Brighton Beach, Brooklyn
After much flailing, the clothing store Brighton Kids, which, along with PFC (Palace Fried Chicken), defined Brighton Beach’s 6th Street, closed its doors/cardboard-curtain for good. In the early 1990s it had supplied sport-socks to immigrant children of all ages. More recently it was notable for its half-naked mannequins, suspicious old women in large coats, racks of torn sweaters with sequins and shoulder pads. In its place immediately landed a giant T-mobile store. Conspiracy theories abounded. In 2010 Russians did not tire of electronics, quite the opposite. The cell-phone doctor painted a large sign advertising his services, but no one ever saw him in the flesh.
The American flag over Coney Island Avenue tore in half. It was neither mended nor replaced. In the summer, which was extremely hot, Brighton Beach took on elements of a resort town. The beaches were packed. In the evenings, favorite Russian films were screened outside the boardwalk restaurants (you had to bring your own chair). A man with professional audio equipment came and sang Soviet songs, children danced in the center of the crowd.
The Ocean Parkway subway station was repainted. It was always beautiful, but became even more so. The boardwalk began to be renovated because bicyclists were falling through the boards. Real wood was replaced by artificial wood. Many eyewitnesses reported that a rooster was living behind the famous Child’s Restaurant building. Coney Island continued dying. Commotion was raised, but the protesters were drunks with winter tans and guitars. They listened to classic rock and forgot about their cause. Later some fuss was made about Holocaust-reparations fraud. A few people were shamed, namely elderly Russians living in the luxurious Oceana condos. Most local fraud went undetected (you didn’t hear it from me). Our apartment building changed supers three times, accused Fedya of stealing the building’s money, was sued by Bella Alloyts, and hung on the verge of bankruptcy. We were helpless against the wind and talked about it to no end.
The malls are still crowded with shoppers, the urban horizon crammed with luxury condominiums, and middle-upper class consciousness is permeated with images of aspiration and luxury. But the shine of what used to be called India Shining has worn off, even if the elite don’t want to admit it. First came the stories of corruption around the construction projects for the Commonwealth Games, held earlier this year in Delhi; then arrived the accounts of what is known as the 2G scam, involving telecom slots being given to most favored corporations; and then, finally, surfaced the Radia tapes.
In Delhi last week, I sat and listened to the gruesome details about the Radia tapes, which revealed the phone conversations held by Nira Radia—a high-powered lobbyist working for some of the biggest Indian industrialists—with well-known journalists working as fixers between her corporate clients and the government. Of course, this is the new, globalized India, and so the Income Tax department, which was conducting the wiretap of Radia’s phone, at first found itself unable to decipher the conversations, apparently encrypted with some special Israeli technology. But in all other aspects, in the casual name-dropping, in the consensus of interest, and in the sheer sense of entitlement that everything was theirs for the taking, the voices in the tapes made it perfectly clear that the new India is still the old India.
And so, as a parting gift for 2010, to take our minds off the Commonwealth scam, the 2G scam, and the Radia scam, comes a court decision from the central Indian state of Chattisgarh. After having kept an elderly doctor called Binayak Sen in prison for two years, the court has decided that Dr. Sen’s sympathies for the Maoist guerrillas in Chattisgarh and his tendency to offer free medical services for the deprived and brutalized indigenous population of the state counts as sedition against the India state. The penalty? Life Imprisonment.
What was that old joke about Gandhi’s message from the afterworld to the colonial masters? “Please come back: all is forgiven.”
This year’s grand narrative of political disaffection and mass libertarianism died, like the Donner Party, while crossing the Sierras. In California, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman spent $160 million—the largest number spent in any campaign in American history—to lose the governor’s race to Jerry Brown, a septuagenarian who was already governor twice in the seventies and eighties. Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, endorsed by Sarah Palin—principally, one suspects, for her anti-choice stance (Whitman, like most California Republicans, took a pro-choice position)—dropped a similarly insane amount of money to lose to the incumbent, Senator Barbara Boxer. Both Republicans were, in fiscal terms, about as far right as they come. So much for the Tea Party wave. While the rest of the country was red in the face, the residual grip of sixties liberalism and a crush of new Latino voters kept California blue. As CNN began to announce the results of both races, with its characteristically maniacal haste, I thought I heard all of San Francisco emit a sigh of relief. But relief, it turns out, is politically a very unexciting feeling.
The problem, at least on the municipal and state levels, is that a magical new consensus on the status of public employees means that no matter what party you belong to in California, you’re going to be cutting jobs and pensions. Republicans have long insisted that public employees are paid too much (indeed, that most people paid more than $50,000 but less than $250,000 annually are paid too much), that their pensions—guaranteed through years of collective bargaining agreements—are too high. Without any pressure telling them otherwise, Democrats, faced with an ineluctable revenue crisis, are going to go with what has been their signature political move for decades: conceding. The point is, it hardly matters whether you cut the budget with fat Republican enthusiasm, like Chris Christie in New Jersey, or gaunt Democratic humility, as Jerry Brown has promised. What effect this coming evisceration of social services and mass layoff of public servants will have on the makeup of the country is incalculable. That it will only contribute to the deep recession, which supposedly ended several months ago, is axiomatic. In California, where voters regularly skirt the legislative and collective bargaining process by passing draconian propositions, this could politically be very ugly, with people pitted against state employees, against the government, and against each other. On the other hand, a popular vote protecting pensions and employees by, yes, raising taxes—not out of the question—would set a precedent and give a statewide middle finger to the new Republican house members currently setting up their offices in Washington. Accordingly, the organizing task for the coming years will have to be reactionary: making the case, as often and as widely as possible, for the welfare state, whose remaining monuments increasingly look like ruins bleaching in the desert of austerity.
In an ideal world, self-esteem bubbles up from a perpetually self-renewing spring deep inside a person. But for habitués of the internet, self-esteem is more likely to come from “likes.” In 2010, likes unseated comments—which had long carried a high opportunity cost, in that they’d always been more likely to contain hideous insults and/or spam than compliments—as the #1 source of online ego-boosts. Twitter @replies and retweets were also nice, but likes were more effortlessly dispensed and more gratefully received. Users of Tumblr and Facebook had only to pause in their scrolling for a split-second to click a button in order to dole out their unstinting approval. By filling up the outline of a little heart (a heart on Tumblr, that is, and a thumbs up on Facebook), they implied deep understanding of everything from life-events—births, engagements, and sometimes even deaths—to jokes, gifs of Nicki Minaj making faces, and photos of corgis rolling over to show their soft furry bellies. The recipients of these likes knew how little effort their donors had expended, but they were—I was—still hooked on the feeling a cumulative pile of them evoked. A bunch of likes, you could tell yourself, added up to something like love.
This was not the happiest year in the United Kingdom. England fulfilled the lowest of expectations in the World Cup, barely making it out of the group round, then immediately losing 1-4 to Germany. Since it could not win this World Cup, England was at least hoping to host a future World Cup, but David Beckham’s tan was so dazzling that FIFA officials logically concluded he represented sunny, soccer-loving Qatar, not England. The World Cup went to Qatar. Kraft Foods of Northfield, Illinois, bought Cadbury, of Uxbridge. Tony Blair had to cancel his book signing because everybody hates him. (But everybody still bought Tony Blair’s book, which felt unfair.) All the top political leaders seemed to be fathering babies, as if to prove that one can be both virile and have very rosy cheeks. The Gulf Stream moved and it got very cold and snowy. Between the snowdrifts and the volcano, Heathrow Airport was closed for three or four months, at least.
There was an election, but nobody won. A hung parliament! The newspapers were excited, but then a coalition formed, and soon it was clear that the coalition would successfully dismantle the vestiges of the European welfare state.
People took to the streets. There were insurrections—in the airports, in London, at the universities. “Tories put the ‘N’ back in ‘CUTS,’” yelled the people. Schoolgirls with chignons and velvet bows and uniforms held hands around vandalized cars and wept. Students occupied administrative offices and yelled at the Prince of Wales.
The British people drank tea from their commemorative William and Kate Engagement Mugs and sat next to space heaters in Fair Isle sweaters that seemed to be fraying at the cuffs. Now, thanks to 2010, they will have insurmountable student debt, like Americans, and an Arctic climate, like Canadians, and Kraft Foods will make their Dairy Milk. This is the Big Society. This is the Age of Austerity.
So here’s how my year ended, in England: I went to Topshop. My friend’s little sister had asked him for this particular sweater from Topshop for Christmas. So we were in Topshop looking at the sweater she had asked for. It was a white sweater, woolly, with knit bobbles and brown leather patches on the elbows. But one elbow patch had become unstitched on the only sweater in her size. We considered this obstacle to Christmas. Then a bunch of people outside started protesting Topshop. Apparently the person who owns Topshop is a tax dodger, even in the Big Age of Society and Austerity. We hung the sweater up and left. Later on, in time for Christmas, my friend bought the sweater, elbow patches intact, at another Topshop. Now we know why there’s a budget crisis, and who has to pay for it.
Fort Greene, Brooklyn
The blanching of Brooklyn continued in 2010, unimpeded by temporary weakness in the Manhattan real estate market. In Bushwick, Clinton Hill, and Bedford-Stuyvesant, the widening availability of premium espresso and sugar-free Red Bull combined with pet store openings to crush borough morale.
Pale Brooklynites fond of class-A drugs drew an unlikely lesson from a series of articles in the New York Times about the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy. Although the articles indicated that Blacks and Latinos were nine times as likely to be stopped, for select whites the series seemed to provide an additional rationale for traveling by cab (“you never know what those subway dogs can and can’t sniff.”) A drug bust in Brownsville carried out on the strength of cell phone surveillance provoked incredulity among the arrested, who admitted to being devoted followers of The Wire. “Do you not find it ironic,” one distributor was asked, “that you’re a fan of The Wire, and you’re now being arrested because of a wiretap?” He did. A third party pointed out that Brooklyn prosecutors model their courtroom behavior entirely on specific episodes of Law and Order, prompting speculation that the show’s cancellation might cause the city’s entire legal system to collapse.
In Fort Greene, a fragile equilibrium of middle-class blacks, trustafarian WASPS, and pregnant Europeans too poor to live in TriBeCa was threatened by an influx of homosexual lawyers, several of them Jewish. A little further south, ground broke at Atlantic Yards, indicating that Russian oligarchs command greater authority in Brooklyn than in Russia itself, and enjoy far greater leverage than American oligarchs do in Manhattan, as suggested by Bloomberg’s West Side Stadium contretemps. Among Prokhorov’s most-noted casualties was Freddy’s, the venerable lit-world hangout, where inconsequential evenings had been whiled away for years. Would Freddy’s shuttering force literary Brooklyn to abandon kitschy recapitulation? Would it herald a new direction in the Brooklyn novel?
Elsewhere, a group of normally reasonable journalists were briefly seized by Ditmas Park mania; a ghost stroller haunted Park Slope; the rerouted M train invigorated South Williamsburg; and NYU announced a massive expansion near Borough Hall, spurring debate about whether it would be possible for the private university to “ruin” downtown Brooklyn in the same way it had “ruined” the East Village.
Brooklynites exasperated by such discussions began to seek sublets in Chinatown. They’re still looking.
2010 was the year of the Metal Tiger, and was a year of strength and expansion in China, one in which its economy overtook Japan’s to become the second largest after the US. Wages rose, living standards increased, and still the government kept the renminbi devalued against the dollar. As a result, China’s manufacturing remained competitive, allowing it to remain the workshop of the world. It was also a year in which Chinese workers died and were poisoned while making our beautiful iPhones. There were ten suicides at Apple’s Foxconn factory, while over sixty workers were hospitalized due to exposure to n-hexane, a chemical used to clean Apple components.
It was a year of Chinese firsts. Liu Xiaobo became the first Chinese citizen resident in
China to win the Nobel Peace Prize (an award he may not even be aware of, having been imprisoned for the last year). The award was for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China,” and was immediately denounced by the Chinese government. Less predictable objections came from Wei Jingsheng, another Chinese dissident, who called him “an accomplice of the Communist regime” and from Tariq Ali, who criticized his support for the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The other great first was Shanghai hosting the World Expo, an impressive architectural showcase that featured buildings that looked almost sentient: one resembled a dead rabbit. The official statistics it generated were no less impressive: 246 participating countries, 22,900 events, 79,965 volunteers, and 73 million visitors. The 18,000 households that were demolished to make space for the EXPO are absent from this list.
As for the year’s violence, much of it was natural: in April an earthquake struck Yushu County in Qinghai province, a predominantly Tibetan region, killing over 2,000 people; in August a mudslide in Gansu province killed around 1,000. Still, more of it was not natural at all. In the volatile Western province of Xinjiang, a Uighur man drove a three-wheeled vehicle into a crowd and detonated explosives, killing seven people. The strangest and most horrible event in China was a series of uncoordinated attacks on schoolchildren between March and May, in six different regions. In several cases, the attacks were said to be inspired by some specific economic or social grievance. They were also attributed to the country’s failure to manage mental health problems. The Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, alluded to this when he said “we have to pay attention to addressing some deep-seated causes behind these problems, including dealing with some social conflicts and resolving disputes.” 2011 is going to be the year of the Metal Rabbit.
Twitter can be a real liability. Sometimes your already-forgotten jokes can obliterate what seemed like a foolproof alibi. How, for instance, were you able to make a three-fold pun about Jersey Shore, medieval cuisine, and Alessandra Stanley from a dead phone lost in a matinee theater? Sage, preemptive caution is the only reason I can think of that James Franco doesn’t have an account. That PhD would seem even less likely if he were tweeting about weed all the time. It’s too bad though. He’d be verified.
In thinking about the past year on Twitter, my first instinct was to list all the famous people, along with Franco, I wish were on Twitter and aren’t. Fran Lebowitz should probably sign up; pointless and perpetual public joke cracking is an excellent cure for writer’s block. And thank God there’s a fakerahmemanuel, where real world events are discussed, often with his typical crassness. But how there isn’t a faker_rahm_emanuel is beyond me.
Lots of great things happened on Twitter in 2010. We witnessed Kanye West emerge like a phoenix from the ashes of supposed shame and redeem himself with genuine weirdness and bravura: “I specifically ordered persian rugs with cherub imagery!!! What do I have to do to get a simple persian rug with cherub imagery uuuuugh.” In 2010, Wise and Cranky Kaplan were born, the Jekyll and Hyde fictional personae of former New York Observer Editor Peter Kaplan. Newark Mayor Cory Booker dazzled all last week with his chirpy altruism and bionic energy, tweeting at individuals about street conditions and providing us with a real time account of his efforts to shovel residents’ cars out of snow banks.
Summarizing 365 days’ worth of one-off thoughts is daunting, and I would assume a distillation of now-obsolete links, contextless gags, and stale aphorisms would be tedious to read, so let’s just finish with some advice instead. Before you go out tomorrow night, take a minute, take thirty actually, and unfollow all those people who bore you. Whittle down your list to the ones who make you laugh and the ones who aggregate obscure articles from foreign periodicals. Give yourself the gift of a good, clean dashboard this New Year’s. It will be worth it. 2011 is going to be big for Twitter. #getready
If you can handle hallucinogenics, you can probably handle some of the more intense combat stresses. Both battle and drugs will make your brain cook. Then soon enough, it passes. Hopefully by then you’ve lived.
Afghanistan’s “bad guys” are mostly invisible. Laying traps, disappearing, blending in. Watch your feet. Anything can happen. Retracing your steps is not a guaranteed safe way out. You’re in this now. Don’t freeze up.
Some of life’s biggest payoffs are made of long hours of planning and waiting, of creating the circumstances from which you can emerge in some kind of better position. When the moment comes to act, when you’ve made that choice and swallowed that tab, you better know how to deal with that other extra something in your bloodstream. Study what you wish for. Know its effects. Above all, be wise and keep cool. Hopefully when it passes, you have lived.
This February in Baltimore, a mysterious rash appeared on my arms and chest. I showed it to one of my graduate school classmates, who said: “bedbugs.” I spent the following weeks searching through hundreds of images of bugs and bites and stained sheets (a crushed bedbug leaves behind a bloody mark that resembles felt-tip pen) and shed exoskeletons (they look sort of like peanut skins). Some of these photographs linked back to weird communities where people posted their stories and self-appointed bedbug gurus dispensed wisdom. The fact that bedbug bites can manifest in many different ways—some people don’t react at all—combined with how difficult they are to eradicate makes them of particular interest to hypochondriacs and the generally obsessive. “No, this time it really looks like felt-tip pen,” I’d tell whoever was foolish enough to answer my call. When they hung up, they got to go back to living in New York; I, on the other hand, was stuck in front of my computer in Baltimore. I had stumbled onto the internet in its purest form, the place where the degree to which it seemed useful correlated most directly with its actual uselessness. Is that a bite? All I could do was check another website.
In recent years, bedbugs have reappeared in the United States after a decades-long absence. Reports of bedbugs are especially common in Southeast Baltimore, which is home to a large percentage of the city’s Latino population. A man whose apartment had been infested told City Paper bedbugs were “a Latino issue,” identifying row houses overcrowded with recent immigrants as the source of the problem. Many residents could not afford mattresses to replace the contaminated ones they left on the sidewalk, never mind exterminators. Baltimore housing law meant they couldn’t compel their landlords to cover the costs of fumigation, either: while the city holds owners of multi-family residences responsible for pest eradication, owners of single-family residences are not required to treat infestations, no matter how many people actually live on the premises. My house, for instance, was classified as single-family despite the fact that it contained three unrelated roommates. This meant my landlord was legally allowed to ignore my pleas, which he did. It turned out not to matter: whatever was causing my rash, it wasn’t bedbugs.
Last April, the city released a report that noted that bedbugs were more “expensive to eradicate” than other pests, and called for a program that would assist low-income families whose homes had been infested by providing them with, among other things, vouchers for new mattresses. A year later, no vouchers had been issued, but my thesis was complete. I skipped graduation and returned to Manhattan.
By the time I moved to Williamsburg two months later, it seemed as if bedbugs were following me. 311 was fielding tens of thousands of bug-related inquiries, more than twice the number received in 2008. Bugs were spotted all over the city, including at the 311 call center itself. In July, City Councilwoman Gale Brewer informed the New York Times that bedbugs were a problem even for Mayor Bloomberg: “He told me, ‘Gale, all my friends have bedbugs; what am I going to do?’”
What the mayor did was announce an “attack strategy,” the central element of which was a bedbug “portal,” where New Yorkers would be able access information about the insects. (The website was conceived in the image of the city’s “rat portal,” which includes a searchable map of rat sightings. While you wait for the map to load, a cartoon rat taps its fingers.) In order to implement this “strategy,” the city set aside $500,000, less than the median cost of an apartment in Williamsburg. (In Manhattan, the median is something like $900,000.) Renting a studio in the same neighborhood cost, on average, about $2500 a month. That was more than what I paid for my sublet, but even a room in someone else’s apartment was beginning to seem unaffordable on my assistant’s salary. At the very least, it was a luxury, a statement rather than a necessity. In October, I moved back to my mother’s apartment on the Upper East Side.
From this vantage point, bedbugs began to look like foot soldiers in a class war, soldiers who struck New York in its suburbanized, gentrified heart. By the end of the year, bedbugs had besieged some of the city’s most valuable properties, including the Time Warner Center and dozens of flagship stores like the Hollister in Soho, whose entrances are guarded by shirtless young men with zinc-covered noses. Even Goldman Sachs had bedbugs, albeit in their Jersey City offices. New York ran a feature about “the silent community” of wealthy Manhattanites suffering from bedbugs (one woman spent $30,000 on dry-cleaning). Unlike Baltimore’s better-off, New York’s rich live, for the most part, like everyone else, which is to say in apartment buildings and townhouses. It is no trouble at all for a bedbug to cross a hall, or the East River: the city has the highest rate of public transportation use in America. Even taking a cab is taking on some bedbug risk. Bedbugs proved that while the poor could be priced out of Manhattan, the rich could not cut themselves off from the rest of the city entirely. If the sunblock on a shirtless young man’s nose was the ointment, bedbugs were the flies.
But bedbug sightings are like kidnappings: rich, white victims get more attention. Most of the people bedbugs bother can’t afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars at the dry cleaner. The media’s emphasis on luxury retailers diminished the scope of the story and established an extremely low threshold for what constituted bedbug news. More items meant more pageviews, and more pageviews meant more money, or at least attention. If it was spotted somewhere glamorous, a single insect could produce hundreds of links. The bedbug story is as well-adapted to its environment—which is not any city, but the internet—as the bugs are to theirs.
In my memory, Maryland is suffused in bright, grainy light—the light from my laptop, in front of which I spent many hours. Its gray glow recalls the haze of an overcast day, but it is not sunlight, and it persists even at night and in storms. It is the weather all over the universe. If I saw bedbugs everywhere I looked, it was because I was always looking in the same place.
2010 was a typically Spanish year, which is to say, a year characterized by an imploding economy and an almost across-the-board shift in political power, from the slightly left-of-center Partido Socialista Obrero Español, or PSOE, to the American-style conservative Partido Popular, or PP. Such political shifts, since the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1976, have more often than not tended toward relative consensus. In general elections held three days after the terrorist bombings at Madrid’s Atocha train station in 2004, for example, the PSOE, until then projected to remain on the political margins, roared to an electoral victory, and its youthful and heavily-eyebrowed leader José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero became president. Though the PSOE retained power—albeit by a slimmer margin—in the 2008 general elections, and Zapatero, by extension, his snazzy presidential office in Madrid’s Moncloa Palace, in the two years since the tide has turned completely. Many have been calling on Zapatero, amidst recent economic chaos including an unemployment rate around 20 percent, to convene special elections for the purpose of selecting his own replacement. Though Zapatero has pledged not to do so, a PP victory in the 2012 general elections is, despite party leader Mariano Rajoy’s almost startling lack of charisma, all but guaranteed. Indeed, Rajoy—who has demonstrated a penchant for sticking his foot in his mouth in the years since he took the party reins from his creepy Napoleonic predecessor. José María Aznar—seems to have decided that his best bet for success in 2012 is to say as little as possible and simply allow the ongoing economic disaster to do the campaigning for him.
Contemporary Spain has arguably been politically and culturally shaped by an almost libidinal fascination with joining the ranks of the continent’s “leading” nations—in particular those of the northern, Anglo-Saxon variety. One could surely psychoanalyze the aforementioned Aznar’s giddy expedition to the Azores in March of 2003, where he pretended to be a full partner in Bush and Blair’s quite unilaterally Anglo-Saxon decision to undertake the second Iraq war. This fascination renders only more poignant the fact that, as a result of its recent economic collapse, the country has officially returned to the ranks of Europe’s so-called “PIGS”: Portugal, Italy, Greece, and—once more, now—Spain. It renders at least mildly tragic, meanwhile, the fact that as a result of this demotion, political power will soon be returned to the party whose reckless oversight of Spain’s turn-of-the-century boom years made the country far more vulnerable than those “leading” European nations to the effects of the current global economic crisis.
In other news, Spain’s own “leading” newspaper, El País, was among a handful of news publications granted full access to the State Department documents released by WikiLeaks, and unlike certain other newspapers that shall here remain unnamed El País prominently featured information from those documents—front page, above the fold—for weeks. Back in September, Spain’s two major labor unions teamed up to call a general strike to protest a set of “corrective” labor reforms proposed by Zapatero, but the protest was ultimately ineffectual and it has since been announced that as part of the implementation of those reforms the Spanish age of retirement will be raised at a rate of just over a month-and-a-half per year every year between 2012 and 2027. In sports, champion speedwalker Paquillo Fernández was busted for doping over the summer and, just a few weeks ago, a veritable mother lode of doping evidence—including plastic sacs filled with human blood—was turned up in the suburban Palencia home of Spain’s top steeplechaser, Marta Domínguez. Madrid, having failed in its bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics, failed in its bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics and at once set its sights on failing to secure a bid for 2020. Also, Spain’s soccer team won the World Cup. On the cultural side of things, venerated contemporary choreographer Nacho Duato was, after twenty wildly successful years and in spite of his lifetime contract, forced to resign his post as artistic director of the Compañia Nacional de Danza de España as a result of bureaucratic concerns that he was becoming too synonymous with what was supposed to be a national dance company. Duato has since taken a job as artistic director of the ballet company of St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Theater and has been replaced at the head of the Compañia Nacional by Frenchman Hervé Palito. Additionally, Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem confirmed, by way of their respective spokespeople, that they are indeed expecting their first child. Barring a post-Christmas miracle, however, we will have to wait until 2011 for news of its birth.
What a difference a year makes. Last December I returned home to a cabin in rural Montana to find two feet of snow on the ground; this year I return home to Brooklyn to find another two feet of snow on the ground. I’m just as broke as ever. But when I picked up the paper early yesterday morning in my hometown, Lewiston, Idaho, there was at least one important change. It was the first story to bring Northern Idaho national attention since the Aryan Nations was sued out of the state in 2001. As reported twice in the New York Times, and discussed every day in the letters section of the Lewiston Morning Tribune, ConocoPhillips has shipped four Japanese-made “megaloads” to Lewiston, which I’ve known since age five was the furthest inland port west of the Mississippi. The loads are now to be trucked up Highway 12 to Montana and assembled into two massive coke drums at an oil refinery in Billings.
The long arm of international trade, always evident enough in the huge green barges of wheat and wood pulp that traveled up and down the Snake River, has finally begun to flex one of those muscles it didn’t even know it had. Until these loads arrived any shipment large enough to take up an entire highway, and too high for an interstate, has had to go through the Panama Canal, travel up the Mississippi, and then move slowly by land across the relatively heavily trafficked Midwest. The port of Lewiston, connected by six dams to the Pacific, has remained little used because the only way to take a shipment further east was by crossing US Highway 12, a road that happens to run along a federally designated “Wild and Scenic River,” the Lochsa, and which includes a sign reading “Winding Road Next 99 Miles.”
Growing up my dad liked to scare the rest of the family by passing semis on this highway, which was first built by Japanese-American internees during World War II (don’t worry, these workers, wanting to please their fellow citizens, “volunteered” for the job). Over the last decade enough turn-outs have been added, seemingly for the use of fly fishermen wanting to use the Lochsa, that oil companies have discovered that a new Northwest Passage had, as it were, opened up, and that huge loads could be moved along Highway 12 without delaying traffic for more than fifteen minutes. (The road is so narrow that, until these turn-outs were built, there was nowhere for a truck of any size to pull over.) The Idaho Department of Transportation has not seen any need to say no: its surveys show that only around 68 vehicles make use of the highway during a typical night—a claim I can’t really dispute, since the last time I drove Highway 12 in the middle of the night I passed maybe one car.
A few people who live farther down along the Clearwater River have since brought suit to stop the shipments, claiming the “megaloads” will interfere with emergency services and reduce tourism. Although the most recent decision by the Department of Transportation is not final, the suit brought by locals will almost certainly fail. It’s not just the whiff of environmentalism: Idaho, legendarily libertarian, generally refuses to give away subsidies, let alone educate its citizens to the level expected by most corporations (the state ranks 48th in per-capita education spending), and the bureaucrats are tired of being known as “anti-business.” Once the four ConocoPhillips shipments go through another 207 Korean-manufactured “megaloads” are likely to follow, destined for the Imperial Oil operation at the Canadian Tar Sands.
Montana’s colorful Democratic governor, Brian Schweitzer, told the New York Times, “Chlorine, insecticides and fertilizers go down these roads in trucks every day. If they spill, they would kill fish for 50 to 100 miles.” Surprisingly, he meant this in support of the “megaloads.” Last year a diesel tanker went off the road, luckily falling into the forest rather than the river — some of the diesel still seeped under and had to be contained with booms (hard enough in the Gulf, nearly impossible in whitewater). My own thought, looking back on all those times I’d speed up to pass a semi while rounding a 35 mile-an-hour turn, is that there is simply no reason for any of these trucks to be driving Highway 12. The shortcut shaves maybe an hour off the alternative, a trip across Interstate 90 to the north. Surrounded by national forest, with not a single privately owned building for almost a hundred miles, and some of the roughest whitewater anywhere, this may be the most beautiful road in the West.
Did the Kremlin finally lose control of the country in 2010? It sure looked that way. Over the summer a small group of environmental protesters was able to bring the nation’s attention to the fact that the new Moscow-Petersburg super-highway was going to be built straight through a handsome forest north of Moscow in the town of Khimki. This in a country whole tracts of which have been rendered uninhabitable by break-neck industrialization and assorted nuclear accidents. The Khimki protests made the front page of Kommersant; the irresistible photo accompanying the article featured the group of soccer hooligans, white shirts covering their faces like masks and muscles bulging, who’d been hired by someone to intimidate the environmentalists. The environmentalists may have been intimidated, but they held their ground. A few weeks later, during a record-breaking heat wave, the Russian forests began to burn. Firefighters were unprepared. Winds carried the fires into small villages, killing people. Putin flew this way and that, making faces at the burning forests, but no one was fooled. A thick blanket of acrid-tasting smoke covered Moscow for weeks. Something had to go—someone had to go—and so the Kremlin fired the city’s mayor. Five weeks later someone smashed in the head of one of the Khimki protesters with a baseball bat, sending him into a coma, and a short while after that two men attacked a Kommersant reporter in front of his home, putting him in the hospital. Which was all at some level encouraging, even as it was terrible, because it meant that someone was frightened enough to start trying to kill people. It seemed desperate. Then on December 11, several thousand soccer hooligans and nationalists took over Manezh Square, right next to Red Square, and held it for several hours, calling out nationalist slogans and attacking non-Slavic-looking people who walked by because a few days earlier a soccer fan had been shot by a young man from Dagestan. After the demonstration broke up they took to the metro stations; amateur footage posted on YouTube showed them beating up young male non-Slavs while police half-heartedly tried to intervene. Somewhere on the outskirts of the city a young Central Asian seasonal worker—in town, like many Kazakhs, Tajiks, and Turkmen, to build Moscow’s big buildings—was knifed to death. The Russian media blamed “both” sides—both the nationalists and the Caucasians, i.e. Chechens and Dagestanis—but did not explain what someone from Turkmenistan had to do with it. The liberals as usual blamed the Kremlin, which maintains relations with the soccer hooligans and the nationalists (who are often one and the same), and as usual they were partly right. But it seemed as much a fantasy about the Kremlin and its omnipotence as an actual analysis of the Kremlin. It was pretty clear, watching the footage of Manezh on December 11, that the nationalists were out of control.
The one thing the Kremlin had continued success with was keeping people in prison. To the surprise of some (including me), a guilty verdict was passed down on former oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky for the alleged theft of millions of tons of oil, consigning him to another six and a half years in prison on top of the seven he’s already served. (Meanwhile the metals oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov unveiled a new Russian electric car; another oligarch unveiled a Russian competitor to the iPhone.) In Petersburg authorities arrested two young men from the art group Voyna (War), famous for its politicized art stunts, including, over the summer, the painting of a giant phallus on a raised bridge next to the Petersburg headquarters of the FSB (known as the Big House). More recently they had staged an art action that included the flipping over of police cars. Two of the activists are now in jail, while their leader, the art critic and semiotician Alexei Plutser-Sarno, has fled to Estonia. As a protest against all this the socialist rock group Arkady Kots performed their rendition of Alexander Brener and Barbara Shurz’s song “Who are you working for, artists and writers?” at the St. Petersburg Book Fair. The song goes like this:
Who are you working for, artists and writers?
(trans. Keith Gessen and Cory Merrill)
You need to address scoundrels clearly, giving them no quarter.
Culture today is a prostitute on the corner.
A KKK in fashionable white suits—that’s today’s artistes.
These aren’t double agents, they’re just decadent fascists.
Novelists snort coke and guzzle down whiskey
While in Afghanistan refugees tremble with dried-out kidneys.
Artists pretend they’re quirky demi-gods and winners
While children in Sierra Leone eat rotten scraps from someone’s dinner.
Musicians have grown fond of their magnificent poses
While in Russia people choke on vodka and tuberculosis.
Who are you working for, artists and writers?
Someone answers: For the weekend fighters!
For the cultural arbiters!
Who are you working for, poets and musicians?
Someone answers: For applications…for teaching positions!
Who are you working for, editors and scholars?
Someone clarifies: for bourgeois readers and right-wing callers.
Instead of a revolutionary culture—mounds of junk!
Instead of a true counter-culture—mounds of institutionalized bunk!
You should be working for poor people and dissatisfied students.
Not for the federal police, but their opponents.
You must work for immigrants, the homeless, and the working classes.
You need to raise the consciousness of those the Marxists used to call “the masses.”
What the revolution needs right now are clearly articulated examples!
That’s what you’re good for, you washed-up artists and word-handlers.
The question “Who are you working for?” is the staple of any healthy cultural diet.
It was good enough for Brecht, Mayakovsky, and others: you should try it.
As the philosopher said, “The historical mission of resurrecting truth amid various dangers
Will not be carried out by people shitting in luxurious chambers,
Nor by atomized crowds languishing in a speculative apathy
But by a highly organized class, demanding direct democracy.”
—Yelena Akhtiorskaya, Siddhartha Deb, Nikil Saval, Emily Gould, Emily Witt, Christopher Glazek, Nick Holdstock, Alice Gregory, Jonathan Watson, Elizabeth Gumport, Eli S. Evans, Charles Petersen, and Keith Gessen