Publisher's Note — June 8, 2018, 11:20 am

Important Details

“The art of the detail is in decline, because the pitiless World Wide Web rejects in-depth reporting in favor of the tweet.”

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on June 4, 2018. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

Who remembers the “last supper” of the one-time French President François Mitterrand? Is that simply a trivial detail? Or, on the contrary, is it an element essential for understanding the character of an enormously complex politician?

I was struck by these questions in the wake of two apparently unrelated events: the recent passing of the celebrated American author Tom Wolfe, and my random reading over the Memorial Day weekend. Wolfe was the master of elucidation through detail, even if the detail he provided might have appeared less than pertinent at first. And lo and behold, numerous details jumped out at me while I was perusing, more or less by chance, The Swiss Family Robinson, the classic children’s novel by Johann David Wyss. The author tells the story of a Swiss-German family, shipwrecked on a desert island, who must do what they can to survive. Despite their predicament, their life in the midst of nature is not without its rewards; one day, one of the four sons, armed with a gun, kills an ortolan, a “small dove,” according to Wyss, “esteemed a very great delicacy on account of its exquisite flavor.” Thanks to the wild fig trees that attract these prized birds, the family could expect to preserve “great quantities” of tasty fowl for the rainy season.

Reading this passage, I was suddenly reminded of the menu supposedly enjoyed by Mitterrand in the company of his invited guests on December 31, 1995, one week before his death: thirty oysters, foie gras with capon, and three ortolans, birds of the bunting family that had by then become so rare that hunting them was banned three years later. If the account given by Georges-Marc Benamou in his book Le dernier Mitterrand is to be believed, the former president of the Republic ate those buntings whole—bones, head, and all. Was this the eccentrically joyous act of a dynamic man who wanted to savor life right up until the last moment? Or was it the last cruel treat enjoyed by a cynical politician who had collaborated with the German occupiers during World War II and who, in a certain way, was capable of eating his political rivals alive?

My intention is not to judge François Mitterrand for having eaten an endangered animal but rather to show how deeply a single detail can penetrate my imagination. Of course, sometimes the forest hides the trees, but in my profession as a journalist, I’ve found that a single tree can reveal the authentic essence of its whole entourage. Inspired by Balzac, a furniture connoisseur, Tom Wolfe read Sotheby’s catalogues as a way of learning about Manhattan’s richest people. In a Paris Review interview with George Plimpton, Wolfe recalled a scene depicted in his vicious satirical essay “Radical Chic,” which describes a party given for the Black Panthers in the conductor Leonard Bernstein’s elegant apartment (the Bernsteins helped to raise money for the militant group OR the Bernsteins were helping to raise money for the militant group). Wolfe had noticed that “the platters upon which the Panthers were being served Roquefort cheese balls were gadrooned. You may think that’s a small point, but I think that small points like that can really make a piece.” And how! The absurd contrast between the very rich Park Avenue residents and the radical African-Americans is brightened and heightened by this pattern detail.

Unfortunately, the art of the detail is in decline, because the pitiless World Wide Web rejects in-depth reporting in favor of the tweet. The destruction of the Tom Wolfe/Robert Caro model (Caro is the incomparable author of biographies of Lyndon Johnson and Robert Moses) by Google and Twitter is going from bad to worse; apart from some veteran journalists who are still well compensated, there’s nobody anymore who still has the time or the money to offer extensive observations couched in carefully written prose. Backs to the wall, faced with the migration of advertisers and readers to the free, superficial content of the Internet, the surviving newspapers are shrinking their columns.

All the same, I’m delighted every time I come across a significant detail in an unexpected place. In April, Simon Kuper of the Financial Times was in Paris to interview the novelist Leïla Slimani, Emmanuel Macron’s personal representative for the promotion of French language and culture. In a chic restaurant in the 6th arrondissement, they converse about writing, Moroccan culture, and feminism, but not about French politics, currently being torn apart by a violent dispute between left and right that the charming Slimani seems to glide over. However, to do a genuinely Macron-style job and promote the French “brand,” one must first be an economic liberal at heart, celebrate the new digital economy, and oppose the dusty traditions of the French working class. When the interview is over, in the midst of a national railroad strike and in a neighborhood full of taxicabs, Kuper doesn’t fail his assignment: “Marco Polo is still packed with digesting publishers, but Slimani has to go. She rewraps her scarf just so, produces a leather-bound smartphone and orders an Uber.” A detail worth gold.

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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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