Publisher's Note — February 13, 2018, 6:44 pm

The Sleep of Men

“Why not mount a direct attack on economic discrimination and revive the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment?”

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on February, 5, 2018. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

At a dinner party in Manhattan toward the end of November—in the midst of the #MeToo whirlwind—I found myself in the company of right-thinking left-wingers, all of them strongly supportive of the women who have been victims of sexual harassment.

Given the progressive character of the gathering, I thought it presented a good opportunity to bring up some concrete ideas about improving the condition of women, over and above the daily denunciations of this or that villain in this or that enterprise. Having witnessed the anger that had led to the removal of several Confederate monuments erected to the glory of racism and the defense of slavery, I proposed what was perhaps an audacious theory: with all this dismantling of icons—marble-and-iron icons on public squares in Virginia and Louisiana, flesh-and-blood icons in luxurious offices in Hollywood and New York—did we not risk overlooking some real social problems that damage the status of women in the workplace and contribute to the most egregious inequalities in the business world?

Why not, I went on, mount a direct attack on economic discrimination and revive the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment, a noble effort of the last century to establish equality between women and men in the area of wages, employment, and promotions? The ERA, which would have amended the United States Constitution to forbid discrimination on the basis of sex, was clear and reasonable and nearly won adoption. The project failed largely because of the fierce opposition of Phyllis Schlafly, a “conservative” activist who saw in the ERA the eventual weakening of the male’s primordial obligation, dictated by biology, to support mothers and their children. Moreover, she had no desire to see her two daughters (on this point, I was not in disagreement with her) called to military service in the Vietnam War. The amendment was ratified by thirty-five state legislatures, but changing the Constitution requires ratification by three-quarters (that is, thirty-eight) of the states; when the deadline for such legislative action passed in 1982, none of the required three additional states had ratified the measure and some of the states that had initially ratified the amendment had deratified. The amendment was not adopted.

Passage of the ERA would have legally required equality of opportunity and remuneration for members of both sexes, but I also had a notion that it would have compelled an office executive to hesitate before intimidating a female colleague if he knew she could be paid as much or even more than he was. The power not only of the law but also of money would create a certain psychological and social dam in defense of women, I suggested.

Whereupon my neighbor across the table, an experienced civil rights attorney, replied drily that the ERA wasn’t worth the trouble, because the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in 1868 to protect former slaves against discrimination, is quite sufficient protection for women too. I answered that the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees “equal protection” to “any person” who is a United States citizen, has obviously not been sufficient for women, who still earn, on average, less pay than men—studies on how much less vary—for equal work. The same goes for women competing with men at the highest levels of civil society and the business world, where men remain numerically predominant and distinctly wealthier. Let’s not forget that in 1868, women were not entirely “persons,” given that they had neither the right to vote nor the right to obtain a divorce without excessive difficulty.

The women around the table didn’t applaud my suggestion either. They were more interested in direct action. (One of them revealed how she’d been able to get her university salary raised by threatening to go to court.) And after the Weinstein scandal burst into the news, there wasn’t a single important politician who would take up the cause of the ERA. Admittedly, the legislative task would be much more difficult than the outing of sexual offenders on social media.

Would it be more worthwhile, perhaps, to look to literature, rather than to the law, to address the injustices committed against women? La Tresse (“The Braid”), the first novel of French director, actress, and writer Laetitia Colombani, might provide an excellent place to start. The author portrays three women of radically different cultures and classes: an Indian Untouchable who earns her living by collecting human excrement; a prominent Montreal attorney, a divorced mother, who falls gravely ill; and a young Sicilian employed in her father’s small factory when a sudden accident leaves him in a coma. Each of the three is afflicted by the inescapable rules of her society.

Smita, the Indian woman, is the most daring: she dreams of helping her daughter break free of their miserable existence by sending her to school. In a society that validates rape as a method of social control, Smita’s husband is exceptional; compared with the other men of his village, he’s practically a feminist. In any case, it’s Smita who can’t sleep peacefully, not her husband, who during the night “is a lake whose surface no ripple disturbs.” Smita sees that “men aren’t equal in sleep… Men aren’t equal in anything.” Destroying a few celebrities is maybe not the most enduring way to disturb the nocturnal rhythm of men and wake them up.

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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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