Publisher's Note — August 11, 2017, 5:34 pm

Le Chagrin

“Could I not avoid Trump and his bullshit, not even by crossing the Atlantic Ocean?”

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on August 7, 2017. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

On the eve of Bastille Day, July 14, I found myself near the Eiffel Tower, facing barricades, soldiers, and police—all placed there in preparation for Donald Trump’s visit. My presence in Paris on the same day as the U.S. president’s was purely coincidental, but I still felt as though I was being pursued by this raving lunatic, who dominates the attention of the media and a significant portion of the global public. Could I not avoid Trump and his bullshit, not even by crossing the Atlantic Ocean? Thoroughly annoyed, I began to wonder about the character of the new French president, Emmanuel Macron. Why had he invited this lout in head-of-state’s clothing to traumatize the precise Paris neighborhood where my mother’s side of the family had lived for so many years? What was his purpose? What had gotten into him?           

As a French-American with dual citizenship, I was suffering a dual humiliation. To begin with, the idea of Trump at a restaurant table not far from my family home, scarfing down Alain Ducasse’s haute cuisine (or rather sitting at a trough filled with overcooked steaks, which is how I imagined him), repulsed me, even though the meal occurred in a diplomatic context well outside my milieu. And while the Jules Verne restaurant atop the Eiffel Tower isn’t what you’d call my corner bistro, I could sense the man’s corruption even from a great distance.

Worse, however, were the preposterous statements made by Macron—ostensibly the symbol of a France engaged in a period of full renewal—to justify the American president’s visit. I confess that I’m no admirer of my American president, but in critical times I count on a French head of state, theoretically aided by the counsel of an excellent diplomatic corps, to take a stand in the name of civilization. That’s part of my French pride.

And so I read newspapers and watched television to get better informed about this manifestation of contemporary realpolitik. Starting with Le Figaro and Le Monde, I learned from the headlines that “Macron wants to take Trump out of his isolation” (Le Figaro), and indeed that “the French president wants to take his guest out of his international isolation” (Le Monde). Now, there’s some material for serious concern. Would we really want Trump to “come out of his isolation”? Isolation seems to me exactly the measure that needs to be taken in regard to Trump. In the scariest case, he’s a dangerous sociopath (though extraordinarily talented at exciting crowds) who ought to be locked up, a little like the Marquis de Sade. Psychologists may disagree about the proper treatment for Trump, but in my opinion the best course would be to respond to his ludicrous behavior either forcefully or indifferently. Sometimes a difficult teenager needs bawling out: “Clean up your room before you come to the table!” And other times it’s more effective to say calmly, “Stay in your room. You’re too rude to eat with adults.”

Throughout his life, Trump has had an unhealthy need to be noticed, to be the star of the show. Despite the insults he hurls at The New York Times and CNN, he couldn’t do without them. If the media and the political class would ignore this disagreeable man, he’d turn into a big kid, more docile, more manageable, and enormously eager to please important people. Macron chose to do exactly the opposite, a decision bound to embolden Trump in his nastiness.

Macron, it seems, is weak not only in elementary psychology but also in his country’s history. “Our two nations have always been allies,” he declared at the joint press conference. Come again? Macron is young, but all the same he should remember the rupture between Paris and Washington in 2003, when the American invasion of Iraq was imminent. Furthermore, Brigitte Macron, whom Trump praised for being “in such good physical shape,” is old enough to remind her husband about President Charles de Gaulle’s famous speech in Phnom Penh in 1966, when he denounced American intervention in Indochina, as well as his decision, the same year, to withdraw France from NATO’s integrated military structure.

Nevertheless, as Macron confided to the Journal du Dimanche, the couples’ dinner in a fine restaurant overlooking Paris was arranged “to present an open and attractive image of Paris, of our country, and of our economy.” I’m certain that the view was very edifying for a man as ignorant of the world as Trump. Maybe not so edifying for Macron, finding himself as he did in a large restaurant devoid of people except for the two presidential couples and the waitstaff, and sitting across from a creep who had made vulgar remarks to his wife. Actually, the most horrible possibility to contemplate would be that Macron, when he announced that the event was a “dinner among friends,” was speaking the truth!

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The Gatekeepers·

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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
The Vanishing·

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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.

Overlooking the village of Mergey from the old section of the Mar Mattai Monastery, Mount Maqlub, Iraq. All photographs from Iraq (October 2017) and Jerusalem (March 2018) by Nicole Tung (Detail)
Investigating Hate·

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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.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae (Detail)
Preservation Acts·

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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.

Three weeks after the shooting, Summers blogged about the archive, which he and Jules were considering making public. Shortly thereafter, they received an inquiry from a data-mining company. When they pulled up the firm’s website, they read that its clients included the Department of Defense and, ominously, “the intelligence community.” What did the company want with the data? And what were the ethical implications of handing it over—perhaps indirectly to law enforcement—when the protesters’ tweets would otherwise evade collection? Using Twitter’s Application Programming Interface (API), the code that developers use to call up Twitter data, anyone can sift through tweets that were posted in the past week, but older posts disappear from the API’s search function, even if they still exist out on the web. The data-mining company was too late to nab a swath of the #Ferguson tweets. (Twitter has since unveiled a “premium” API that allows access to older data, for a substantial fee.) Newly mindful of the risks, Jules and Summers waited almost a year to publish their cache.

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Estimated number of times in the Fall of 1990 that George Bush told a joke about his dog asking for a wine list with her Alpo:


French researchers reported that 52 percent of young women exposed to Francis Cabrel’s ballad “Je l’aime à mourir” gave their phone numbers to an average-looking young man who hit on them, whereas only 28 percent of those exposed to Vincent Delerm’s “L’heure du thé” did so.

Migrant children were teargassed; carbon dioxide levels have reached three to five million year high; missionary killed by remote tribe

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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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