Weekly Review — September 3, 2013, 8:00 am

Weekly Review

The United States debates a military strike in Syria, Ruth Bader Ginsburg officiates at a same-sex marriage, and KFC Japan begins selling deep-fried soup

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Carriage Costume (July 1850)

President Barack Obama announced that he would request congressional approval for a punitive military strike against the Syrian government for the August 21 poison-gas attack that killed 1,429 people in Damascus. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon asked weapons inspectors to expedite a report on their findings following four days of investigation in Syria, and Secretary of State John Kerry claimed the United States had obtained independent proof that Bashar al-Assad used the nerve agent sarin against his own people. “I’m confident in the case our government has made without waiting for U.N. inspectors,” said Obama. “The words ‘slam dunk’ should be retired from American national-security issues,” said Kerry. Former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld called Obama’s Syria strategy “mindless,” and 43 percent of U.S. Department of Defense employees participating in an online game failed to locate Damascus on a map. “Our biggest problem is ignorance,” said the dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. “We’re pretty ignorant about Syria.” French president François Hollande pledged to assist in any U.S.-led intervention, the British parliament voted not to intervene, defense ministers in Syria and Iran threatened to attack Israel if Assad’s life was endangered, and crowds of Israelis mobbed gas-mask-distribution points in Haifa and Jerusalem.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9][10] An 18-year-old Indian man who participated in the gang-rape and murder of a woman on a New Delhi bus last December was sentenced to three years in a reform home, and a former Montana high school teacher who had confessed to raping a 14-year-old student who later committed suicide was sentenced to spend 31 days in jail. The girl, said the judge, was “older than her chronological age.”[11][12] A South Korean newspaper reported that North Korea had executed the ex-girlfriend of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and 11 others for making and distributing a pornographic video.[13] Bo Xilai, a former Communist Party chief on trial in Jinan, China, for bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power, revealed an affair between his wife, who murdered a British businessman in 2011, and his former deputy, who Bo punched in the face while attempting to cover up his investigation into the case. “They were,” said Bo, “like glue and lacquer.”[14][15]

Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the first Supreme Court justice to officiate at a same-sex marriage ceremony, and the Department of the Treasury announced that federal tax provisions for married couples would apply to same-sex spouses regardless of their state of residence.[16][17] The New York Police Department was revealed to have spied on several mosques it labeled “terrorist enterprises.”[18] In protest of low wages, eight Paraguayan bus drivers had reportedly nailed themselves to crosses, thousands of American fast-food employees staged a walkout, and four exotic dancers filed suit against Fantasy Gentlemen’s Club in Grand Junction, Colorado.[19][20][21] Dunkin’ Donuts apologized for having a model in blackface promote its “charcoal donut” in Thailand, Italian chocolatier Ferrero withdrew a German ad for white-chocolate kisses featuring the slogans “Yes White Can” and “Germany Votes White,” a black New Jersey high schooler running for student government was found to have sent racist texts to himself, and a Glaswegian man complained to Scottish officials that an Edinburgh chip shop was charging for ketchup but not brown sauce. “It reeks of racism,” he said.[22][23][24][25] KFC Japan announced that it would start selling deep-fried soup, and psychologists determined that people who hate Japan are likely also to hate the fictitious Monahan LPI-800 Compact 2/3-Cubic-Foot 700-Watt Microwave Oven.[26][27]

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A University of Washington student moved the hand of another student over the Internet.[28] Swedish scientists confirmed the existence of ununpentium, Austrian molecular biologists successfully grew miniature human brains in a laboratory, and Viennese ethologists determined that female Mus musculus mice choose to mate with multiple virgin males in order to reduce the likelihood of infanticide.[29][30][31] Nine police-dog couples were married in Sri Lanka.[32] A Stockholm man was threatened by a gang of drunken elk, and a New Zealand man was rescued from a remote Australian island where he had been trapped for two weeks by a 20-foot-long crocodile. “We gave him a cold beer,” said the man’s rescuer, “which was probably the wrong thing.”[33][34] Bino, an albino alligator at the São Paulo Aquarium, received acupuncture for his scoliosis, and a former lab chimpanzee named Brent was awarded $10,000 for an abstract tongue painting.[35][36] A Maine lobsterman caught a half-orange, half-brown lobster.[37] Pennsylvania high school sophomore Brandon Silk was hospitalized for anaphylaxis after his classmates failed to honor a request that they not wear Axe body spray, and members of the Franconian Fränkische Bund association expressed concern that German girls were buying cheap foreign-made costumes for Oktoberfest. “At the very latest [the craze will be over],” said a board member, “when a dirndl-making factory burns down in Pakistan.”[38][39]


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Toward the end of the Obama presidency, the work of James Baldwin began to enjoy a renaissance that was both much overdue and comfortless. Baldwin stands as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century, and any celebration of his work is more than welcome. But it was less a reveling than a panic. The eight years of the first black president were giving way to some of the most blatant and vitriolic displays of racism in decades, while the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others too numerous to list sparked a movement in defense of black lives. In Baldwin, people found a voice from the past so relevant that he seemed prophetic.

More than any other writer, Baldwin has become the model for black public-intellectual work. The role of the public intellectual is to proffer new ideas, encourage deep thinking, challenge norms, and model forms of debate that enrich our discourse. For black intellectuals, that work has revolved around the persistence of white supremacy. Black abolitionists, ministers, and poets theorized freedom and exposed the hypocrisy of American democracy throughout the period of slavery. After emancipation, black colleges began training generations of scholars, writers, and artists who broadened black intellectual life. They helped build movements toward racial justice during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether through pathbreaking journalism, research, or activism.

Bloom, acrylic, ink, wood, and fabric on canvas, by David Shrobe © The artist. Courtesy Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco
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On a Friday afternoon in the fall of 2017, a few months after the liberation of Mosul from the Islamic State, a group of neighbors gathered at Mar Mattai, a monastery founded in the fourth century. They unloaded baskets of food, and arranged themselves around a long table in a courtyard. A woman named Niser spread out a tablecloth and put down a plate of dolmas. “It’s a way of celebrating that we still exist,” she told me. More people were arriving—children, grandparents, cousins, aunts, and distant relations—members of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world who had not seen one another for three years.

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Around three in the morning on a cold December Sunday, brothers José and Romel Sucuzhañay began to walk home from a bar in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was a cloudy night, only a few degrees above freezing, and the houses and stores lining their route wore impassive, nighttime guises—shades drawn, metal grates locked down. Romel had only recently arrived from Ecuador. José, a thirty-­one-year-old father of two, ran a successful real estate agency in the neighborhood. The two had spent the evening eating and drinking at a quinceañera at St. Brigid Church, and afterward, they stopped at a local bar called Christopher’s Palace. They were feeling the alcohol as they headed back to José’s apartment. When they realized that José had left his coat behind in the bar, Romel took off his jacket and draped it around his younger brother’s shoulders. They continued to walk up Bushwick Avenue, swaying a bit, arms around each other for warmth and ballast.

As they approached the corner of Kossuth Place and Bushwick Avenue, a red SUV stopped at the traffic light. “Check out those faggots!” the driver yelled out the window. José may have said something in reply. Very rapidly, a man jumped out of the passenger side door and smashed José on the head with a bottle, dropping him to the ground. He then turned to attack Romel. As Romel fled from the man down Kossuth, the driver exited the car, grabbed an aluminum baseball bat out of the vehicle, and began to beat José until someone emerged from the back seat and called him off. The driver was walking away when he saw some movement from José, a twitch of his hand or his leg sliding across the pavement—trying to rise, perhaps—and he strode back, straddled him, and raised the bat high in the air. He brought it down on José’s head, again and again, as if he were chopping wood.

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After eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Bergis Jules found himself worrying not only over the horrors of the present, but also over how little of the present was likely to be preserved for the future. The best reporting on the aftermath in Ferguson was being produced by activists on Twitter, a notoriously ephemeral medium. Jules, then an archivist at the University of California, Riverside, had the impulse to start saving tweets, but wasn’t sure how. “That whole weekend, watching things unfold, I thought, ‘This is a really amazing historical moment; we should think about capturing it,’ but I was just talking to myself,” he says. The following week, attending a Society of American Archivists conference in Washington, D.C., he voiced his fears en route to drinks at the hotel bar. He caught the ear of Ed Summers, a developer who just so happened to be the author of a Twitter archiving tool—and who promptly programmed it to va­cuum up #Ferguson tweets. Within two weeks, he had amassed more than 13 million.

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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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