Tag: New Yorker

not bathed, but drowned

There is a lot being written about AI, much of it rather speculative and not especially good. Even the critical pieces aren’t really as insightful as authors seem to assume that anything challenging the underlying assumptions of Silicon Valley Tech must be. So is pleasing to encounter that rare piece that is refreshing enough to change how you think about the subject. It is also pleasing to see someone share your own general line thinking:

This is an awkward fact about new media technologies. We imagine that they will remake the world, yet they’re often just used to make crude jokes. The closest era to our own, in terms of the rapid decentralization of information technology, is the eighteenth century, when printing became cheaper and harder to control. The French philosophe the Marquis de Condorcet prophesied that, with the press finally free, the world would be bathed in the light of reason. Perhaps, but France was also drowned in a flood of pornography, much of it starring Marie Antoinette. The trampling of the Queen’s reputation was both a democratic strike against the monarchy and a form of vicious misogyny. According to the historian Lynn Hunt, such trolling “helped to bring about the Revolution.”

What the Doomsayers Get Wrong About Deepfakes — By Daniel Immerwahr

My own suspicion has been that the chatbots are fundamentally the latest development in movable type. The fact that we have these chatty, irresponsible, unreliable, and inane copywriters at our disposal might just be as dramatic an historic development as being able to mass produce copies of the bible in the vernacular.

Old New Yorkers

Subscribing to the New Yorker can feel like being caught in the classic bind: having your wish granted, only to discover your wish is a curse. The curse in this case being that my New Yorkers pile up and I realize that I will never have the time to them all. I don’t even read them cover to cover. I skip the Goings On About Town; I only recently began to occasionally read a poem; I’m not sold on the Talk of the Town; and I rarely bother with the music, film, and TV critics because I don’t consume nearly enough of those three to make it worth my time. (Although the TV critic Naomi Fry is worth following on Twitter).

I started subscribing almost two years ago; an early pandemic decision justified to myself in part as a show of solidarity with the journalistic class. I intended to write out here a list of articles that I particularly enjoyed over that time, but the commentary grew, so I’m only presenting a handful.

Most of my physical New Yorkers are back in the UK, so I was only able to peruse the contents of the more modest stack that has grown since I finally made the move over the Atlantic. Even so, as I bookmarked articles that I had enjoyed, I noticed just as many that I had missed and fancied going back and reading.

How Prosperity Transformed the Falklands by Larissa Farquhar

There had been a great deal said about clear and concise writing, with Orwell’s essay on Politics and the English language is often brought up. It is pretty easy to accuse a writer of producing tortured sentences or old fashioned overwriting. But to my mind the real skill in writing is in discovering an interesting way of saying whatever it is that you hope to say. And “hope” really is the appropriate verb; even when you have clear sense of what you are trying to say, actually making it appear on the page is frequently, in my experience at least, the business of multiple revisions.

For a hundred and fifty years, when the Falkland Islands were a distant outpost of the British Empire, many men came from the Scottish Highlands to work as shepherds, and the islands are oddly similar to the Shetlands or the Isle of Skye—the bleak, rocky landscape; the blustery rain; the nearness of the sea—as though a piece of Scotland had broken off into the Atlantic and drifted eight thousand miles south, past Ireland, then Portugal, past Morocco and Mauritania and Senegal, down past the coasts of Brazil and Uruguay, and come to rest just a few hundred miles north of Antarctica. But here, on days when the air is very sharp and clear, people know that a floating iceberg must be close. And here there are penguins at the water’s edge: three-foot king penguins with egg-yolk bibs; squat rockhopper penguins with spiky black head feathers like gelled hair; whimsy-hatted gentoos. In March, as the plague was circling, the penguins had nothing to do. They were molting, so they couldn’t swim or eat. Molting, people said, was tiring and uncomfortable. The penguins stood about in crowds near the surf, backs to the wind, waiting for their feathers to fall out.

The whole article is extremely quotable, and it is easy to look at any given paragraph and feel like it captures the power of the whole piece. Of course, you keep on reading, and finding new paragraphs so it is easy to miss the cumulative effect. With non-fiction you can look for the seams: the facts, the quotes, all the raw material that the journalist turned up and then had to synthesize to arrive at the sentences that were eventually printed. When the writing is really good you begin to wonder if it was all just laid out like that by a particularly erudite source. Or maybe just the Holy Spirit. How else would you explain it?

For the first twenty years that Tim Blake was at Hill Cove, from the late fifties to the late seventies, the farm, like the other farms in the Falklands, was run on a system that had progressively been outlawed in Britain by legislation, the Truck Acts, which stretched back to the fifteenth century. The farmworkers rarely handled cash: they were paid in scrip, and had a credit account at the farm store in the settlement. At the end of the year, the farm manager would tell them how much money they had left after subtracting their purchases; he would pay their taxes for them and deposit what remained into a government savings account, or help them invest it. The manager might be the only local authority—he conducted marriages and assigned punishments; it was said that not long before Tim Blake came to Hill Cove a man there was fired for whistling. Because drinking could be a problem, especially in winter, when there wasn’t much to do, the farm store rationed sales of alcohol. When a man grew too old for farmwork, he had to retire, which meant that he had to leave his house on the farm and move to Stanley. But there was little for retired men to do in Stanley except go to the pub, and they often died soon afterward.

I found this article to be an impressive work of social history, taking what might seem to be an unremarkable subject, and making it into the most remarkable reading experience. If there hasn’t already been, there needs to be a serious study of American coverage of British affairs. There is no clearer indication of domestic deficiencies of a national media, than a keen outside eye.

Britain’s Idyllic Country Houses Reveal a Darker History by Sam Knight

I grew up being taken to English Country Houses — which I was largely bored and indifferent to, at least as a child. They would typically boast a fancy garden, a cafe, with a bit of history on the side. The instigating incident of Knight’s article, is the arrival of a relatively unusual tour group, consisting of mostly “older Carribbean women” to Dyrham Park, the quintessential English country house. This group was relatively unusual in that visitors to England’s country houses have been overwhelmingly white, and the tour, organised by a pair of filmmakers and researchers, Shawn Sobers and Rob Mitchell, was part of a larger effort to change that. But they weren’t quite prepared to walk in on a pair of statues of African slaves.

The National Trust, which was founded in 1895, relies on thousands of volunteers, mostly white retirees, to show visitors its properties. Dyrham Park has a roster of around a hundred and twenty. When Sobers and his group entered the Balcony Room, they came face to face with the slave stands and stood there, listening politely. “I couldn’t believe it. I really couldn’t believe it was happening,” Sobers told me. “And the tour guide talked about every single thing in that room, you know, talked about everything for a good ten, fifteen minutes and not once mentioned it.” A rope cordons off most of the Balcony Room, so visitors stand on a narrow walkway, facing the stands. There is nowhere else to look. “There wasn’t even a kind of a, you know, ‘Yeah, we don’t know what those are. . . .’ There wasn’t even an explaining it away,” Sobers said. “They just acted as if they just weren’t there at all.”

The wealth that produced many of England’s country houses has its roots in Empire and slavery. The rest of the article details a national delusion and denial of its own history. As one person is quoted, visitors only want a nice day out.

Researchers of Britain’s colonial history also welcomed the charity’s decision to consider the legacies of slavery and empire alongside each other. For more than two centuries, the transatlantic slave trade coexisted with a busy period of expansion in other parts of the world, notably in Asia. Nonetheless, the subjects usually occupy distinct places in the public imagination—a splitting that has helped to preserve a thick vein of imperial nostalgia in Britain. A poll last year found that thirty-two per cent of British adults are proud of the Empire; among the other European countries surveyed, only the Dutch recorded a higher percentage. “There’s an interesting understanding of what slavery was and what the colonization of Asia was,” Olivette Otele, a history professor at the University of Bristol, told me. (Indenture, a form of bonded labor under which more than a million Indian workers were transported around the Empire, lasted well into the twentieth century.) Of Britain’s Asian conquests, Otele said, “You think about the fabric, you think about the grandeur, you think about the beauty, the jewelry. Most people think that it was prettier, in a way. Whereas slavery is Black bodies, transported and trafficked and all that. So they don’t want to link those histories, because it forces them to see the ugliness behind the Asian colonization as well.”

These country houses are important cultural institutions, due to all the history and culture that accumulated in and around them. I previously wrote here about Susan Dry’s book The Newton papers, which described how Newton’s writings unpublished writing resided forgotten for many years in one such house until the English aristocracy collapsed and the manuscripts became part of the subsequent fire-sale. It is not an exaggeration to say that The National Trust in England was a kind of cultural bailout of these houses, and the country’s estimation of itself. As this article makes clear, the bailout is also part of an ongoing cover-up.

The Ship That Became a Bomb by Ed Caesar

Some issues of the New Yorker issues are complete home runs, and the issue The Dead Ship appeared in (the online and print titles are different) stands out as such in my mind. Alongside this alarming and utterly gripping story of a disaster waiting to happen, were articles on fusion energy, the true crime Fatty Arbuckle scandal from the golden age of Hollywood, and Gary Schteyngart’s describing the aftermath of his botched circumcision. But the ongoing situation of the F.S.O. Safer, moored in the Red Sea, just off Yemen, sticks with me the most.

The Safer’s problems are manifold and intertwined. It is forty-five years old—ancient for an oil tanker. Its age would not matter so much were it being maintained properly, but it is not. In 2014, members of one of Yemen’s powerful clans, the Houthis, launched a successful coup, presaging a brutal conflict that continues to this day. Before the war, the Yemeni state-run firm that owns the ship—the Safer Exploration & Production Operations Company, or sepoc—spent some twenty million dollars a year taking care of the vessel. Now the company can afford to make only the most rudimentary emergency repairs. More than fifty people worked on the Safer before the war; seven remain. This skeleton crew, which operates with scant provisions and no air-conditioning or ventilation below deck—interior temperatures on the ship frequently surpass a hundred and twenty degrees—is monitored by soldiers from the Houthi militia, which now occupies the territory where the Safer is situated. The Houthi leadership has obstructed efforts by foreign entities to inspect the ship or to siphon its oil. The risk of a disaster increases every day.

The article combines outright horror at the implications of the Safer sinking or exploding with bewilderment at what possible options exist and gripping insight into the world of international shipping and geopolitics. If the worst happens, we will all hear about it, if not immediately, then very soon afterwards when the consequences make themselves utterly evident. This article will no doubt be shared over social media all over again.

The beginning of the New Yorker’s history as an outlet for serious journalism is usually dated to the 1946 issue which was entirely devoted to John Hershey’s report on the effects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. At that point the US public had been subject to a PR campaign by the government, downplaying the possibility that there would be any lasting effects of radiation poisoning. The book the was produced from Hershey’s reporting would never go out of print. Reading Caesar’s article put me in mind of how those first readers must have felt, with the exception that I am reading the article before the terrible event has happened.

On American Journalism

Back in 2018 I listened with great interest to the New York Times podcast series Caliphate. This ten part, multi-award winning series, narrated by the journalist Rukmini Callimachi, reported on ISIS, focusing on the testimony of Abu Huzaifa, née Shehroze Chaudhry. I heard Huzaifa describe, in interview, his online radicalization, journey into Syria, joining ISIS as a foreign fighter, and even performing executions.

The podcast made headlines, because this former ISIS member had returned to Canada where he was a citizen living freely. In discussion he remained sympathetic while disillusioned with the caliphate. Questions were raised in the Canadian parliament and inquiries made. At the time there was a great deal of concern in the media about fighters returning to the West after the collapse of ISIS. The media had reported with grim fascination on the alienated young people in the West who had been radicalized via social media and then traveling to Syria to join their new cause. ISIS itself had played up to its own sensational image by posting gruesome execution videos online.

But Huzaifa was lying. The entire podcast was based on a lie. He was a fabulist who no doubt harbored genuine sympathies for ISIS, but had likely never even entered Syria and certainly hadn’t joined the Caliphate. When the Royal Canadian Mounted Police concluded their investigation they prosecuted Huzaifa not as a terrorist, but for committing a terrorism hoax. (The case was later dropped in exchange for an admission in court to lying about joining ISIS and agreeing to a $10000 peace bond.) In late 2020 the New York Times issued a retraction.

Journalists live and die by access. Access to evidence, sources, records, and anything at all on which a story can be built. This leaves journalists in constant danger of getting burned by their sources. Leakers are notoriously difficult to work with. Often they are simply disgruntled former employees with a particular axe to grind, and the very same motivations that lead them to talking to a journalist make them suspect.

Sometimes the betrayals can seem utterly inexplicable. In 2020 the New Yorker informed its readers that a celebrated and award winning story on the “rent-a-family” industry in Japan, was compromised because no less than three of the sources used in the story had been lying outright to the writer, Elif Batuman. As Ryu Spaeth outlines in the New Republic:

The trouble began a year after the article was published, when a Japanese magazine reported that an employee of Family Romance had pretended to be a client of the company in a documentary produced by the giant Japanese broadcaster NHK. NHK confirmed that Ishii had told his staffers to carry out the ruse. The New Yorker then began its own investigation, culminating in the stunning admissions that were published this week: that “Kazushige Nishida,” the lonely widower, was in fact married and did not provide his real name; that “Reiko Shimada,” the lonely single mother, was in fact married and did not provide her real name; and that, craziest of all, Reiko and Yuichi Ishii are married to each other. Despite these elaborate deceptions, they all insisted that their stories were otherwise true.

In the aftermath of such retractions, the postmortem can present the mistakes made in the light of a morality play. In the case of Caliphate, the Times admitted that the series lacked the “regular participation of an editor experienced in the subject matter.” And on a practical level, they should have done reverse image searches on the pictures Huzaifa provided as evidence of his travels, and more thoroughly examined his passport and travel records.

But reading Ben Smith’s media column (in the very same newspaper) you are presented with a more expansive set of sins. The kind of narratives that Callimachi actively sought to present not only predisposed her to placing too much trust in a dubious source, but those narratives were themselves problematic.

Terrorism coverage can also play easily into popular American hostility toward Muslims. Ms. Callimachi at times depicted terrorist supersoldiers, rather than the alienated and dangerous young men common in many cultures. That hype shows up in details like The Times’s description of the Charlie Hebdo shooters acting with “military precision.” By contrast, The Washington Post’s story suggested that the killers were, in fact, untrained, and noted a video showing them “cross each other’s paths as they advance up the street — a type of movement that professional military personnel are trained to avoid.” On Twitter, where she has nearly 400,000 followers, Ms. Callimachi speculated on possible ISIS involvement in high-profile attacks, including the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, which has not been attributed to the group. At one moment in the Caliphate podcast, Ms. Callimachi hears the doorbell ring at home and panics that ISIS has come for her, an effective dramatic flourish but not something American suburbanites had any reason to fear.

This particular critique is interesting because although Huzaifa’s story was false, his story more or less follows the arc of the very real foreign fighters who joined ISIS. “Jihadi John” really did grow up in London, get a degree, and then later join ISIS and perform a series of beheadings that were recorded and uploaded online. But of course, by the time Caliphate was being made, Jihadi John was dead, leaving him very far from being inclined to offer any reporter at the Times his exclusive story.

Back with the rent-a-family story, Ryu Speath, writing at the New Republic, considered the possibility that the New Yorker fell into the “weird Japan” trap of reporting on the country to satisfy a preconceived notion of Japan’s otherness, oddness, and in-explicability.

Some will say Batuman, a gifted writer, got the story wrong because she had little professional or personal familiarity with Japan. But I think that only makes the Japanese seem even more mysterious, as if these strange creatures can only be understood through lengthy anthropological immersion. Anyway, Japanese journalists fell for the story, too. (No one is more fascinated by Japan’s weirdness than the Japanese themselves.) And everyone is susceptible to cultural blind spots. As I wrote earlier this year, I long viewed the Japanese fondness for sanitary masks as evidence of some deep-seated cultural defect. Now that I wear a mask myself every day, it’s amazing to me that I could not see the obvious, banal reason people use masks: to protect their health.

For all this I should say that I am a massive fan of journalists and the work they do. I consume considerable amounts of American journalism, and subscribe to both the Times and the New Yorker. There is a convenient argument that the retractions and subsequent analysis of their failings provide evidence for the very editorial standards these institutions failed to meet, but that argument is a little too convenient. Smith’s column strongly suggests that the flaws were fundamentally institutional, and the same thing could likely happen again. That said, I do think the retractions mean something.

Ultimately I want to sit down and read reporting from someone who has been there, talked to the people who were there, and gone through the evidence. I want to read articles which have been through a rigorous editorial process. I want to read analysis by people who have spent a lot of time thinking about an issue. Obviously I don’t want to be imbibing the talking points of corporate lobbyists, paying heed to astro-turfing organizations, treating cop-aganda credulously, letting green-washing get a free pass, or uncritically accepting press releases from the military-industrial complex. But assuming good faith, I’m ready to accept the inevitable mistakes, bias, and omissions.

Don’t believe everything you read in the papers. But that doesn’t mean you should stop reading the papers. Don’t expect the “truth” to be handed to you on a platter. Remember that some things really are too good to be true. But most of all, don’t shoot the messenger.