Trump Remains Banned, for Now, but the Problem with Facebook Is Still Facebook | The New Yorker
Trump Remains Banned, for Now, but the Problem with Facebook Is Still Facebook | The New Yorker
Intéressante enquête du New Yorker sur l’incarcération d’un jeune érythréen en Italie, accusé à tort de trafic d’êtres humains.
How Not to Solve the Refugee Crisis
A case of mistaken identity put the wrong man in jail. Now it highlights the failure of prosecutions to tackle a humanitarian disaster.
On October 3, 2013, a Sicilian prosecutor named Calogero Ferrara was in his office in the Palace of Justice, in Palermo, when he read a disturbing news story. Before dawn, a fishing trawler carrying more than five hundred East African migrants from Libya had stalled a quarter of a mile from Lampedusa, a tiny island halfway to Sicily. The driver had dipped a cloth in leaking fuel and ignited it, hoping to draw help. But the fire quickly spread, and as passengers rushed away the boat capsized, trapping and killing hundreds of people.https://media.newyorker.com/photos/596fa71e24dae950fc99ebfe/master/w_2560%2Cc_limit/170731_r30315.jpg
The Central Mediterranean migration crisis was entering a new phase. Each week, smugglers were cramming hundreds of African migrants into small boats and launching them in the direction of Europe, with little regard for the chances of their making it. Mass drownings had become common. Still, the Lampedusa shipwreck was striking for its scale and its proximity: Italians watched from the cliffs as the coast guard spent a week recovering the corpses.
As news crews descended on the island, the coffins were laid out in an airplane hangar and topped with roses and Teddy bears. “It shocked me, because, maybe for the first time, they decided to show pictures of the coffins,” Ferrara told me. Italy declared a day of national mourning and started carrying out search-and-rescue operations near Libyan waters.
Shortly afterward, a group of survivors in Lampedusa attacked a man whom they recognized from the boat, claiming that he had been the driver and that he was affiliated with smugglers in Libya. The incident changed the way that Ferrara thought about the migration crisis. “I went to the chief prosecutor and said, ‘Look, we have three hundred and sixty-eight dead people in territory under our jurisdiction,’ ” Ferrara said. “We spend I don’t know how much energy and resources on a single Mafia hit, where one or two people are killed.” If smuggling networks were structured like the Mafia, Ferrara realized, arresting key bosses could lead to fewer boats and fewer deaths at sea. The issue wasn’t only humanitarian. With each disembarkation, public opinion was hardening against migrants, and the political appetite for accountability for their constant arrivals was growing. Ferrara’s office regarded smugglers in Africa and Europe as a transnational criminal network, and every boat they sent across the Mediterranean as a crime against Italy.
Ferrara is confident and ambitious, a small man in his forties with brown, curly hair, a short-cropped beard, and a deep, gravelly voice. The walls of his office are hung with tributes to his service and his success. When I met with him, in May, he sat with his feet on his desk, wearing teal-rimmed glasses and smoking a Toscano cigar. Shelves bowed under dozens of binders, each containing thousands of pages of documents—transcripts of wiretaps and witness statements for high-profile criminal cases. In the hall, undercover cops with pistols tucked beneath their T-shirts waited to escort prosecutors wherever they went.
Sicilian prosecutors are granted tremendous powers, which stem from their reputation as the only thing standing between society and the Cosa Nostra. Beginning in the late nineteen-seventies, the Sicilian Mafia waged a vicious war against the Italian state. Its adherents assassinated journalists, prosecutors, judges, police officers, and politicians, and terrorized their colleagues into submission. As Alexander Stille writes in “Excellent Cadavers,” from 1995, the only way to prove that you weren’t colluding with the Mafia was to be killed by it.
In 1980, after it was leaked that Gaetano Costa, the chief prosecutor of Palermo, had signed fifty-five arrest warrants, he was gunned down in the street by the Cosa Nostra. Three years later, his colleague Rocco Chinnici was killed by a car bomb. In response, a small group of magistrates formed an anti-Mafia pool; each member agreed to put his name on every prosecutorial order, so that none could be singled out for assassination. By 1986, the anti-Mafia team was ready to bring charges against four hundred and seventy-five mobsters, in what became known as the “maxi-trial,” the world’s largest Mafia proceeding.
The trial was held inside a massive bunker in Palermo, constructed for the occasion, whose walls could withstand an attack by rocket-propelled grenades. Led by Giovanni Falcone, the prosecutors secured three hundred and forty-four convictions. A few years after the trial, Falcone took a job in Rome. But on May 23, 1992, as he was returning home to Palermo, the Cosa Nostra detonated half a ton of explosives under the highway near the airport, killing Falcone, his wife, and his police escorts. The explosives, left over from ordnance that was dropped during the Second World War, had been collected by divers from the bottom of the Mediterranean; the blast was so large that it registered on earthquake monitors. Fifty-seven days later, mobsters killed one of the remaining members of the anti-Mafia pool, Falcone’s friend and investigative partner Paolo Borsellino.
Following these murders, the Italian military dispatched seven thousand troops to Sicily. Prosecutors were now allowed to wiretap anyone suspected of having connections to organized crime. They also had the authority to lead investigations, rather than merely argue the findings in court, and to give Mafia witnesses incentives for coöperation. That year, magistrates in Milan discovered a nationwide corruption system; its exposure led to the dissolution of local councils, the destruction of Italy’s major political parties, and the suicides of a number of businessmen and politicians who had been named for taking bribes. More than half the members of the Italian parliament came under investigation. “The people looked to the prosecutors as the only hope for the country,” a Sicilian journalist told me.
Shortly after the Lampedusa tragedy, Ferrara, with assistance from the Ministry of Interior, helped organize a team of élite prosecutors and investigators. When investigating organized crime, “for which we are famous in Palermo,” Ferrara said, “you can request wiretappings or interception of live communications with a threshold of evidence that is much lower than for common crimes.” In practice, “it means that when you request of the investigative judge an interception for organized crime, ninety-nine per cent of the time you get it.” Because rescue boats routinely deposit migrants at Sicilian ports, most weeks were marked by the arrivals of more than a thousand potential witnesses. Ferrara’s team started collecting information at disembarkations and migrant-reception centers, and before long they had the phone numbers of drivers, hosts, forgers, and money agents.
The investigation was named Operation Glauco, for Glaucus, a Greek deity with prophetic powers who came to the rescue of sailors in peril. According to Ferrara, Sicily’s proximity to North Africa enabled his investigators to pick up calls in which both speakers were in Africa. Italian telecommunications companies often serve as a data hub for Internet traffic and calls. “We have conversations in Khartoum passing through Palermo,” he said. By monitoring phone calls, investigators gradually reconstructed an Eritrean network that had smuggled tens of thousands of East Africans to Europe on boats that left from Libya.
By 2015, the Glauco investigations had resulted in dozens of arrests in Italy, Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Most of the suspects were low-level figures who may not have been aware that they were committing a crime by, for example, taking money to drive migrants from a migrant camp in Sicily to a connection house—a temporary shelter, run by smugglers—in Milan.
But the bosses in Africa seemed untouchable. “In Libya, we know who they are and where they are,” Ferrara said. “But the problem is that you can’t get any kind of coöperation” from local forces. The dragnet indicated that an Eritrean, based in Tripoli, was at the center of the network. He was born in 1981, and his name was Medhanie Yehdego Mered.
On May 23, 2014, Ferrara’s investigative team started wiretapping Mered’s Libyan number. Mered’s network in Tripoli was linked to recruiters and logisticians in virtually every major population center in East Africa. With each boat’s departure, he earned tens of thousands of dollars. In July, Mered told an associate, in a wiretapped call, that he had smuggled between seven and eight thousand people to Europe. In October, he moved to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, for two months. The Italians found his Facebook page and submitted into evidence a photograph of a dour man wearing a blue shirt and a silver chain with a large crucifix. “This is Medhanie,” a migrant who had briefly worked for him told prosecutors in Rome. “He is a king in Libya. He’s very respected. He’s one of the few—perhaps the only one—who can go out with a cross around his neck.”
In 2015, a hundred and fifty thousand refugees and migrants crossed from Libya to Europe, and almost three thousand drowned. Each Thursday afternoon, Eritreans tune in to Radio Erena, a Tigrinya-language station, for a show hosted by the Swedish-Eritrean journalist and activist Meron Estefanos. Broadcasting from her kitchen, in Stockholm, she is in touch with hundreds of migrants, activists, and smugglers. Often, when Estefanos criticizes a smuggler, he will call in to her program to complain.
In February, 2015, Estefanos reported that men who worked for Mered were raping female migrants. Mered called in to deny the rape allegations, but he admitted other bad practices and attempted to justify them. “I asked, ‘Why do you send people without life jackets?’ ” Estefanos said. “And he said, ‘I can’t buy life jackets, because if I buy five hundred life jackets I will be suspected of being a smuggler.’ ” He told Estefanos it was true that people went hungry in his connection house, but that it wasn’t his fault. “My people in Sudan—I tell them to send me five hundred refugees, and they send me two thousand,” he said. “I got groceries for five hundred people, and now I have to make it work!”
Mered was becoming wealthy, but he wasn’t the kingpin that some considered him to be. In the spring of 2013, after arriving in Libya as a refugee, he negotiated passage to Tripoli by helping smugglers with menial tasks. Then, in June, he began working with a Libyan man named Ali, whose family owned an empty building near the sea, which could be used as a connection house. According to Mered’s clients, he instructed associates in other parts of East Africa to tell migrants that they worked for Abdulrazzak, known among Eritreans as one of the most powerful smugglers. Those who were duped into paying Mered’s team were furious when they reached the connection house and learned that Mered and Ali were not connected to Abdulrazzak, and that they had failed to strike a deal with the men who launched the boats. When the pair eventually arranged their first departure, all three vessels were intercepted before they could leave Libyan waters, and the passengers were jailed.
By the end of the summer, more than three hundred and fifty migrants were languishing in the connection house. Finally, in September, a fleet of taxis shuttled them to the beach in small groups to board boats. Five days later, the Italian coast guard rescued Mered’s passengers and, therefore, his reputation as a smuggler as well.
In December, Mered brought hundreds of migrants to the beach, including an Eritrean I’ll call Yonas. “He was sick of Tripoli,” Yonas told me. “He was ready to come with us—to take the sea trip.” But the shores were controlled by Libyans; to them, Mered’s ability to organize payments and speak with East African migrants in Tigrinya was an invaluable part of the business. Ali started shouting at Mered and slapping him. “That’s when I understood that he was not that powerful,” Yonas recalled. “Our lives depended on the Libyans, not on Medhanie. To them, he was no better than any of us—he was just another Eritrean refugee.”
In April, 2015, the Palermo magistrate’s office issued a warrant for Mered’s arrest. The authorities also released the photograph of him wearing a crucifix, in the hope that someone might give him up. Days later, Mered’s face appeared in numerous European publications.
News of Mered’s indictment spread quickly in Libya. One night, Mered called Estefanos in a panic. “It’s like a fatwa against me,” he said. “They put my life in danger.” He claimed that, in the days after he was named in the press, he had been kidnapped three times; a Libyan general had negotiated his release. Mered asked Estefanos what would happen to him if he tried to come to Europe to be with his wife, Lidya Tesfu, who had crossed the Mediterranean and given birth to their son in Sweden the previous year. It was as if he hadn’t fully grasped the Italian case against him. Not only did Mered think that the Italians had exaggerated his importance but “he saw himself as a kind of activist, helping people who were desperate,” Estefanos told me.
Shortly before midnight on June 6, 2015, Mered called Estefanos, sounding drunk or high. “He didn’t want me to ask questions,” she told me. “He said, ‘Just listen.’ ” During the next three hours, Mered detailed his efforts to rescue several Eritrean hostages from the Islamic State, which had established a base in Sirte, Libya. Now, Mered said, he was driving out of Libya, toward the Egyptian border, with four of the women in the back of his truck. As Estefanos remembers it, “Mered said, ‘I’m holding a Kalashnikov and a revolver, to defend myself. If something happens at the Egyptian-Libyan border, I’m not going to surrender. I’m going to kill as many as I can, and die myself. Wish me luck!’ ” He never called again.
From that point forward, Estefanos occasionally heard from Mered’s associates, some of whom wanted to betray him and take over the business. Mered was photographed at a wedding in Sudan and spotted at a bar in Ethiopia. He posted photos to Facebook from a mall in Dubai. Italian investigators lost track of him. But on January 21, 2016, Ferrara received a detailed note from Roy Godding, an official from Britain’s National Crime Agency, which leads the country’s efforts against organized crime and human trafficking. Godding wrote that the agency was “in possession of credible and sustained evidence” that Mered had a residence in Khartoum, and that he “spends a significant amount of his time in that city.” The N.C.A. believed that Mered would leave soon—possibly by the end of April—and so, Godding wrote, “we have to act quickly.”
Still, Godding had concerns. In Sudan, people-smuggling can carry a penalty of death, which was abolished in the United Kingdom more than fifty years ago. If the Italian and British governments requested Mered’s capture, Godding said, he should be extradited to Italy, spending “as little time as possible” in Sudanese custody. Although Godding’s sources believed that Mered had “corrupt relationships” with Sudanese authorities, he figured that the N.C.A. and the Palermo magistrate could work through “trusted partners” within the regime. (Sudan’s President has been charged in absentia by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity, but the European Union pays his government tens of millions of euros each year to contain migration.)
Ferrara’s team began drawing up an extradition request. The Palermo magistrate had already started wiretapping Mered’s Sudanese number, and also that of his wife, Tesfu, and his brother Merhawi, who had immigrated to the Netherlands two years earlier. The taps on Mered’s number yielded no results. But, on March 19th, Merhawi mentioned in a call that a man named Filmon had told him that Mered was in Dubai and would probably return to Khartoum soon.
In mid-May, the N.C.A. informed Ferrara’s team of a new Sudanese telephone number that they suspected was being used by Mered. The Palermo magistrate started wiretapping it immediately. On May 24th, as the Sudanese authorities welcomed European delegates to an international summit on halting migration and human trafficking, the police tracked the location of the phone and made an arrest.
Two weeks later, the suspect was extradited to Italy on a military jet. The next morning, at a press conference in Palermo, the prosecutors announced that they had captured Medhanie Yehdego Mered.
Coverage of the arrest ranged from implausible to absurd. The BBC erroneously reported that Mered had presided over a “multibillion-dollar empire.” A British tabloid claimed that he had given millions of dollars to the Islamic State. The N.C.A., which had spent years hunting for Mered, issued a press release incorrectly stating that he was “responsible for the Lampedusa tragedy.” Meanwhile, the Palermo prosecutor’s office reportedly said that Mered had styled himself in the manner of Muammar Qaddafi, and that he was known among smugglers as the General—even though the only reference to that nickname came from a single wiretapped call from 2014 that, according to the official transcript, was conducted “in an ironic tone.” Ferrara boasted that Mered had been “one of the four most important human smugglers in Africa.”
On June 10th, the suspect was interrogated by three prosecutors from the Palermo magistrate. The chief prosecutor, Francesco Lo Voi, asked if he understood the accusations against him.
“Why did you tell me that I’m Medhanie Yehdego?” the man replied.
“Did you understand the accusations against you?” Lo Voi repeated.
“Yes,” he said. “But why did you tell me that I’m Medhanie Yehdego?”
“Yeah, apart from the name . . .”
Lo Voi can’t have been surprised by the suspect’s question. Two days earlier, when the Italians released a video of the man in custody—handcuffed and looking scared, as he descended from the military jet—Estefanos received phone calls from Eritreans on at least four continents. Most were perplexed. “This guy doesn’t even look like him,” an Eritrean refugee who was smuggled from Libya by Mered said. He figured that the Italians had caught Mered but used someone else’s picture from stock footage. For one caller in Khartoum, a woman named Seghen, however, the video solved a mystery: she had been looking for her brother for more than two weeks, and was stunned to see him on television. She said that her brother was more than six years younger than Mered; their only common traits were that they were Eritreans named Medhanie.
Estefanos told me, “I didn’t know how to contact the Italians, so I contacted Patrick Kingsley,” the Guardian’s migration correspondent, whose editor arranged for him to work with Lorenzo Tondo, a Sicilian journalist in Palermo. That evening, just before sunset, Ferrara received a series of messages from Tondo, on WhatsApp. “Gery, call me—there’s some absurd news going around,” Tondo, who knew Ferrara from previous cases, wrote. “The Guardian just contacted me. They’re saying that, according to some Eritrean sources, the man in custody is not Mered.”
Ferrara was not deterred, but he was irritated that the Sudanese hadn’t passed along any identification papers or fingerprints. That night, Tondo and Kingsley wrote in the Guardian that Italian and British investigators were “looking into whether the Sudanese had sent them the wrong man.” Soon afterward, one of Ferrara’s superiors informed Tondo that the prosecution office would no longer discuss the arrest. “I’ve decided on a press blackout,” he said.
In recent years, smuggling trials in Italy have often been shaped more by politics than by the pursuit of truth or justice. As long as Libya is in chaos, there is no way to prevent crowded dinghies from reaching international waters, where most people who aren’t rescued will drown. At disembarkations, police officers sometimes use the threat of arrest to coerce refugees into identifying whichever migrant had been tasked with driving the boat, then charge him as a smuggler. The accused is typically represented by a public defender who doesn’t speak his language or have the time, the resources, or the understanding of the smuggling business to build a credible defense. Those who were driving boats in which people drowned are often charged with manslaughter. Hundreds of migrants have been convicted in this way, giving a veneer of success to an ineffective strategy for slowing migration.
When the man being held as Mered was assigned state representation, Tondo intervened. “I knew that this guy was not going to be properly defended,” he told me. “And, if there was a chance that he was innocent, it was my duty—not as a journalist but as a human—to help him. So I put the state office in touch with my friend Michele Calantropo,” a defense lawyer who had previously worked on migration issues. For Tondo, the arrangement was also strategic. “The side effect was that now I had an important source of information inside the case,” he said.
On June 10th, in the interrogation room, the suspect was ordered to provide his personal details. He picked up a pencil and started slowly writing in Tigrinya. For almost two minutes, the only sound was birdsong from an open window. An interpreter read his testimony for the record: “My name is Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe, born in Asmara on May 12, 1987.”
That afternoon, Berhe, Calantropo, and three prosecutors met with a judge. “If you give false testimony regarding your identity, it is a crime in Italy,” the judge warned.
Berhe testified that he had lived in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. Like many other refugees, he had fled the country during his mandatory military service.
“So, what kind of work have you done in your life?” the judge asked.
“I was a carpenter. And I sold milk.”
“I sold milk.”
“Are you married?”
“No,” Berhe said.
“Who did you live with in Asmara?”
“O.K., Mr. Medhanie,” the judge said. “I’m now going to read you the, um, the crimes—the things you’re accused of doing.”
The judge spent the next several minutes detailing a complex criminal enterprise that spanned eleven countries and three continents, and involved numerous accomplices, thousands of migrants, and millions of euros in illicit profits. She listed several boatloads of people who had passed through Mered’s connection house and arrived in Italy in 2014. Berhe sat in silence as the interpreter whispered rapidly into his ear. After the judge finished listing the crimes, she asked Berhe, “So, what do you have to say about this?”
“I didn’t do it,” he replied. “In 2014, I was in Asmara, so those dates don’t even make sense.”
“And where did you go after you left Asmara?”
“I went to Ethiopia, where I stayed for three months. And then I went to Sudan.” There, Berhe had failed to find a job, so he lived with several other refugees. Berhe and his sister were supported by sporadic donations of three hundred dollars from a brother who lives in the United States. Berhe had spent the past two and a half weeks in isolation, but his testimony matched the accounts of friends and relatives who had spoken to Estefanos and other members of the press.
“Listen, I have to ask you something,” the judge said. “Do you even know Medhanie Yehdego Mered?”
“No,” Berhe replied.
“I don’t have any more questions,” the judge said. “Anyone else?”
“Your honor, whatever the facts he just put forward, in reality he is the right defendant,” Claudio Camilleri, one of the prosecutors, said. “He was delivered to us as Mered,” he insisted, pointing to the extradition forms. “You can read it very clearly: ‘Mered.’ ”
Along with Berhe, the Sudanese government had handed over a cell phone, a small calendar, and some scraps of paper, which it said were the only objects in Berhe’s possession at the time of the arrest. But when the judge asked Berhe if he owned a passport he said yes. “It’s in Sudan,” he said. “They took it. It was in my pocket, but they took it.”
“Excuse me—at the moment of the arrest, you had your identity documents with you?” she asked.
“Yes, I had them. But they took my I.D.”
Berhe told his lawyer that the Sudanese police had beaten him and asked for money. As a jobless refugee, he had nothing to give, so they notified Interpol that they had captured Mered.
The prosecutors also focussed on his mobile phone, which had been tapped shortly before he was arrested. “The contents of these conversations touched on illicit activities of the sort relevant to this dispute,” Camilleri said. At the time, Berhe’s cousin had been migrating through Libya, en route to Europe, and he had called Berhe to help arrange a payment to the connection man. “So, you know people who are part of the organizations that send migrants,” the judge noted. “Why were they calling you, if you are a milkman?”
The interrogation continued in this manner, with the authorities regarding as suspicious everything that they didn’t understand about the lives of refugees who travel the perilous routes that they were trying to disrupt. At one point, Berhe found himself explaining the fundamentals of the hawala system—an untraceable money-transfer network built on trust between distant brokers—to a prosecutor who had spent years investigating smugglers whose business depends on it. When Berhe mentioned that one of his friends in Khartoum worked at a bar, the judge heard barche, the Italian word for boats. “He sells boats?” she asked. “No, no,” Berhe said. “He sells fruit juice.”
The prosecutors also asked Berhe about the names of various suspects in the Glauco investigations. But in most cases they knew only smugglers’ nicknames or first names, many of which are common in Eritrea. Berhe, recognizing some of the names as those of his friends and relatives, began to implicate himself.
“Mera Merhawi?” a prosecutor asked. Mered’s brother is named Merhawi.
“Well, Mera is just short for Merhawi,” Berhe explained.
“O.K., you had a conversation with . . .”
“Yes! Merhawi is in Libya. He left with my cousin Gherry.”
Believing that coöperation was the surest path to exoneration, Berhe provided the password for his e-mail and Facebook accounts; it was “Filmon,” the name of one of his friends in Khartoum. The prosecutors seized on this, remembering that Filmon was the name of the person identified in a wiretap of Mered’s brother Merhawi. The prosecution failed to note that Berhe has twelve Filmons among his Facebook friends; Mered has five Filmons among his.
After the interrogation, the Palermo magistrate ordered a forensic analysis of Berhe’s phone and social-media accounts, to comb the data for inconsistencies. When officers ran everything through the Glauco database, they discovered that one of the scraps of paper submitted by the Sudanese authorities included the phone number of a man named Solomon, who in 2014 had spoken with Mered about hawala payments at least seventy-eight times. They also found that, although Berhe had said that he didn’t know Mered’s wife, Lidya Tesfu, he had once corresponded with her on Facebook. Tesfu told me that she and Berhe had never met. But he had thought that she looked attractive in pictures, and in 2015 he started flirting with her online. She told him that she was married, but he persisted, and so she shut him down, saying, “I don’t need anyone but my husband.” When the prosecutors filed this exchange into evidence, they omitted everything except Tesfu’s final message, creating the opposite impression—that she was married to Berhe and was pining for him.
Like so many others in Khartoum, Berhe had hoped to make it to Europe. His Internet history included a YouTube video of migrants in the Sahara and a search about the conditions in the Mediterranean. The prosecutors treated this as further evidence that he was a smuggler. Worse, in a text message to his sister, he mentioned a man named Ermias; a smuggler of that name had launched the boat that sunk off the coast of Lampedusa.
By the end of the interrogation, it hardly mattered whether the man in custody was Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe or Medhanie Yehdego Mered. Berhe was returned to his cell. “The important thing is the evidence, not the identity,” Ferrara told me. “It only matters that you can demonstrate that that evidence led to that person.” The N.C.A. removed from its Web site the announcement of Mered’s arrest. This was the first extradition following a fragile new anti-smuggling partnership between European and East African governments, known as the Khartoum Process. There have been no extraditions since.
Within the Eritrean community, Estefanos told me, “everyone was, like, ‘What a lucky guy—we went through the Sahara and the Mediterranean, and this guy came by private airplane!’ Everybody thought he would be released in days.” Instead, the judge allowed Berhe’s case to proceed to trial. It was as if the only people who were unwilling to accept his innocence were those in control of his fate. Toward the end of the preliminary hearing, one of the prosecutors had asked Berhe if he had ever been to Libya. In the audio recording, he says “No.” But in the official transcript someone wrote “Yes.”
Tondo and Kingsley wrote in the Guardian that the trial “risks becoming a major embarrassment for both Italian and British police.” Tondo told me that, the night after the article’s publication, “I got a lot of calls from friends and family members. They were really worried about the consequences of the story.” Tondo’s livelihood relied largely on his relationship with officials at the magistrate’s office, many of whom frequently gave him confidential documents. “That’s something that began during the Mafia wars, when you could not really trust the lawyers who were defending mobsters,” he said. Tondo was thirty-four, with a wife and a two-year-old son; working as a freelancer for Italian and international publications, he rarely earned more than six hundred euros a month. “I survived through journalism awards,” he said. “So what the fuck am I going to do”—drop the story or follow where it led? “Every journalist in Sicily has asked that sort of question. You’re at the point of jeopardizing your career for finding the truth.”
In Italy, investigative journalists are often wiretapped, followed, and intimidated by the authorities. “The investigative tools that prosecutors use to put pressure on journalists are the same ones that they use to track criminals,” Piero Messina, a Sicilian crime reporter, told me. Two years ago, Messina published a piece, in L’Espresso, alleging that a prominent doctor had made threatening remarks to a public official about the daughter of Paolo Borsellino, one of the anti-Mafia prosecutors who was killed in 1992. Messina was charged with libel, a crime that can carry a prison sentence of six years. According to the Italian press-freedom organization Ossigeno per l’Informazione, in the past five years Italian journalists have faced at least four hundred and thirty-two “specious defamation lawsuits” and an additional thirty-seven “specious lawsuits on the part of magistrates.”
At a court hearing, Messina was presented with transcripts of his private phone calls. “When a journalist discovers that he’s under investigation in this way, he can’t work anymore” without compromising his sources, Messina told me. Police surveillance units sometimes park outside his house and monitor his movements. “They fucked my career,” he said.
Messina’s trial is ongoing, and he is struggling to stay afloat. A few months ago, La Repubblica paid him seven euros for a twelve-hundred-word article on North Korean spies operating in Rome. “The pay is so low that it’s suicide to do investigative work,” he told me. “This is how information in Italy is being killed. You lose the aspiration to do your job. I know a lot of journalists who became chefs.”
Prosecutors have wide latitude to investigate possible crimes, even if nothing has been reported to the police, and they are required to formally register an investigation only when they are ready to press charges. In a recent essay, Michele Caianiello, a criminal-law professor at the University of Bologna, wrote that the capacity to investigate people before any crime is discovered “makes it extremely complicated to check ex post facto if the prosecutor, negligently or maliciously, did not record in the register the name of the possible suspect”—meaning that, in practice, prosecutors can investigate their perceived opponents indefinitely, without telling anyone.
In 2013, the Italian government requested telephone data from Vodafone more than six hundred thousand times. That year, Italian courts ordered almost half a million live interceptions. Although wiretaps are supposed to be approved by a judge, there are ways to circumvent the rules. One method is to include the unofficial target’s phone number in a large pool of numbers—perhaps a set of forty disposable phones that have suspected links to a Mafia boss. “It’s a legitimate investigation, but you throw in the number of someone who shouldn’t be in it,” an Italian police-intelligence official told me. “They do this all the time.”
Tondo continued reporting on the Medhanie trial, embarrassing the prosecutors every few weeks with new stories showing that the wrong man might be in jail. At one of Berhe’s hearings, a man wearing a black jacket and hat followed Tondo around the courthouse, taking pictures of him with a cell phone. Tondo confronted the stranger, pulling out his own phone and photographing him in return, and was startled when the man addressed him by name. After the incident, Tondo drafted a formal complaint, but he was advised by a contact in the military police not to submit it; if he filed a request to know whether he was under investigation, the prosecutors would be notified of his inquiry but would almost certainly not have to respond to it. “In an organized-crime case, you can investigate completely secretly for years,” Ferrara told me. “You never inform them.” A few months later, the man with the black hat took the witness stand; he was an investigative police officer.
Tondo makes a significant portion of his income working as a fixer for international publications. I met him last September, four months after Berhe’s arrest, when I hired him to help me with a story about underage Nigerian girls who are trafficked to Europe for sex work. We went to the Palermo magistrate to collect some documents on Nigerian crime, and entered the office of Maurizio Scalia, the deputy chief prosecutor. “Pardon me, Dr. Scalia,” Tondo said. He began to introduce me, but Scalia remained focussed on him. “You’ve got balls, coming in here,” he said.
This spring, a Times reporter contacted Ferrara for a potential story about migration. Ferrara, who knew that she was working with Tondo on another story, threatened the paper, telling her, “If Lorenzo Tondo gets a byline with you, the New York Times is finished with the Palermo magistrate.” (Ferrara denies saying this.)
One afternoon in Palermo, I had lunch with Francesco Viviano, a sixty-eight-year-old Sicilian investigative reporter who says that he has been wiretapped, searched, or interrogated by the authorities “eighty or ninety times.” After decades of reporting on the ways in which the Mafia influences Sicilian life, Viviano has little patience for anti-Mafia crusaders who exploit the Cosa Nostra’s historic reputation in order to buoy their own. “The Mafia isn’t completely finished, but it has been destroyed,” he said. “It exists at around ten or twenty per cent of its former power. But if you ask the magistrates they say, ‘No, it’s at two hundred per cent,’ ” to frame the public perception of their work as heroic. He listed several public figures whose anti-Mafia stances disguised privately unscrupulous behavior. “They think they’re Falcone and Borsellino,” he said. In recent decades, Palermo’s anti-Mafia division has served as a pipeline to positions in Italian and European politics.
In December, 2014, Sergio Lari, a magistrate from the Sicilian hill town of Caltanissetta, who had worked with Falcone and Borsellino and solved Borsellino’s murder, was nominated for the position of chief prosecutor in Palermo. But Francesco Lo Voi, a less experienced candidate, was named to the office.
The following year, Lari began investigating a used-car dealership in southern Sicily. He discovered that its vehicles were coming from a dealership in Palermo that had been seized by the state for having links to the Mafia. Lari informed Lo Voi’s office, which started wiretapping the relevant suspects and learned that the scheme led back to a judge working inside the Palermo magistrate: Silvana Saguto, the head of the office for seized Mafia assets.
“Judge Saguto was considered the Falcone for Mafia seizures,” Lari told me. “She was in all the papers. She stood out as a kind of heroine.” Lari’s team started wiretapping Saguto’s line. Saguto was tipped off, and she and her associates stopped talking on the phone. “At this point, I had to make a really painful decision,” Lari said. “I had to send in my guys in disguise, in the middle of the night, into the Palermo Palace of Justice, to bug the offices of magistrates. This was something that had never been done in Italy.” Lari and his team uncovered a vast corruption scheme, which resulted in at least twenty indictments. Among the suspects are five judges, an anti-Mafia prosecutor, and an officer in Italy’s Investigative Anti-Mafia Directorate. Saguto was charged with seizing businesses under dubious circumstances, appointing relatives to serve as administrators, and pocketing the businesses’ earnings or distributing them among colleagues, family, and friends. In one instance, according to Lari’s twelve-hundred-page indictment, Saguto used stolen Mafia assets to pay off her son’s professor to give him passing grades. (Saguto has denied all accusations; her lawyers have said that she has “never taken a euro.”)
Lari refused to talk to me about other prosecutors in the Palermo magistrate’s office, but the police-intelligence official told me that “at least half of them can’t say they didn’t know” about the scheme. Lari said that Saguto was running “an anti-Mafia mafia” out of her office at the Palace of Justice.
Except for Lari, every prosecutor who worked with Falcone and Borsellino has either retired or died. The Saguto investigation made Lari “many enemies” in Sicilian judicial and political circles, he said. “Before, the mafiosi hated me. Now it’s the anti-mafiosi. One day, you’ll find me dead in the street, and no one will tell you who did it.”
The investigations of the Palermo magistrate didn’t prevent its prosecutors from interfering with Calantropo’s preparations for Berhe’s defense. A week after the preliminary hearing, he applied for permission from a local prefecture to conduct interviews inside a migrant-reception center in the town of Siculiana, near Agrigento, where he hoped to find Eritreans who would testify that Berhe wasn’t Mered. Days later, Ferrara, Scalia, and Camilleri wrote a letter to the prefecture, instructing its officers to report back on whom Calantropo talked to. Calantropo, after hearing that the Eritreans had been moved to another camp, decided not to go.
“It’s not legal for them to monitor the defense lawyer,” Calantropo said. “But if you observe his witnesses then you observe the lawyer.” Calantropo is calm and patient, but, like many Sicilians, he has become so cynical about institutional corruption and dubious judicial practices that he is sometimes inclined to read conspiracy into what may be coincidence. “I can’t be sure that they are investigating me,” he told me, raising an eyebrow and tilting his head in a cartoonish performance of skepticism. “But, I have to tell you, they’re not exactly leaving me alone to do my job.”
Last summer, Meron Estefanos brought Yonas and another Eritrean refugee, named Ambes, from Sweden to Palermo. Both men had lived in Mered’s connection house in Tripoli in 2013. After they gave witness statements to Calantropo, saying that they had been smuggled by Mered and had never seen the man who was on trial, Tondo contacted Scalia and Ferrara. “I was begging them to meet our sources,” Tondo recalled. “But they told us, ‘We already got Mered. He’s in jail.’ ” (Estefanos, Calantropo, Yonas, and Ambes remember Tondo’s calls; Ferrara says that they didn’t happen.)
Although Mered is reputed to have sent more than thirteen thousand Eritreans to Italy, the prosecutors seem to have made no real effort to speak with any of his clients. The Glauco investigations and prosecutions were carried out almost entirely by wiretapping calls, which allowed officials to build a web of remote contacts but provided almost no context or details about the suspects’ lives—especially the face-to-face transactions that largely make up the smuggling business. As a result, Ali, Mered’s Libyan boss, is hardly mentioned in the Glauco documents. When asked about him, Ferrara said that he didn’t know who he was. Ambes showed me a photograph that he had taken of Ali on his phone.
After Yonas and Ambes returned to Sweden, the Palermo magistrate asked police to look into them. E.U. law requires that asylum claims be processed in the first country of entry, but after disembarking in Sicily both men had continued north, to Sweden, before giving their fingerprints and their names to the authorities. Investigating them had the effect of scaring off other Eritreans who might have come forward. “I don’t believe that they are out there to get the truth,” Estefanos said, of the Italian prosecutors. “They would rather prosecute an innocent person than admit that they were wrong.”
Calantropo submitted into evidence Berhe’s baptism certificate, which he received from his family; photos of Berhe as a child; Berhe’s secondary-school report card; Berhe’s exam registration in seven subjects, with an attached photograph; and a scan of Berhe’s government-issued I.D. card. Berhe’s family members also submitted documents verifying their own identities.
Other documents established Berhe’s whereabouts. His graduation bulletin shows that in 2010, while Mered was smuggling migrants through Sinai, he was completing his studies at a vocational school in Eritrea. An official form from the Ministry of Health says that in early 2013—while Mered was known to be in Libya—Berhe was treated for an injury he sustained in a “machine accident,” while working as a carpenter. The owner of Thomas Gezae Dairy Farming, in Asmara, wrote a letter attesting that, from May, 2013, until November, 2014—when Mered was running the connection house in Tripoli—Berhe was a manager of sales and distribution. Gezae wrote, “Our company wishes him good luck in his future endeavors.”
Last fall, one of Berhe’s sisters travelled to the prison from Norway, where she has asylum, to visit him and introduce him to her newborn son. But she was denied entry. Only family members can visit inmates, and although her last name is also Berhe, the prison had him registered as Medhanie Yehdego Mered.
Last December, the government of Eritrea sent a letter to Calantropo, confirming that the man in custody was Medhanie Tesfamariam Berhe. “It’s very strange that the European police never asked the Eritrean government for the identity card of Medhanie Yehdego Mered,” Calantropo said. (Ferrara said that Italy did not have a legal-assistance treaty with Eritrea.) When I asked Calantropo why he didn’t do that himself, he replied, “I represent Berhe. I can only ask on behalf of my client.”
The prosecution has not produced a single witness who claims that Berhe is Mered. Instead, Ferrara has tried to prove that Mered uses numerous aliases, one of which may be Berhe.
A few years ago, Ferrara turned a low-level Eritrean smuggler named Nuredine Atta into a state witness. After he agreed to testify, “we put him under protection, exactly like Mafia cases,” and reduced his sentence by half, Ferrara said. Long before Berhe’s arrest, Atta was shown the photograph of Medhanie Yehdego Mered wearing a cross. He said that he recalled seeing the man on a beach in Sicily in 2014, and that someone had told him that the man’s name was Habtega Ashgedom. In court, he couldn’t keep his story straight. In a separate smuggling investigation, prosecutors in Rome discounted Atta’s testimony about Mered as unreliable.
After the extradition, Atta was shown a photo of Berhe. “I don’t recognize him,” he said. Later, on the witness stand, he testified that he was pretty sure he’d seen a photo of Berhe at a wedding in Khartoum, in 2013—contradicting Berhe’s claim that he had been selling milk in Asmara at the time. Berhe’s family, however, produced a marriage certificate and photographs, proving that the wedding had been in 2015, in keeping with the time line that Berhe had laid out. In court, Ferrara treated the fact that Atta didn’t know Mered or Berhe as a reason to believe that they might be the same person.
Ferrara is also trying to link Berhe’s voice to wiretaps of Mered. The prosecution had Berhe read phrases transcribed from Mered’s calls, which they asked a forensic technician named Marco Zonaro to compare with the voice from the calls. Zonaro used software called Nuance Forensics 9.2. But, because it didn’t have settings for Tigrinya, he carried out the analysis with Egyptian Arabic, which uses a different alphabet and sounds nothing like Tigrinya. Zonaro wrote that Egyptian Arabic was “the closest geographical reference population” to Eritrea. The tests showed wildly inconsistent results. Zonaro missed several consecutive hearings; when he showed up, earlier this month, Ferrara pleaded with the judge to refer the case to a different court, meaning that Zonaro didn’t end up testifying, and that the trial will begin from scratch in September.
Many of the wiretapped phone calls that were submitted into evidence raise questions about the limits of Italian jurisdiction. According to Gioacchino Genchi, one of Italy’s foremost experts on intercepted calls and data traffic, the technological options available to prosecutors far exceed the legal ones. When both callers are foreign and not on Italian soil, and they aren’t plotting crimes against Italy, the contents of the calls should not be used in court. “But in trafficking cases there are contradictory verdicts,” he said. “Most of the time, the defense lawyers don’t know how to handle it.” Genchi compared prosecutorial abuses of international wiretaps to fishing techniques. “When you use a trawling net, you catch everything,” including protected species, he said. “But, if the fish ends up in your net, you take it, you refrigerate it, and you eat it.”
On May 16th, having found the number and the address of Lidya Tesfu, Mered’s wife, in Italian court documents, I met her at a café in Sweden. She told me that she doesn’t know where her husband is, but he calls her once a month, from a blocked number. “He follows the case,” she said. “I keep telling him we have to stop this: ‘You have to contact the Italians.’ ” I asked Tesfu to urge her husband to speak with me. Earlier this month, he called.
In the course of three hours, speaking through an interpreter, Mered detailed his activities, his business woes, and—with some careful omissions—his whereabouts during the past seven years. His version of events fits with what I learned about him from his former clients, from his wife, and from what was both present in and curiously missing from the Italian court documents—though he quibbled over details that hurt his pride (that Ali had slapped him) or could potentially hurt him legally (that he was ever armed).
Mered told me that in December, 2015, he was jailed under a different name for using a forged Eritrean passport. He wouldn’t specify what country he was in, but his brother’s wiretapped call—the one that referred to Mered’s pending return from Dubai—suggests that he was probably caught in the United Arab Emirates. Six months later, when Berhe was arrested in Khartoum, Mered learned of his own supposed extradition to Italy from rumors circulating in prison. In August, 2016, one of Mered’s associates managed to spring him from jail, by presenting the authorities in that country with another fake passport, showing a different nationality—most likely Ugandan—and arranging Mered’s repatriation to his supposed country of origin. His time in prison explains why the Italian wiretaps on his Sudanese number picked up nothing in the months before Berhe was arrested; it also explains why, when the Italians asked Facebook to turn over Mered’s log-in data, there was a gap during that period.
To the Italians, Mered was only ever a trophy. Across Africa and the Middle East, the demand for smugglers is greater than ever, as tens of millions of people flee war, starvation, and oppression. For people living in transit countries—the drivers, the fixers, the translators, the guards, the shopkeepers, the hawala brokers, the bookkeepers, the police officers, the checkpoint runners, the bandits—business has never been more profitable. Last year, with Mered out of the trade, a hundred and eighty thousand refugees and migrants reached Italy by sea, almost all of them leaving from the beaches near Tripoli. This year, the number of arrivals is expected to surpass two hundred thousand.
In our call, Mered expressed astonishment at how poorly the Italians understood the forces driving his enterprise. There is no code of honor among smugglers, no Mafia-like hierarchy to disrupt—only money, movement, risk, and death. “One day, if I get caught, the truth will come out,” he said. “These European governments—their technology is so good, but they know nothing.”
Thirteen months after the extradition, Berhe is still on trial. At a hearing in May, he sat behind a glass cage, clutching a small plastic crucifix. Three judges sat at the bench, murmuring to one another from behind a stack of papers that mostly obscured their faces. Apart from Tondo, the only Italian journalists in the room were a reporter and an editor from MeridioNews, a small, independent Sicilian Web site; major Italian outlets have largely ignored the trial or written credulously about the prosecution’s claims.
A judicial official asked, for the record, whether the defendant Medhanie Yehdego Mered was present. Calantropo noted that, in fact, he was not, but it was easier to move forward if everyone pretended that he was. The prosecution’s witness, a police officer involved in the extradition, didn’t show up, and for the next hour nothing happened. The lawyers checked Facebook on their phones. Finally, the session was adjourned. Berhe, who had waited a month for the hearing, was led away in tears.
Italy Imprisons Refugees Who Were Forced to Pilot Smuggling Boats At Gunpoint
The Italian press cheer these operations as a key part of the fight against illegal immigration, lionizing figures like #Carlo_Parini, a former mafia investigator who is now a top anti-human trafficking police officer in Italy. Parini leads a squad of judicial police in the province of Siracusa in eastern Sicily, one of several working under different provincial prosecutors, and his aggressive style has earned him the nickname “the smuggler hunter.”
There is only one problem: the vast majority of people arrested and convicted by these police are not smugglers. Almost 1400 people are currently being held in Italian prisons merely for driving a rubber boat or holding a compass. Most of them paid smugglers in Libya for passage to Europe and were forced to pilot the boat, often at gunpoint.
A Palerme, le procès d’un Erythréen tourne à l’absurde
La justice italienne s’acharne contre Medhanie Tesfamariam Behre, accusé d’être un cruel trafiquant d’êtres humains, alors que tout indique qu’il y a erreur sur la personne.
People smuggler who Italians claim to have jailed is living freely in Uganda
One of the world’s most wanted people smugglers, who Italian prosecutors claim to have in jail in Sicily, is living freely in Uganda and spending his substantial earnings in nightclubs, according to multiple witnesses.
Lien pour voir le documentaire, en suédois (avec sous-titres en anglais) :
Friends of the Traffickers Italy’s Anti-Mafia Directorate and the “Dirty Campaign” to Criminalize Migration
The European effort to dismantle these smuggling networks has been driven by an unlikely actor: the Italian anti-mafia and anti-terrorism directorate, a niche police office in Rome that gained respect in the 1990s and early 2000s for dismantling large parts of the Mafia in Sicily and elsewhere in Italy. According to previously unpublished internal documents, the office — called the #Direzione_nazionale_antimafia_e_antiterrorismo, or #DNAA, in Italian — took a front-and-center role in the management of Europe’s southern sea borders, in direct coordination with the EU border agency Frontex and European military missions operating off the Libyan coast.
Brazil’s #COVID-19 Crisis and Jair Bolsonaro’s Presidential #Chaos | The New Yorker
Richard Lapper, a longtime British observer of Brazilian politics and the author of the forthcoming book “Beef, Bible and Bullets: Brazil in the Age of #Bolsonaro,” told me that, “if Bolsonaro continues with the existing covid policy, he is going to lose the more traditional conservative part of his base and be much more dependent on the hard-line ideological supporters, and that, in turn, sets the scene for much greater conflict.” Lapper predicts that there will be more external pressure on Bolsonaro, too, as the P.1 variant spreads further across Latin America; several neighboring states have already banned flights to and from Brazil.
‘We are being ignored’: Brazil’s researchers blame anti-science government for devastating COVID surge
Researchers are devastated by the recent surge in cases and say that the government’s failure to follow science-based guidance in responding to the pandemic has made the crisis much worse.
They add that President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration has publicly undermined science while refusing to implement protective national lockdowns and spreading misinformation.
“Being a scientist in Brazil is so sad and frustrating,” says Jesem Orellana, an epidemiologist at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation’s centre in Manaus. “Half of our deaths were preventable. It’s a total disaster.”
The Limits of Political Debate | The New Yorker
In 2016, a debate champion was consulting on the project, and he noticed that, for all of its facility in extracting facts and claims, the machine just wasn’t thinking like a debater. Slonim recalled, “He told us, ‘For me, debating whether to ban prostitution, or whether to ban the sale of alcohol, this is the same debate. I’m going to use the same arguments. I’m just going to massage them a little bit.’ ” If you were arguing for banning prostitution or alcohol, you might point to the social corrosion of vice; if you were arguing against, you might warn of a black market. Slonim realized that there were a limited number of “types of argumentation,” and these were patterns that the machine would need to learn. How many? Dan Lahav, a computer scientist on the team who had also been a champion debater, estimated that there were between fifty and seventy types of argumentation that could be applied to just about every possible debate question. For I.B.M., that wasn’t so many. Slonim described the second phase of Project Debater’s education, which was somewhat handmade: Slonim’s experts wrote their own modular arguments, relying in part on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and other texts. They were trying to train the machine to reason like a human.
In February, 2019, the machine had its first major public debate, hosted by Intelligence Squared, in San Francisco. The opponent was Harish Natarajan, a thirty-one-year-old British economic consultant, who, a few years earlier, had been the runner-up in the World Universities Debating Championship. Before they appeared onstage, each contestant was given the topic and assigned a side, then allotted fifteen minutes to prepare: Project Debater would argue that preschools should be subsidized by the public, and Natarajan that they should not. Project Debater scrolled through LexisNexis, assembling evidence and categorizing it. Natarajan did nothing like that. (When we spoke, he recalled that his first thought was to wonder at the topic: Was subsidizing preschools actually controversial in the United States?) Natarajan was kept from seeing Project Debater in action before the test match, but he had been told that it had a database of four hundred million documents. “I was, like, ‘Oh, good God.’ So there was nothing I could do in multiple lifetimes to absorb that knowledge,” Natarajan told me. Instead, he would concede that Project Debater’s information was accurate and challenge its conclusions. “People will say that the facts speak for themselves, but in this day and age that is absolutely not true,” Natarajan told me. He was prepared to lay a subtle trap. The machine would be ready to argue yes, expecting Natarajan to argue no. Instead, he would say, “Yes, but . . .”
The first time I watched the San Francisco debate, I thought that Natarajan won. He had taken the world that Project Debater described and tipped it on its side, so that the audience wondered whether the computer was looking at things from the right angle, and that seemed the decisive maneuver. In the room, the audience voted for the human, too: I.B.M. had beaten Kasparov, and beaten the human champions of “Jeopardy!,” but it had come up short against Harish Natarajan.
But, when I watched the debate a second time, and then a third, I noticed that Natarajan had never really rebutted Project Debater’s basic argument, that preschool subsidies would pay for themselves and produce safer and more prosperous societies. When he tried to, he could be off the cuff to the point of ridiculousness: at one point, Natarajan argued that preschool could be “actively harmful” because it could force a preschooler to recognize that his peers were smarter than he was, which would cause “huge psychological damage.” By the end of my third viewing, it seemed to me that man and machine were not so much competing as demonstrating different ways of arguing. Project Debater was arguing about preschool. Natarajan was doing something at once more abstract and recognizable, because we see it all the time in Washington, and on the cable networks and in everyday life. He was making an argument about the nature of debate.
The Alabama Workers Trying to Unionize an Amazon Fulfillment Center
South of Birmingham, warehouse employees are voting on whether to form a union. Their decision could have ripple effects around the country. One afternoon in late February, a sixty-five-year-old Alabamian named Randy Hadley stood on a street corner outside an Amazon facility in Bessemer, twenty minutes south of Birmingham. It was about time for a shift change, but the expected exodus from the enormous fulfillment center, which employs nearly six thousand workers, wasn’t happening. “Amazon (...)
How Much of Your Stuff Belongs to Big Tech? | The New Yorker
In the digital era, the old rule book on ownership doesn’t work anymore. But beware of what’s replacing it.
By Elizabeth Kolbert
March 8, 2021
Véra Nabokov Was the First and Greatest Champion of “Lolita”
The long-suffering wife who stands at her husband’s side, lending moral cover, reliably serves to blot out another woman’s agony. Véra did just the opposite. She alone emphasized Lolita’s plight from the start. In interviews, among her husband’s colleagues, with family members, she stressed Lolita’s “complete loneliness in the whole world.” She had not a single surviving relative! Reviewers searched for morals, justifications, explanations. What they inevitably failed to notice, Véra complained, was “the tender description of the child’s helplessness, her pathetic dependence on monstrous Humbert Humbert, and her heartrending courage all along.” They forgot that “ ‘the horrid little brat’ Lolita was essentially very good indeed.” Despite the vile abuse, she would go on to make a decent life for herself. Readers, too, ignored Lolita’s vulnerability, her pain, the stolen childhood, the lost potential. Lolita was not a symbol. She was a defenseless child. The subversive book, as Donald Malcolm wrote in his New Yorker review of the novel, in 1958, “coolly prodded one of the few remaining raw nerves of the twentieth century.” No less transgressive, shockingly more familiar, it strikes different nerves in the early twenty-first. Véra complained of Lolita, “She cries every night, and the critics are deaf to her sobs.” We hear her loud and clear today, when, finally, she has come to stand at the center of the story that bears her name."
Un élément qui est toujours escamoté par les analyses que j’ai pu lire ou entendre autour de #lolita c’est que Humbert Humbert est l’assassin de la mère de Dolorès. C’est lui qui fait d’elle une orpheline et c’est lui qui deviens son tuteur légale, ajoutant l’inceste à la pédocriminalité. L’inceste est un autre élément oublié systématiquement. #inceste
Even the best of readers had a difficult time separating Nabokov from Humbert. Nadezhda Mandelstam, the writer and widow of the great poet Osip Mandelstam, insisted that the man who wrote “Lolita” “could not have done so unless he had in his soul those same disgraceful feelings for little girls.” Maurice Girodias assumed Nabokov to be Humbert Humbert. After all was said and done, having defended the novel in the most adoring and erudite terms, Lionel Trilling informed his wife, having observed the couple in action, that Véra was Lolita
Largely lost in the shuffle, in the manifold discussions of perversion, obscenity, and indecency, was the title character herself. Most found Lolita as unlikable in her way as they found Humbert deplorable in his. A writer for The New Republic dismissed her, alluding to “fragile little girls who are not really fragile.” Many blamed Lolita and felt sorry for Humbert. Few seemed willing to forgive her for being a spoiled, non-virginal nymphet. To Robertson Davies, the theme of the book was “not the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult, but the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child.” The seduction would become hers, as the monster would become Frankenstein. Headlines wrote her off as a “naughty” girl or “an experienced hoyden.” In 1958, Humbert’s real perversity seemed to be that he could find himself drawn to “a Coke-fed, juke-box-operated brat with a headful of movie mags for a brain,” according to a reviewer for Time. The New York Post noted that Lolita generally came off as “a fearsome moppet, a little monster, a shallow, corrupt, libidinous and singularly unattractive brat.” Dorothy Parker found the book brilliant, funny, and anguished, but the anguish to which she responded was Humbert’s. Of Lolita, Parker wrote, “She is a dreadful little creature, selfish, hard, vulgar, and foul-tempered.” A Cornell colleague found her unrealistic: a self-respecting American girl would never have passively submitted to Humbert. She would have had the good sense to call the police.
Garantir une #liberté_académique effective
Ce billet est consacré à la notion de liberté académique. Auparavant, nous traitons succinctement de trois sujets d’actualité.
#Maccarthysme — Depuis le 16 février, nous vivons une de ces séquences maccarthystes qui ont fait le quotidien des Bolsonaro, Trump, Johnson et autres Orbán , et qui se répètent désormais dans le nôtre. L’attaque de l’exécutif contre les scientifiques a été déclenchée à l’approche des élections régionales par Mme #Vidal, possiblement tête de liste à Nice. Cet épisode politicien consternant ouvre la campagne des présidentielles pour le chef de l’État ainsi que pour les autres ministres chargés de chasser sur les terres lexicales de l’#extrême_droite. La charge consiste à désigner comme non scientifiques certains domaines de la #recherche et à les associer au #terrorisme, par un nom chimérique construit sur le modèle de l’adjectif « #judéo-bolchévique », de sinistre mémoire. La #menace est réelle. Mais elle ne vient pas des travaux insufflés par une libido politique, qui innervent aujourd’hui un grand nombre de disciplines des sciences dures et humaines, elle vient de la #stratégie_politique qui accuse la recherche et l’#Université d’être politisées tout en leur enjoignant ailleurs de légitimer les choix « sociétaux » des politiques  ou de répondre dans l’urgence à une crise par des appels à projet . Elle s’entend dans ce lexique confusionniste et moraliste qui prétend dire ce qu’est la #science sans en passer par la #méthode_scientifique. Elle se reconnaît à la fiction du débat qui occupe l’#espace_médiatique par #tribunes de #presse et, bien pire, sur les plateaux des chaînes de #télévision singeant le modèle de Fox News et des médias ultraconservateurs états-uniens.
La menace nous appelle donc à forger de solides réseaux de #solidarité pour les affronter et à nous réarmer intellectuellement, pour réinstituer l’Université.
#Zéro_Covid — Nous avons à nouveau demandé au Président de la République, au Premier Ministre et au Ministre de la santé de recevoir une délégation de chercheurs pour proposer une série de mesures de sécurisation sanitaire composant une stratégie globale Zéro Covid (►https://rogueesr.fr/zero-covid), conformément à la tribune (►https://rogueesr.fr/zero-covid) signée, déjà, par plus de mille chercheuses et chercheurs.
#Hcéres — Dans ce contexte, il peut être pertinent de revenir sur le fonctionnement du Hcéres, instance symptomatique s’il en est des menaces institutionnelles qui pèsent sur la liberté académique. Le collège du Hcéres réuni le 1er mars a entériné le recrutement de M. #Larrouturou comme directeur du département d’évaluation des organismes nationaux de recherche. M. Larrouturou était, avant sa démission le soir de l’adoption de la LPR, à la tête de la Direction générale de la recherche et de l’innovation (DGRI). À ce titre, il a organisé la nomination de M. #Coulhon à la présidence du collège du Hcéres. À qui en douterait encore, ce renvoi d’ascenseur confirme l’imbrication des différentes bureaucraties de la recherche et leur entre-soi conduisant au #conflit_d’intérêt permanent.
Certains militants d’une fausse liberté académique, dans une tribune récemment publiée, ont par ailleurs présenté le département d’évaluation de la recherche comme l’instance légitime pour une mission de contrôle politique des facultés. Il est donc intéressant de relever que ce département demeurera dirigé par un conférencier occasionnel de l’#Action_Française, le mouvement de #Charles_Maurras à qui l’on doit le mythe de l’Université inféodée aux quatre États confédérés (Juifs, Protestants, Francs-Maçons, « Métèques ») .
Enfin, trois membres d’instances nationales de La République en Marche apparaissent dorénavant dans l’organigramme du Hcéres, confortant les craintes de constitution d’un ministère Bis en charge de la reprise en main de la recherche.
 À ce sujet, on pourra lire l’actualité récente en Angleterre, frappante de similitude :
- Government to appoint “free-speech champion” for English universities : ▻https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/feb/14/government-to-appoint-free-speech-champion-for-universities-heritage-hi
- A political scientist defends white identity policies : ▻https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/a-political-scientist-defends-white-identity-politics-eric-kaufmann-white
- Gavin Williamson using “misleading” research to justify campus free-speech law : ▻https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/feb/27/gavin-williamson-using-misleading-research-to-justify-campus-free-speec
 Le CNRS célèbre ses 80 ans : ▻http://www.cnrs.fr/fr/cnrsinfo/le-cnrs-celebre-ses-80-ans
 Face aux attentats : un an de mobilisation au CNRS : ▻https://www.cnrs.fr/fr/face-aux-attentats-un-de-mobilisation-au-cnrs
 Les convictions politiques de la personne en question n’auraient pas vocation à apparaître sur la place publique s’il n’était pas précisément question de lui confier une mission de contrôle politique des universités. D’autre part, nous nous refusons à mentionner des liens vers des pages pointant vers des sites d’extrême-droite. Les lecteurs soucieux de vérification les trouveront sans peine.
Why Rich Countries Should Subsidize Vaccination Around the World | The New Yorker
when you compare 27 billion dollars with something close to 2000 billion dollars, then the decision is trivial for an economist—you should actually invest in this covax initiative and avoid paying a higher toll down the road.
(interview avec les chercheuse et chercheur Selva Demiralp et Muhammed A. Yildirim)
Rien de neuf sur le principe : il faut essayer de convaincre ceux qui nous gouvernent de prendre les décisions qui devraient s’imposer sur des bases éthiques minimales, en leur parlant avec des mots qu’ils comprennent, c’est-à-dire en milliards de dollars en bas d’un tableur.
L’entretien vaut mieux que ce résumé, avec pas mal de considérations sur l’imbrication des économies, etc.
The Age of Instagram Face | The New Yorker
This past summer, I booked a plane ticket to Los Angeles with the hope of investigating what seems likely to be one of the oddest legacies of our rapidly expiring decade: the gradual emergence, among professionally beautiful women, of a single, cyborgian face. It’s a young face, of course, with poreless skin and plump, high cheekbones. It has catlike eyes and long, cartoonish lashes; it has a small, neat nose and full, lush lips. It looks at you coyly but blankly, as if its owner has taken half a Klonopin and is considering asking you for a private-jet ride to Coachella. The face is distinctly white but ambiguously ethnic—it suggests a National Geographic composite illustrating what Americans will look like in 2050, if every American of the future were to be a direct descendant of Kim Kardashian West, Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, and Kendall Jenner (who looks exactly like Emily Ratajkowski). “It’s like a sexy . . . baby . . . tiger,” Cara Craig, a high-end New York colorist, observed to me recently. The celebrity makeup artist Colby Smith told me, “It’s Instagram Face, duh. It’s like an unrealistic sculpture. Volume on volume. A face that looks like it’s made out of clay.”
Instagram, which launched as the decade was just beginning, in October, 2010, has its own aesthetic language: the ideal image is always the one that instantly pops on a phone screen. The aesthetic is also marked by a familiar human aspiration, previously best documented in wedding photography, toward a generic sameness. Accounts such as Insta Repeat illustrate the platform’s monotony by posting grids of indistinguishable photos posted by different users—a person in a yellow raincoat standing at the base of a waterfall, or a hand holding up a bright fall leaf. Some things just perform well.
The human body is an unusual sort of Instagram subject: it can be adjusted, with the right kind of effort, to perform better and better over time. Art directors at magazines have long edited photos of celebrities to better match unrealistic beauty standards; now you can do that to pictures of yourself with just a few taps on your phone.
Snapchat, which launched in 2011 and was originally known as a purveyor of disappearing messages, has maintained its user base in large part by providing photo filters, some of which allow you to become intimately familiar with what your face would look like if it were ten-per-cent more conventionally attractive—if it were thinner, or had smoother skin, larger eyes, fuller lips. Instagram has added an array of flattering selfie filters to its Stories feature. FaceTune, which was released in 2013 and promises to help you “wow your friends with every selfie,” enables even more precision. A number of Instagram accounts are dedicated to identifying the tweaks that celebrities make to their features with photo-editing apps. Celeb Face, which has more than a million followers, posts photos from the accounts of celebrities, adding arrows to spotlight signs of careless FaceTuning. Follow Celeb Face for a month, and this constant perfecting process begins to seem both mundane and pathological. You get the feeling that these women, or their assistants, alter photos out of a simple defensive reflex, as if FaceTuning your jawline were the Instagram equivalent of checking your eyeliner in the bathroom of the bar.
“I think ninety-five per cent of the most-followed people on Instagram use FaceTune, easily,” Smith told me. “And I would say that ninety-five per cent of these people have also had some sort of cosmetic procedure. You can see things getting trendy—like, everyone’s getting brow lifts via Botox now. Kylie Jenner didn’t used to have that sort of space around her eyelids, but now she does.”
Twenty years ago, plastic surgery was a fairly dramatic intervention: expensive, invasive, permanent, and, often, risky. But, in 2002, the Food and Drug Administration approved Botox for use in preventing wrinkles; a few years later, it approved hyaluronic-acid fillers, such as Juvéderm and Restylane, which at first filled in fine lines and wrinkles and now can be used to restructure jawlines, noses, and cheeks. These procedures last for six months to a year and aren’t nearly as expensive as surgery. (The average price per syringe of filler is six hundred and eighty-three dollars.) You can go get Botox and then head right back to the office.
Ideals of female beauty that can only be met through painful processes of physical manipulation have always been with us, from tiny feet in imperial China to wasp waists in nineteenth-century Europe. But contemporary systems of continual visual self-broadcasting—reality TV, social media—have created new disciplines of continual visual self-improvement. Social media has supercharged the propensity to regard one’s personal identity as a potential source of profit—and, especially for young women, to regard one’s body this way, too. In October, Instagram announced that it would be removing “all effects associated with plastic surgery” from its filter arsenal, but this appears to mean all effects explicitly associated with plastic surgery, such as the ones called “Plastica” and “Fix Me.” Filters that give you Instagram Face will remain. For those born with assets—natural assets, capital assets, or both—it can seem sensible, even automatic, to think of your body the way that a McKinsey consultant would think about a corporation: identify underperforming sectors and remake them, discard whatever doesn’t increase profits and reorient the business toward whatever does.
Another client is Kim Kardashian West, whom Colby Smith described to me as “patient zero” for Instagram Face. (“Ultimately, the goal is always to look like Kim,” he said.) Kardashian West, who has inspired countless cosmetically altered doppelgängers, insists that she hasn’t had major plastic surgery; according to her, it’s all just Botox, fillers, and makeup. But she also hasn’t tried to hide how her appearance has changed. In 2015, she published a coffee-table book of selfies, called “Selfish,” which begins when she is beautiful the way a human is beautiful and ends when she’s beautiful in the manner of a computer animation.
On the way to Diamond’s office, I had passed a café that looked familiar: pale marble-topped tables, blond-wood floors, a row of Prussian-green snake plants, pendant lamps, geometrically patterned tiles. The writer Kyle Chayka has coined the term “AirSpace” for this style of blandly appealing interior design, marked by an “anesthetized aesthetic” and influenced by the “connective emotional grid of social media platforms”—these virtual spaces where hundreds of millions of people learn to “see and feel and want the same things.” WeWork, the collapsing co-working giant—which, like Instagram, was founded in 2010—once convinced investors of a forty-seven-billion-dollar vision in which people would follow their idiosyncratic dreams while enmeshed in a global network of near-indistinguishable office spaces featuring reclaimed wood, neon signs, and ficus trees.
Slack Is the Right Tool for the Wrong Way to Work | The New Yorker
Though Slack improved the areas where e-mail was lacking in an age of high message volume, it simultaneously amplified the rate at which this interaction occurs. Data gathered by the software firm RescueTime estimate that employees who use Slack check communications tools more frequently than non-users, accessing them once every five minutes on average—an absurdly high rate of interruption. Neuroscientists and psychologists teach us that our attention is fundamentally single-tasked, and switching it from one target to another is detrimental to productivity. We’re simply not wired to monitor an ongoing stream of unpredictable communication at the same time that we’re trying to also finish actual work. E-mail introduced this problem of communication-driven distraction, but Slack pushed it to a new extreme. We both love and hate Slack because this company built the right tool for the wrong way to work.
I do not dislike Slack as much as people assume given that I wrote a book titled “Deep Work,” which advocates for the importance of long, undistracted stretches of work. The acceleration of interruption is a problem, but e-mail has its limitations, so it makes sense that companies committed to ad-hoc messaging as their central organizing principle would want to try Slack. If this tool represented the culmination of our attempts to figure out how to best work together in a digital age, I’d be more concerned, but Slack seems to be more transient. It’s a short-term optimization of our first hasty attempts to make sense of a high-tech professional world that will be followed by more substantial revolutions. The future of office work won’t be found in continuing to reduce the friction involved in messaging but, instead, in figuring out how to avoid the need to send so many messages in the first place.
The National-Security Case for Fixing Social Media | The New Yorker
On Wednesday, July 15th, shortly after 3 P.M., the Twitter accounts of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, Kanye West, and other politicians and celebrities began behaving strangely. More or less simultaneously, they advised their followers—around two hundred and fifty million people, in total—to send Bitcoin contributions to mysterious addresses. Twitter’s engineers were surprised and baffled; there was no indication that the company’s network had been breached, and yet the tweets were clearly unauthorized. They had no choice but to switch off around a hundred and fifty thousand verified accounts, held by notable people and institutions, until the problem could be identified and fixed. Many government agencies have come to rely on Twitter for public-service messages; among the disabled accounts was the National Weather Service, which found that it couldn’t send tweets to warn of a tornado in central Illinois. A few days later, a seventeen-year-old hacker from Florida, who enjoyed breaking into social-media accounts for fun and occasional profit, was arrested as the mastermind of the hack. The F.B.I. is currently investigating his sixteen-year-old sidekick.
In its narrowest sense, this immense security breach, orchestrated by teen-agers, underscores the vulnerability of Twitter and other social-media platforms. More broadly, it’s a telling sign of the times. We’ve entered a world in which our national well-being depends not just on the government but also on the private companies through which we lead our digital lives. It’s easy to imagine what big-time criminals, foreign adversaries, or power-grabbing politicians could have done with the access the teen-agers secured. In 2013, the stock market briefly plunged after a tweet sent from the hacked account of the Associated Press reported that President Barack Obama had been injured in an explosion at the White House; earlier this year, hundreds of armed, self-proclaimed militiamen converged on Gettysburg, Virginia, after a single Facebook page promoted the fake story that Antifa protesters planned to burn American flags there.
When we think of national security, we imagine concrete threats—Iranian gunboats, say, or North Korean missiles. We spend a lot of money preparing to meet those kinds of dangers. And yet it’s online disinformation that, right now, poses an ongoing threat to our country; it’s already damaging our political system and undermining our public health. For the most part, we stand defenseless. We worry that regulating the flow of online information might violate the principle of free speech. Because foreign disinformation played a role in the election of our current President, it has become a partisan issue, and so our politicians are paralyzed. We enjoy the products made by the tech companies, and so are reluctant to regulate their industry; we’re also uncertain whether there’s anything we can do about the problem—maybe the price of being online is fake news. The result is a peculiar mixture of apprehension and inaction. We live with the constant threat of disinformation and foreign meddling. In the uneasy days after a divisive Presidential election, we feel electricity in the air and wait for lightning to strike.
In recent years, we’ve learned a lot about what makes a disinformation campaign effective. Disinformation works best when it’s consistent with an audience’s preconceptions; a fake story that’s dismissed as incredible by one person can appear quite plausible to another who’s predisposed to believe in it. It’s for this reason that, while foreign governments may be capable of more concerted campaigns, American disinformers are especially dangerous: they have their fingers on the pulse of our social and political divisions.
As cyber wrongdoing has piled up, however, it has shifted the balance of responsibility between government and the private sector. The federal government used to be solely responsible for what the Constitution calls our “common defense.” Yet as private companies amass more data about us, and serve increasingly as the main forum for civic and business life, their weaknesses become more consequential. Even in the heyday of General Motors, a mishap at that company was unlikely to affect our national well-being. Today, a hack at Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Visa, or any of a number of tech companies could derail everyday life, or even compromise public safety, in fundamental ways.
Because of the very structure of the Internet, no Western nation has yet found a way to stop, or even deter, malicious foreign cyber activity. It’s almost always impossible to know quickly and with certainty if a foreign government is behind a disinformation campaign, ransomware implant, or data theft; with attribution uncertain, the government’s hands are tied. China and other authoritarian governments have solved this problem by monitoring every online user and blocking content they dislike; that approach is unthinkable here. In fact, any regulation meant to thwart online disinformation risks seeming like a step down the road to authoritarianism or a threat to freedom of speech. For good reason, we don’t like the idea of anyone in the private sector controlling what we read, see, and hear. But allowing companies to profit from manipulating what we view online, without regard for its truthfulness or the consequences of its viral dissemination, is also problematic. It seems as though we are hemmed in on all sides, by our enemies, our technologies, our principles, and the law—that we have no choice but to learn to live with disinformation, and with the slow erosion of our public life.
We might have more maneuvering room than we think. The very fact that the disinformation crisis has so many elements—legal, technological, and social—means that we have multiple tools with which to address it. We can tackle the problem in parts, and make progress. An improvement here, an improvement there. We can’t cure this chronic disease, but we can manage it.
Online, the regulation of speech is governed by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—a law, enacted in 1996, that was designed to allow the nascent Internet to flourish without legal entanglements. The statute gives every Internet provider or user a shield against liability for the posting or transmission of user-generated wrongful content. As Anna Wiener wrote earlier this year, Section 230 was well-intentioned at the time of its adoption, when all Internet companies were underdogs. But today that is no longer true, and analysts and politicians on both the right and the left are beginning to think, for different reasons, that the law could be usefully amended.
Technological progress is possible, too, and there are signs that, after years of resistance, social-media platforms are finally taking meaningful action. In recent months, Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms have become more aggressive about removing accounts that appear inauthentic, or that promote violence or lawbreaking; they have also moved faster to block accounts that spread disinformation about the coronavirus or voting, or that advance abhorrent political views, such as Holocaust denial. The next logical step is to decrease the power of virality. In 2019, after a series of lynchings in India was organized through the chat program WhatsApp, Facebook limited the mass forwarding of texts on that platform; a couple of months ago, it implemented similar changes in the Messenger app embedded in Facebook itself. As false reports of ballot fraud became increasingly elaborate in the days before and after Election Day, the major social media platforms did what would have been unthinkable a year ago, labelling as misleading messages from the President of the United States. Twitter made it slightly more difficult to forward tweets containing disinformation; an alert now warns the user about retweeting content that’s been flagged as untruthful. Additional changes of this kind, combined with more transparency about the algorithms they use to curate content, could make a meaningful difference in how disinformation spreads online. Congress is considering requiring such transparency.
Amy Coney Barrett’s Silence Is an Expression of Extremism | The New Yorker (October 18, 2020)
On the second day of Amy Coney Barrett’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for a seat on the Supreme Court, she and Cory Booker had an exchange that indicated that both the Court and the country are nearing a precarious point. Did she believe, Booker asked, that “every President should make a commitment, unequivocally and resolutely, to the peaceful transfer of power?” Barrett raised her eyebrows, and chose her words carefully. “Well, Senator, that seems to me to be pulling me in a little bit into this question of whether the President has said that he would not peacefully leave office,” she said. “And so, to the extent that this is a political controversy right now, as a judge, I want to stay out of it and I don’t want to express a view.”
A President should absolutely make such a commitment; it’s in the job description. Yet, even when Booker reminded Barrett, who has described herself as an originalist and a textualist, of the importance of the peaceful transition of power to the Founders, the most she would allow was that America had been lucky that “disappointed voters” had always accepted election results. To say that a disappointed President might have an obligation to do so was apparently too far for her to go. What Barrett did offer was a study in the extent to which not giving an answer can be an expression of extremism. Her demurrals were more, even, than those of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, in their hearings, a measure of how thoroughly President Trump has moved the margins of our political culture.
It’s no surprise that the hearings would be characterized by some level of evasiveness: no nominee, particularly these days, wants to say something that will rally the opposition. Barrett, as a member of Notre Dame’s University Faculty for Life, had signed an ad that called Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision affirming a woman’s reproductive rights, “infamous.” But, in the hearings, she asserted that she really couldn’t say what her position on Roe might be—the decision was controversial, and a case that threatened to overturn it might someday come before her. She attributed the principle that nominees should not comment on potential cases to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But that principle doesn’t mean that the confirmation process should be a charade of non-answers; Ginsburg, in her own hearings, in 1993, acknowledged that she was pro-choice.
Barrett’s hearings weren’t just the latest reminder that the tiresome confirmation process is due for an overhaul; there were two novel, and alarming, aspects of the evasions in her testimony. The first was how many established principles she considers to be still open to debate. When Kamala Harris pressed her on the reality of climate change, and its consequences, Barrett protested that the Senator was “eliciting an opinion from me that is on a very contentious matter of public debate,” adding, “and I will not do that.” More startling, Barrett seemed to suggest that core elements of our electoral democracy are up for grabs. Dianne Feinstein asked her if the Constitution gives the President the power “to unilaterally delay a general election.” The answer is no, but Barrett replied that she didn’t want to give “off-the-cuff answers”—that would make her a “legal pundit.”
The scenarios that Barrett declined to address were not wild hypotheticals that the Democrats had dreamed up in an attempt to trick her. Donald Trump has repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses. He has also mooted delaying the election, or maybe excluding ballot tallies he doesn’t trust, and said that he wants this Court seat filled quickly, so that his appointee can be on the panel deciding any election disputes. What he’s proposing is a clear attack on American democracy and the rule of law. Barrett, though, spoke as though the fact that the President tweets about something means that it is within the realm of reasonable constitutional interpretation. What she conveyed throughout was not so much conscientiousness as a combination of deference to, alignment with, and, perhaps, fear of Trump.
And that was the second warning that emerged from the hearings: none of the Republican senators in the room seemed shocked at what the President deems possible, or interested in hearing what the Court’s role might be in countering any President who abuses his power. Instead, they echoed Trump’s intimations of fraudulent voting, media lies, and left-wing plots. Ted Cruz claimed that many Democrats had made a decision “to abandon democracy.” Thom Tillis said it was understandable that gun sales had increased in recent months, because Democrats, “including people on this committee,” had made Americans fear for their safety. Josh Hawley appeared to think that the real problem was Hunter Biden. It can be hard to tell whether the Republicans are extremists or opportunists, or have just retreated into passivity.
In one of the most notable exchanges in the hearings, the Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy tried, unsuccessfully, to get a straight answer from Barrett on whether a President could refuse to comply with a Supreme Court order, and whether such a refusal would be “a threat to our constitutional system of checks and balances.” A President defying the Supreme Court is the definition of a constitutional crisis, but Barrett would say only that the Court “can’t control” a renegade President. The Constitution, though, offers a clear course of action in such an event: impeachment. It seemed odd that Barrett, who spent much of her time commending committee members for their power as legislators—saying, repeatedly, “That’s your job”—didn’t emphasize that point.
Textualists often adopt a posture of “restraint” that masks their tendency to be true activists, which is what Barrett was when, in a dissent last year, she called Wisconsin laws limiting gun purchases by felons unconstitutional. Similarly, in suggesting that Justices, when faced with a President who rejects election results—or their authority—would just dither or shrug, she was making a radical statement, not a restrained one. Perhaps Barrett believes that such a crisis will never come to pass, and honestly doesn’t know what she would do if one did. In which case it might be prudent for her to begin thinking about how she would respond. The full Senate is on track to vote on her nomination as soon as October 26th. Eight days later, Donald Trump will be watching the election results come in, and he may not like what he sees.
Les faire taire - Ronan Farrow - Babelio
En 2017, une simple enquête pour la chaîne de télévision NBC mène Ronan Farrow à une histoire dont on n’ose parler qu’à voix basse : un des producteurs les plus puissants de Hollywood serait un prédateur sexuel, protégé car il règne par la terreur et l’argent. Ainsi démarre l’affaire Harvey Weinstein.
Alors que Ronan Farrow se rapproche de la vérité, des hommes de l’ombre issus de prestigieux cabinets d’avocats et de cellules d’espions montent une campagne d’intimidation, menacent sa carrière, le traquent sans relâche et instrumentalisent son passé familial. Au même moment, il est confronté au sein de sa chaîne à un degré de résistance incroyable, mais il a enclenché le mouvement : partout dans le monde des femmes se lèvent pour témoigner.
Les faire taire c’est la voix de ces femmes qui ont tout risqué pour dire la vérité. Impressionnant travail d’investigation se lisant comme un thriller, Les faire taire nous invite dans les coulisses d’une enquête qui secoue notre époque.
Dans ce document exceptionnel, Ronan Farrow, Prix Pulitzer 2018 pour son enquête sur Harvey Weinstein, dévoile les systèmes implacables mis en place par les prédateurs pour faire taire leurs victimes et retrace les différentes étapes de son impressionnant travail d’investigation.
Très attendu, le livre paraîtra simultanément en France, aux États-Unis et dans de nombreux pays.
Ce qu’apporte le bouquin de Farrow par rapport à ses articles, c’est déjà qu’on peut avoir toute l’enquête en français, et proprement (c’est bien traduit). Ce n’est pas rien. Ses « black cubes chronicles » sont, me semble-t-il, assez hallucinantes, pour les sad many que nous sommes (pas les happy few donc)
C’est-à-dire qu’il existe un usage généralisé, commun, répandu, pas uniquement pour des histoires de violences sexuelles, de services d’espionnages (anciens agents du Mossad en l’occurrence) par des gens qui en ont les moyens, contre d’autres qui ne les ont pas. Allen a, par exemple, usé des services d’une armée de détectives privés pour salir ses accusateurs-accusatrices... C’est genre, la norme dans le monde médiatico-politique-industriel-etc, cet usage de mercenaires semi-légaux...
Sinon, plus connu, ces armées d’avocats dont les menaces absurdes et intenables devant un jury, ont pourtant fait taire énormément de gentes et de gens mal informé.es et peu ou mal entouré.es, en les forçant à signer des clauses de confidentialité dans des contrats parfaitement délirants. Clause de confidentialité ça veut dire un contrat qui t’interdit de raconter ce que tu as vécu, en échange de plus ou moins gros chèques. Si tu rompt ce contrat, on videra ton compte en banque, voir qu’on t’endettera pour cinq générations... Dans le doute, et face à des gens très puissant, après signature sous pression, genre les chutes du niagara sur les épaules, tout le monde s’est abstenu...
Cependant, je suis assez étonné de ne pas avoir de sympathie pour le type (Ronan). Cet espèce de premier de la classe, surdoué, blondinet, propre sur lui, du bon côté de la force, à qui, tout de même, tout réussi, a un côté agaçant. En même temps, je me rends compte qu’il semble ne rien faire pour qu’on l’aime. Bien au contraire, il décrit de manière très directe son attitude déplorable avec sa sœur, à qui il demande de ne pas reprendre ses accusations contre Allen
à un moment où elle en a besoin (et où elle est bien seule) et pas mal d’autres choses assez médiocres qui ne le rende pas particulièrement héroïque. Son histoire d’amour avec son johnathan est à peu près aussi excitante que des salsifis vapeurs. Ça doit être un choix, de ne pas trop se mettre en avant, par rapport aux victimes, évidemment. Et on peut se demander si on a encore besoin de héros...
En tout cas, il ne dira jamais qu’il a fait des violences sexuelles « son » sujet pour venger sa soeur des abus de Allen, tout simplement parce que plein de gens ont essayé de retourner ça contre lui (« il est aveuglé par l’émotion etc. »). Mais aussi, et ça semble honnête, parce que ce truc lui a pourri toute son adolescence, tout en n’étant pas son problème, mais celui de sa sœur, et que lui, pendant des années, il aurait préféré passer à autre chose...
Un des trucs, plus grave, qui m’a gêné dans le livre c’est ça :
« En février 2018, Farrow publie dans The New Yorker une enquête dans laquelle il accuse le président Trump de monnayer le silence de jeunes femmes avec qui il aurait eu une liaison alors qu’il était déjà marié à Mélania Trump » (résumé WP)
Dans le livre, on écrit qu’une femme mannequin (dont je n’ai pas le nom sous la main) a une relation, consentie, avec Trump. Il n’y a pas de viol ni d’agression ni rien, juste que Trump est un gros abruti et ça se termine six mois plus tard. Là, on dit à cette femme qu’elle pourrait se faire de l’argent avec cette histoire en la vendant à des tabloïds.Une collègue mannequin commence au même moment à raconter cette histoire sur les réseaux. La première concernée préfère que ça vienne d’elle et commence à chercher à vendre son truc. Trump (comme énormément de monde visiblement) va donc user de ces contrats à clause de confidentialité pour que l’histoire ne sorte pas dans la presse. C’est une illustration de ce système des clauses de confidentialité, où l’on voit que Trump est de mèche avec un grand groupe de tabloïd (Amercian Media Inc. Énorme machin hein) Ok. C’est pas joli joli. Mais ça donne l’horrible envie de dire que Trump fait quand même bien ce qu’il veut avec qui il veut, tant que tout les parties sont vraiment partantes, et que c’est pas parce que c’est un homme marié qu’il doit à tout le monde , la vérité sur sa vie sexuelle.
Je ne sais pas trop comment poser le problème mais il y a un truc qui me gêne dans cette démarche de se faire de la thune en vendant un pseudo-scandal à des tabloïds. Pour moi , on touche vraiment au « moralisme ». Je comprends parfaitement que Farrow fasse appel à notre sens moral, et la plupart du temps, c’est justifié. Mais là, je ne sais plus... L’impression qu’il faudrait déjà définir ce que c’est que la morale (moi j’en suis resté nietzche et son renversement de valeur, où le faible devient le bon et le puissant, le méchant) et là, pas le temps.
Bref, Ronan est journaliste, blond, quand même un peu winner, mais du genre salsifi austère et très factuel. Il croit aux scandales comme armes politiques et pour moi les scandales arrivent toujours trop tard.
Mais pour ce coup là, je dirais qu’il gagne (et large) parce qu’il a bel et bien mis à jour tout un système et fait tomber pas uniquement Weinstein, mais aussi pas mal de ceux qui ont eut recours à ces contrats pour étouffer la parole de leur victimes (dans sa propre chaîne télé (NBC)Matt Lauer, présentateur vedette, Leslies Moonves de CBS, Eric Schneiderman, le procureur général de New-york, et avec ça, tout un tas de monde collatéral qui s’occupait de protéger ces sales mecs (le directeur du service news de NBC, Noah Oppenheim, couard parmis les couards, sort du livre avec un costume trois pièces))... Et les suites de son enquête c’est quand même #metoo, aux USA, où les têtes ont valsées presque bien comme il faut, même si (et ça, c’est flippant) c’est n’est toujours pas assez, hélas.
J’ai du mal à ne pas célébrer au moins la justice rendues à des femmes qui ont pris cher de chez très très cher. En un sens, il n’a pas fallu grand chose, juste que les paroles de victimes soit enfin prises au sérieux. Au moment de la publication de son premier article sur HW, sa boîte mail et son téléphone explosent de messages de victimes prête à parler (il y a eut, je crois, une cinquantaine de femmes pour accuser Weinstein à son procès, c’est dire).
C’est l’oasis qu’il a mis en place, avec la rédaction du new-yorker et une époque (plus ou moins) prête pour ça. Reste à voir ce que ça change pour le reste des mortel.le.s qui habitent le désert, ne signent pas de contrats à sept chiffres, mais sont pourtant silenciés chaque jour, tout les jours, par d’autre genre de blocages institutionalisés.
#must_read lu, et quand même, ça vaut le détour. Je le garde un peu sous la main, voir si j’en ai besoin, mais je peux le faire tourner, il est encore à 20 balles sur amazob.
Sur ce ce mossad personnel à dispo de ceux qui en ont les moyens :
When #WEB_Du_Bois Made a Laughingstock of a White Supremacist | The New Yorker
W. E. B. Du Bois, the twentieth century’s leading black intellectual, once lived at 3059 Villa Avenue, in the Bronx. He moved to a small rented house there with his wife, Nina Gomer Du Bois, and their daughter, Yolande, in about 1912. When I’m walking in that borough I sometimes stop by the site. It’s just off Jerome Avenue, not far from the Bedford Park subway station. The anchor business at that intersection seems to be the Osvaldo #5 Barber Shop, which flies pennants advertising services for sending money to Africa and to Bangladesh. All kinds of people pass by. You hear Spanish and Chinese and maybe Hausa spoken on the street. The first time I went to Du Bois’s old address, I wondered if I might find a plaque, but the house is gone, and 3059 Villa is now part of a fenced-in parking lot. Maple and locust trees shade the front stoops, and residents wait at eight-twenty on Tuesday mornings to move their cars for the street-sweeping truck. A fire hydrant drips, slowly enlarging a hole in the sidewalk. Even unmemorialized, 3059 Villa is a not-unpleasant spot from which to contemplate the great man’s life.
About a forty-minute walk away is the Bronx Zoo. In 1912, it was called the New York Zoological Park, and it was run by a patrician named Madison Grant from an old New York family. Though he and Du Bois lived and worked within a few miles of each other for decades, I don’t know if the two ever met. As much as anyone on the planet, Grant was Du Bois’s natural enemy. Grant favored a certain type of white man over all other kinds of humans, on a graded scale of disapproval, and he reserved his vilest ill wishes and contempt for blacks.
Nuit fidèle et vertueuse, de Louise Glück
Le prix Nobel de littérature 2020 a été décerné jeudi à la poète américaine Louise Glück, l’une des grandes figures de la #Poésie contemporaine, dont l’œuvre n’a jamais été traduite et publiée en français si ce n’est dans quelques revues. Son dernier ouvrage paru aux éditions Farrar, Straus and Giroux en 2014, Faithful and Virtuous Night (Nuit fidèle et vertueuse) fait suite à la publication en 2012 de l’intégralité de ses poèmes (Poems 1962-2012). Le texte s’inspire d’une part des souvenirs d’enfance de la (...) #Livre & #Lecture / Poésie, Livre, #Écriture, #Vidéo, Lecture, #Langage, #États-Unis, #Absence, #Mémoire, #Fantôme, #Enfance, #Mort, (...)
Purdue Pharma and the Sackler Family’s Plan to Keep Its Billions | The New Yorker
Many pharmaceutical companies had a hand in creating the opioid crisis, an ongoing public-health emergency in which as many as half a million Americans have lost their lives. But Purdue, which is owned by the Sackler family, played a special role because it was the first to set out, in the nineteen-nineties, to persuade the American medical establishment that strong opioids should be much more widely prescribed—and that physicians’ longstanding fears about the addictive nature of such drugs were overblown. With the launch of OxyContin, in 1995, Purdue unleashed an unprecedented marketing blitz, pushing the use of powerful opioids for a huge range of ailments and asserting that its product led to addiction in “fewer than one percent” of patients. This strategy was a spectacular commercial success: according to Purdue, OxyContin has since generated approximately thirty billion dollars in revenue, making the Sacklers (whom I wrote about for the magazine, in 2017, and about whom I will publish a book next year) one of America’s richest families.
But OxyContin’s success also sparked a deadly crisis of addiction. Other pharmaceutical companies followed Purdue’s lead, introducing competing products; eventually, millions of Americans were struggling with opioid-use disorders. Many people who were addicted but couldn’t afford or access prescription drugs transitioned to heroin and black-market fentanyl. According to a recent analysis by the Wall Street Journal, the disruptions associated with the coronavirus have only intensified the opioid epidemic, and overdose deaths are accelerating. For all the complexity of this public-health crisis, there is now widespread agreement that its origins are relatively straightforward. New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, has described OxyContin as the “taproot” of the epidemic. A recent study, by a team of economists from the Wharton School, Notre Dame, and RAND, reviewed overdose statistics in five states where Purdue opted, because of local regulations, to concentrate fewer resources in promoting its drug. The scholars found that, in those states, overdose rates—even from heroin and fentanyl—are markedly lower than in states where Purdue did the full marketing push. The study concludes that “the introduction and marketing of OxyContin explain a substantial share of overdose deaths over the last two decades.”
Arlen Specter, then a Republican senator from Pennsylvania, was unhappy with the deal. When the government fines a corporation instead of sending its executives to jail, he declared, it is essentially granting “expensive licenses for criminal misconduct.” After the settlement, Purdue kept marketing OxyContin aggressively and playing down its risks. (The company denies doing so.) Sales of the drug grew, eventually reaching more than two billion dollars annually. The fact that, thirteen years after the 2007 settlement, Purdue is alleged to have orchestrated another criminally overzealous campaign to push its opioids suggests that Specter was right: when the profits generated by crossing the line are enormous, fines aren’t much of a deterrent.
Ne jamais oublier la corruption
The Sacklers have long maintained that they and their company are blameless when it comes to the opioid crisis because OxyContin was fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration. But some of the more shocking passages in the prosecution memo involve previously unreported details about the F.D.A. official in charge of issuing that approval, Dr. Curtis Wright. Prosecutors discovered significant impropriety in the way that Wright shepherded the OxyContin application through the F.D.A., describing his relationship with the company as conspicuously “informal in nature.” Not long after Wright approved the drug for sale, he stepped down from his position. A year later, he took a job at Purdue. According to the prosecution memo, his first-year compensation package was at least three hundred and seventy-nine thousand dollars—roughly three times his previous salary. (Wright declined to comment.)
But, at the time, Purdue was being sued by forty-five other states, and David Sackler offered to resolve all the cases against the company and the family in a single grand gesture. A wave of headlines reported the news: “PURDUE PHARMA OFFERS $10-12 BILLION TO SETTLE OPIOID CLAIMS.”
This seemed like a significant figure, but the headlines were misleading. According to a term sheet in which attorneys for the Sacklers and Purdue laid out the particulars of this proposed “comprehensive settlement,” the Sacklers were prepared to make a guaranteed contribution of only three billion dollars. Further funds could be secured, the family suggested, by selling its international businesses and by converting Purdue Pharma into a “public benefit corporation” that would continue to yield revenue—by selling OxyContin and other opioids—but would no longer profit the Sacklers personally. This was a discomfiting, and somewhat brazen, suggestion: the Sacklers were proposing to remediate the damage of the opioid crisis with funds generated by continuing to sell the drug that had initiated the crisis. At the same time, the term sheet suggested, Purdue would supply new drugs to treat opioid addiction and counteract overdoses—though the practicalities of realizing this initiative, and the Sacklers’ estimate that it would represent four billion dollars in value, remained distinctly speculative.
When the attorneys general refused to consent to the deal, the Sacklers followed through on their threat, and Purdue declared bankruptcy. But, significantly, the Sacklers did not declare bankruptcy themselves. According to the case filed by James, the family had known as early as 2014 that the company could one day face the prospect of damaging judgments. To protect themselves on this day of reckoning, the lawsuit maintains, the Sacklers assiduously siphoned money out of Purdue and transferred it offshore, beyond the reach of U.S. authorities. A representative for Purdue told me that the drugmaker, when it declared bankruptcy, had cash and assets of roughly a billion dollars. In a deposition, one of the company’s own experts testified that the Sacklers had removed as much as thirteen billion dollars from Purdue. When the company announced that it was filing for Chapter 11, Stein derided the move as a sham. The Sacklers had “extracted nearly all the money out of Purdue and pushed the carcass of the company into bankruptcy,” he said. “Multi-billionaires are the opposite of bankrupt.”
You might think that this would leave open the possibility of future suits brought by states, but Drain has signalled a desire to foreclose those as well, maintaining that a blanket dispensation is a necessary component of the bankruptcy resolution. In February, he remarked that the “only way to get true peace, if the parties are prepared to support it and not fight it in a meaningful way, is to have a third-party release” that grants the Sacklers freedom from any future liability. This is a controversial issue, and Drain indicated that he was raising it early because in some parts of the country it’s illegal for a federal bankruptcy judge to grant a third-party release barring state authorities from bringing their own lawsuits. The case law is evolving, Drain said.
The Trump Administration has paid lip service to the importance of addressing the opioid crisis. Bill Barr, Trump’s Attorney General, has said that his “highest priority is dealing with the plague of drugs.” In practice, however, this has meant rhetoric about heroin coming from Mexico and fentanyl coming from China, rather than a sustained effort to hold the well-heeled malefactors of the American pharmaceutical industry to account. Richard Sackler once boasted, “We can get virtually every senator and congressman we want to talk to on the phone in the next seventy-two hours.” Although the Sacklers may now be social pariahs, the family’s money—and army of white-shoe fixers—means that they still exert political influence.
According to three attorneys familiar with the dynamics inside the Justice Department, career line prosecutors have pushed to sanction Purdue in a serious way, and have been alarmed by efforts by the department’s political leadership to soften the blow. Should that happen, it will mark a grim instance of Purdue’s history repeating itself: a robust federal investigation of the company being defanged, behind closed doors, by a coalition of Purdue lawyers and political appointees. And it seems likely, as was also the case in 2007, that this failure will be dressed up as a success: a guilty plea from the company, another fine.
In a statement to The New Yorker, a representative for the families of Raymond and Mortimer Sackler denied all wrongdoing, maintaining that family members on Purdue’s board “were consistently assured by management that all marketing of OxyContin was done in compliance with law.” The statement continued, “Our hearts go out to those affected by drug abuse and addiction,” adding that “the rise in opioid-related deaths is driven overwhelmingly by heroin and illicit fentanyl smuggled by drug traffickers into the U.S. from China and Mexico.” At “the conclusion of this process,” the statement suggested, “all of Purdue’s documents” will be publicly disclosed, “making clear that the Sackler family acted ethically and responsibly at all times.”
The states have asserted in legal filings that the total cost of the opioid crisis exceeds two trillion dollars. Relative to that number, the three billion dollars that the Sacklers are guaranteeing in their offer is miniscule. It is also a small number relative to the fortune that the Sacklers appear likely to retain, which could be three or four times that amount. As the March filing by the states opposed to the deal argued, “When your illegal marketing campaign causes a national crisis, you should not get to keep most of the money.” What the Sacklers are offering simply “does not match what they owe.”
Nevertheless, in absolute terms, three billion dollars is still a significant sum—and the Sacklers have made it clear that they are prepared to pay it only in the event that they are granted a release from future liability. It may be that the magnitude of the dollars at stake will persuade Drain, the Justice Department officials on the case, and even the state attorneys general who initially rejected the Sacklers’ proposal to sign off. The problem, one attorney familiar with the case said, is that “criminal liability is not something that should be sold,” adding, “It should not depend on how rich they are. It’s not right.”
The Elusive Peril of Space Junk | The New Yorker
In the fourteen billion years between the big bang and the autumn of 1957, space was pristine. Then came Objects No. 1 and 2 in the NORAD catalogue: Sputnik 1—a polished orb of aluminum alloy with four long prongs—and the rocket that the Soviet Union had used to launch it, ushering in the space age. Sputnik circled the planet in an elliptical orbit, but at an altitude so low that atmospheric drag brought it down within three months. The following year, NASA launched Object No. 4, Vanguard 1, farther out into space, but then lost contact with it. Adrift since 1964, it still circles the planet. At the apex of the Cold War, Sputnik and Vanguard were triumphant emblems of a bold future. Today, they are emblems of junk.
Since 1957, humanity has placed nearly ten thousand satellites into the sky. All but twenty-seven hundred are now defunct or destroyed. Collectively, they cost billions of dollars, but they were launched with the understanding that they were cheaper to abandon than to sustain. Some, like Sputnik, have burned up. Thousands, like Vanguard, will stay in orbit for decades or centuries, careering around the planet as ballistic garbage: a hazard to astronauts and unmanned spacecraft alike.
These satellites are joined by thousands of spent rocket bodies and countless smaller items—space flotsam created by wear or collision or explosions: things like bolts and other bits of metal. There are odder specimens, too. Object No. 43205 is a functional Tesla Roadster (with a mannequin driver) that Elon Musk launched in 2018. A company called Celestis fires capsules loaded with human remains into orbit, where they will stay for nearly two and a half centuries. (The ashes of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of “Star Trek,” were sent aloft in Object No. 24779.) For years, Space Shuttles emptied their septic systems during missions: astronaut urine, instantly transformed into glimmering snowflake clouds, is reputed to be among the more beautiful visions in space. In 2007, a shuttle jettisoned a fourteen-thousand-pound tank of ammonia. (It later burned up over the South Pacific.) Astronauts, too, have accidentally let objects fall into orbit during space walks: a camera, a spatula, a glove, a mirror, a bag filled with a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of tools.
Small or large, personal or industrial—retrieving anything from space is immensely difficult, and has been done on just a handful of occasions. The military tracks about twenty-six thousand artifacts orbiting Earth, but its catalogue recognizes only objects larger than ten centimetres; the total number is much greater. By one estimate, there are a hundred million bits of debris that are a millimetre in size, a hundred trillion as small as a micron. We live in a corona of trash.
When James Baldwin Went South | The New Yorker
In 1979, #James_Baldwin approached The New Yorker with an idea for a long essay: he would travel to the cities in the South that were central to the civil-rights struggle—Selma, Birmingham, Atlanta, and elsewhere—and consider what the fallen heroes of the movement, including Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, would make of the world that had and hadn’t emerged after their deaths. The project soon swelled into a proposal for a book that would be called “Remember This House,” which Hilton Als refers to as “a book that he does not want to write but knows he must write.” Neither the essay nor the book was ever published. Instead, what came out of Baldwin’s trip was the documentary “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” directed by Dick Fontaine and Pat Hartley and released in 1982, which tells a story not of the dead but of those who lived to see many of the gains of the movement undone by an increasingly punitive criminal-justice system and the rise of Reaganism. (The Harvard Film Archive is restoring the documentary for a digital release early next year.)
A Political Philosopher on Why Democrats Should Think Differently About Merit | The New Yorker
Looming above America’s present struggles over injustice and inequality is the sense that certain self-mythologies are beginning to evaporate. When Barack Obama was in the White House, he often studded his speeches with a favorite pop lyric, “You can make it if you try.” He mentioned it more than a hundred and forty times, even though the facts of declining social mobility rendered that image less and less convincing. In various studies, no more than eight per cent of Americans who are born into the bottom fifth of U.S. households, as measured by income, ever reach the top fifth; more than a third stay at the bottom.
That analysis of Obama’s language is just one of the startling facts in the latest book by the political philosopher Michael Sandel, who has spent decades scrutinizing the tenets of Western liberalism, including beliefs about justice, markets, and, now, meritocracy. In “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?,” Sandel examines how the notion of “meritocracy,” a word coined in 1958 by Michael Young, a left-leaning British sociologist, was torqued into an American shibboleth. Over time, Sandel argues, it fed a “toxic brew of hubris and resentment.” He writes, “It flattered the winners and insulted the losers. By 2016, its time was up. The arrival of Brexit and Trump, and the rise of hyper-nationalist, anti-immigrant parties in Europe, announced the failure of the project.” In the final months of Sandel’s writing, he found that the pandemic underscored the political problems he was describing. “The question now is what an alternative political project might look like,” he wrote. Among his prescriptions, he favors some popular liberal proposals, such as introducing a tax on financial transactions, but also some provocative suggestions, such as creating a lottery system for élite college admissions.
In the early days of the pandemic, we often heard the reassuring slogan “We are all in this together.” We heard it from politicians, advertisers, celebrities. The slogan was all around us. It was inspiring in a way because it reminded us of our shared vulnerability in the face of the virus. But I think many people felt that the slogan rang hollow, even in the early weeks, because we knew, and felt, and sensed that we were not truly all in this together. It soon became clear that some of us would ride out the pandemic working from home, relatively removed from the risks, while others—including those whose work enabled the rest of us to work from home—had little choice but to expose themselves to the risks that come from working in stores, and in warehouses, and delivering goods. So it quickly became clear that we were not all in this together.
I should first explain what I mean by “meritocratic hubris.” It’s the tendency of those who land on top to believe that their success is their own doing, the measure of their merit, and, by implication, that those who struggle, those who were left behind, must deserve their fate as well. It’s the tendency to forget our indebtedness to family, teachers, community, country, and the times in which we live as conditions for the success that we enjoy. The more we believe that our success is our own doing, the harder it is to see ourselves in other people’s shoes, the harder it is to feel a sense of mutual responsibility for the fate of our fellow-citizens, including those who aren’t flourishing in the new economy.
In the book, you detail some practical proposals that you’d like to see introduced to confront these problems. But, in the short term, what would you like to see Joe Biden do in the next couple of months, to give life to those ideas, that you think might help?
I would urge Biden to play out an instinct that he has already voiced when he speaks about the “dignity of work.” What the rhetoric of rising has missed is the lost dignity of work that a great many people spend their lives engaged in. Not only in terms of stagnant wages, but also in terms of social recognition. Honor. At the heart of the resentment of many working people is the sense that the work they do isn’t respected in the way it once was. Not only the economy but also the culture has left them behind. If he should be elected, as I hope he will be, he should put the dignity of work at the center of his Presidency, which could make life better for everyone, not only the well credentialled. That could be the starting point for moving beyond the tyranny of merit, toward a politics of the common good.