrated author of The Handmaid’s Tale, they won’t stop talking and that the dinner is 12 courses long. among many other novels, the decision to participate was partly motivated by her age, “which is old,” she told me over the phone. “This is a way of downloading what I would ordinarily do, or pos- sibly uploading it.” The last time Atwood taught full-time at a university was in 1970s. Filming a MasterClass was an opportunity to reach a less-privileged cohort than she might in a university setting. “For a lot of people who might Scenes from MasterClass have jobs, but also might be courses led by (from left interested in writing, [Master- to right) Margaret Atwood Class is] a way they can pursue (creative writing), Thomas this in their own time, at their Keller (cooking techniques), MASTERCLASS own pace,” she said. On the Anna Wintour (creativity other hand, Atwood said, “in- and leadership), Aaron person teaching is interactive. People get to ask you direct Sorkin (screenwriting), questions.” Later she added, “If and Misty Copeland (ballet technique and artistry). you’re teaching in a university, 74 SEPTEMBER 2020

The cooking classes are enjoyable and resemble the prestige MasterClass seems food programming on Netflix. The mixology and gardening ideally suited to classes interested me as an unskilled co*cktail maker and novice gardener, but I still found it easier to Google specific questions like frustrated 30-somethings how exactly to deal with my lettuce or make a co*cktail with things for whom education I already have in my bar. Yet, after watching Gordon Ramsay do has not necessarily it, I did finally learn how to properly salt an eggplant. resulted in upward mobility or even a job. Instructors approach their classes in different ways, from simply walking viewers through their practice and methods, to In fact, the company refers to its target customers as CATS: putting their teams to work on a comprehensive curriculum, as “curious, aspiring 30-somethings.” CATS are old enough not to Keller did upon being asked to come up with a class. But Keller be planning to return to school, but young enough, in theory, that was told his curriculum was too much. they need help advancing in their career. A CAT is a person whose life has become complicated, who has had to put aside some of “From what they told me, they’d never seen anything like it the things they loved to do, who isn’t exactly doing the thing they before, both in presentation, as well as in content, as well as in dreamed of doing, David Schriber, MasterClass’s chief marketing length,” Keller said when we spoke. It would have been much officer, told me. They’re anxious about their future, their present, too long to film, so it was distilled down to the fundamentals their position relative to that of their peers. “They’ll talk about and split into three parts. having anxiety that their co-workers or the people on their social networks all seem to know more about a subject than they do,” Having someone of Thomas Keller’s stature teaching the basics Schriber said, referring, presumably, to pre-pandemic focus testing. of cooking is impressive, but is it necessary? You can learn useful “Someone will come to the office party and talk about wine, and things by watching a video, but formal education is generally then they’ll feel like I don’t know enough about wine. Someone else understood to demand some kind of participation, as well as a will talk about photography, and they’ll be like Man, I should pay teacher evaluation. Some instructors host promotional contests attention to who the photographers are these days. Or their boss will with student participation—in one case, James Patterson co-wrote say things like ‘You need to work on your leadership profile, or a book with a student—but in general, Malcolm Gladwell isn’t hone your creative judgments,’ and the poor 30-something is like going to grade your essay, nor is Thomas Keller going to evalu- Where am I gonna get all this?” Something about this struck me as ate your meringue. clammy and sad, as far away from They can’t take your education away from you as it’s possible to be. As though it’s revealing another AS TERRIBLE AS the pandemic has been, it has proved unex- pectedly good for some—specifically billionaires, yeast manufac- turers, and streaming services, of which MasterClass is now one. For a certain cohort of people looking to pass the hours at home, namely those with leisure time and money, the new courses in cooking, mixology, and gardening arrived at the perfect home- steading moment. But the fact that MasterClass is so popular now also speaks to people’s fears, especially economic uncertainties that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Tens of millions ofjobs have been lost, and many newly unemployed people are looking for a different direction. And if they’ve kept their jobs, they are dealing with a whole new way of navigating work, which is stressful and confusing. In a way, MasterClass seems ideally suited to frustrated 30-somethings for whom education has not necessarily resulted in upward mobility or even a job, who feel stuck in their career without a clear path to success. 75

Lately, MasterClass skill sets, and providing an educational journey from beginning has started to end. But its data revealed that people weren’t necessarily con- suming the courses from start to finish, nor was this really nec- presenting itself essary to benefit from the content. “What we were finding was as a platform for that when people were allowed the freedom to jump from lesson dispensing assorted to lesson based on their interest, it was just a much more free- ing experience,” Nekisa Cooper, MasterClass’s vice president of self-help and content, told me. What people seemed to want was a fun mix of personal-development short-form inspirational content. They also displayed surprisingly wide-ranging interests. Students who first watched Bobbi Brown bonbons. followed her up with Chris Voss. layer of unpaid labor—cultural labor—one is expected to do in Lately, MasterClass has started presenting its offerings less order to secure the privilege of performing actual labor. as classroom education and more as part of a learning lifestyle built around a community of people with common interests and What MasterClass offers 30-somethings is “a curated group concerns. It reminds me of a kind of Spotify for careerist inspira- of people” recognized as “the world’s best,” who are “breaking tion, a platform for dispensing assorted self-help and personal- down the thing that they do in a really entertaining and digest- development bonbons for the young capitalist striver. “And we’re ible way,” Schriber said. “You can take away the life lessons, but not just offering classes or education,” Cooper said. “We’re also you can also take away the conversation points. You can come offering escape.” back to work on Monday and talk about what Anna Wintour did for the Met Gala—you can also think, Man, Anna Wintour As for whether it matters if a MasterClass member finishes really gave me permission to show up like a boss today.” a course, Rogier said, “Most education sites look at completion rates. But I think that’s the wrong metric. The measure I look But what does it mean to “show up like a boss” at this moment? at is what’s the impact we have on your life. I know it’s going to And what does it mean to learn it from Anna Wintour, who has sound fluffy, but we legitimately ask people if we changed their recently come under fire for allegedly feeding a toxic and racist life”—which nearly 20percent of those polled said it did. culture at Condé Nast? The idea that everyone should show up like a boss, so current five years ago, feels hollow now that the Silicon Valley has talked about changing the world and peo- brutal inequalities in our system have become undeniable to all ple’s lives for a long time, and it’s safe to say that it has succeeded. but the most willfully obtuse. The world has been remade by private equity and venture capital. Tech has “disrupted” almost every aspect of modern living. Education researchers have known for decades that being good at something and being good at teaching something are two com- Maybe it’s not a coincidence, then, that we find ourselves in pletely different skill sets. In fact, universities are mostly ranked a golden age of self-help and self-development, of “how I did it” on the strength of their research, and, of course, the brand name podcasts and conferences and workshops. We’re encouraged to can be worth a lot. Something similar holds true for MasterClass, optimize ourselves at all times, and told to look upon this as fun, whose impressive roster of talent feels like a who’s who of elite albeit compulsory. But although you can get a lot out of these professionals, a gallery of the meritocracy’s winners. activities, you can waste time looking for the answer, when what these stories all reveal is that great success is a combination of doing TO UNDERSTAND where we are right now, and why Master- the work and getting (or perhaps starting out) really, really lucky. Class seems to slot in so perfectly with the moment, it’s useful to think about how it has evolved over time. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how prospectors in the Cali- fornia Gold Rush rarely struck it rich. In 1849, the ones who MasterClass launched after the early hype around online edu- did well were those who supplied prospectors with shovels, tents, cation had already fizzled. Filmed university lectures seemed to and jeans—they kept the dream alive. Samuel Brannan, who be even less thrilling than the real thing. MOOCs (massive open sold shovels and other goods, was considered California’s first online courses) had poor retention rates, and still structurally millionaire. Levi Strauss, who co-invented blue jeans, died with a favored people of means. At first, MasterClass focused on specific fortune of $6million, worth $175million today. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with supplying people with what they need to pursue their dreams, but it seems that during this time of growing wealth and social inequality, the jeans and shovels have become largely symbolic, and the prospecting they facilitate, the endless panning for something, anything, ever more intangible. There is no goal, really. The panning is the goal. Carina Chocano is a writer based in Los Angeles. She is the author of You Play the Girl. 76 SEPTEMBER 2020

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OMNIVORE The child and the writer are born at the same moment, FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES; GETTY to the same mother, each to his separate destiny. The David Copperfield’s Wild Ride child’s is to see everything, feel everything, be every- thing, and live in the scraps and sparks of language Armando Iannucci’s mad, loving, and by which he understands everything; the writer’s is to brilliant adaptation of Dickens’s novel wait, and hide, and grow, until the day when he steps in—pen in hand—to take possession. By James Parker In The Personal History of David Copperfield, Armando Iannucci’s mad, loving, and brilliantly cinematic extrapolation of the novel by Charles Dickens, the grown-up hero—now a successful author—attends his own birth. He also, later on, has a consoling, avuncular chat with his frightened boy- self. David Copperfield(1850) was Dickens’s char- acteristically rowdy variant on the inward investiga- tion that William Wordsworth had undertaken in his long poem The Prelude. It was the novel, in the words of Dickens’s friend and biographer, John Forster, in which he took “all the world into his confidence.” David’s labile, one-crush-after-another nature was by all reports close to Dickens’s own. And David’s story—of being stunted and oppressed by terrible adults (largely of the professional classes); cherished and protected by wonderful adults (largely of the laboring classes); caught for a time in the gears of the Industrial Revolution (working in a factory at the age of 12); surviving, stormily, and by a mighty expansion of his sensibility—is Dickens’s life not fictionalized but mythicized. Today the book reads unevenly and, in a strange way, un-Dickensianly. It billows, it sags, it contracts suddenly to a point of diamond hardness and then billows and sags again. This is Dickens in his middle period, with confused middle-period energies; the fairy- tale intensity of the early work—of, say, Oliver Twist—is behind him, and the sorcerous glooms of Our Mutual Friend are not yet glimpsed. Also: David Copperfield, in manhood, is not an especially interesting person. (“He’s such a drip,” commented a friend of mine.) But if you can rise above your need for coherence and carefully graded shifts in tone, then David Copperfield becomes a kind of fun-house ride, jolting you about with an almost modernist brusqueness. The comedy is wild and timeless; the melodrama is strained and alien. 78 ILLUSTRATION BY ARSH RAZIUDDIN

And because it’s Dickens, one character contains Iannucci their entertainment value in direct proportion to their this opposition within his own body: the bipolar opti- sometimes cruelty, that have his peers in stitches. mist Mr.Micawber, always in debt, always speculating. knows better Micawber is a comic creation who sees himself melodra- than Dickens This, not to put too fine a point on it, is one way that matically; he makes windy threats of self-destruction, himself what a writer becomes a writer—by cultivating, as a defense and despairingly flourishes a straight razor in the air, David mechanism, a merciless eye for weakness. (Dickens’s but can be distracted—morally revived, even—by Copperfield own talent for impressions became, rather unsettlingly, the approach of a hot kidney pudding and a plate of is about. part of his literary process; his daughter Mamie recorded shrimp. Dickens has also introduced into his text the watching him work one morning, “when he suddenly pathogen Uriah Heep, David’s great enemy. Heep jumped from his chair and rushed to a mirror which hates our virtuous hero with a visionary, almost saintly hung near, and in which I could see the reflection of hatred. He hates him like poison, like kryptonite, like some extraordinary facial contortions which he was the last crawling hypocrisy on Earth. making. He returned rapidly to his desk, wrote furiously for a few moments, and then went again to the mirror.”) Dickens was a radical artist. Half a century before Iannucci works magic elsewhere, too. Ben Whishaw James Joyce wrote the first lines of A Portrait of the Artist as Uriah Heep, his wit playing along the knife edge as a Young Man in shining polymorphous baby talk— between self-abasem*nt and contempt, is stranger and “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there more dangerous than even Dickens could manage; in was a moocow coming down along the road”—Dickens his final, explosive unmasking—“You and yours have was lowering his language probe into the earliest, most always hated me and mine!”—he rears up into nihilistic germinal moments of subjectivity. “The first objects that grandeur, achieving a kind of punk-rock nobility. assume a distinct presence before me,” narrates David in the book’s second chapter (titled “I Observe”), “as I look Dickens was not an egalitarian; he was an far back, into the blank of my infancy, are my mother everyone’s-invited elitist. Beneath his eye we are all with her pretty hair and youthful shape, and Peggotty aristocrats of human nature, simply by virtue of pos- [David’s nanny] with no shape at all, and eyes so dark sessing it. His characters have a hyperbolic presence, they seemed to darken their whole neighbourhood in a hyperbolic value, and if they are frequently deluded her face.” As with Joyce, we are inside the perceptual about one another, those delusions just as frequently theater of actual babyhood. Hair, shape, eyes, shadow— turn out to be beautiful. David’s Aunt Betsey regards the details loom separately, almost unrelatedly, out of a her broken-minded lodger, Mr. Dick (limpidly and supercharged vagueness. wonderfully portrayed by Hugh Laurie in the movie), as a man of great wisdom; and so, it transpires, he is. Iannucci’s movie flings itself into all of this. The Mrs.Micawber has unbudgeable faith in her hopeless vibration is dreamlike. Sets collapse, or turn into stage husband; her faith is rewarded. curtains that blow open into the next scene. Dev Patel, as David, is gangling, huge-eyed, heavy-breathing: This basic grasp of essential human worth was cartoonish, in the best sense. The multicolored cast- behind Dickens’s horror (recognized and saluted by ing is both an anti-hegemonic kick in the ass and his contemporary and fellow Londoner Karl Marx) a Brechtian device: It keeps us aware of the fictive at the exploitation of children, working people, and nature of the proceedings. Excess seems to warp or the poor: It was a sort of outraged innocence. “From bulge out of every frame, and every story line wants the reformer is required a simplicity of surprise,” wrote to go writhing off on its own. There are compressions G.K. Chesterton in his book on Dickens. “He must and contractions; one senses steaming coils of surplus have the faculty of a violent and virgin astonishment. footage, whole subplots excised. Warm work in the It is not enough that he should think injustice dis- editing suite, I imagine. tressing; he must think injustice absurd, an anomaly in existence.” And it’s this primal double take—at the Iannucci, a writer and director on Veep and The shape of this person’s nose, at that person’s verbal or Death of Stalin, is the sharpest of comic minds, a mas- conceptual tics, at the fact that 12-year-olds can be put ter of competing registers, and he knows what he’s to work in factories—that is the keynote of Dickens’s doing. Indeed, having the artistic advantage of not work. In his ends were his beginnings; as in Iannucci’s being Charles Dickens, of being able to see around movie, the writer supernaturally assisted at the birth of the edges of that enormous personality, he knows the child, which was his own birth, too. He was, in this in a couple of places better than Dickens himself way, the complete—the total—novelist. His humanity what David Copperfield is about. In one particularly was enormous, and fully alive to itself. He knew us all inspired digression, he gives us a long scene in which so well, and we never stopped blowing his mind. David ingratiates himself with his fellow schoolboys by means of his gift for impressions: physical carica- James Parker is a staff writer at The Atlantic. tures of teachers and other boys, feats of mimicry, SEPTEMBER 2020 79

Culture & Critics In June 2005, Oprah Winfrey announced BETTMANN / GETTY a surprising choice as the 55th selection BOOKS for her influential book club. The com- ing months would be, she proclaimed, a What to Do About “Summer of Faulkner,” focused on three William Faulkner of his novels—As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and Light in August, avail- A white man of the Jim Crow South, able in a special 1,100-page box set weigh- he couldn’t escape the burden of race, ing in at two pounds. Oprah’s website yet derived creative force from it. posted short videotaped lectures by three literature professors to assist readers in By Drew Gilpin Faust making sense of the writer’s notoriously demanding prose. The Faulkner trilogy William Faulkner and his wife, Estelle, stand outside their home, in Oxford, Mississippi, in the spring of 1955. quickly rose to the No.2 spot on Ama- zon’s best-seller list. Some literary crit- 80 ics hailed Winfrey for bringing William Faulkner back into popular consciousness; others challenged any notion of recovery or revival, asking whether he had ever really gone away. In the decade and a half since then, the issues of race and history so central to Faulkner’s work have grown only more urgent. How should we now regard this pathbreaking, Nobel Prize–winning author, who grappled with our nation’s racial tragedy in ways that at once illumi- nate and disturb—that reflect both star- tling human truths and the limitations of a white southerner born in 1897 into the stifling air of Mississippi’s closed and seg- regated society? In our current moment of racial reckoning, Faulkner is certainly ripe for rigorous scrutiny. Michael Gorra, an English professor at Smith, believes Faulkner to be the most important novelist of the 20th century. In his rich, complex, and eloquent new book, The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War, he makes the case for how and why to read Faulkner in the 21st by revisiting his fiction through the lens of the Civil War, “the central quarrel of our nation’s history.” Rarely an overt subject, one “not dramatized so much as invoked,” the Civil War is both “everywhere” and “nowhere” in Faulkner’s work. He cannot escape the war, its aftermath, or its mean- ing, and neither, Gorra insists, can we. As the formerly enslaved Ringo remarks in The Unvanquished(1938) during Reconstruction-era conflict over voting rights, “This war aint over. Hit just started good.” This is why for us, as for Jason and Quentin Compson in The Sound and the

Fury(1929), was and again are “the saddest words.” Faulkner’s each version of the story he uncovers, Quentin looks As Gorra explains, “What was is never over.” fiction fails to again, arriving through ever more disturbing revelations render slavery’s at the South’s original sin: the distorting and dehuman- In setting out to explore what Faulkner can tell us physical izing power of race. It is race that pulls the trigger. “So about the Civil War and what the war can tell us about cruelties; it’s the miscegenation, not the incest, which you cant Faulkner, Gorra engages as both historian and literary it includes no bear,” Bon says just before Henry, at once his brother critic. But he also writes, he confesses, as an “act of depiction of and his fiancée’s brother, shoots him. citizenship.” His book represents his own meditation an auction on the meaning of the “forever war” of race, not just or a whipping. To think of this novel appearing in the same year as in American history and literature, but in our fraught Gone With the Wind is startling. It was moonlight and time. What we think today about the Civil War, he magnolias, rather than a searing portrait of the persist- believes, “serves above all to tell us what we think ing legacies of slavery, that captured the public’s acclaim: about ourselves, about the nature of our polity and Margaret Mitchell, not Faulkner, won the Pulitzer Prize the shape of our history.” for Fiction in 1937. But Faulkner’s period of “explo- sive productivity,” beginning in 1929—13 books in 13 The core of Gorra’s book is a Civil War narrative, years—attracted a different sort of attention, because which he has created by untangling the war’s appear- of his formal innovations and literary experimentalism, ances throughout Faulkner’s fiction and rearranging not just his unvarnished portrayals of race. In a 1939 them “into something like linearity.” From the lay- essay, Jean-Paul Sartre compared him to Proust, and ers and circularities and recurrences and reversals of Faulkner became an idol in the eyes of young French Faulkner’s 19 novels and more than 100 short sto- intellectuals as well as literary critics around the world. ries, Gorra has constructed a chronological telling of Faulkner might not have won the Pulitzer, but he was Yoknapatawpha’s war, of the incidents and characters on the path to his 1949 Nobel. who appear in the writer’s extended chronicle of his invented “postage stamp” world. Faulkner took liber- G o r r a n ot e s the “ever-increasing importance of ties with the historical order of events; what he sought race” in Faulkner’s fiction. Yet society’s racial attitudes to depict was the “psychological truth of the Con- and practices were evolving even more rapidly than federate home front” and the war’s aftermath. This Faulkner’s own. As the civil-rights movement gained is work, Gorra argues, that actual documents of the momentum after the end of World WarII, Faulkner period would be hard-pressed to do. And that psy- engaged in more explicit public commentary about chological truth certainly could not have been derived America’s divisions and inequities. Like critics in those from study of the racist historiography of Faulkner’s years and ever since, Gorra struggles to come to terms era, which he insisted he never even read. Instead, this with the distressing views Faulkner frequently articu- understanding is the product of what Toni Morrison lated on questions of racial progress and racial justice. once called Faulkner’s “refusal-to-look-away approach” Gorra does not look away from Faulkner’s troubling to the burden of his region’s cruel past. public statements or from some disconcerting stereo- types and assumptions in his literary work that became Faulkner enacts this refusal through his practice newly jarring as social attitudes shifted. of looking again, of revisiting the same characters and stories, and through the prequels and sequels A great deal is at stake in Gorra’s effort. We are and outgrowths of those he has already told, digging in a time when authors’ reputations are overturned, deeply into the hidden and often shocking truths of their works removed from reading lists, their achieve- the South he portrays. Gorra endeavors to unknot ments devalued because of their blindness on ques- and clarify Faulkner’s oeuvre by reconstructing it him- tions we now see with different eyes. At the outset of self, but his act of literary explication is also one of his book, Gorra reminds us of persisting debates over participation—a joining in the Faulknerian process. Joseph Conrad, initially stimulated by a 1977 Chinua Gorra renarrates these Civil War stories as he seeks Achebe essay labeling him an apologist for imperialism. to come to terms both with America’s painful racial Today, Gorra believes, Faulkner “stands to us as Con- legacies and with William Faulkner. rad does,” in need of reexamination and an updated understanding that confronts his racist shortcomings. Perhaps the most powerful of Faulkner’s tellings of the Civil War story is Absalom, Absalom!(1936), a novel Faulkner, Gorra concedes, “remained a white man structured around Quentin Compson’s own refusal to of the Jim Crow South and did not always rise above look away. Although Faulkner insisted that Quentin it. At times his words both can and should make us did not speak for him, Gorra has “never quite believed uncomfortable.” His fiction offers an “all-too forgiving him.” Quentin’s search to understand why Charles depiction of slaveholder paternalism.” His novels and Bon was murdered during the very last days of the war stories fail to render slavery’s physical cruelties; they unfolds through his elaboration of successive narratives include no depiction of an auction, a family separated in a manner not unlike Faulkner’s own. Unsatisfied with SEPTEMBER 2020 81

Culture & Critics BOOKS by sale, or a whipping. Many of his Black characters THE SADDEST their salvation could come, if at all, only at the cost of seem incomplete, although they’re certainly not the WORDS: WILLIAM postponing justice for Black Americans, which Bald- caricatured stereotypes typical of so much white south- win made clear was no longer conceivable. ern writing of his time. Faulkner remarked upon white FAULKNER’S men who had “the courage and endurance to resist… CIVIL WAR Gorra assembles quite a bill of failings, especially Reconstruction.” The Unvanquished presents John if we view Faulkner with the assumptions of our time Sartoris as a leader of the local Klan admirably deter- Michael Gorra and place rather than his own. Yet having meticulously mined to keep “the carpetbaggers from organizing the acknowledged all of this, Gorra makes his claim for negroes into an insurrection,” which was Sartoris’s view LIVERIGHT Faulkner the writer by reproving Faulkner the man. of the Black claim on the franchise. As Gorra observes, “When writing fiction,” Faulkner “became better than Faulkner’s “picture of black voters as inevitably ignorant SEPTEMBER 2020 he was.” He had, Gorra argues, an uncanny ability to and corruptible simply parrots the view of Reconstruc- “think his way within other people,” to inhabit their tion that was current in Faulkner’s childhood and for being so as to erase preconceptions and prejudices some decades thereafter.” A 1943 short story Faulkner in the very act of portraying their minds and souls. wrote for The Saturday Evening Post presents the slave Through fiction, Faulkner could “stand outside his broker and Confederate general Nathan Bedford For- Oxford, his Jefferson, and see the behavior his people rest in a generous manner that Gorra finds particularly take for granted, the things they don’t even question.” “hard to stomach.” At the same time, Gorra points out, As Gorra presents it, the act of writing bestowed an the depiction of enslaved people fleeing to freedom almost mystical clear-sightedness. Yet that clarity was and securing their own emancipation transcends the always challenged in the fetid Mississippi air that historiography of Faulkner’s time and anticipates that Faulkner, like all his characters, had to breathe. And of our own. He is no apologist for the Old South, and it is that very tension, the combination of the flaws resists in any way glorifying the war, unlike almost every and the brilliance, that for Gorra makes his case. other white southerner of his era. Is this rendering of Faulkner’s weaknesses as the The public pronouncements Faulkner made on source of his strength just an act of interpretive jiu-jitsu? race as the civil-rights movement unfolded are in Or perhaps a reversion to a romantic notion of redemp- many ways even more disturbing than the short- tive genius? Or is Gorra influenced by what Faulkner comings Gorra identifies in his fiction. In an appall- himself urged upon posterity: that his life be “abolished ing drunken interview with the British Sunday Times and voided from history,” leaving only “the printed in 1956, Faulkner invoked the specter of race war books”? After all, Faulkner once declared that he wanted if the South were compelled to integrate, but when his epitaph to read “He made the books and he died.” his words were widely reviled, he denied ever having uttered them. He regularly spoke out against lynch- But Gorra insists on the importance of the teller ing and deplored the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, and the tale, as well as on the creative force Faulkner saying that any society that murdered children didn’t derived from the burden of race, which he could not “deserve to survive, and probably won’t.” But he had escape. It is because of, not in spite of, Faulkner’s short- once suggested that mobs, “like our juries… have a comings that we must continue to engage with his way of being right.” Gorra underscores the “incoher- work: These failures are product and emblem of the ence” of Faulkner’s position as both critic and defender legacies of racial injustice that shape us all. In his Nobel of the white South’s resistance to change. Prize speech in 1950, Faulkner declared that the only thing worth writing about was “the human heart in In many ways, he was a quintessential white south- conflict with itself.” He lived that conflict even as he ern “moderate,” an identity much scrutinized as the wrote about it. His struggles forced him to experiment civil-rights movement gathered momentum. He con- and to innovate, yielding both his aesthetic and his demned violence and recognized the need to end seg- ethical insight. These very difficulties—“the drama regation, but he rejected what Martin Luther KingJr. and… power of his attempt to work through our his- later described as “the fierce urgency of now.” Indeed, tory, to wrestle or rescue it into meaning”—are what it was the moral failures of just such moderates that make Faulkner so worthwhile. We read him because King would directly assail in his 1963 “Letter From he takes us with him into our national heart of dark- Birmingham Jail.” Faulkner urged patience and delay ness, into the shameful history we have still failed to and spoke out against federal coercion of the white confront or understand. Our past, Gorra and Faulkner South. His critics thought he should have known bet- agree, is “never over.” Or certainly not yet. ter. As James Baldwin explained in a 1956 essay con- demning his views on desegregation, Faulkner hoped Drew Gilpin Faust is a contributing writer at The Atlan- to give southern whites the time and opportunity to tic and a former president of Harvard University, where save themselves, to reclaim their moral identity. But she is the Arthur Kingsley Porter University Professor. 82

Culture & Critics BOOKS “To tolerate existence, we lie, and we lie above all to ourselves,” Elena Ferrante observed in a 2002 inter- Lying as an Art Form view. “Falsehoods protect us, mitigate suffering, allow us to avoid the terrifying moment of serious reflection, Elena Ferrante’s new novel about adolescence they dilute the horrors of our time, they even save us explores the power of fictions. from ourselves.” For Ferrante, the falsehoods that peo- ple tell one another and themselves in everyday life— By Merve Emre I am happy; I love my wife; I didn’t know what I was doing—are “lovely tales,” or “petty lies.” At moments when guilt and shame threaten our conscience, when they shake our deepest beliefs about who we are, petty lies stop us from looking too closely at ourselves. Literary fiction is also a lie, according to Ferrante, but a lie that is “made purposely to always tell the truth.” The lies that fiction tells—once upon a time a person said and did this and that—are unmotivated by self-interest. Fiction is an illusion that tinkers with our sense of reality to lay bare the price we pay for our petty lies: Fiction shows us that narcissism and self-doubt impel us to hurt others; that we are quick to betray people who trust us; that love can be more destructive than hate. Central to Ferrante’s theory of fiction as an act of truth-telling is her conviction that the truth dawns more radiantly when glimpsed through the veil of fiction’s lies. What can we learn about the conjunction of life and fiction from a work of fiction about lying? Fer- rante’s exquisitely moody new novel, The Lying Life of Adults, is about a teenager named Giovanna who learns that the grown-ups in her life have been lying to her. She also learns that the contents of their lies are less intriguing than their styles of lying—exaggeration, omission, justification, obfuscation—which vary in their skillfulness, and in the pleasure and pain they afford. All lie differently from The Lying Life of Adults itself, which invites us to evaluate lying not only as a moral problem, but also as an aesthetic challenge—to ask whether a lie can ever be elevated into an art form. We might ask this question of all of Ferrante’s writ- ing. Her fiction teems with liars of every age, from the insecure children of her beloved Neapolitan quartet, to the anguished adults of her early novels, to Elena Ferrante herself, an authorial persona who claims that she resorts to lying to shield herself. Unlike the Neapolitan quartet, which spans more than half a century in the lives of two friends, The Lying Life of Adults concerns itself with adolescence—a time when deception and self-deception loom large, and grow- ing up means learning to catch oneself and others in the act of lying. Everything that entails—ridding oneself of childish illusions, recognizing the hypoc- risy of adults, suffering romantic disappointment—is standard fare for novels of adolescence. But for Fer- rante, whose novel bestows on familiar experiences an ardent, unreal shimmer, growing up also involves ILLUSTRATION BY SIMONE NORONHA 83

Culture & Critics learning how to cultivate a talent for deception that begins “almost inadvertently to invent” things about approaches a talent for writing fiction. her parents, though she restrains herself from being too “novelistic.” To Angela and Ida, she lies about T h e q u a r t e t began with intensity, in a violent, Ferrante’s Vittoria recklessly, almost giving her “the capacity to working-class neighborhood of Naples, but The Lying fiction teems fly through night skies or invent magic potions.” The Life of Adults opens amid the educated, affluent, and with liars of quartet allowed its narrator, a writer named Lenù, to peaceable. Giovanna’s father is a teacher at a prestigious all ages, from move among several different genres of storytelling: the high school and an aspiring Marxist intellectual, “an the insecure fable, the romance, the realist novel. The Lying Life of unfailingly courteous man” whose love and admiration children of her Adults makes the same imaginative experiment avail- she desperately desires. Her mother teaches Greek and Neapolitan able to readers. “I’m not wise, but I read a lot of nov- Latin and proofreads romance novels. Giovanna’s best quartet to els,” Giovanna says of her education in lying. “Instead friends, pretty Angela and poetic Ida, are the daugh- the anguished of my own words, phrases from books come to mind.” ters of her parents’ best friends, the wealthy Mariano adults of her and Costanza. All seem content in their bourgeois early novels. The books she begins with are the epics her father happiness—until the day Giovanna, then 12, over- loves to quote. Then her lies start to toggle between hears a conversation between her mother and father. fable and romance, with their enchanted objects (she imagines a bracelet Vittoria gives her as possessing Giovanna recalls the conversation from an magic) and fairy-tale archetypes (she casts Vittoria as an unspecified present: “Two years before leaving home evil witch). Yet the more Giovanna lies, the more she my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.” We flexes her nascent powers of perception and narration. have no reason to doubt her account. “Those words,” Her inner world, her imagination, grows critical, rebel- she tells us, “remained fixed” in her mind as a cruel lious, and she starts to see the “well-ordered world” of judgment on her pubescent body and poor perfor- her parents with unnerving clarity. She discovers that a mance in school. But we soon discover that what her more melodramatic configuration of lies (reminiscent father actually said was worse: She was “becoming of the quartet’s later books) has corrupted her family’s like his sister,” her estranged Aunt Vittoria, “a child- happiness. There is her intellectualizing father’s long hood bogeyman, a lean, demonic silhouette,” whose affair with Costanza, which he justifies artlessly, in “a vulgarity and cruelty her noble father has detested for frenzy to redeem himself by listing his grand reasons, as long as Giovanna can remember. his pain and suffering.” There is her mother’s improvi- sation of “nostalgic little speeches” about her estranged Reversing the quartet’s story of upward mobility, husband’s goodness, honesty, and fidelity. Giovanna descends from her home atop Naples’s highest hill to the industrial neighborhood where Giovanna deems these lies “offensive,” and is as Vittoria lives, determined to discover the truth of repelled by their self-serving sentimentality as she is, her aunt’s estrangement. Her father begs her “to put eventually, by Vittoria’s romantic vulgarity. Part of wax in [her] ears like Odysseus.” But Giovanna lis- learning how to lie, Ferrante suggests, is learning how tens as Vittoria tells the agonizing story of her love to judge lies based on their aesthetic merits. As we grow for a married man named Enzo, their affair exposed up, some varieties of lying must be cast aside: We know by Giovanna’s father, no longer a heroic man but a too much to accommodate their obvious falsity, their puritanical, petty bourgeois opportunist. Vittoria clichés, their failure to reconcile us to the intractable describes the sublime feeling of “f*cking,” “an adher- realities of life. What makes the adults seem so stunted ence to pleasure so desperately carnal” that Giovanna is that none of them lies with elegance or verve, with finds herself shockingly aroused. “Tell your father: imagination or originality. As non-novelists—teachers Vittoria said that if I don’t f*ck the way she f*cked of the classics, proofreaders of romance—their lies bor- with Enzo, it’s pointless for me to live,” her aunt row tropes from the fiction they produce and consume: demands. We know Vittoria’s pronouncement is a lie, romantic idealization, passivity in the face of passion, a but Giovanna is too overwhelmed by the pleasure the feeling of fatedness. Yet, as Giovanna soon realizes, the lie elicits to see it. The moralizing lies of her father lies designed by their literary culture are too reductive and the eroticizing lies of her aunt loom before her to give meaning to her quest to understand her sudden like Scylla and Charybdis. To navigate between them alienation from her life. safely, she must cultivate her own style of deception. t h e ly i n g l i f e o f a d u lt s is not an epic, a F o r F e r r a n t e , lies, like literature, cleave to dif- fable, or a romance like the novels Giovanna’s mother ferent genres, each with its own conventions of lan- proofreads. It is not a bildungsroman or Künstlerroman guage. To her parents, Giovanna downplays her fasci- in the way the quartet is. It is a novel of disillusionment, nation with Vittoria, clipping her descriptions of her as the literary critic Georg Lukács once described the visit. To Vittoria, whom she starts to see regularly, she category: a novel that strips away its young protagonist’s 84 SEPTEMBER 2020

BOOKS major social relationships to elevate her interiority to THE LYING LIFE and not the Proustian novel, which labors to create a “the status of a completely independent world.” From OF ADULTS single self out of the fragments of existence. The answer its origins in Balzac’s Lost Illusions and Flaubert’s Sen- can be found at the very beginning of The Lying Life timental Education, the genre explores an individual’s Elena Ferrante of Adults, when Giovanna describes the story to come. struggle to adapt private fantasies and illusions to an outer world hostile to them. The word Ferrante uses Tra n s l a t e d by I slipped away, and am still slipping away, within to describe this feeling of discordance is estraneità: Ann Goldstein these lines that are intended to give me a story, while “extraneousness,” “noninvolvement,” or, as Ann in fact I am nothing, nothing of my own, nothing Goldstein beautifully translates it, “estrangement.” EUROPA EDITIONS that has really begun or really been brought to com- When Giovanna embraces her father, but draws no pletion: only a tangled knot, and nobody, not even comfort from his familiar scent, she is overwhelmed the one who at this moment is writing, knows if it by “a sense of estrangement that provoked suffering contains the right thread for a story or is merely a mixed incongruously with satisfaction”—suffering snarled confusion of suffering, without redemption. from the rupture with her family, from the loss of a shared world; and satisfaction at how her distance Everything the sentence suggests—that the “I” who allows her to see her parents and aunt anew, her outer speaks from within fiction is elusive; that writing is gaze clarified by her inner state of homelessness. like weaving a fabric that conceals and reveals the life beneath; that this fabric will never redeem life’s The novel’s second half shows how estrangement suffering—is a description of Ferrante’s own fiction. might allow Giovanna to approach, blindly, haltingly, more elevated forms of lying than what her parents The novel alludes to the quartet as it closes, and have offered. The catalyst is Roberto, a classic Fer- Giovanna (the reader) and her poetic friend Ida (the rante love interest. He is a brilliant scholar of religion, writer) leave for Venice together, vowing to become a Neapolitan boy who has found success as a young “adults as no one ever had before.” On the one hand, man in Milan but remains attached to his origins; the ending could be read ironically, as a version of the he is engaged to an attractive, if insipid, girl from thrillingly cliché adolescent illusion that running away Vittoria’s neighborhood. When she meets Roberto, from home will free us from the ties that bind. On Giovanna, now almost 15, tells him she is reading a the other, the embrace of friendship over family and book about “the search for lost time,” and he praises romance could signal the beginning of a superior and her intellect. She tells herself the lie that comes flu- entirely truthful lie: the writing of the novel itself, a col- ently to all teenagers: “Become his friend, only that, laborative examination of the past by two people—both and show him that, somewhere inside me, unknown Giovanna the liar and “the one who at this moment is even to myself, I possess the qualities he needs.” writing.” Whether the one who is writing is the older Giovanna or her friend Ida, the echo of the intertwined A pointedly Proustian story of fantasy and desire protagonists of the quartet, Lila and Lenù, is clear. unfolds. Call this kind of lie the self-deception of infatu- ation. It rarely lasts, as Ferrante knows, but as long as The end of The Lying Life of Adults suggests that it does, it allows Giovanna to live lies that only inten- the way to reckon with the “snarled confusion of suf- sify the desire they seek to suppress. Around Roberto, fering” is literary partnership—that this marvelously Giovanna projects an aura of intellectual purity, com- disconcerting novel of disillusionment is a product passion, and wisdom, and strives to be as good as she of the grace extended to the liar by the writer. Only believes him to be. His work is about “compunction,” the writer’s truthful lies can mirror the liar’s petty which he describes to her not as moral scrupulousness, ones with the clear sight needed to affirm the inten- but as “a needle that had to pull the thread through the sity of her past. Only the writer knows how to con- scattered fragments of our existence.” That he will let jure desire; sympathize with misjudgment; rebuke her down is inevitable—from the moment they meet, carelessness; disappoint mercifully. Always, Ferrante’s we know he will never live up to her illusions. But her fiction reminds us that sometimes you need someone infatuation allows her to discover that the compunction else to help gather the scattered fragments of your of which Roberto speaks is key to what some liars, like existence. A writer is a friend who can find the thread some novels, do. They create the appearance of a unified of your story when you are too blinded by your lies self, smoothing the painful and unassimilable edges out to grasp it yourself. She can give you the beginning of our histories; they offer a false sense of consolation, and end you need—if not in life, then in fiction. which we accept, eager not to look too hard at ourselves. Merve Emre is an associate English professor at the What kind of novel is best at transforming lying University of Oxford. She is a co-author of The into an art form and fiction into a truthful lie rather Ferrante Letters, published in January. than mere consolation? Not the epic, not the romance, 85


BOOKS On the contrary, some of them had been preparing already. In August 1988, a high-ranking official from The World Putin Made Moscow arrived in East Berlin and began recruiting German sleeper agents, who continued to work with How KGB methods, tactics, and operations the KGB, or rather the institutions that replaced the have fueled Russia’s quest for glory KGB, even after the reunification of Germany and the fall of the Soviet Union itself. At about the same time, By Anne Applebaum the KGB was also setting up the offshore accounts, fake businesses, and hidden “black cash” funds that It was December 1989, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and in Dres- would, in the 1990s, propel some of its members den, crowds were gathering outside the headquarters of the Stasi, to great wealth and power. From 1986 to 1988, for the East German secret police, shouting insults and demanding example, the Stasi transferred millions of marks to a access. Nearby, frantic KGB officers—the Soviet advisers whom network of companies in Switzerland, Liechtenstein, the Stasi had long referred to as “the friends”—were barricaded and Singapore, all run by an Austrian businessman inside their villa, burning papers. “We destroyed everything,” named Martin Schlaff. He and his companies would remembered one of those officers, Vladimir Putin. “All our com- reemerge years later, Belton writes, as “central cogs in munications, our lists of contacts and our agents’ networks… the influence operations of the Putin regime.” We burned so much stuff that the furnace burst.” The KGB’s Dresden team may have also played Toward evening, a group of protesters broke away from the another role in the organization’s careful preparations Stasi building and started marching toward the KGB villa. Pan- for a post-Communist future. Precisely because the icked, Putin called the Soviet military command in Dresden and city was a backwater—and thus uninteresting to other asked for reinforcements. None were forthcoming. “I got the intelligence agencies—the KGB and the Stasi orga- feeling then that the country no longer existed. That it had dis- nized meetings in Dresden with some of the extremist appeared,” Putin told an interviewer years later. “It was clear the organizations they supported in the West and around union was ailing. And it had a terminal disease without a cure—a the world. One former member of the Red Army paralysis of power.” The shock was total, and he never forgot it. Faction—the West German terrorist organization, also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang, that killed For hundreds of millions of people, the fall of the Berlin Wall dozens of people during its heyday—told Belton that was a great triumph: The moment marked the end of hated one of its most notorious final actions was planned dictatorships and the beginning of a better era. But for the KGB with the help of the KGB and the Stasi in Dresden. In officers stationed in Dresden, the political revolutions of 1989 late November 1989, Alfred Herrhausen, the chairman marked the end of their empire and the beginning of an era of of Deutsche Bank, died after a bomb hit his car. Herr- humiliation. In interviews, Putin has returned to that moment— hausen was, at that time, a close adviser to the German the moment when reinforcements did not come—always describ- government on the economics of reunification, and a ing it as a turning point in his own life. Like Scarlett O’Hara shak- proponent of a more integrated European economy. ing her fist at a blood-red sky, Putin swore, it seems, to dedicate Why him? Perhaps the KGB had its own ideas about his life to restoring his country’s glory. how reunification should proceed and how the Euro- pean economy should be integrated. Perhaps Russia’s But Putin’s cinematic depiction of his last days in Dresden cap- secret policemen didn’t want any rivals messing things tures only part of what happened. As Catherine Belton demon- up. Or perhaps they wanted, as their successors still do, strates in Putin’s People, large chunks are missing from his story and to create havoc in Germany and beyond. from the stories of his KGB colleagues—the other members of what would become, two decades later, Russia’s ruling class. As the title Belton does not prove Putin’s personal involve- indicates, Belton’s book is not a biography of the Russian dictator, ment in any of these projects, which isn’t surprising. but a portrait of this generation of security agents. And many of The Russian leader has gone to great lengths to conceal them were not, in fact, entirely shocked by the events of 1989. his real role during the four and a half years he spent in Dresden. But throughout her book, which will surely now become the definitive account of the rise of Putin and Putinism, she adds enough new details to establish beyond doubt that the future Russian president was working alongside the people who set up the secret bank accounts and held the meetings with subversives and terrorists. More important, she establishes how, years later, these kinds of projects came to benefit him and shape his worldview. Building on the work of others—Masha Gessen’s The Man Without a Face: The SEPTEMBER 2020 87

Culture & Critics Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s they had begun more than a decade earlier, after that Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, Steven Lee Myers’s The first power change in Ukraine. Already in 2005, two New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, and of Putin’s closest colleagues, the oligarchs Vladimir Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy’s Mr.Putin: Operative Yakunin and Konstantin Malofeyev, had begun setting in the Kremlin, among many books on this subject— up the organizations that would promote an “alterna- Belton, a former FinancialTimes correspondent in Mos- tive” to democracy and integration all across Europe. cow, incorporates crucial new material from interviews With the help of intermediaries and friendly compa- with former KGB operatives, Kremlin insiders, and nies, and more recently with the assistance of troll farms bankers in various countries. She shows that Putin may and online disinformation operations, they promoted a have been burning documents in Dresden, but he never whole network of think tanks and fake “experts.” Some- lost touch with the people, the tactics, or the operations times they aided existing political parties—the National launched by the KGB at that time. Front in France, for example, and the Northern League in Italy—and sometimes they helped create new ones, S t e p by s t e p, Belton demonstrates how the future Belton such as the far-right Alternative for Germany. The most president made full use of KGB methods, contacts, documents important funder of the British Brexit campaign had and networks at each stage of his career. She describes the activities odd Russian contacts. So did some cabinet ministers the famous swindle he ran in St.Petersburg in the of the in Poland’s supposedly anti-Russian, hard-right gov- ’90s, selling oil abroad on the city’s behalf, suppos- biznesmeny ernment, elected after a campaign marked by online edly to buy food for its inhabitants; instead the profits who have disinformation in 2015. went to create a hard-currency slush fund—known in circled around Russian criminal slang as an obschak—much of which Trump for The pro-Russian “separatists” who would later financed other operations and eventually enriched 30 years, launch a war in eastern Ukraine got their start around Putin’s friends. Later, Putin won the confidence of the bailing him 2005 too, with an even more apocalyptic result. Rus- Russian oligarchs of President Boris Yeltsin’s era, in part out, offering sian propaganda deliberately sought to divide Ukraine by promising them immunity from prosecution after him “ deals.” and polarize its citizens, while Russian corruption Yeltsin resigned; once he took power, he eliminated reached deep into the economy. Within a decade, the them from the game, arresting some throughout the PUTIN’S PEOPLE: Russian operations in Ukraine led to mass violence. early 2000s and chasing others out of the country. In HOW THE Some of the Ukrainians who attended Kremlin youth the years that he has been president, his cronies have camps or joined the Eurasian Youth movement during launched a series of major operations—the Deutsche KGB TOOK BACK the 2000s—often funded by the “charities” created Bank “mirror trading” scheme, the Moldovan “laun- RUSSIA AND by Malofeyev, Yakunin, and others—took part in the dromat,” the Danske Bank scandal—all of which used storming of Donetsk’s city-administration buildings in Western banks to help move stolen money out of Rus- THEN TOOK ON 2014, and then in the horrific Russian-Ukrainian war, sia. Similar schemes continue to the present day. THE WEST which has disrupted European politics and claimed more than 13,000 lives. Russian soldiers, weapons, and But the pivotal political event for Putin took place Catherine Belton advisers fuel the fighting in eastern Ukraine even now. in 2005, when a pro-Western president, Viktor Yush- chenko, came to power in Ukraine after a street revo- FARRAR, STRAUS All of these Russian-backed groups, from refined lution. The Russian president blamed these events on AND GIROUX Dutch far-right politicians in elegant suits to the American money and the CIA (an organization that, Donetsk thugs, share a common dislike for the Euro- for better or worse, never had anything like that kind pean Union, for NATO, for any united concept of of influence in Ukraine). “It was the worst nightmare “the West,” and in many cases for democracy itself. In of Putin’s KGB men that, inspired by events in neigh- a very deep sense, they are Putin’s ideological answer to boring countries, Russian oppositionists funded by the trauma he experienced in 1989. Instead of democ- the West would seek to topple Putin’s regime too,” racy, autocracy; instead of unity, division; instead of Belton writes. “This was the dark paranoia that col- open societies, xenophobia. Amazingly, quite a few ored and drove many of the actions they were to take people, even some American conservatives, are taken from then on.” Not coincidentally, this scenario— in by Russian tactics. It is incredible, but a group of pro-Western-democracy protesters overthrowing a cynical, corrupt ex-KGB officers with access to vast corrupt and unpopular regime—was precisely the one quantities of illegal money—operating in a country that Putin had lived through in Dresden. Putin was with religious discrimination, extremely low church so upset by events in Kyiv that he even considered attendance, and a large Muslim minority—have resigning, Belton reports. Instead, he decided to stay somehow made themselves into the world’s biggest on and fight back, using the only methods he knew. promoters of “Christian values,” opposing feminism, gay rights, and laws against domestic violence, and Although the American electorate awoke to the supporting “white” identity politics. This is an old reality of Russian influence operations only in 2016, geopolitical struggle disguised as a new culture war. 88 SEPTEMBER 2020

BOOKS I Feel Good Yakunin himself told Belton, frankly, that “this battle By Nikky Finney is used by Russia to restore its global position.” On the occasion of the state of South Carolina taking control of Ultimately, all of these tactics had their culmination the $100 million James Brown I Feel Good Trust, willed in the career of Donald Trump. In the last chapter of to the education of needy students, and after the death of Prince Putin’s People, Belton documents the activities of the biznesmeny who have circled around Trump for 30 whor*s raised him with intellect years, bailing him out, buying apartments in his build- and savoir faire, teaching: ings for cash, offering him “deals,” always operating in “the half-light between the Russian security services pack your fragrant pants proper and the mob, with both sides using the other to their like a mattress, stock the edges own benefit.” Among them are Shalva Tchigirinsky, a Georgian black marketeer who met Trump in Atlantic for comfort, with newspaper City in 1990; Felix Sater, a Russian with mob links headlines & purple velvet co*ck feathers, whose company served, among other things, as the intermediary for Trump buildings in Manhattan, Fort scrupulously tilt the tucked Lauderdale, and Phoenix; Alex Shnaider, a Russian met- microphone like it’s your johnson, als trader who developed the Trump hotel in Toronto; and Dmitry Rybolovlev, an oligarch who purchased hips travel best when horizontal of how Trump’s Palm Beach mansion in 2008 for $95mil- the crow flies, keep spinning and splendor lion, more than double what Trump had paid for it in 2004, just as the financial crisis hit Trump’s companies. in your daily moves, know sound is gilt-edged & saturnalian like lightning, While many of these stories have been written before, Belton puts them in the larger context. The meant to enter but never land, cotton-slide hard truth is that Trump was not exceptional. He was your closed eyes all the way back to Watusi land; just another amoral Western businessman, one of many whom the ex-KGB elite have promoted and sponsored caterwaul & amplify, around the world, with the hope that they might eventually be of some political or commercial use. Many exalt yourself on your backside, of these bets didn’t pay off, but in 2016, Putin finally spell yourself out with your alligator feet, hit the jackpot: His operatives helped elect an Ameri- can president with long-standing Russian links who the world will prefer you in heels, would not only sow chaos, but systematically under- mine America’s alliances, erode American influence, and when you open up the door even, in the spring of 2020, render the American federal sport hot curls and a sexy cape, government dysfunctional, damaging the reputation of both the U.S. and democracy more broadly. drop to your knees before, during, and after the end of every song, A huge success for Putin’s people has proved a ter- rible tragedy for the rest of the world—a tragedy that clothes are tight for a reason, also touches ordinary Russians. In her epilogue, Bel- sweat is money in any season, ton notes that in seeking to restore their country’s sig- nificance, Putin’s KGB cronies have repeated many of men pretending to be wallflowers the mistakes their Soviet predecessors made at home. are all ears and antsy in the parlor, They have once again created a calcified, authoritarian political system in Russia, and a corrupt economy that straining at the bit discourages innovation and entrepreneurship. Instead for you to finish your dying. of experiencing the prosperity and political dynamism that still seemed possible in the ’90s, Russia is once Nikky Finney’s 2011 collection, Head Off & Split, was the winner of the again impoverished and apathetic. But Putin and his National Book Award for poetry. This poem appears in her new book, Love people are thriving—and that was the most important Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry: Poems and Artifacts, published this goal all along. spring by Northwestern University Press. Anne Applebaum is a staff writer at The Atlantic. 89 Her latest book is Twilight of Democracy: The Seduc- tive Lure of Authoritarianism.

ESSAY In the winter of 1975, a quiet young woman “No Novel About from Lexington, Kentucky, Any Black Woman met her Ph.D. adviser in Could Ever Be Brown University’s writing the Same After This” program for a series of That’s how Toni unsatisfactory tutorials Morrison described about an ambitious project Gayl Jones’s first of hers that had yet to book in 1975. fully reveal itself. The Jones has published encounters were strange to great acclaim enough that her adviser and experienced still recalled them in an unspeakable tragedy. interview a quarter century Now she is releasing later: “I was doing all the her first novel in talking, and she would sit more than 20 years. rigidly, just bobbing her By Calvin Baker SEPTEMBER 2020 90


head in a regal manner. Yet there was a It could have been a Beckett play, almost and requiring little editing. Jones needed a champion, however, someone who could kind of arrogance to her. Perhaps it funny until you lived it. understand and appreciate the sophistica- tion of her approach to subject matter as was the arrogance of an artist fiercely Fortunately, Jones also worked closely well as language. “No novel about any black woman could ever be the same after this,” committed to a vision, but I also sensed at Brown with a true mentor, the noted Morrison declared after reading the manu- script of Corregidora. a bottled-up black rage.” There’s nothing poet Michael Harper, who’d overseen her Richard Ford, who got to know Jones unusual about a young writer seething at master’s degree and would become a life- when they were both fellows at the Uni- versity of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, called the world, especially in the 1970s, when long friend. She received her doctorate in her a “prodigy”: “History may have caught up with her, but she was a movement unto protests and bad attitudes about race, war, 1975 and published her first novel, Cor- herself. Toni knew this very, very, very well when she published her.” and university curricula were so derigueur regidora, the same year. The story is told Jones had a marked effect not only on that they may as well have been taught at by a 1940s Kentucky blues singer, Ursa, Morrison’s subsequent novels but on an entire generation of writers, whether they orientation. Likelier than not, his student whose troubles with men are refracted realized it or not. The tentacles of slavery in the present day have grown into a principal sensed her (white) adviser’s judgment and through memories of slavery handed down concern of Black literature, and Jones’s early work was absorbed into this canon almost withdrew in response—and didn’t think by her matrilineal line: imperceptibly. Over time, her literary ambi- tions would evolve, as she published and he had much to offer, anyway. While then receded from the public eye, pub- lished and then receded. This spring, she her natural range was virtuosic, his work My great-grandmama told my grand- self-published her first novel in 21 years— Palmares, a six-volume work about the last consisted primarily of a host of popular mama the part she lived through that fugitive-slave settlement in Brazil. In mid- June, Beacon Press bought the rights to the paperbacks and magazine stories whose my grandmama didn’t live through and book, with plans to release it in the fall. In the sprawling narrative, set in the 17th cen- titles, including Dormitory Women and my grandmama told my mama what tury, Jones’s feats of linguistic and historical invention are on ample display. Describ- “Up the Down Coed,” accurately convey they both lived through and my mama ing the impact of her singular vision and intensity, John Edgar Wideman remarked their subjects and sensibilities. told me what they all lived through and 22 years ago: “I think she scared people.” However mutually frustrating the we were suppose to pass it down like Gayl Jones was born into a modest fam- ily in 1949. Her father, Franklin, worked as meetings between Gayl Jones and that from generation to generation so a line cook in a restaurant, an occupation she would later give to the father of the R.V.Cassill may have been, his com- we don’t forget. narrator of her second novel, Eva’s Man. Her mother, Lucille, was a homemaker and ment is most striking for having been a writer; Jones would incorporate lengthy passages from her work into her experimen- made to The New York Times after her Or, as the protagonist, whose mother and tal fourth novel, Mosquito. husband, Robert Higgins, slit his own grandmother were fathered by the same Jones spent childhood weekends visit- ing her maternal grandmother on a small throat when a SWAT team stormed their Portuguese slave owner, says at another farm outside Lexington, where she absorbed the stories of the adults around her. It is an house in February1998 to arrest him on point: “I am Ursa Corregidora. I have tears unremarkable detail, save for the impor- tance and seriousness Jones later ascribed a 14-year-old warrant from another state. for eyes. I was made to touch my past at to this time, as an educated woman chan- neling those locked out of institutions of Two decades earlier, Jones had an early age. I found it on my been hailed as one of the great mother’s tiddies. In her milk.” literary phenoms of the 20th What Faulkner saw in century, only to then drop out the haunted old mansions of of sight; just days before her PALMARES Oxford, Mississippi, Jones saw husband killed himself, she’d Gayl Jones in the ghosts of the Black dead. reemerged on the American She was a pioneer in grappling literary scene with a new novel with the contemporary legacy that would become a finalist of slavery, and her debut was for a National Book Award. BEACON PRESS praised by the likes of John Leaving aside the callous- Updike, in The New Yorker, as ness of Cassill’s remarks (and the obvious well as a host of Black writers. “Corregi- question: What does “black rage” mean?), dora is the most brutally honest and pain- they violated the typical assumptions of ful revelation of what has occurred, and is academic privacy. That the reporter and occurring, in the souls of Black men and his editors deemed Cassill’s observation women,” James Baldwin wrote. useful in understanding Jones’s life does Jones’s early novels were shepherded by not confirm her anger so much as it Toni Morrison, then an editor at Random affirms all there is to be angry about. No House, who’d dedicated herself to pub- matter her insights and achievements, the lishing Black writers, especially women. frame through which she was viewed and To put things in perspective, at the time understood by the white world remained Corregidora came out, Morrison had only the same. She sat silently as he read the recently published her first works of fic- early drafts of what would become her first tion, The Bluest Eye and Sula. She had yet novel. He talked. She left. He was flum- to hit her stride as a writer, while Jones burst moxed. She returned, because she had to. forth in her early 20s all but fully formed 92 SEPTEMBER 2020

so-called higher learning, as a daughter in magazine—that what Eva “does to the man giving them as much intelligence as she communion with her mothers, as a formi- in the book is a ‘horror’… Eva carries out possesses; to work in flawless Black Eng- dable theorist validating the integrity and what Ursa might have done but didn’t.” lish; and to position herself inside rather equality of oral modes of storytelling. “The than outside her characters. The vantage best of my writing comes from having heard Published back-to-back, the books stands in contrast to the approach of Zora rather than having read,” Jones told Michael form a diptych exploring the under- Neale Hurston, for example, whom Jones Harper in an intimate interview conducted currents of the psyche in a world of slave- admired for her up-close treatment of rela- the year Corregidora was published. She has- owners, whor*mongers, prostitutes, killers, tionships between Black men and women, tened to add that she wasn’t dismissing the man-eaters, jealous husbands, wayward but who at points wrote on behalf of Janie, glories of reading, only pointing out that wives, psych-ward inmates, pedophiles, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, not as her. “in the beginning, all of the richness came wife-beaters, women in love with their As Jones well understood, Hurston, like all from people rather than books because in abusers, and girls who carry knives. writers, was a product of her time, and of those days you were reading some really Nobody goes to church much. the circ*mstances of her oppression. She unfortunate kinds of books in school.” and her fellow members of the Harlem Instead of sermons, sense and suste- Renaissance were self-consciously striv- In the mid-1960s, when Gayl and her nance flow from a web of intimacy and ing to create a literature of Black people’s younger brother were teenagers, Lucille memory, at least for Jones’s female charac- expanding worlds beyond slavery, but the managed to enroll them in the segre- ters. The men are mostly phalluses tumes- mission could devolve into representing gated but academically well-regarded cent with bad news. Their collective role is Blacks for a white audience, giving their fic- Henry Clay High School. (The public- tions an unintended stiltedness. The prob- school system in Lexington did not for- Telling stories out loud lem might be summarized as one of code- mally integrate until the mid-1970s, 20 was a matter of survival— switching between the Black world and the years after Brown v. Board of Education.) white gaze. The Black writer who knows Jones proved an extraordinary student, and the way Jones the codes of both must always explain the and through the efforts of her Spanish wields this tradition lives, decisions, and humanity of her Black teacher she was introduced to the poet transforms even a characters to whites who might not oth- Elizabeth Hardwick, who, together with nursery rhyme into erwise credit them. In Jones’s storytelling, her sometimes husband, Robert Lowell, something dirty, dangerous, however, there was no “‘author’ getting in helped arrange a scholarship for Jones the way,” Morrison noticed. at Connecticut College. She proved an and important. equally exceptional student in New Eng- The other Black inventors of the mod- land, devoting herself to literature. as a source of fear and pain, but also desire. ern novel about slavery were Leon Forrest Love is not absent, but the word can’t cap- (Two Wings to Veil My Face), who wrote J o n e s p u b l i s h e d Eva’s Man in 1976, ture what transpires between her women with lyrical, epicurean elegance, and a year after Corregidora. Like Ursa, Eva is and men. Jones has often been read as a Charles Johnson (Oxherding Tale), whose a 40ish woman recounting her life story, political warrior speaking for unvoiced stories of slave escapes are entwined with in this case from prison. Eva landed there Black women, but she’s too great a writer the Buddhist quest to get off the wheel of after murdering and castrating in graphic with too broad a mind—and too mesmer- suffering, as well as with the ontological fashion a lover she’d spent a few days ized by psychological complexity—to pass questions of Western philosophy. They with—ostensibly because she’d learned he any ideological purity tests. As she told bring the high-minded into the lives of was married. In conversations with a fel- Rowell, her preoccupations were “contra- the low. By working the other way around, low inmate and a prison psychiatrist, Eva dictory character and ambivalent charac- Jones challenges literature itself to embrace “stitch[es] her memories and fantasies into ter, and I like to explore them even with- other registers of the language, includ- a pattern of sexual and emotional abuse,” out judgments entering the work.” ing the obscene, as in this relatively mild as the critic Margo Jefferson wrote. When example from Corregidora: the psychiatrist asks Eva if she can pin- Jones’s politics are inscribed in her choice point what triggered her to kill the man, to write about the lowborn and low-down, A Portuguese seaman turned planta- she replies only, “It was his whole way.” tion owner, he took her out of the field Jones called Corregidora a “blues novel,” because it communicated the “simultane- when she was still a child and put her to ity of good and bad, as feeling, as some- thing felt,” she told Harper. Meanwhile, work in his whor*house while she was she considered her second novel a “hor- ror story,” explaining in another inter- a child… I stole [the picture of him] view—with Charles H. Rowell, the editor of Callaloo, an African American literary because I said whenever afterward when evil come I wanted something to point to and say, “That’s what evil look like.” You know what I mean? Yeah, he did more f*cking than the other mens did. 93

Jones elaborated on the politics of the hear. A lot of Southern American writers black writers—it goes without saying English language with Harper: can hear… Joyce had to hear because why we’ve always had to hear. of the whole historical-linguistic situa- I usually trust writers who I feel I can hear. tion in Ireland… Finnegan’s Wake is an Telling stories out loud was a matter of A lot of European and Euro-American oral book. You can’t sight-read Finnegan’s survival and wholeness for a community writers—because of the way their tradi- Wake with any kind of truth. And they forbidden to read, as well as an act of rebel- tions work—have lost the ability to hear. say only a Dubliner can really understand lion, and the way Jones wields this tradition Now Joyce could hear and Chaucer could the book, can really “hear” it. Of course, transforms even a kind of nursery rhyme 94 ILLUSTRATION BY NA KIM

shared between daughter and mother into Eva embodies that position. In a conver- The couple then decamped from the something dirty, dangerous, and important. sation about Jones’s second book published United States altogether and spent the last year in The Believer, the young next five years in Europe, mostly in Paris, I am the daughter of the daughter of the Zambian-born novelist Namwali Ser- joining the tail end of a Black expatriate daughter of Ursa of currents, steel wool pell explained the “brilliance” of Jones’s scene made up of people who did not wish and electric wire for hair. choice to let Eva be “bad,” to seemingly to return to America after World WarII. lack or reject the reflex to see herself While mama be sleeping, the ole through white people’s eyes. Eva’s “un-self- Around this time, Jones published three man he crawl into bed… consciousness,” her unwillingness to “be books of poetry. The best-known of these, known, or know how others know her,” Song for Anninho, shares the essential story Don’t come here to my house, don’t Serpell said, “is a kind of freedom.” of Palmares, the epic novel she began com- come here to my house I said… posing more than four decades ago. It’s a M o re t h a n a few readers of Jones have love story about a man and a woman who Fore you get any this booty, you gon assumed that her volatile husband inspired live there (and, incidentally, was dedi- have to lay down dead. Eva’s Man, but she didn’t meet him until cated to Higgins). In this faraway past in several years after she wrote that book, in a world populated by Africans, American When Harper asked for her thoughts Ann Arbor. In other words, she wasn’t the Indians, Europeans, and all their possible on the architects of 20th-century Black lit- naive Black girl writing autobiographical admixtures, Jones pursued her desire to erature, namely “Gaines, Toomer, Ellison, workshop fiction, an expectation Jones link Black Americans’ struggle to that of Hurston, Walker, Forrest, Wright, Hughes, was accustomed to. “Always with black colonized people across the globe—the Brown, Hayden et.al,” Jones pointed out writers,” she told Rowell, “there’s the sus- goal of what’s known as the universal free- the wide variation in a group that to the picion that they can’t… invent a linguistic dom movement. “I’d like to be able to… mainstream might appear hom*ogeneous: world in the same way that other writers write imaginatively of blacks anywhere/ can.” A white professor, in fact, once told everywhere,” she told Rowell. She was a You know, I say the names over in my Jones that he was surprised that she didn’t passionate student of Latin American liter- mind, and I think about those people talk more like Ursa. ature, and her poetry has the lushness—and who will speak of black writing as a “lim- at times the over-the-top romanticism— ited category,” the implication being that Ford, who recalls Jones as “within her- of pan-Americanists such as Eduardo it’s something you have to transcend. And self, but friendly and very smart,” says it’s Galeano and Pablo Neruda: “I struggle it surprised me because I thought critics a mistake to conflate authors with their through memory… the blood of the whole had outgrown that sort of posture. characters. “Gayl’s books were dramatic, continent/ running in my veins.” sexual, sexually violent, eloquent, and harsh She certainly had. Whereas Baldwin in their assessments of the life she was viv- In the late 1980s, Jones and Higgins famously lashed out at the protest-novel idly portraying,” he told me. “But fiction returned to America, moving to Lexington straitjacket put on mid-20th-century is not simply an emotional ‘readout’ of a to live with Jones’s mother, who was ill. Black writers—“The ‘protest’ novel, so writer’s feelings. It’s a congeries of made-up, Meanwhile, the rights to Corregidora and far from being disturbing, is an accepted ill-fitting, heretofore unaffiliated shards of Eva’s Man had been acquired by the old and comforting aspect of the American experience, memory, feeling, event.” Boston publisher Beacon. In 1997, how- scene”—Jones came of age breathing the ever, Jones asked her editor there, Helene air of the Black Arts Movement. Founded Not much is known about Robert Hig- Atwan, to remove them from print. “She by LeRoi Jones (no relation), who com- gins, apart from the dramatic run-ins he said they portrayed Black men very nega- bined immense talent, critical acumen, and, had with the law, including a pivotal one tively, and she didn’t want those to be her after being brutalized by the police, a rusty in 1983, when the pair attended a local only books out there,” Atwan told me, shank of disdain for the lassitude of white gay-rights rally. There, he was alleged to admitting to being intimidated by her America, the movement advanced the idea have proclaimed himself God and declared author’s brilliance. “I said, ‘No! They’re that white people’s approval was beside the HIV a form of divine retribution, prompt- important books. Send us new books, and point. Why bother being the Black excep- ing a woman to punch him. Whatever we’ll publish those.’” tion in a country where attempts to control actually happened, Higgins, being an the mind and body of Black people knew American, went home and returned bran- Jones promptly forwarded the manu- no bounds? In his fiery 1965 manifesto, dishing a gun. He was arrested by the Ann script for The Healing, the story of an itin- “The Revolutionary Theatre,” LeRoi Jones Arbor police; his assailant was not. Rather erant faith healer, a woman named Harlan described the mission for Black artists this than appear in court to defend himself, he who is one step ahead of hard times and way: “White men will cower before this and Jones left town, with a letter of protest of her own past. In a 1991 book of critical theatre because it hates them… The Rev- to the university (and to President Ronald essays, called Liberating Voices, Jones had olutionary Theatre must hate them for hat- Reagan) that said, in part: “I reject your described the trajectory of Black litera- ing.” Gayl Jones’s “f*ck off” was less explicit lying, racist sh*t. Do whatever you want. ture as moving from “the restrictive forms but no less radical: She wrote fiction as if God is with Bob, and I’m with him.” (inheritors of self-doubt, self-repudiation, white people weren’t watching. and the minstrel tradition) to the liberation SEPTEMBER 2020 95

of voice and freer personalities in more about her in Newsweek and, armed with the All of Jones’s women are on the run, but intricate texts,” and The Healing puts the old warrant from Michigan, went to arrest from book to book they become more author herself on that path. The narrative Higgins, then living under the alias Bob likely to have a place to go. Mosquito is voice is that of a world-weary, often wry Jones. When they arrived at the couple’s one of Jones’s trademark mash-ups—fusing country preacher with a self-proclaimed door, he threatened suicide rather than sur- her interests in history, character, and con- ability to cure the sick and soul-wounded. render. The police then called for a SWAT temporary events. Time is collapsed, such As Harlan encounters believers and non- team. Higgins signaled his seriousness by that the past, present, and future play on a believers during her travels, Jones plants taking up a kitchen knife. They stormed Finnegan’s Wake–style loop of language and notions about how narratives are deployed inside anyway, tackling Jones as Higgins consciousness. It’s an Olympian move, but in everyday life to both reveal and hide. did what he said he’d do. A district attorney if you’re Simone Biles, who’s to tell you not The story’s small “tank towns” and ordinary defended the police’s “perfectly” executed to play hopscotch with the gods? Like other handling of the warrant, noting that Hig- late-postmodern works, the book overflows The past, present, gins had written threatening letters about the usual frames of realism; it includes the and future play the shoddy hospital care his mother-in-law author’s original theories about the relation- on a Finnegan’s received, and that by the time the authori- ship between story and life, between the Wake–style loop ties arrived they were “sitting on a bomb.” speaker/writer and the listener/reader. It of language and often sounds like overhearing a lunch date consciousness. After her husband’s death, Jones was between Derrida and Calvino, at a table It’s an Olympian committed to a hospital amid fears that where both theorist and master are Jones. move, but if you’re she might harm herself. When her fourth Mosquito didn’t find a general readership, Simone Biles, novel, Mosquito, appeared the following but it helped feed a lot of dissertations. who’s to tell you year, everyone flocked to it for clues about not to play hopscotch the tragedy. Instead, they were greeted Its reception aside, the novel marked with the gods? with a wildly ambitious novel that took a formal shift for Jones. The wealth of its inspiration from the free-form riffs of knowledge inside the author’s mind by people are familiar from her other books, jazz, in line with Black writers like Ralph then—the ideas, and the layers of experi- but where the earlier work seems to resign Ellison and Albert Murray. Jazz is many ence she was trying to put across—strain itself to the world, The Healing holds forth things, and Mosquito came from its more the naive first-person narrator. Jones may the possibility of redemption. daring vein. It was not well received. In have been listening to jazz, but she was also a pan of the book published in The New exploring the boundaries of what is pos- The speed with which Jones presented York Times, Henry Louis GatesJr. com- sible in the modernist forms of the novel. the manuscript to Beacon suggests that it plained that it was a novel she had written earlier, and At 50, an age when many writers are only then decided to publish. When it was often reads more like Jones’s “Theory just arriving at the height of their power, named as a finalist for a 1998 National of the Novel,” her encyclopedic version Jones might have been expected to tally Book Award, Jones asked Michael Harper of Jamesian prefaces, than like any of the lessons from her experiment and keep to attend in her place, eschewing industry Jones’s previous works. It’s a late-night moving. Indeed, Atwan said that Mosquito hobnobbing for a private life in Kentucky. riff by the Signifying Monkey, drunk wasn’t yet published when Jones sent her with words and out of control, regur- the manuscript for Palmares. But for rea- This privacy was soon upended, after the gitating half-digested ideas taken from sons unavailable to us, Jones—who com- Lexington police saw a celebratory article USA Today, digressing on every possible municated only sporadically with her Bea- subject, from the color of the Egyptians con editor—decided against following to the xenophobia of the Great Books through with the book. And soon, Atwan movement, from the art of “signifying” said, Jones told her that she’d stopped and the role of Africans in the slave writing entirely. trade to the subtleties of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. A m a i n d e f i n i t i o n of a canonical artist is one whom other artists keep alive Clearly Gates likes to play the dozens. across generations. And word of mouth The book demands to be taken more is what led me to Jones’s work a few years after college, when I decided to truly seriously. On the simple level of story, it’s educate myself. As an aspiring novelist, I about a truck driver named Mosquito—the wanted to see where my own writing fit in, only female on a route that traces the Mexi- sure, but I’d also matured enough to realize can border—who becomes a coyote for a that what I liked and didn’t like was irrele- group called the Sanctuary, ferrying refu- vant to the task of understanding the vast- gees on the “new Underground Railroad.” ness of literature. During this years-long 96 SEPTEMBER 2020

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