Weekly Review — February 19, 2013, 8:00 am

Weekly Review

Meteoric tidings, a paraplegic piglet’s wheelchair, and Chubby Checker’s Chubby Checker check

A meteor struck Earth’s atmosphere over Russia, releasing a 300-kiloton shock wave that shattered two million square feet worth of glass in the Siberian city of Chelyabinsk, collapsed the roof of the city’s zinc factory, and injured 1,200 people before degrading into a 10-ton meteorite that landed in nearby Lake Chebarkul. Old women cried out doomsday prophecies in the streets, a nationalist politician suggested that the explosion was the test of a new American weapon, and Russia’s deputy prime minister called on world leaders to cooperate on asteroid-defense technologies. “So we stood there,” said a Chelyabinsk barmaid. “And then somebody joked, ‘Now the green men will crawl out and say hello.’ ” Fireballs streaked across the skies above Cuba and the San Francisco Bay, and a 150-foot-long asteroid that scientists had been monitoring for more than a year passed 17,150 miles[*] over Indonesia without incident. “This is a wake-up call from space,” said a former NASA astronaut who is developing asteroid-detection programs. “Wouldn’t it be silly if we got wiped out because we weren’t looking?” “This all gives us reason to think,” said a Chelyabinsk deacon in the Church of the Transfiguration. “Is the purpose of our life just to raise a family and die, or is it to live eternally?”[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8] A lightning bolt struck St. Peter’s Basilica; an underground nuclear test in P’unggye-ri, North Korea, triggered a seismic event measuring 4.9 on the Richter Scale;[*] and hackers in Great Falls, Montana, broadcast an emergency alert warning of a zombie uprising.[9][10][11][12] In Quetta, Pakistan, a bomb hidden in a water tank was rolled into an outdoor vegetable market on a tractor-trailer and detonated by a remote control that may have been stowed in a rickshaw, killing 81 people.[13][14] Thirty-seven people were killed in a series of car bombings in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad; 103 nomadic herders were killed during a machete, RPG, and spear raid in South Sudan; and 36 pilgrims died in a stampede at a gathering of 30 million Hindus in Allahabad, India.[15][16][17]

[*] These two items were corrected after publication.

“Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee who competed in the 400 meters for South Africa at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, was charged with the murder of his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp.[18] Former Los Angeles policeman Christopher Dorner, who killed four people during a series of attacks on police officers and their families, was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head after police fired incendiary tear-gas canisters into the cabin at Big Bear Lake where he had taken refuge. Dorner’s supporters marched in protest of the police corruption he believed had led to his dismissal and of the manhunt conducted to find him. “I really, really believe he was innocent,” said one protester. “In the firing case.”[19][20] Mississippi formally notified the U.S. government that it had ratified the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery.[21] This year’s State of the Union address, in which President Barack Obama asked Congress to draft legislation on gun control, climate change, and immigration, was found to have been written at a tenth-grade reading level. As Obama entered the Capitol to deliver the speech, a female greeter wiped from his cheek the lipstick left by another female greeter.[22][23][24] In his final State of the City address, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed that the city lessen the punishment for marijuana possession and ban the plastic-foam packaging used in to-go boxes.[25][26] Iceland was considering a ban on Internet pornography. “If we can send a man to the moon,” said an interior-ministry adviser, “we must be able to tackle porn on the Internet.”[27] France’s parliament voted to allow gay couples to marry and to adopt children.[28] The International Olympic Committee voted to eliminate wrestling from the 2020 Olympic Games, in order to make room for one of baseball and softball, karate, roller sports, sport climbing, squash, wakeboarding, or wushu. “Gays,” said a Russian wrestling coach, “will soon run the whole world.”[29][30]

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Musician Chubby Checker sued HP over a Palm OS app bearing his name that estimates penis length based on a man’s shoe size.[31] A Rhode Island mother knocked down a 12-foot snow penis built by her 16-year-old son. “It’s just a big pair of balls now,” she said.[32] A Mankato, Minnesota, woman flung a used tampon at police officers who were attempting to strip search her.[33] While celebrating a $75,000 lottery win, two brothers in Wichita, Kansas, blew up their house with butane purchased to fuel lighters for their bongs.[34] Mountain Dew announced plans to release a breakfast soda called Kickstart, and Bud Light was found to be the most popular alcoholic drink among the underage.[35][36] “Patient John,” the volunteer spokesman for the Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas, died of a heart attack he suffered outside the restaurant.[37] A falling lifeboat killed five members of a cruise ship during a safety drill in the Canary Islands, and the Carnival cruise ship Triumph was towed into harbor in Mobile, Alabama, five days after it went adrift without electricity or plumbing in the Gulf of Mexico. Guests slept on feces-soaked carpets, defecated into plastic bags, bartered diapers for cigarettes, and created a tent city on the ship’s swimming-pool decks. “The bathrobes,” tweeted @CarnivalCruise, “are complimentary.”[38][39][40][41][42] A carnival parade in Cologne displayed a float depicting Angela Merkel as a sow suckling hungry European nations.[43] Paraplegic Florida piglet Chris P. Bacon was given a custom-built wheelchair, a volunteer fire department in Orleans County, New York, received death threats for organizing a weekend “Squirrel Slam” hunting competition, and an affenpinscher “monkey dog” named Banana Joe bested a sheepdog named Swagger to win the 137th Westminster Dog Show in New York City. “A fantastic face, a great body,” said the competition’s Best in Show judge. “I’ve never had my hands on a better affenpinscher. Ever.”[44][45][46][47]


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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a three-hour drive to reach home, in the mountains in New Mexico, and she hated driving in the dark.

Sandoval took her place in the long line of people waiting to have their passports checked by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). When it was her turn, she handed her American passport to a customs officer and smiled amicably, waiting for him to wave her through. But the officer said she had been randomly selected for additional screening. Sandoval was led to a secondary inspection area nearby, where two more officers patted her down. Another walked toward her with a drug-sniffing dog, which grew agitated as it came closer, barking and then circling her legs. Because the dog had “alerted,” the officer said, Sandoval would now have to undergo another inspection.

Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk
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The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
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Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images

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“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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