Postcard — August 27, 2015, 5:37 pm

Jack’s Trinidad

In Trinidad, the rise of Jack Warner—and his putative fall—has become something of a parable for the larger foibles of the “nation building” project it’s been engaged in

Former FIFA Vice President Jack Warner walks past a guard as he leaves the court in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, on July 27, 2015 © STRINGER/epa/Corbis

Port of Spain, the capital of the southern Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago, is tucked away between Trinidad’s high northern mountains and the sea. Its romantic name evokes images of Havanaesque plazas fronting aqua waves, but the city has neither of these. It is a hot oil town with an economy based on crude drilled from offshore rigs. The streets are flanked by concrete buildings and asphalt “panyards” where carnival steel bands make music with pans cut from fifty-five-gallon oil drums. Vendors gather in the morning sun to hawk “doubles”—a rich curry snack whose spices landed here not with African slaves, nor with Spanish or French Catholics settlers, but with the indentured workers who arrived from India in the nineteenth century, to farm its sugar fields after slavery’s end. If this is a city lacking the Antilles’ stereotypical charms, it’s also a place, for its partisans, where “all [the] curious threads in the fabric of the Trinidadian world,” wrote Patrick Leigh Fermor, “invest the social life of the island with a colourfulness, a lack of inhibition and a dashing cosmopolitan atmosphere that turn [neighboring] Barbados into something parochial and grey and fiercely Anglo-English.”

Trinidad’s distinctive ethnic mix and comparative wealth within the West Indies have long fed its reputation in the region as a destination for migrants from poorer islands and as a center for restive politics and regional power—which was wielded, until not long ago, from a three-story office block at 113 Edward Street.

I first happened upon the building when I visited the island in 2008. It was made of typical cement and painted Pepto-Bismol pink. It had two big logos affixed to its side, both of which included soccer balls. Stenciled on one of these balls were the block initials of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association—commonly known as FIFA, the now-disgraced organization responsible for regulating and developing the planet’s most popular game. The other bore the initials of CONCACAF—FIFA’s regional association of the Caribbean, and North and Central America—whose longtime head, Jack Warner, hails from the island. 

In Trinidad, Warner was a notorious public figure long before Loretta Lynch’s U.S. Department of Justice indicted him and thirteen other soccer officials on charges of fraud, bribery, and racketeering. An ex-island schoolteacher who became a FIFA vice president, he brokered power and billion-dollar deals at a global scale. Known in Trinidad simply as Jack, his involvement in FIFA afforded him a kind of juice on his small island—as a property magnate, a member of parliament, and a unique political kingmaker. His potency is perhaps suggested by the speed with which he won his release on bail, and by the bluster with which he’s now claiming, as he fights extradition, that “there is no U.S.A. that would carry me from here.”

That Warner is still in Trinidad, rather than stewing in a Swiss jail with his fellow FIFA chums, who were pulled from their five-star Zurich hotel during a meeting there on May 27, is a consequence of him being pushed from the organization in 2011. During a meeting of Caribbean soccer chiefs at the Port of Spain’s new Hyatt, Warner handed out packets of cash with the hope of securing support for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup. This public display of graft was too brazen even for FIFA. Warner was forced to resign a post he’d worked thirty years to win.

When Lynch’s indictments came down, Warner released a self-produced YouTube video of himself spouting off an eight-minute self-exonerating cant in which he claimed that the United States was trying to punish him because it lost the World Cup bid to Qatar, and that “no country in the world [has] a divine right to host.” He then backed his case by holding up a printout of an Onion article with the headline “FIFA Frantically Announces 2015 Summer World Cup in United States.” Of course, the article was fake, and the video became a viral hit.

Warner was soon the darling of TV satirists far beyond this island. Young Trinidadians who’ve grown up, like kids across the hemisphere, on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and its many spin-offs, took natural delight in Stewart alum John Oliver’s seeing fit to buy four minutes of time on one of Trinidad’s main channels and for his show Last Week Tonight to admonish a risible old crank for seeming like “an absolutely terrible human being.” Longtime members of the island’s political classes have been less amused. They have been spotted flogging the M.P. from Chaguanas West, the middle class suburban town Warner represents in parliament, for making Trinidad a focus of world attention “not for the good and great things, but because of the actions of one man.”

This outrage has highlighted the extent to which Warner’s admonishers—including the prime minister, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, who won power, Warner says, with his help—are themselves compromised not merely by their ties to him, but by the larger system in which he thrived. For what the odd new media career of the man known in FIFA circles as Trinidad Jack has helped reveal, is how the political economy of FIFA has shaped many bits of the old Third World where “association football”—a game that evolved on the playing fields of Eton and Harrow and spread around the world by Britain’s empire—is loved as the pastime of pastimes. In the places where soccer is more than a game, it’s also a huge global business whose working dynamics share more than a little with that older colonial age, when poor nations depended, with no contrasting pretense, on the rich. In Trinidad, which joined FIFA’s ranks shortly after winning its independence in 1962, the rise of Jack Warner—and his putative fall—has become something of a parable for the larger foibles of the “nation building” project it’s been engaged in, with halting success and no small sum of frustrations.

Once claimed by Columbus for Spain, Trinidad and its smaller neighbor, Tobago, were owned by Britain for 160 years before winning their freedom from the crown, over fifty years ago, with most of the other British West Indies. Within the Caribbean, the country’s main island is best known for floating in the sea of Venezuelan gas that makes it rich, and for its famed yearly carnival that, in the run-up to Fat Tuesday each year, brings beaded revelers and those mighty steel bands to Port of Spain’s streets. But with its oil wealth now abetted by another kind of geographical curse—crime born of its functioning as a big transit point for South American cocaine—Trinidad is also a state where the workings of power often feel opaque and where the rule of law, like in many young nations, can feel as inchoate as its dodgy roads.

It’s a place ideally suited to the rise of such a figure as Jack Warner, who first came to local prominence before an occasion that looms large in North American soccer history: the qualifying match for the 1990 men’s World Cup in Port of Spain, which pitted the small-island hosts against the United States. The young U.S. squad’s 1–0 win in that match sent the Yanks to their first World Cup appearance in forty years. It’s a victory now credited with launching a soccer renaissance in the United States, a country whose men’s team has secured passage to every tournament since, whose women’s team is a world power, and whose respectable pro league just this spring, with the help of Warner’s FIFA crony in New York, Chuck Blazer, got its first big-bucks TV deal with ESPN. In Trinidad, that match is remembered for something else (apart from the loss’s heartbreak): a spotlight-hogging Warner’s fraudulent sale, to local patriots and schoolkids paying top money, of thousands more tickets to the match than there were seats in the stadium.

For the many Trinidadians cursing Warner’s name outside its stands, it was indisputable that he was a crook. Lucky for him, his larger ambitions depended less on winning their love than greasing palms and making promises to cronies from Central America and the Caribbean, whom he convinced, with Chuck Blazer’s help, to make him the president of CONCACAF the next year. He used the position not merely for ambitious frauds such as his alleged demand of $10 million from Thabo Mbeki’s government to back South Africa’s subsequently successful bid to host the 2010 World Cup; he also advanced his role as an executive-level scalper with the help of his two Miami-based sons, who have already pleaded guilty in U.S. courts to reselling World Cup tickets that had been given to them by their father.

In Trinidad, where Warner’s trickster reputation is tempered by the respect due a small-islander who became a one-man world power, Warner has leveraged his FIFA riches to obtain a hotel, office buildings, and tracts of pricey land—and he forged a unique political role in a country long divided between the descendants of African slaves and the indentured laborers from India.

In June in Parliament, not far from the Hyatt where Warner passed out bribes in 2011, the prime minister decried the disparaging light her onetime ally has pulled to Trinidad. But it’s likely that she wouldn’t have been elected without the help of Warner, who was once part of that government himself, until he was forced to resign in 2013 after conspiring to have the nearly $26 million CONCACAF-funded “João Havelange Centre for Excellence”—purposed for developing soccer in the Caribbean—built on land he owned. But true to form, he simply dusted himself off and, when it became clear he was no longer welcome in the prime minister’s party, launched a new organ—his Independent Liberal Party—whose lime-green colors he carried back into parliament, and which he now wears in those rambling speeches on Jack TV.

When he was forced to resign from his government post, he pledged fealty to the prime minister; now he threatens to air the laundry he dirtied for her to win. Such turncoat tactics are standard for this operator who used his resignation speech, in 2013, to lash out at another old ally, FIFA president Sepp Blatter. In early June, after his indictment, he doubled down, promising to release an “avalanche” of evidence pertaining both to how he helped Blatter, a man he once called his idol, become FIFA’s chief. Jack has changed key. (“If [Blatter] is down,” he said a little over a week later, “I give him a helping hand.”) But whatever the exact snowflakes contained in his files, one doesn’t need the details to glean the basic math, and methods, used by someone whose reason for naming his “Centre for Excellence,” outside Port of Spain, for Blatter’s Brazilian predecessor as FIFA’s head, João Havelange, wasn’t merely that Havelange, now ninety-nine, found his island protégé the money to build it. The old potentate, who was forced to resign as FIFA’s honorary president in 2013, is an important part of Warner’s story—and a hundred others like it. 

Among Havelange’s gifts to Warner was his simple granting, for the price of one dollar, of the Caribbean TV rights to the 1990, 1994, and 1998 World Cups—a prize that he allegedly turned into millions for companies he controlled in the Cayman Islands. But long before that, it was Havelange who turned the Federacion International de Football into a hulking cash cow.

FIFA began as an outgrowth of the Olympic Movement. Its main function, at first, was to oversee the soccer competition at the games, a sporting spectacle born of the amateur ideal of competing for honor alone. But during the 1928 games in Amsterdam, where soccer was by far the largest draw, FIFA’s governors decided their sport could support its own global jamboree; they also decided that their World Cup, launched in Uruguay in 1930, should be open to any player from a member nation, whether they earned money from playing or not. That’s when they established the global structure of a game whose top professionals earn their livings playing for their clubs. But their transformations from stars to gods happened decades later, when the 1970 Cup in Mexico was broadcast worldwide on color TV. It was four years after that famous Cup, won by a storied Brazil team wearing bright yellow and led by Pelé, that FIFA’s most influential president ascended to power.

After overseeing his country’s win in Mexico as the head of Brazil’s football federation, Havelange saw a chance to become the game’s global boss. A well-connected businessman from Rio, he courted dozens of new nations who’d just joined FIFA’s ranks. Promising to funnel “development” funds to poor countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and to expand the World Cup final to twenty-four teams, Havelange won the support of nearly all of FIFA’s new Third World members, and with it FIFA’s presidency. Proving just as deft at forging bonds with big companies as little countries, he worked with Adidas—which became FIFA’s official supplier of balls and equipment—to secure the World Cup’s profitability. He decided that only corporations with worldwide reach would be official World Cup sponsors, and that only one representative from any sector—from beer to credit cards—would be awarded that status. And he ensured that FIFA would sell World Cup television rights to only one official network in each of its member nations. When Havelange finally left his post in 1998, the $4 billion stack of gold he left in FIFA’s Zurich offices only hinted at the riches paid into its Swiss accounts during his reign. And it left a nice stake in place for his successor, Sepp Blatter, to keep FIFA’s money train rolling, with the crucial help of canny leaders from recently enlarged FIFA federations such as CONCACAF.

When, in 2013, Warner boasted about how he’d helped Blatter to FIFA’s presidency, he recounted the directive he gave his Central American colleagues in ’98: “Votemos como un bloque.” But wrangling the Guatemalans and Belize aside, Warner’s real power in FIFA’s one-nation-one-vote general elections came from increasing the votes he controlled by old-fashioned methods well learned from João Havelange. “No other president of any Confederation brought more countries to FIFA than I did,” he bragged in his resignation speech in 2013, before explaining that “to expand the beautiful game of football there was need for a paradigm change where even small territories such as Anguilla and Aruba, BVI and USVI, and even the Cayman Islands should be included.” That this “paradigm change” also grew the votes at hand in Jack’s pork barrel may have commended such countries’ inclusion in FIFA, too.

In June, in his home district of Chaguanas West, cheered on by loyal constituents, Warner promised that “the gloves are off.” His confounding and mutable defense against U.S. charges cited by his enemies finds him making the paradoxical argument that he can exonerate himself by proving how FIFA—which is to say he—paid to shape Trinidad’s 2010 election.

Warner’s more defensible argument is one he offered in that same video in which he held up the Onion, where he insisted, “Nothing I have done within FIFA has been inconsistent with the international culture of FIFA.” That’s true. And the blame for that fact can’t be placed only with the opportunists from small countries, such as he, who saw how they could thrive in FIFA’s corrupt culture; it belongs also to those big companies, rich ones whose vast sums have funded it and whose recent protestations of innocence, as if they didn’t know what they were writing million-dollar checks for, are as risible as old Jack’s.

The world’s Visas and Coca-Colas and Nikes aren’t going to stop associating with the only televisual spectacle yet invented that’s guaranteed, every four years, to get half of humanity cheering like kids. Which is part of why one of the reforms currently being mooted for FIFA—to disentangle the World Cup’s billion-dollar business from an organization devoted to regulating and nurturing a game, at its grassroots—seems a very wise idea. In many poor nations, the notion of “development” has served as a cover for any number of harmful boondoggles and political schemes.

How and what reforms will now unfold within FIFA—whose members may also be asked to restage their corrupted votes for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups—remains to be seen. But in Trinidad, anyway, where Warner was spotted recently trying to broker a peace deal between two warring gangs in Chaguanas West, it’s not hard to glean how the remnants of old corruption persist.

Driving into Port of Spain at carnival time, in February, I passed the shining fields and hotel at the João Havelange Centre for Excellence and then found myself, a couple days later, in the festive streets. With steel bands circling the Savannah, big flatbed trucks, loaded with speaker towers, were blasting propulsive soca at chest-shaking volume for bikini-clad revelers “tripping down the road” in their wake. On the familiar sides of the three-story office at 113 Edward Street, the logos of FIFA and CONCACAF, whose current local affiliate no longer keeps his office here, were gone. Its walls are now hung with a garish lime-green logo, featuring an oil derrick and stalk of sugarcane, of Trinidad’s newest political party. But the building itself, bought with FIFA funds, has the same owner it always did: Jack.

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October 2018


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
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
Nothing but Gifts·

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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
Checkpoint Nation·

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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 …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Number of toilet seats at the EU Parliament building in Brussels that a TV station had tested for cocaine:


Happiness creates a signature smell in human sweat that can induce happiness in those who smell it.

Trump struggles to pronounce “anonymous”; a Sackler stands to profit from a new drug to treat opioid addiction; housing development workers in the Bronx are accused of having orgies on the clock

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“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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