Editor's Note — December 13, 2018, 2:10 pm

Inside the January Issue

Fred Turner explains how the internet subverts democracy; Michel Houellebecq admires Donald Trump; Barry Lopez reports from Antartica

The bromance between Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron may have faded, but our president can take some solace in the fact that he has another French admirer: Michel Houellebecq. We don’t imagine that Trump is much of an international-fiction enthusiast (that would require reading, after all) but if he were introduced to Houellebecq’s work, there’s a good chance he would be a fan. Someone would just have to highlight all the dirty parts and he’d find much to enjoy. Getting Trump to pronounce Houellebecq’s name correctly, let alone write it, is another matter. “President Trump seems to me to be one of the best American presidents I’ve ever seen,” writes the enfant terrible of Gallic letters. Houellebecq calls Trump’s policy of disengagement “very good news for the rest of the world,” and just like Trump, he doesn’t think much of America’s democracy, let alone our attempts to spread it around the globe. Read the piece; you will be entertained.

Perhaps Houellebecq has a point about our democracy. How embedded in our national fabric can it be if something as dumb as Facebook can dismantle it? “Democracy must do more than allow its citizens to speak. It must help them live,” writes Fred Turner. In “Machine Politics,” Turner, one of the foremost experts on Silicon Valley, explains how the internet and the social networks it spawned are ushering in a new age of authoritarianism. The fear of totalitarianism that kicked off the twentieth century gave way to the idealized individualism of the Sixties counterculture and landed us with Donald Trump, that master of the politics of authenticity, letting it all hang out on Twitter. The president, Turner writes, is “a product of the political vision that helped drive the creation of social media . . . a vision that distrusts public ownership and the political process while celebrating engineering as an alternative form of governance.”

It’s not just Mark Zuckerberg who is responsible for the Trump presidency, Kevin Baker reminds us in this month’s Easy Chair. The guy who set out to move fast and break things (mission accomplished!) shares the blame with the illustrious men who sought to unite thirteen disparate states: James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. The founding fathers knew that democracy was hard, so they did their utmost to keep it out of the hands of the majority. The plan, we now know, backfired. “The most obvious failure of our Constitution is President Trump,” Baker writes, “who is exactly the sort of corrupt, braying champion of the mob that our Founding Fathers devoted so much time and effort to keeping out of the presidency . . . By refusing to trust the people, the Founders betrayed them.”

“The story of my people is filled with bitter ironies, writes Kurdish journalist Azad Cudi. “The Kurds are one of the world’s oldest peoples and, as pioneers of agriculture, were once among its most advanced.” “Azad” is the name Cudi went by after he joined the volunteer Kurdish army in the wake of the Syrian civil war. He took up arms against ISIS and trained as a sniper. In “Long Shot,” Cudi gives a detailed and beautifully written account of the weapons he learned to use, the wounds they inflict, and the tactics employed by an army of men and women enduring deprivation and finding community as they try to resist a wily enemy. “I packed all of life into that tight existence. If you had seen me back then,” Cudi writes, “you would have understood that human beings can survive almost anything if they have purpose.”

Also in this issue: Barry Lopez searches for the solar system’s origins at the end of the earth; fiction by Lydia Davis; poetry by Fred Moten; Luc Sante on an anthology of Oulipo; and the skeletons in the closet of the elephants in the room.

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More from Ellen Rosenbush:

Editor's Note January 10, 2019, 1:44 pm

Inside the February Issue

Kishore Mahbubani on the nonexistent China threat; Matthew Wolfe follows a search for a missing migrant; Ann Neumann asks if homicides among the elderly are acts of mercy or malice

Editor's Note November 19, 2018, 3:32 pm

Inside the December 2018 Issue

Janine di Giovanni describes the plight of Christians in the middle east; Mychal Denzel Smith on the burden of the black public intellectual; Kathy Dobie goes inside New York City’s task force on bias crimes; Nora Caplan-Bricker considers an ethical archive of the web

Editor's Note October 19, 2018, 8:00 am

Inside the November 2018 Issue

Jonathan Taplin on the progressive states’-rights movement; John Cleese proselytizes; Ana Marie Cox on the tragedy of Ted Cruz; a personal history of the Holocaust

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What China Threat?·

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Within about fifteen years, China’s economy will surpass America’s and become the largest in the world. As this moment approaches, meanwhile, a consensus has formed in Washington that China poses a significant threat to American interests and well-­being. General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), has said that “China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025.” The summary of America’s 2018 National Defense Strategy claims that China and Russia are “revisionist powers” seeking to “shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” Christopher Wray, the FBI director, has said, “One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-­of-­government threat, but a whole-­of-­society threat . . . and I think it’s going to take a whole-­of-­society response by us.” So widespread is this notion that when Donald Trump launched his trade war against China, in January 2018, he received support even from moderate figures such as Democratic senator Chuck Schumer.

Shanghai Broadcasting Building, by Cui Jie (detail) © The artist. Courtesy private collection
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Without a Trace·

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In December 2015, a twenty-­two-year-­old man named Masood Hotak left his home in Kabul, Afghanistan, and set out for Europe. For several weeks, he made his way through the mountains of Iran and the rolling plateaus of Turkey. When he reached the city of Izmir, on the Turkish coast, Masood sent a text message to his elder brother Javed, saying he was preparing to board a boat to Greece. Since the start of the journey, Javed, who was living in England, had been keeping tabs on his younger brother’s progress. As Masood got closer to the sea, Javed had felt increasingly anxious. Winter weather on the Aegean was unpredictable, and the ramshackle crafts used by the smugglers often sank. Javed had even suggested Masood take the longer, overland route, through Bulgaria, but his brother had dismissed the plan as excessively cautious.

Finally, on January 3, 2016, to Javed’s immense relief, Masood sent a series of celebratory Facebook messages announcing his arrival in Europe. “I reached Greece bro,” he wrote. “Safe. Even my shoes didn’t get wet.” Masood reported that his boat had come ashore on the island of Samos. In a few days, he planned to take a ferry to the Greek mainland, after which he would proceed across the European continent to Germany.

But then, silence. Masood stopped writing. At first, Javed was unworried. His brother, he assumed, was in the island’s detention facility, waiting to be sent to Athens with hundreds of other migrants. Days turned into weeks. Every time Javed tried Masood’s phone, the call went straight to voicemail. After a month passed with no word, it dawned on Javed that his brother was missing.

A screenshot of a December 2015 Facebook post by Masood Hotak (left), in Istanbul
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When Philip Benight awoke on January 26, 2017, he saw a bright glow. “Son of a bitch, there is a light,” he thought. He hoped it meant he had died. His mind turned to his wife, Becky: “Where are you?” he thought. “We have to go to the light.” He hoped Becky had died, too. Then he lost consciousness. When he opened his eyes again, Philip realized he wasn’t seeing heaven but overhead fluorescents at Lancaster General Hospital. He was on a hospital bed, with his arms restrained and a tube down his throat, surrounded by staff telling him to relax. He passed out again. The next time he came to, his arms and legs were free, but a drugged heaviness made it hard to move. A nurse told him that his wife was at another hospital—“for her safety”—even though she was also at Lancaster General. Soon after, two police officers arrived. They wanted to know why Becky was in a coma.

Three days earlier, Philip, who was sixty, tall and lanky, with owlish glasses and mustache, had picked up his wife from an HCR ­ManorCare nursing home. Becky had been admitted to the facility recently at the age of seventy-­two after yet another series of strokes. They drove to Darrenkamp’s grocery store and Philip bought their dinner, a special turkey sandwich for Becky, with the meat shaved extra thin. They ate in the car. Then, like every other night, they got ice cream from Burger King and drove to their home in Conestoga, a sparse hamlet in southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Philip parked in the driveway, and they sat in the car looking out at the fields that roll down to the Susquehanna River.

They listened to the radio until there was nothing more to do. Philip went into the house and retrieved a container of Kraft vanilla pudding, which he’d mixed with all the drugs he could find in the house—Valium, Klonopin, Percocet, and so on. He opened the passenger-­side door and knelt beside Becky. He held a spoon, and she guided it to her mouth. When Becky had eaten all the pudding, he got back into the driver’s seat and swallowed a handful of pills. Philip asked her how the pudding tasted. “Like freedom,” she said. As they lost consciousness, the winter chill seeped into their clothes and skin.

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America in the Middle East: learning curves are for pussies.
—Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, June 2, 2015

In January 2017, following Donald Trump’s inauguration, his national security staffers entered their White House offices for the first time. One told me that when he searched for the previous administration’s Middle East policy files, the cupboard was bare. “There wasn’t an overarching strategy document for anywhere in the Middle East,” the senior official, who insisted on anonymity, told me in a coffee shop near the White House. “Not even on the ISIS campaign, so there wasn’t a cross-governmental game plan.”

Syrian Arab Red Crescent vehicles in eastern Ghouta, March 24, 2018 (detail) © Anas Alkharboutli/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Amount Arizona’s Red Feather Lodge offered to pay to reopen the Grand Canyon during the 2013 government shutdown:

$25,000

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