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Déjà vu

I was recently trying to condense the cache of papers I’ve saved through the years and came across an entire issue of Harper’s Magazine from November 1990.

I remembered why I saved that issue. I was young and visiting Paris on my own, during La Crise du golfe. I had brought books to read, and I bought the International Herald Tribune daily for news about the situation in the Gulf. But Harper’s was lighter to carry around, and besides that, it had become a sense of home—a manifestation of the America I wanted to believe was true, especially then. I had the magazine with me when I ate alone in restaurants and cafés.

I think the reason I kept that issue was less its value as travel memento than the impact of an essay by Lewis Lapham, the publisher at the time. Lapham could be an annoyance in his vitriolic monthly columns. Yes, yes, you’d say. But what are we going to do about it? I’d start a column but often had to stop when his too-clever-by-half putdowns got in the way of his message.

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Paper Chase

In a pithy irony within our golden age of irony, state election officials around the country are seizing on a voting strategy that a few years ago would have seemed unthinkable: paper ballots.

We know that Russia will try to influence the 2018 elections, whether through the primaries that begin this month or the November midterms. In their quest to undermine American democracy, they’ll use the tried-and-true method—spreading misinformation using social media platforms—and give hacking into electronic voting systems another crack. They may have other things up their sleeves, but unless Robert Mueller announces more indictments, such things will probably go under the radar.

This week, America’s fearless leader reiterated his refrain that Russia had “no impact on our votes” in the election that put him in office. He did, however, indicate that the nation should guard against meddling in the midterms. “One of the things we’re learning,” he said, “it’s always good to have a paper backup system of voting. Called paper.” Read more

Back to the Future

On this date in 1789, the new Congress under the new U.S. Constitution met for the first time. This is a rather sad anniversary to recount—sad because this was the point at which the history of our legislative government might’ve played out in different ways, many of them worse but maybe a few better than what we have now. It’s also sad because New York City had been selected as capital of the new republic—an honor deserved and yet retained for all of twenty-four months.

That America’s first session of Congress failed to achieve a quorum seems just what you’d expect. It took weeks for the House’s 65 members to get their tail feathers into town. George Washington was almost two months into his election and awaiting inauguration. That Congress finally made the quorum on April 1 is all too rich. On April Fool’s Day, it elected its first Speaker, Representative Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania, today affectionately known as The Gerrymander State. Read more

I Hear You

I remember when I realized that “I hear you” was big with the 360 Degree Feedback crowd. It was in 2008, and the proof came via a colleague in the university external relations office where I worked. She was one of those people who rise to the top in academic administration without displaying any degree of talent let alone basic competence (in HR speak: low ambiguity tolerance). To say she was a yes-woman put it mildly; she tended to nod into perpetuity like a bobble-head toy.

People thought of her as Miss Sunshine because she was always smiling and saying thank-you. She was Catholic and prim, with an aesthetic that suggested Karen Sue Pence by way of Lilly Pulitzer. With her strawberry blond hair and fair skin, the black splotch on her forehead every Ash Wednesday screamed down the hall to all sinners: Look what I’m enduring for you! At Christmas she sent fruit baskets from Harry & David. She had a lifetime supply of Monet waterlilies cards from the MFA. Read more

Ghost Stories

After a series of FBI raids in the summer of 2010, federal prosecutors accused eleven people of being part of a Russian spy ring, living under false names and deep cover in Manhattan and Yonkers; Montclair, New Jersey; Arlington, Virginia; and Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was a slow-cooking scheme to penetrate America’s elite “policy-making circles.”

The event ricocheted around popular culture for quite a while, inspiring the FX series The Americans and catapulting to stardom the Sex and the City spy, Anna Chapman, back in the motherland.

The New York Times story breaking the news made an impression on me because of what a teenage neighbor had to say about two of the accused, a husband and wife in suburban Montclair: “They couldn’t have been spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas.” Read more

Fantods Nation

Maira Kalman has created some great New Yorker covers over the years. One of my favorites appeared on February 5, 2001: “Annual February Misery Day Parade.” I guess the evergreen joke is Oh, those gloomy New Yorkers. But this was also sixteen days after the installation of George W. Bush, who managed to win the popular vote on the Supreme Court. I’m assuming the misery had something to do with that.

Of course, the sad irony is that 9/11 was still seven months and six days away. Misery Day 2002 would only be worse.

I think about that cover every February, when the Northeast winters really drag. The light comes back gradually day by day but steals itself away a little too heartlessly. Because of this, it began to make sense that America should observe some version of Kalman’s Misery Day—as a collective, secular rite, similar to the atonement of Yom Kippur. Read more

The United States of Belleville

Back in December 2016, the gilt lobby of Trump Tower became the visual center of American power. Cameras followed the comings and goings of mostly middle-aged and older men amid a large plainclothes security detail.

These images stuck with me for a reason: the men in Donald Trump’s orbit—longtime cronies, legal counsel, crony-legal counsel hybrids, and of course the Secret Service and ancillary bodyguards—wore overcoats. And not just any overcoats but overcoats with the look of the early nineties—long, wide shoulders, ill-fitting by design. Klatches of these coats seemed to linger in every alcove, and even civilian journalists in their North Face jackets couldn’t dilute the mood.

The impending presidency was ominous, but the lobby overcoat tableau seemed even more so. It took me a while to figure out why, but it eventually hit me: the scene suggested the decadent metropolis in The Triplets of Belleville, the 2003 animated comedy written and directed by Sylvain Chomet. Read more

Elephant in the Room

What a strange day for Republicans. This is their guy, their origin story, and yet they can’t in good party conscience quote much of anything Abraham Lincoln said without violating the Fox News code of honor.

Three strands of Lincoln rhetoric would run afoul of Fox and Friends: his subject matter (the oppression of black Americans and a strong federal government), his skill at massaging words into compassion triggers for doing the right thing, and his refusal to demonize the opposition.

It is difficult to square Lincoln’s prosaic transfiguration of words on a page with a Republican president who gets an oral versus written daily intelligence briefing—or with the prune face of Mitch McConnell, where hopeful words die like sparrows smacking into the windows of the old Javits Center. Read more

1992

As the stock market made like the Coney Island Cyclone early this week, Reuters photographer Brendan McDermid documented frazzled traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. One of his photos—this man, whom I’ll call Trader Joe—caught my eye because of his NYSE badge number: 1992.

It’s never a good idea to read too much into coincidence. But ever since I read this Vanity Fair piece by Kurt Andersen, I’ve been cognizant of 1992 as a cultural flashpoint. Andersen’s essay is the kind people love to make a piñata of because his proffered evidence can seem overly anecdotal and subjective. But the associations he points out made sense to me.

Anderson argues that even though technology, culture, and commerce had changed drastically in the two decades between 1992 and 2012, the appearance of Americans and their stuff wasn’t all that different. If you look at the change in dress style over other twenty-year blocks, the visuals are jolting: 1932 to 1952, 1952 to 1972, 1972 to 1992. But between 1992 and 2012, the guy in jeans and sneakers looks pretty much the same. In fact, six years year later, the girl in jeans and sneakers—say, in a Madewell ad—looks even more like her 1992 counterpart. Read more

Happy Birthday, Boz

Charles Dickens was born on this day in Portsmouth, southwest of London, in 1812. I had read his novels in school but started thinking about him seriously after visiting his onetime residence at 48 Doughty Street in London. It was around the Guy Fawkes holiday and it was pouring. A friend and I were invited to join the post-closing-time reading group since we were the last stragglers in the house museum. And also because we were very young in relation to the book group. They were discussing a shorter sketch about a boy or a lad and a walk that I unfortunately could not pick out of a bibliographical lineup if you held a gun to my head.

What I remember most about that visit, though, was the bedroom of Dickens’s sister-in-law, Mary. On her single canopied bed a white nightgown had been laid out. She had come to live with the family and help with the new babies, as was custom. But at seventeen she suddenly became ill and died—in Dickens’s arms no less. Read more