Inside the August Issue
Ted Conover among the homesteaders of Colorado’s San Luis Valley; Christopher Ketcham on the Gilets Jaunes; Marc de Miramon on former Rwandan President Paul Kagame; Jacob Mikanowski on Hungary’s far right
Those of us stuck in the office at the height of summer vacation season are all too familiar with the deluge of automatic email replies from those more fortunate. “Be in touch after Labor Day,” they say, “I’m off the grid.” Envy swells as your imagination runs wild: Are they sunning in Naxos? Trekking in the Dolomites? On safari in the Serengeti? Then you remember that these days such locales offer no escape from the grid, and you feel a little better having called their bluff. The fact is, for a certain class of people, there is no “off the grid” beyond the noble self-imposed digital fast, an ill-equipped Airbnb in Big Sur, or a tiny house in the Catskills designed by an award-winning green architect. We are, all of us, off-the-grid appropriators.
If you want to know what living off the grid really looks like, read our August cover story. Ted Conover spent the better part of a year living in a trailer among the homesteaders of Colorado’s San Luis Valley, where land is cheap and many people are poor. “A person could live here in this vast, empty space like the pioneers did on the Great Plains,” he writes, “except you’d have a truck instead of a mule, and some solar panels, possibly even a cell-phone signal. And legal weed.” Those he meets tend to be pro-Trump, pro-gun, and antigovernment, but not all of them. They are a diverse group, living in self-exile in the American wilderness for reasons Conover endeavors to understand. His writing, accompanied by stunning black-and-white photography by Lisa Elmaleh, immerses us in a world within our borders that, to most of us, is as foreign as Antarctica.
The trip from San Luis Valley to Koch Industries headquarters in Wichita, Kansas, takes about ten hours by truck, three by private jet; but really, it should require a rocket ship. Both places are right in the middle of America, but they are worlds apart; from invisible to influential, from subsisting off the land to exploiting it for all it’s worth. August’s lead Reading, an excerpt from Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America, by Christopher Leonard, outlines Charles Koch’s belief system known as Market Based Management, an intricate philosophy with a vocabulary all its own. Buzzwords: they’re not just for neoliberals.
Did you know that “flaccid” is actually pronounced “flak-sid”? But try saying that word with a hard, rather than soft, first syllable and you’ll have a tough time proving your superior language skills; even the exalted Oxford English Dictionary has succumbed to the more common usage. Words like “nonplussed” and “enervated” are so regularly misused that dictionaries now incorporate their mistaken meanings. Lionel Shriver calls this semantic drift consolidated ignorance in a hilarious column decrying the slippery slope to barbarism that is the decay of English syntax.
France’s Gilets Jaunes are anything but nonplussed (a word that comes from the Latin non plus meaning “no more” and describes a state of not knowing what to do, although the common, incorrect definition, “not bothered,” appears as the second offering in the Merriam-Webster app on my desk). They are angry, and they are taking it out on the hangouts of the rich. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is nonplussed by their actions, and the American press portrays them as anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, xenophobic Marine Le Pen supporters. Anything-but-nonplussed reporter Christopher Ketcham travels to Paris to get his own read on the colorfully clad protesters and finds an authentic social-justice movement fed up with government policies that favor the rich, heirs not to the Charlottesville tiki-torch brigade but to the sansculottes of the French Revolution.
Despite his increasingly autocratic behavior and penchant for assassinating political opponents, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, unlike the Gilets Jaunes, has long enjoyed the warm embrace of Western elites. He has managed to stay in power for twenty-five years, since the end of the Rwandan genocide, having amended the country’s constitution to extend term limits and maintain single-party rule. He won his last two elections with more than 95 percent of the vote. So why is he everyone’s favorite strongman? Largely because of his reputation as the man who brought the genocide to an end, a view Marc de Miramon disputes in “Brutal from the Beginning,” in which he argues that Kagame was among those responsible for the killing and that its end was only an incidental byproduct of his rise.
There’s no real etymological link between “Hun” and “Hungarian,” though you wouldn’t know it from the rhetoric of the Hungarian nationalist right. Jacob Mikanowski travels to Hungary to explore Turanism, the belief that Hungarians are the descendants of Attila, part of a vast fellowship of peoples stretching all the way to Manchuria whose ancestors were nomadic warriors of the steppes. Mikanowski’s descriptions of the various Turanist spectacles he attends illustrate the dangerous, reactionary ends the movement seeks, as well as its potent allure. A blockbuster nationalist rock opera “enacts, in miniature, the drama posed for Hungary by Turanism,” he writes, “whether to embrace the West, and the future, or the East, and the past. One choice has the force of modernity behind it; the other has the best tunes.”
Hope you too will pretend to go off the grid soon. Happy summer!