Online Only

Regular dispatches from our contributors.

The Prison House of Language

The Prison House of Language

On Rachel Kushner and Sergio De La Pava

The women in the novel are subjected to sexual violence so regularly that it is treated as if it is just another part of their punitive program. For many of them, this sexual violence is not unique to their time in jail. Kushner wisely demonstrates throughout the novel that patriarchy and its parallel oppressive structures are not phenomena specific to incarceration; they groom these characters from birth to feel comfortable in the rigidly authoritative structures of prisons. “I had been a waitress at IHOP right after I graduated high school,” Romy says. “I was waitress 43, and the cooks would call, Forty-three! Your order is up! Which, as I only saw later, had been preparing me for here.” With wrenching flashbacks to Romy’s youth that bare the bruises of innocence forcibly taken, Kushner shows us Romy navigating and bucking authority throughout her life, in her predatory friendships, in her work as a stripper, and in her experiences with men. By the time she ends up in prison, like the rest of the women around her, she hardly has the capacity to question or resist authority.

Travels with Joni Mitchell

Travels with Joni Mitchell

An oeuvre inaugurated by disavowal

Around 2014, I began to talk to friends about Joni and was disappointed—surprised—by how little they knew. These were people who listened to music. I had a conversation about her with a highly accomplished ex-student in New York, a writer who had musical training, who thought I was talking about Janis Joplin. This was related to a problem: the plethora of Js among women musicians of the time, which led to their conflation into a genre. Janis Joplin, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell: the last three especially were seen as interchangeable. Even if I put down my ex-student’s confusion to uncharacteristic generational ignorance, I found that, on mentioning Joni to a contemporary I had to work hard to distinguish her from Joan Baez. My friend had dismissed—not in the sense of “rejected,” but “taxonomized”—Joni as being part of a miscellany of singers with long, straight hair, high, clear voices, and a sincerity that shone brightly in the mass protests of the late ’60s. Visually, in her early acoustic performances with guitar, and even in her singing, she appropriated the folk singer’s persona to the point of parody, while the songwriting was absolutely unexpected. To prove this to my friend, I played her “Rainy Night House” and “Chinese Café / Unchained Melody.” It became clear in twenty seconds that Mitchell was not Joan Baez.

Until the Next Crash

Until the Next Crash

The populist revolt is not against the crash, or even its immediate aftermath, but against the nature of the recovery.

This is the economic backdrop of the populist revolt. To the extent that it is driven by economics, it is a revolt not so much against the crash, or even its immediate aftermath—as Tooze seems to suggest—but against the nature of the recovery. This recovery, sustained by historically unprecedented “accommodative” monetary policies, is now nearly the longest on record. But it has proved to be yet another iteration of a now forty-year macroeconomic pattern for which centrist liberals bear much responsibility. It is the economy whose pre-crisis development they happily facilitated and which, during the 2008 crisis, they brought back to life, if moderately reformed. But since 2008, this same old asset-led global capitalism has slowly but steadily worn down the political establishment’s reserves of legitimacy.

Martin Luther King Jr. and the Meaning of Emancipation

Martin Luther King Jr. and the Meaning of Emancipation

He was a revolutionary, if one committed to nonviolence. But nonviolence does not exhaust his philosophy

As a theorist of inequality, King is our contemporary. But he was also a philosopher of equality, and thus of emancipation. At the core of his thought one finds the political subjectivity that the civil rights struggle was helping to engender. Important as his final year was, the radical outlines of this project are visible from 1955 to 1963, as King was drawn deeper into political activism and answered the call to engage in a political sequence that exceeded the boundaries of the existing situation.

The Los Angeles Teachers Go on Strike

The Los Angeles Teachers Go on Strike

The number of students in public school classrooms is irrefutably political.

The problem the union faces is that, on its own, it cannot create the type of system it wants. To ensure that a service like education be available at high quality to every family in the population, general standards must be established and monitored across the community. The district and its schools are the only tool suited to this task. Choice is invidious when the underlying options are so poorly distributed. Smaller classes, with student access to serviceable institutions such as libraries, nursing, and counseling, will require action from municipal and state authorities, from the Board of Education, through the City of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles County Office of Education, to the Governors office and the State Assembly. Fighting the effects of the trends the district has set in motion won’t suffice; the teachers must reverse those trends. Can they do it alone?

Carbonated

Carbonated

William T. Vollmann confronts climate change

Carbon Ideologies does not appear to aspire to readability. The primer’s level of technical detail simply doesn’t justify the hemorrhaging of readers it will unquestionably induce. It should have been published online, along with the notes. The section on Fukushima makes a certain amount of chronological sense (the disaster occurred in 2011, as Vollmann was embarking on the project), but from a conceptual and narrative point of view it is misplaced. For one thing, this leg of the project doesn’t fit neatly under the heading of a “carbon ideology.” The argument seems to be that, once we have come to terms with the damage we are doing to the atmosphere with our overuse of carbon fuels, we will move onto newfangled forms of energy that are equally destructive, albeit in different ways. But then why not include all this at the end, as a disconcerting epilogue?

The Muslim Lady with a Dog

The Muslim Lady with a Dog

At least I have Champ, she’d say, what do they have? Fat and lazy husbands?

Neutering Champ was probably the right call, since testosterone unnerved him. When Champ wasn’t around I would hug Dadi-ma and sneak her my kisses. If he spotted me touching Dadi-ma in any way, I had to deal with his barking, and then if he got close enough, his biting. But Dadi-ma never scolded Champ. She’d look on with affection whenever he tormented me, as a mother does with her two bickering sons.

Engulfed

Engulfed

Apologizing loudly is expected to serve as a substitute for meaningful change.

It’s worth pausing at the sheer strangeness of this moment. In the weeks since Khashoggi’s murder, the speed and the intensity of the renunciations have been as striking as the renunciations themselves. The institutions that have benefited from Gulf money and funneled Gulf-friendly perspectives to the American public have been vocal in their outrage. This spectacle has to be seen as a form of institutional self-flagellation. But it’s hard not to read these gestures as shallow and perfunctory, performed with the knowledge that the news cycle will move on quickly, which in fact it has.

Perpetual Fear

Perpetual Fear

I don’t like the electric lock on the door to our shul.

My shul is in Philadelphia, directly across the state from Pittsburgh, where eleven Jews were murdered in October at the Tree of Life Synagogue by an anti-Semite with an AR-15. To have been young and Jewish in this country in the ’80s and ’90s was to have lived in a subconscious state of fear. That was my idiosyncratic experience, anyway—unconscious, inarticulable fear, the product of knowing enough of the “never again” canon, of a Jewish education that emphasized Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi and Deborah Lipstadt, Schindler’s List and Shoah and Night and Fog. In the ’60s and ’70s, the facts of the Shoah were being recovered. No one needed to be reminded not to forget while actively endeavoring to remember.

Make Ford Great Again

Make Ford Great Again

For now, yesterday is where the money is.

Blunt and regressive, Ford’s new TV commercials make do without jingles or CEOs, opting instead for Breaking Bad’s scary-manly-paternal (don’t forget Malcolm in the Middle) Bryan Cranston. Dressed in Steve Jobs gear, Cranston is on the verge of delivering a “Future Talk” when he shakes it off at the last minute: “The future wasn’t made in a keynote speech,” he declares. (Presumably this includes Jim Hackett’s keynote speech about Ford’s future.) Next he’s in an easy chair aboard Air Force One: “A presidential speech did not land us on the moon.” Cut to men with pocket protectors sweating over the Apollo Lunar Lander. “Millions of man hours did.”