Postcard — July 31, 2017, 12:50 pm

Street Fight

On the sidewalk outside Kentucky’s last abortion clinic 

Photograph by the author

At dawn on a frigid Saturday morning in February, I stood outside the EMW Women’s Surgical Center in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, in the middle of seventy antiabortion protesters. The picketers—many of them middle-aged, white, and male—were energized. They lined the block, shouting “You don’t have to do this!” and aggressively shaking signs that read turn back. They harassed the clinic’s two dozen volunteer escorts, who were clearly marked out by their neon orange vests. Still, the escorts held their positions on the sidewalk and in front of EMW’s mirrored double doors, remaining stone-faced as they ushered exhausted patients through the loud crowd and into the clinic.

I saw an orange blur rush past me. Four escorts had run over to a young woman who was hurrying up the sidewalk in sweatpants and a black hoodie. They huddled around her. One of them, a tall African-American man named Keith, leaned in and asked if she wanted them to walk with her.

She nodded.

She held on to Keith’s arm. A wave of protesters quickly descended on them: “Don’t do this, you can change your mind!” one woman shrieked. A group of teenage boys thrust in the woman’s face homemade posters that read babies are murdered here in smeared red letters, and a couple of older men shook signs with photoshopped images of bloody, dismembered babies in the palm of a woman’s hand, beneath the word choice. One woman prayed loudly next to a tiny casket, its lid covered with oversize plastic fetuses.

The woman in the hoodie clutched her head, tears streaming down her cheeks. The escorts pushed her through a group of protesters on the sidewalk and past a painted white property line, along which ten more escorts had formed a barricade. A male protester, standing just a few feet away from the door, stepped up to a mounted microphone and screamed, “You don’t have to kill your baby! You don’t have to be a murderer!”

The wall of escorts briefly opened up, and the woman stepped inside EMW, the last place in Kentucky where she could get an abortion.

[1] In states with less restrictive regulations, such as California, the procedure can be legally obtained up to twenty-six weeks into a pregnancy. Seven states and the District of Columbia don’t have any term restrictions.

Kentucky is one of six states—along with Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, and West Virginia—that today has only one abortion provider. In the years after the Supreme Court issued its ruling on Roe v. Wade, in 1973, seventeen providers opened up in the state, including EMW. But since then, the state legislature has passed dozens of laws making abortions increasingly inaccessible. Facilities were required to have transfer agreements with nearby hospitals; public hospitals and health clinics were banned from using state funds for abortions (except in cases of life endangerment, rape, or incest); women were required to receive state-directed counseling and then wait twenty-four hours before having the procedure; and health insurance providers stopped covering it for state employees. By the late Nineties, EMW was operating Kentucky’s last two clinics, the Louisville location and a second in Lexington, which was open only part-time and provided the procedure up to twelve weeks.[1]

In February 2016, as one of his first actions upon taking office, Governor Matt Bevin sued Planned Parenthood—which had recently begun providing abortion services in Kentucky—and EMW’s Lexington clinic on the grounds that they did not have the proper licenses. According to the director of the EMW clinic in Louisville, the state’s inspector general soon after denied the Lexington clinic its license, and the landlord, whom the organization had rented from since 1989, refused to renew the lease. This January, just seven days after Donald Trump was inaugurated, the EMW clinic in Lexington closed.

As the legislative crackdowns have worsened, so too has the situation on the street. “The protesters have absolutely gotten more aggressive,” Meg Stern, the support-fund director for the Kentucky Health Justice Network, told me. Stern began escorting in 1999, when she was eighteen. Back then, she said, protesters usually just prayed and held signs, but they’ve been emboldened, and their tactics have escalated to include physical force; it’s not uncommon now for them to push, shove, chase, and stalk the patients and escorts. “The day after the inauguration, protesters were out celebrating,” Stern recalled. “Someone said to my face it was a ‘great day for the babies.’”

After the woman in the hoodie was safely inside the clinic, Keith walked back to the street corner. Keith, a theater teacher and comedian who volunteered two or three days a week, was one of about a hundred people who signed up after the election to escort in Louisville. “This is a big step out of ‘I’m going to vote for the right person’ or be liberal when it comes to this, or talk about the right issues,” he said. “This is a very public stand.”

While we chatted, a protester approached Keith and shoved a pamphlet about the sins of abortion in his face, comparing it to slavery and calling it black genocide. (This is a common conspiracy theory among antiabortion activists because the abortion rate is higher among black women than it is among white women. People of color tend to be targeted more than their white counterparts by protesters, who often use racially charged language to try to shame them.) His hot breath clouded the frigid air. Keith turned away, watching for cars.

Over the next forty-five minutes, seven more women arrived at EMW. Each time, the escorts appeared at her side, guiding her through the crowd to the front door. By nine o’clock, all of the patients for the day were safely inside, prepping for their procedures.

[2] The Kentucky chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is contesting the law on the grounds that requiring doctors to show and describe ultrasound images to a woman violates First Amendment rights.

Meanwhile, outside, the protesters chatted, patting one another on the back, warming their hands, and exchanging hugs while sipping the last of their coffee. Many would return the next weekend, to show their support for the state’s crusade against abortions—which has shown no signs of slowing down: Earlier this year, antiabortion bills were passed that ban abortions after twenty weeks, without exceptions for victims of rape or incest, and require doctors to show patients ultrasounds.[2] And in March, Bevin’s administration moved to shut down EMW’s Louisville clinic. The A.C.L.U. sued the state on the clinic’s behalf. The trial is expected to begin in September.

With Bevin pushing one of the country’s most aggressive antiabortion agendas, EMW has drawn hundreds of hardcore activists from across the United States. In May, ten people were arrested at a protest led by Operation Save America, a Texas-based, fundamentalist antiabortion group, for blocking entry to EMW. In preparation for the group’s annual conference, which was held last week in Louisville, a federal judge issued an order creating a temporary buffer zone in front of the clinic. The protesters say that they see an unparalleled opportunity: Kentucky presents their best chance of becoming the first state in the country without an abortion provider.

Before I left that morning, an older man told me that a group of them was heading to a protest at a hospital where, he had heard, there was an ob-gyn who “kills babies,” though he admitted that he had no idea who the doctor was or where he worked. The man working the sound system played soft Christian rock and held a wailing baby doll to the microphone. Its cries echoed around the block.

Keith and I walked together for a few blocks before he headed home. “I know it’s going to happen that someone who disagrees with a woman’s right to have an abortion may recognize me, and it may cost me a job,” he told me. “And I’m all right with that. I realize I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be when I’m standing there in an orange vest.”

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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

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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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