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International New York Times - 10 April 2018

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Are seeds
being sown
for ISIS 2.0?
U.S. exit
from Syria
is muddled
by carnage
Janine di Giovanni
A few weeks ago, a Syrian friend of
mine, Kassem Eid, came to talk to the
class I teach at Columbia. Kassem
comes from Moadhamiyeh, a suburb of
Damascus that had been besieged,
starved and bombed. One August
morning in 2013, he woke early for his
morning prayers. As he tried to go
back to sleep, he heard air raid sirens.
Then he heard his roommates screaming — they were being attacked with
chemical weapons.
Kassem lived through that awful day
and wrote about the attack for The
Times, as well as his subsequent decision to become a fighter against the
regime of Bashar al-Assad. Five more
years of war left Kassem an exhausted
and frustrated survivor. His words to
my class were harsh and angry, the
words of someone
whose country has
been beaten down
by seven years of
from Syria,
Mr. Trump is
What surprised
my students the
America’s role
most was Kassem’s
enthusiastic supin achieving
port for President
peace in
Trump’s past decithe region.
sions in Syria. He
praised his
airstrikes in 2017,
which President Obama had never
ordered, launched in retaliation for Mr.
Assad’s chemical attack on Khan
Sheikhoun, which killed more than 70
On Friday, I called Kassem to find
out his thoughts about President
Trump’s decision, announced last
week, to pull American troops from
Syria, despite the Pentagon and others
warning him that it will create a vacuum for Iran and Russia, both patrons
of Mr. Assad.
He was dismayed, but not surprised.
The Americans had already seemed to
lighten up on Mr. Assad. “I was brokenhearted to see how they let Assad
massacre 2,000 people in less than two
weeks,” he said, referring to the attacks on eastern Ghouta, which fell to
Mr. Assad’s forces last month. “There
were more chemical attacks, more
atrocities. More people displaced from
their homes. And no one did anything.”
I called other friends in Syria; they
all said the same thing. Mr. Trump is
sending a clear message to Mr. Assad:
As long as we can claim victory over
the Islamic State, we don’t care what
you do, or what Russia or Iran does.
The message has already been received, in fact. In parts of Damascus, I
The New York Times publishes opinion
from a wide range of perspectives in
hopes of promoting constructive debate
about consequential questions.
Reported chemical attack
raises political and military
stakes for the president
Price of development
East Timor is Southeast Asia’s poorest country, but it has some of the most magnificent and pristine reefs in the world. The country is now
exploring how it could use its natural beauty to attract tourists, and bring much-needed economic support, without destroying the marine life. PAGE 4
The missing booksellers
In Hong Kong, trafficking
in books banned by Beijing
can be a dangerous game
Lam Wing-kee knew he was in trouble.
In his two decades as owner and manager of Causeway Bay Books in Hong
Kong, Lam had honed a carefully nonchalant routine when caught smuggling
books into mainland China: apologize,
claim ignorance, offer a cigarette to the
officers, crack a joke.
For most of his career, the routine was
Thin and wiry, with an unruly pouf of
side-swept gray hair and a wisp of mustache, Lam was carrying a wide mix of
books that day: breathless political
thrillers, bodice-rippers and a handful of
dry historical tomes. The works had
only two things in common: Readers
hungered for them, and each had been
designated contraband by the Chinese
Communist Party’s Central Leading
Group for Propaganda and Ideology.
For decades, Lam’s bookstore had
thrived despite the ban — or maybe because of it. Operating just 20 miles from
the mainland city of Shenzhen, in a tiny
storefront sandwiched between a pharmacy and a lingerie store, his shop was a
destination for Chinese tourists, seasoned local politicians and even, surreptitiously, Communist Party members
themselves, anyone hoping for a peek
inside the purges, intraparty feuding
and silent coups that are scrubbed from
official histories. Lam was stopped only
once, in 2012. By the end of that six-hour
interrogation, he was chatting with the
officers like old friends and sent home
with a warning.
On Oct. 24, 2015, his routine veered off
script. He had just entered the customs
inspection area between Hong Kong and
the mainland when he was ushered into
a corner of the border checkpoint. The
gate in front of him opened, and a phalanx of 30 officers rushed in, surrounding him; they refused to answer his panicked questions. A van pulled up, and
they pushed him inside.
Over the next eight months, Lam
would find himself the unwitting central
character in a saga that would hardly
feel out of place in one of his thrillers.
His ordeal marked the beginning of a
Chinese effort to reach beyond the mainland to silence the country’s critics or
Lam Wing-kee, a Hong Kong bookseller, was a captive for eight months. He was caught
up in a crackdown on banned books — mainland China’s effort to silence critics.
their enablers, no matter where they
were or what form that criticism took.
The campaign signaled the dawn of a
new era in Chinese power. At a national
Communist Party congress in October
2017, President Xi Jinping made clear
the party’s expansive vision of control.
Impatient, Mario Batali looks at post-scandal life
The celebrity chef saw
his career disintegrate
after harassment claims
Mario Batali at a benefit last year in one of his restaurants, La Sirena. He told a colleague that he is trying to learn to be the wallpaper in the room and not the room itself.
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“The party exercises overall leadership
over all areas of endeavor in every part
of the country,” he told delegates. No
corner of society was out of reach. Even
books must extol “our party, our country, our people and our heroes.” The Chi-
Days after President Trump said he
wanted to pull the United States out of
Syria, Syrian forces hit a suburb of Damascus with bombs that rescue workers
said unleashed toxic gas.
Within hours, images of dead families
sprawled in their homes threatened to
change Mr. Trump’s calculus on Syria,
possibly drawing him deeper into an intractable Middle Eastern war that he
hoped to leave.
“Many dead, including women and
children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter on Sunday. He blamed Iran and Russia — even singling out President
Vladimir V. Putin of Russia by name —
for their support of the Syrian government. “Big price to pay,” he wrote, without providing details.
His Homeland Security adviser,
Thomas P. Bossert, said that the White
House national security team had been
discussing possible responses and
would not rule out a missile strike.
The reported chemical attack on
Douma, a suburb of the capital, Damascus, on Saturday seems to have
squeezed Mr. Trump between conflicting impulses, and raised the political
and military stakes as he charts the
United States’ future in Syria.
On one hand, he has emphatically expressed his desire to bring American
troops home as soon as possible in line
with his “America First” approach. On
the other, he has vowed to punish some
bad actors, and withdrawing from Syria
could open him up to criticism at home
and abroad.
“The withdrawal of U.S. troops from
Syria now would have major negative
repercussions for the region and beyond,” said Murhaf Jouejati, a SyrianAmerican professor of international relations at the Emirates Diplomatic
Academy in Abu Dhabi, United Arab
Just last week, the presidents of Iran,
Turkey and Russia joined hands at an international summit meeting in Ankara,
Turkey, to celebrate their successes in
Syria and plot their next moves. The
United States, notably absent, had not
even been invited.
By that time, Mr. Trump had suspended more than $200 million in funds
for recovery efforts in Syria.
“I want to get out,” he said at the
White House last week. “I want to bring
our troops back home.” Mr. Trump’s
aides quickly talked him out of an immediate withdrawal. But Mr. Trump made
clear that he wanted the troops out
On a gloomy Friday afternoon in February, Mario Batali sat down for coffee at
the Marlton Hotel in New York City, a
few blocks from Babbo, his restaurant in
Greenwich Village. His guest was the
food consultant and writer Christine
Mr. Batali had called the meeting, as
he has with several other people whose
opinions he trusts, to figure out how his
life and career might recover from a disastrous turn.
In December, a series of news reports
about the celebrity chef began tumbling
out. Several women described a decades-long pattern of abusive behavior
both in his empire and at restaurants
owned by friends that ranged from lewd,
drunken propositions to physical groping, including one incident at the Spot-
ted Pig in the West Village neighborhood of New York City in which a woman
appeared too intoxicated to respond.
Mr. Batali, 57, said he didn’t recall all
the reported episodes, but immediately
apologized. His popular, prolific social
media feeds largely fell silent. ABC
pulled him from its weekday talk show
“The Chew.” Food Network canceled
plans to remake his first program,
“Molto Mario.” Eataly, the Italian food
emporium in which he has a minor
stake, took his products off its shelves.
He stepped away from daily operations
in the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality
Group, which has 24 restaurants and
nearly 2,100 employees.
Several powerful men, in several industries, have had their worlds kicked
out from under them as the #MeToo
movement has gathered momentum. As
many have removed themselves from
public sight, forfeited business interests
or sought treatment, a question lingers:
Is a comeback from such disgrace possible?
Mr. Batali, who has never been known
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Issue Number
No. 42,012
Register to attend
2 | TUESDAY, APRIL 10, 2018
page two
Disgraced by scandal,
chef considers future
Women may watch sumo wrestling but are never allowed in the ring. Last week, four women in Kyoto, Japan, were shooed away when they tried to help a man who had collapsed.
When tradition bars women
In incident in Japan,
female rescuers were
told to leave a sumo ring
Sumo wrestling, one of Japan’s oldest
and most hallowed sports, has all kinds
of inviolable rituals. The wrestlers must
wear their hair in carefully coifed topknots. Before every match, they scatter
grains of purifying salt. And women are
never, ever, allowed in the ring.
Even when a man’s life is at stake.
Sumo’s discriminatory practices
came under new scrutiny after a referee
shooed women out of a ring at an exhibition match in Kyoto last week when
they rushed to offer lifesaving measures
to a politician who had collapsed while
delivering a speech.
The incident dominated television
talk shows and social media the next
day, with a video of the episode — in
which a referee could repeatedly be
heard over a loudspeaker yelling,
“Women, come out of the ring” — attracting more than 800,000 views on
YouTube and a fusillade of criticism.
“Believing that tradition is more important than human lives is like a cult
that mistakes fundamentalism for tradition,” Yoshinori Kobayashi, a popular
comic book artist, wrote on his blog.
In a country that consistently ranks
low among developed countries on gender equality in health, education, the
economy and politics, the episode was
seen as a metaphor for how women are
regarded in Japan.
“We are reminded that, ahh, there are
some parts of Japan that still just don’t
get it,” said Emma Dalton, an expert on
gender issues in Japan and a lecturer at
the School of Global, Urban and Social
Studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia.
Women in Japan face myriad obstacles to equality. A law requiring that
married couples share a surname
means that the vast majority of women
must give up their names after their
weddings. Japan has one of the world’s
worst records for women in politics.
Women cannot sit on the Imperial
throne. Earlier in the week, news
emerged of a private day care center
where a supervisor scolded a female
employee for reportedly getting pregnant before it was her “turn.”
“I think that both men and women in
Japan are reluctant to change both the
workplace and tradition,” said Kumiko
Nemoto, a professor of sociology at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. “And
then they use the name of tradition in order not to change things.”
The women called out of the ring at
the sumo event included a nurse from
the audience who rushed onto the dohyo, as the straw ring is known, to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation
to the fallen politician.
Ryozo Tatami, the mayor of Maizuru,
a city of about 84,000 people in Kyoto
Prefecture, was giving a speech when
he had a brain hemorrhage and collapsed.
In the video, it appears that several
male sumo staff members gathered
around Mr. Tatami before the female
nurse arrived to start CPR. Three other
women also rushed to help. When the
referee told them to leave, the women
backed off, causing confusion and scuf-
fling around the patient.
It appeared from the video that a man
took over CPR before male emergency
workers from the Fire Department arrived. Mr. Tatami was taken to a hospital
for surgery, where he remained in stable
Most of the reaction on Twitter criticized the referee for calling the women
out of the ring. “This seems to present
the crazy image of Japanese values that
old-fashioned Westerners fantasize
about,” one Twitter user wrote.
But some commenters defended the
tradition, even if they acknowledged
that the referee should have made an ex-
In a country that ranks low on
gender equality, the episode was
seen as a metaphor for how
women are regarded in Japan.
ception for the emergency. One such
Twitter user fretted that “crazy feminists will take advantage of this.”
Historians trace sumo’s roots to harvest rituals associated with the Shinto
religion. Various theories exist as to why
women are barred from the ring. One
theory suggests that sumo matches
were originally put on to entertain the
goddesses of the harvest, and farmers
believed that women in the ring would
invoke the jealousy and rage of the goddesses, who would spoil the harvest.
matches were performed in the Japanese Imperial courts as far back as the
eighth century, and during the Edo period, which ran from the 17th to mid-19th
century, organizers began charging admission to sumo bouts.
Women then were generally not ad-
mitted even as paying spectators, although there are some historical references to female wrestlers and referees.
Today’s tradition of barring women
from the ring is as much a habit as anything else, said Lee Thompson, a professor of sports science at Waseda University who has researched sumo.
The tradition has been tested before.
In 1990, Mayumi Moriyama, the first female chief cabinet secretary to a Japanese prime minister, was banned from
giving a trophy at a Tokyo tournament,
and in 2000, the sumo association prohibited Fusae Ota, the first female governor of Osaka — and throughout Japan —
from awarding a trophy during a sumo
tournament in the city.
Both incidents drew controversy, but
the tradition remained.
Sumo is very popular among women,
who make up about half of most tournament audiences. In 2014, the national
sumo association hosted an event where
women could get their photos taken in
the arms of sumo wrestlers. More than
8,000 women applied for six slots.
After the outcry following the past
week’s incident, Nobuyoshi Hakkaku,
the chairman of the Japan Sumo Association, issued a statement thanking the
woman who “provided emergency
measures” and apologizing for the referee who told her and the other women
to leave the ring. “It was not an appropriate response,” Mr. Hakkaku said.
Women’s advocates said they hoped
this episode would ignite a debate about
the tradition. “Such sexist conduct
shouldn’t be forgiven,” said Mari Miura,
a professor of political science at Sophia
University in Tokyo.
Hisako Ueno and Makiko Inoue contributed reporting.
for his patience, is asking that question
— actively exploring when or whether
he should begin his comeback. Friends
and associates say he is floating ideas,
pondering timelines and examining
whether there is a way for him to step
back into his career, at least in some
Mr. Batali declined to be interviewed,
saying he was “still figuring out my
stuff.” Those who have spoken with him
recently said he appears to be deeply introspective and seeking counsel on
what his future might hold, both personally and professionally.
Mr. Batali is examining what he has
called his blind spots and considering
how life might look when he is not, as he
told one person he consulted over the
winter, “the lead singer.” He told a colleague that he is simply trying to learn
to be the wallpaper in the room and not
the room itself.
Nonetheless, Mr. Batali has sketched
several options that put him in the driver’s seat but cede some control, people
he has spoken with recently say. One is
creating a new company led by a powerful female chief executive. In early February, he broached the idea with Federica Marchionni, the former president of
Dolce & Gabbana and briefly the chief
executive of Lands’ End.
This month, he is traveling to Rwanda
and Greece to work with refugees as a
private citizen. He is thinking about creating a program in which chefs can join
him a few times a year to help displaced
Rwandans as they return to their country.
On the other hand, Mr. Batali has said,
he might just move to the Amalfi Coast
of Italy.
He is still wrestling with the future of
the restaurant group that he started
with his partner, Joe Bastianich, in 1998
when they opened Babbo. The two men
are communicating through lawyers
these days, negotiating a complicated
buyout that is difficult but, both sides
said, not acrimonious.
“The process of his divestiture is going really well considering how complex
it is,” Mr. Bastianich said recently. “The
real point of beginning will be when he
departs from the company. That’s
ground zero. It’s about creating a postMario world.”
When Mr. Batali’s name comes up
among groups of food professionals
over drinks or between sessions at conferences, some say that if any of the men
caught in the current wave of sexual
harassment scandals can forge a path
back, it might be Mr. Batali.
He still has legions of fans and colleagues who admire and respect his
generosity, culinary knowledge and
charisma. Many still post their interpretations of his recipes on Instagram, ask
him for selfies on the street or urge his
return to “The Chew” on Facebook. His
Still, there seems to be no end to latenight television jokes at his expense. His
movements around New York are fodder for tabloids and tweets, some suggesting that his past behavior bordered
on criminal.
Few food celebrities want to be connected to him publicly. Privately, some
suggest the time has come for a more
nuanced approach to replace the
scorched-earth policy toward men who
have harassed women — one that allows
something resembling redemption.
But for Mr. Batali, that door may not
be open — at least professionally.
“Retire and count yourself lucky,” said
Anthony Bourdain, a longtime friend of
Mr. Batali’s who has not spoken with
him recently. “I say that without malice,
or without much malice. I am not forgiving. I can’t get past it. I just cannot — and
that’s me, someone who really admired
him and thought the world of him.”
Others, including people who have
worked for him, say the absence of his
food knowledge and his palate would be
a loss. Melissa Rodriguez, who took over
in 2017 as the executive chef at Mr.
Batali’s most acclaimed restaurant, Del
Posto, often asked him to come to the
kitchen to taste new dishes and share
his advice. “He’s been nothing but a generous individual to me,” she said.
Ms. Rodriguez said she never considered leaving the company after his
treatment of women came to light. “The
biggest concern is for my staff,” she said.
“I have a huge staff, and I am not in the
business of abandoning people I spend
more time with than my family.”
People whose opinion Mr. Batali has
sought are counseling him to take it
slowly, and to consider whether he and
his family want to endure all that would
come if he stepped back into the food
Ms. Muhlke, a former editor at The
New York Times Magazine and Bon Appétit, said her advice to any accused
chef would be the same: “Leave the
field,” she said, “and let us do the work
needed to build something better.”
Ms. Muhlke would not discuss the details of her meeting with Mr. Batali, but
said “my advice to these chefs and
restaurateurs is that this is not a scandal, this is a paradigm shift. The old ‘wait
it out and return appearing humbled’
prescription no longer applies.”
Christine C. Quinn, whom Mr. Batali
supported during her 2013 run for New
York City mayor, is now the president
and chief executive of Win, the city’s
largest provider of shelter for homeless
families. She is a friend of Mr. Batali’s,
and one of the advisers he sought out
this winter. She, too, told him to take
things very slowly.
“Retire and count yourself lucky,” the
chef Anthony Bourdain said of Mario
Batali, his longtime friend.
“My advice for him has been since
Day 1 to recognize the severity of what
has been leveled against him and recognize how absolutely and completely unacceptable his behavior was,” she said.
If he does start a new company, she
said, he should give the reins to people
who can drastically change the culture
that both allowed and hid his behavior.
“I do give Mario a ton of credit for
reaching out to people like myself, and
not calling for us to stand with him,” Ms.
Quinn said. “I think that bodes well.”
She, like others who have spoken with
him recently, believes that he is slowly
coming to understand the impact of his
behavior and the reasons it happened,
including his relationship with alcohol.
“I think he is trying to find a way to
engage in real redemptive behavior,”
Ms. Quinn said, “but only time will tell.”
Artist remade the mundane into elaborate assemblages
La Wilson, an enigmatic assemblage
artist who took ordinary objects — from
dice, plastic forks and alphabet blocks to
bullet casings, fake guns and jewelry —
and arranged them in boxes, giving
them enthralling new life, died on March
30 in Hudson, Ohio, a suburb of Akron.
She was 93.
Her daughter, Jenny Wilson, said the
cause was most likely complications of
two recent strokes.
Ms. Wilson did not plan her elaborate
constructions, which hinted at Surrealism and Modernism. She did not explain their meaning (if they had any —
she left that up to the observer). And she
did not say why she chose particular
items and arranged them as she did in
boxes and other containers.
“It’s just trial and error,” she said in a
short biographical film made in 2011 for
the Cleveland Arts Prize, which she won
in 1993. She added, “I don’t have anything in my head that I want them to say,
but it’s entirely what happens when
they get together that makes the story,
so the story is brand new to me.”
Many of Ms. Wilson’s works are in the
permanent collections of several muse-
La Wilson in 1990, left. Her “Domino Theory” (2008), right, is made up of matchsticks, dominoes wrapped in rosaries, rulers and
printers’ letters, pieces of wood and thimbles. A reviewer once said Ms. Wilson remade ordinary items into “objects of power.”
ums — including the Akron Art Museum
— and have been the subject of numerous exhibitions.
“The beauty in her work,” said Liz
Carney, assistant curator of the Akron
museum, which exhibited Ms. Wilson’s
work several times, “is that by assembling those objects into new compositions, they become very compelling and
visually delightful. They become something extraordinary.”
Inside the home garage that was long
ago converted into her studio, Ms. Wil-
son worked in a uniform that included
knickers, long socks and a vest. The
shelves in the room were filled with the
ephemera that she had purchased at
five-and-dime stores, antique shops and
flea markets or was given by friends and
neighbors. She used her daughter’s
toys, including a tiny doll.
“I simply collect things that appeal to
me, without any judgment,” Ms. Wilson
said in the film.
The effect of walking into her studio,
John Davis, her dealer, said in a tele-
phone interview, “was like walking into
one of her boxes.”
The slim rectangular box that she
used in “Domino Theory” (2008), for example, contains matchsticks in one compartment, dominoes wrapped in rosaries in a second one, rulers and printers’
letters in a third, wooden pieces in a
fourth and thimbles in a fifth.
“Etude” (2010) is less of a hodgepodge of tchotchkes — the piano hammers she placed at odd angles within a
small box look unrecognizable as parts
of a musical instrument.
In a New York Times review of a show
in 1999 at Mr. Davis’s gallery in Hudson,
N.Y., Edward Gomez wrote that Ms. Wilson had remade ordinary items into “objects of power, danger, wonder or warning, all with a mysterious aura and an
offbeat, lopsided charm.”
In “Crossways,” one of the assemblages at the Hudson show, Ms. Wilson
used drumsticks, electric train tracks
and rusted cookie cutters to create what
Mr. Gomez called “a near-Gothic evocation of the sacred within the mundane.”
She was born Mary Alice Purcell on
May 26, 1924, in Corning, N.Y., where
she grew up. Her father, Justin, was a
lawyer and car dealer; her mother, the
former Alice McAvoy, was a homemaker.
When Mary was a baby, her brother,
Tom, who was a year or so older, mispronounced her name as “La,” and it stuck.
She later dropped out of Smith College, in Massachusetts, to marry David
Wilson and moved with him to Akron,
where he attended law school. They later moved to Hudson.
A homemaker with three children,
Ms. Wilson began tilting toward art in
her 30s, when she took a painting class
at the Akron Art Institute (now the Akron Art Museum). She added three-dimensional objects to her canvases and
then began to sculpt.
Her first exhibition of assemblages
was in 1959 at the Akron museum, which
held a retrospective in 2014 when she
turned 90. One piece in the latter show
was “Homage to Jackson Pollock,” her
crowded 1980 tribute to that Abstract
Expressionist painter using rosaries
and other beads, a toy airplane, erasers,
a watch, a pocketknife, tinsel, charms
and plastic letters.
Besides her daughter, Ms. Wilson is
survived by her sons David and Robert;
her brother Tom; her sister, Ellen
Carver; four grandchildren; and two
Her marriage to Mr. Wilson ended in
Ms. Wilson — who stopped working
several years ago when spinal stenosis
limited her mobility — approached her
success with amazement, surprised that
people found her work significant
enough to praise and buy it.
“It’s a remarkable thing that somebody would pay money for a piece of
work,” she told the Sunday magazine of
The Akron Beacon Journal in 1999. “For
somebody of my generation . . . Women
didn’t work. You bake the cakes and the
pies but nobody pays you. You’re used to
the praise — ‘That’s the best cake I ever
had,’ or ‘the best roast beef’ — but nobody pays you.”
Her works currently sell for about
$5,000 each, Mr. Davis said.
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TUESDAY, APRIL 10, 2018 | 3
TUESDAY, APRIL 10, 2018 | 5
Hong Kong’s missing booksellers
lectern amid hundreds of reporters,
photographers and news cameras at the
Hong Kong Legislative Council. He
spoke for more than an hour, describing
his capture and detention. His sudden
public appearance riveted Hong Kong.
It was Lam who put words to what the
city had feared and suspected all along.
“It can happen to you, too,” Lam said.
nese government has long sought to
shape and control information, but the
scope and intensity of this effort was
something new.
Ask a publisher in Hong Kong and he
or she will tell you that the phrase
“banned books” is something of a misnomer. No one within Hong Kong, a
semiautonomous Chinese territory,
wanted to squash the publishing industry. That dictate came from Beijing and
held limited legal force in Hong Kong.
For 60 years the city had protection
from direct interference, first as a
British colony and then, since 1997, under an agreement with Beijing known as
“One Country, Two Systems.”
The first important book to be banned
was by Chang Kuo-tao, a founder of the
Chinese Communist Party and a general
who was both a colleague and competitor of Mao. Chang portrayed Mao as a
ruthless leader, paranoid and inured to
the use of violence in pursuit of his goals.
Mainland censors denounced the book
almost immediately, but in Hong Kong,
it was an instant best seller. Aided by an
air of forbidden allure and the indication
of a huge, untapped market, an industry
of similar books began to form.
Bao Pu, the founder and publisher of
New Century Press, is one of Hong
Kong’s most respected independent
publishers. When I visited him in November, he found his copy of Chang’s
book, “My Memories,” easily, even amid
the rows of overflowing shelves of his
personal collection. In Bao’s library, you
could read an alternate history of China,
each neatly arranged stack a turning
point in modern Chinese politics. The
Chinese elite “can’t leak out information
in official channels,” says Bruce Lui, a
senior lecturer in the Department of
Journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University. “So what they can do is use
Hong Kong as a platform” to spread gossip anonymously, praise their own camp
and belittle opponents. Hong Kong’s
publishing houses became an extension
of the political battlefield in Beijing.
his interrogation,
Lam was blindfolded, handcuffed and
put on a train. His captors didn’t say a
word. When the train came to a halt 13
hours later, Lam’s escorts shoved him
into a car and drove him to a nearby
building, where they removed his hat,
blindfold and glasses. Lam was shown
to a cell with a bed and a desk, handed a
change of clothes and told to go to sleep.
Lying awake, Lam wondered whether
anyone in Hong Kong realized he was
missing. For years, Lam had owned and
managed his bookstore independently,
but he had recently sold the shop to a
publishing house called Mighty Current
Media. It had entered the banned-books
market in 2012, with impeccable timing.
An ambitious Central Politburo member
named Bo Xilai, who some China-watchers thought could be the country’s next
leader — ahead of the rising star Xi Jinping — had been implicated, along with
his wife, in the murder of a British businessman named Neil Heywood in a
Chongqing hotel room. In less than two
years, Bo was denounced, demoted and
expelled from the party.
For Hong Kong publishers, Bo’s
of Lam’s abduction, banned
books were everywhere in Hong Kong,
sold throughout the city at big-box retailers, specialized cafes and corner convenience stores. Within days of his disappearance, they began to vanish,
swept off shelves by mainland-owned
shops and frightened independent booksellers. The latest act of intimidation occurred this January, when the former
owner of Mighty Current, Gui Minhai,
who had been granted limited release
within China, was abducted again, this
time while accompanied by Swedish diplomats on a train to Beijing (he holds
Swedish citizenship). Gui soon appeared in a videotaped confession, apologizing for his supposed crimes and saying the diplomats had tricked him into
boarding the train.
When I met Lam one balmy night on
the streets of Hong Kong, he radiated a
nervous energy, eyes perpetually darting and a cigarette never far from reach.
He didn’t want to abandon the city
where he had been born. Still, he knew
that the odds of Hong Kong’s remaining
autonomous were slim. “I think Hong
Kong will return to China,” he told me.
“They have the guns, the jails. We have
nothing here in Hong Kong. All we can
do is protest peacefully and try to make
the world pay attention.”
Lam maintained a studied paranoia
about his movements and appearance.
“I still have to use different routes and
be cautious of everything and everyone
around me,” he told me in a conspiratorial whisper. His old bookstore was
blocks away. He pulled on a pollution
mask and hat, obscuring his face, and
we navigated the thick crowds.
We soon reached a small doorway
leading to a grimy staircase. On the second floor was Causeway Bay Bookstore,
its wooden door hidden behind metal
bars. A large yellow sign was filled with
the scribbled notes of well-wishers.
“Fight for freedom,” one said. “Come
back safe, Mr. Lam,” read another.
Lam leaned close to peer through the
shop window. There were still books inside, scattered on dusty shelves and
wooden tables. “I sold over 4,000
banned books in the two years before I
was captured,” he said. “This bookstore
has always been at the pulse of Hong
Kong, and it hasn’t stopped breathing.”
He longed for the store’s resurrection,
but it wasn’t coming back.
“What you’re doing is writing an obituary,” Bao, the New Century publisher,
told me when we met in November. “A
post-cremation obituary of these
books.” He seemed almost shellshocked
by the swiftness of the industry’s downfall. “I didn’t realize it could all disappear so quickly.”
Bao Pu, the publisher of New Century Press, at a book warehouse in Hong Kong. After Lam Wing-kee’s disappearance, banned books began to disappear from Hong Kong shops.
downfall was a dream, playing out at the
very pinnacle of Chinese power. As the
market for information on Bo reached a
frenzied peak, Mighty Current churned
out books chronicling every new development in the scandal. In just one year,
more than 100 books were published in
Hong Kong about him, with Mighty Current accounting for half.
At sunrise, Lam was questioned by a
tall, dour man named Shi. Who were
Lam’s customers? What did they buy?
How often did they come in? Later that
day, he was presented with forms waiving his right to a lawyer and to contact
his family. Still unaware of the severity
of his situation, Lam signed them, hoping his cooperation might shorten his
detention. The interrogations by Shi and
another official continued. In January
2016, more than two months after he began counting the length of his detention,
Lam was informed of the charge against
him: “illegal sales of books.”
Eventually, the questions shifted to
Mighty Current’s anonymous authors.
Sitting across from Lam, his interrogators produced a stack of banned books,
all published by Mighty Current and
shipped to China by Lam. One was the
company’s risqué “Xi Jinping and His
Lovers”; another, published in 2013, outlined the party’s so-called Seven Taboos,
a list of forbidden topics and ideas like
“press freedom” and “civil society.”
Who wrote these books? Shi demanded. Lam replied that he was just
the bookseller and had never communicated with any of the authors. Unknown
to Lam, news of his disappearance
spread. Other members of Mighty Current’s staff and its owners had also mysteriously vanished. But sitting in his cell,
Lam thought he was alone.
THAT MARCH, more than four months into
his detention, Lam met with his interrogator to sign a guilty plea as a precondition for a possible bail arrangement. A
few hours later, to his shock, he was put
on a train back to Shenzhen, where he
was taken to a sprawling, sumptuous
hotel complex. The next night, Lam entered an elegant dining room and saw
three familiar faces seated at a large circular table — fellow staff members from
Mighty Current. Places were set, and
the men were served a dinner.
The group chose their words carefully. With a guard and three security
cameras monitoring every whisper,
some topics were tacitly off limits, like
the fate of the one person missing from
the table: the co-owner Gui Minhai. As
the meal progressed, they established
that they had all been held in the city of
Ningbo, on China’s southeastern coast;
three, including Lam, on different levels
of the same building, and one, the company’s other co-owner, Lee Bo, in a villa
outside the city. “If we cooperate,” Lam
remembered Lee telling the other men,
“we’ll be released very quickly.”
Lee handed each of his colleagues
100,000 yuan, or roughly $15,300 — an
“exit fee” to mark the dissolution of
Mighty Current. As the men departed,
they did not hug or shake hands.
Lam was transferred to a new city for
the next phase of his detention. There,
he was told he would be permitted to return to Hong Kong, but only on the condition that upon arrival, he report immediately to a police station and tell them
his disappearance had all been a misunderstanding. He would then go to the
home of Lee Bo and pick up a computer
containing information on the publisher’s clients and authors, which he would
deliver to China. Only then would Lam
be allowed to return to work in his bookstore — but as a mole, the “eyes and
ears” of the investigation.
On a June morning in 2016, Lam arrived in Hong Kong and reported to a
nearby police station, as directed. Local
officers were expecting him. He cleared
his case — telling the police that he had
never been in danger — and headed to
Lee’s home to retrieve the computer.
There, finally alone, the men spoke
freely about their situation. Lam
learned that his bookstore had been
bought by a man named Chan, who had
promptly closed it. When Hong Kong
learned of his abduction, the revelation
had sparked fear and anger. Lam saw
photos of thousands of protesters
marching through the streets, holding
It was Lam who put words to
what the city had feared and
suspected all along. “It can
happen to you, too,” he said.
posters of the missing booksellers and
demanding their release; Lam’s shuttered shop had become a site of pilgrimage. He hadn’t been forgotten. He had
become the center of a movement.
On the morning he was expected back
on the mainland, Lam arrived at the
train station with the company computer in his backpack. He paused to smoke
a cigarette, then another. After he finished his third cigarette, he searched for
a pay phone to contact a local politician
named Albert Ho, who was once a frequent customer at the bookstore. A few
hours later, Lam was standing behind a
Adapted from an article that originally
appeared in The New York Times Magazine.
Party’s term limit adds twist to Italy’s search for a government
As he leads the Five Star Movement in
negotiations to form a new Italian government, Luigi Di Maio, 31 and brimming with confidence, seems to have a
long political career ahead of him.
But according to the rules of his party,
this is Mr. Di Maio’s last shot.
A fundamental rule of the Five Star
Movement limits party members to two
terms of elected office — at any level —
over the course of their lifetime. Mr. Di
Maio, who already served a term in Parliament, to which he was re-elected in
March, is now in his second term.
The Five Star Movement, politically
slippery and ideologically vague, has a
record of bending its unbreakable party
rules when victory is at stake. But for
now, the term limit on Mr. Di Maio has
added an element of now-or-never desperation to his bid to be Italy’s next
prime minister.
It has also formed another complication in the stalemate after an inconclusive election last month that may take
weeks of negotiations to resolve. Talks
were to resume this week.
Without the emergence of a consensus candidate or an alliance between Italy’s populist parties, the country could
face new elections.
Mr. Di Maio’s anti-establishment Five
Star Movement won about a third of the
vote, by far the most for any single party.
But the right-wing and populist League,
led by the equally ambitious Matteo
Salvini, 45, emerged as the leader of a
coalition of parties that won even more
votes, but still not enough to form a government on its own.
As a result, both men have strong
claims to lead the next government. Neither seems particularly eager to let the
opportunity of a lifetime slip away.
“According to the rules of our democracy, it is necessary that there be some
accords between different political
forces to form a coalition,” Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, who has the job
of cobbling together a sustainable government from the fractured parties, said
last Thursday at the presidential palace.
“This condition has not yet emerged.”
For now — a key phrase when discussing fluid Italian politics — it seems
doubtful such conditions will soon present themselves.
For now, Mr. Di Maio says he is seeking support in Parliament from the center-left Democratic Party, which suffered a crushing defeat and was incessantly demonized by Five Star’s vast
and often virulent social media network.
(In an interview published Saturday in
The Five Star Movement,
politically slippery and
ideologically vague, has a record
of bending its unbreakable rules.
La Repubblica, Mr. Di Maio said it was
time to “bury the hatchet.”)
For now, the Democratic Party has resisted Five Star’s entreaties and retreated to the opposition.
For now, Mr. Di Maio has said he refuses to join any government involving
Silvio Berlusconi, the octogenarian
whom Five Star leaders called a mafioso
and a psychotic dwarf.
For now, Mr. Salvini won’t abandon
Mr. Berlusconi, whose comeback plans
suffered a humiliating setback when Mr.
Salvini outperformed him.
And for now, Mr. Di Maio says he is
honoring the term-limit rule, of which he
has said he is “proud.”
Speaking on March 13 at Rome’s Foreign Press Club, Mr. Di Maio fielded a
question about whether the term limit
would still be valid if the president had
to call new elections.
The results of the vote would technically create a new legislature and a third
term for Mr. Di Maio.
In response, Mr. Di Maio called the
two-term limit “fundamental for us.”
Rocco Casalino, a spokesman for the
party, said it was a “possibility” that in
the case of a new election, Mr. Di Maio
and all the other newly elected Five Star
The Five Star Movement’s leader, Luigi Di Maio, is up against his party’s two-term limit. He was re-elected to Parliament last month.
members of Parliament, including those
currently in their second terms, would
automatically receive nominations to
their current seats. But he insisted such
a maneuver had “never been discussed.”
The party has loosened apparently
hard-and-fast rules in the past.
It scratched its early ban on members
appearing on television, hired a media
consultant and flooded the airwaves
with telegenic candidates.
It softened its originally draconian
rules against members facing legal travails.
It also pledged never to enter a coali-
tion, a promise challenged by the current negotiations over forming a government.
But the two-mandates commandment, central to the party’s anti-establishment character, has held.
Soon before her election as mayor of
Rome in the summer of 2016, Virginia
Raggi, a member of the Five Star Movement, balked at the question of whether
she would ever want to be prime minister.
While her rocky tenure has made
such a proposition unlikely, she explained in an interview at the time that
since she had served in the City Council,
she would be barred by the party’s rules
from ever serving again.
“At the moment it’s not thinkable,” she
said, adding that she would be free to
help out a successor in a free or paid capacity: “I don’t know. Maybe a consultancy, one can hypothesize.”
Pressed as to whether great statesmen such as Franklin D. Roosevelt
would have ever had the chance to hold
higher office with such a rule, she said,
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Let’s put it this way,” she added. “In
Italy, professional politicians have ruined politics.”
But some former Five Star members
say the rule has ruined promising politicians.
Fabio Fucci, 38, who served an abbreviated term as councilman of the Five
Star Movement, was elected as mayor of
Pomezia in 2013. Mr. Di Maio and others
hailed him as a model of good governance, but when he announced his desire
to run for re-election, he found himself
on the outs with the party’s power brokers.
Mr. Fucci argued in an interview that
while the rule perhaps made sense 10
years ago when the party was a fringe
protest movement, it was now “illogical.”
Now that Five Star was the leading
political force in the country, the term
limits were preventing the formation of
a management class with the necessary
expertise at the local, regional and national levels, he said.
To make his case, Mr. Fucci and others
went to Milan in the spring of 2017 to visit Casaleggio Associates, the internet
consulting firm run by Davide Casaleggio, the son of the party’s co-founder and
the keeper of the web platform upon
which Five Star elections are held.
“He was inflexible,” Mr. Fucci said, recalling that Mr. Casaleggio told him:
“The rule doesn’t change and you can
forget it.”
But that was for Mr. Fucci. Now it is
the career of Mr. Di Maio, the mainstream face of the party, that is at stake.
If the legislature were to be cut short
for new elections, “not only Di Maio but
dozens of newly elected members of
Parliament” would be barred from running again. “This will weaken greatly
the Five Star Movement,” he said.
Beyond automatically reinstating
nominations, the Italian press has reported that the party has considered redefining two mandates as 10 years in office.
Mr. Fucci said he considered some
such maneuver “very probable.”
He added: “Unfortunately, and I say
this with disappointment and bitterness, they change the rules because it’s
convenient. In this case, to save Di Maio
and the other parliamentarians.”
6 | TUESDAY, APRIL 10, 2018
Chemical carnage muddles U.S. exit plans
within a few months, senior administration officials said, a decision that would
alter the landscape in ways that would
echo far beyond Syria’s borders.
Foes of the United States have
cheered the prospect of an American
withdrawal. But America’s regional allies, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and
its partners in Syria, dread it.
They argue that American forces are
still needed to provide a check on Russia, which considers Syria its strategic
foothold in the Middle East, and Iran,
whose proxies are building a military infrastructure in Syria to counter Israel.
A withdrawal could also leave the
door open for the return of the Islamic
State in some parts of Syria, the very
reason the United States gave for intervening in the country to begin with.
The bombing that Mr. Trump was responding to was part of a battle between
rebels and the Syrian government, one
that the United States had withdrawn
from long ago, in a part of the country
where the United States has neither a
military presence nor any clear allies.
There is nothing to stop Mr. Trump
from ordering a missile strike on western Syria, where the chemical attack
was alleged to have taken place, and still
pulling the approximately 2,000 American troops out of eastern Syria, where
their main task was battling the militants of the Islamic State. But the seesaw of withdrawal and deeper engagement, without the articulation of a clear
strategy for the region, is sure to confuse allies and enemies alike.
Some politicians, including Senator
John McCain, Republican of Arizona,
even argued that Mr. Trump’s talk of a
rapid withdrawal had emboldened President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to use
chemical weapons.
It was not clear on Sunday whether
Mr. Trump’s tweets reflected serious
planning for a military strike, or if the
suspected chemical attack had changed
his calculations about the necessity for a
withdrawal of American ground forces.
A White House official said he could provide no guidance beyond what the president had said on Twitter.
Early Monday, airstrikes on a Syrian
military base in the central province of
Homs killed 14 people, including fighters from Iran, according to the Syrian
Observatory for Human Rights, a conflict monitoring group. Syria and Russia
blamed Israel for the attack.
American and French officials denied
that their countries had carried out the
airstrikes, and a spokesman for the Israeli military declined to comment. Israel has struck the base at least once before, in February, after Israel intercepted what it said was an Iranian drone
in its airspace.
Mr. Trump’s furious response to the
Douma assault echoed his reaction to a
similar attack that killed scores of people in northwestern Syria a year ago.
Within three days of that attack, Mr.
Trump sent a storm of cruise missiles
raining down on the Syrian airfield
where the attacks originated. Graphic
photos of the victims played a role in his
decision then, as he expressed horror
over images of “innocent children, innocent babies.” So did his repeated criticism of President Barack Obama for not
intervening in similar circumstances.
But the strikes last April were an exception. Throughout the war, the United
States has declined to intervene in Syria
Syrian troops on the outskirts of Douma, a suburb of Damascus and a rebel stronghold. A government assault on Saturday killed dozens of civilians with what rescue workers said was toxic gas.
despite many attacks with much higher
“The Trump administration has ignored both conventional attacks on civilians and repeated use of chlorine gas
against civilians which have claimed far
more lives than this single horrific attack,” said Aaron David Miller, a former
Middle East adviser in Republican and
Democratic administrations and a vice
president of the Woodrow Wilson Center
in Washington.
Seven years of fighting have shattered Syria into a series of overlapping
conflicts among a kaleidoscope of combatants and international powers seeking to advance their interests.
Over the course of the war, Russia and
Iran have committed deeply to Mr. Assad and have made major military, financial and political investments to ensure his survival. The United States initially called for Mr. Assad to leave power
and supplied cash and guns to the rebels
seeking to oust him, but it gave up hope
long ago that the rebels would prevail in
toppling Mr. Assad.
The primary involvement of the
United States now is in eastern Syria,
where it formed an alliance with a Kurdish-led militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or S.D.F., to fight the ji-
hadists of the Islamic State.
The Islamic State has lost most of its
territory, giving the American-backed
forces control of a large area where they
have set up local administrations and
occasionally clashed with the Syrian
government and its Russian and Iranian
allies. Those who support keeping
American troops in Syria, including top
American military officials, argue that
they are needed to protect those gains.
The debate goes to the core of
the American mission in Syria.
At virtually the same moment that
Mr. Trump was saying it was time to
leave, Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the head of
the United States Central Command,
was saying almost the opposite, highlighting the internal debate in Washington.
“The hard part, I think, is in front of
us,” he said, suggesting that the United
States should stabilize areas taken from
the jihadists, return refugees to their
homes and help with reconstruction.
Currently, the United States military is
clearing unexploded ordnance, mines
and other booby traps from Raqqa, Syr-
ia, just to make it minimally habitable. A
withdrawal could jeopardize those endeavors.
The debate goes to the core of the
American mission in Syria: whether
United States troops are there solely to
defeat the Islamic State militarily or also
to stabilize the areas the jihadists once
ruled, to keep them from coming back.
American military leaders have supported the latter option and consider the
alliance with the S.D.F. an enduring strategic asset to accomplish that goal.
“We’ve always been there for them,
and we’ll always be there,” Lt. Gen. Paul
E. Funk II, the commander of the antiIslamic State coalition, said in February
during a meeting with a local military
command in northern Syria.
Abandoning the force, which is led by
Kurds, would also leave it at the mercy
of other powers, particularly Turkey,
which considers it terrorist and a threat
to Turkish sovereignty.
Turkey invaded the Kurdish enclave
of Afrin in northern Syria, seizing it last
month, and has threatened to move east
to areas where American troops now operate, leading to the possibility of NATO
allies fighting each other. The Turkish
invasion has also siphoned Kurdish
fighters away from the fight against the
Islamic State in the south, slowing it
down, American officials say.
One of the greatest beneficiaries of an
American withdrawal would be Iran, a
country that Mr. Trump has blamed for
many of the troubles in the Middle East
and has vowed to confront.
“It’s simple: If American forces leave
Syria, there will be more room for
Hezbollah and Iran to maneuver,” said
Hamidreza Taraghi, a hard-line analyst
in Iran.
Russia also cheered the prospect of an
American withdrawal.
“The less American interference, the
fewer American soldiers, the better for
everyone,” said Andrei A. Klimov, deputy head of the foreign affairs committee
of Russia’s upper house of Parliament.
An American retreat would cement Russia’s status as a power to be reckoned
with in the Middle East and would further burnish Mr. Putin’s reputation as a
master tactician on the world stage.
Yet an American pullout could create
headaches for Mr. Putin, who has repeatedly declared “mission accomplished” in Syria but has still not delivered on repeated pledges to draw down
Russia’s military forces. An American
withdrawal could also leave Russia
stuck with the reconstruction bill.
Hanging over the decision to stay or
leave is the bitter American experience
in Iraq.
In 2011, after years of heavy military
engagement there, the United States declared victory over the Iraqi insurgency
— the predecessor to the Islamic State
— and left. Three years later, the jihadists returned, stronger than before, and
took over a third of Iraq and a large part
of Syria.
Some of the United States’ regional allies believe it should remain in Syria to
prevent that history from repeating itself. Merely talking about leaving could
plant the seeds of a resurgence.
“Any decision to withdraw the American efforts from Syria now is not realistic,” said Shahoz Hasan, a leader of the
primary Kurdish political party in Syria.
“Jihadists are looking forward to such a
decision to be able to breathe again and
reorganize their groups.”
Ben Hubbard reported from Beirut, Lebanon, and Julie Hirschfeld Davis from
Washington. Contributing reporting
were Rod Nordland from Manbij, Syria;
Thomas Erdbrink from Tehran; Andrew
Higgins from Moscow; Karam Shoumali
from Berlin; and Hwaida Saad from
Alarms are raised over Trump nominees’ views on Islam
Picks for secretary of state
and national security
adviser drawing criticism
Nearly two months after the Boston
Marathon bombing in 2013, Mike Pompeo, then a congressman from Kansas,
took to the floor of the House to denounce American Muslim leaders for
what he called their “silence” in response to the heinous terrorist attack.
“Silence has made these Islamic leaders across America potentially complicit
in these acts,” Mr. Pompeo said, reading
from prepared remarks.
In fact, more than half a dozen American Muslim organizations had issued
statements condemning the bombing
within hours of the attack. In the days
following, Muslim groups organized
news conferences, blood drives and
prayer vigils. Mr. Pompeo was immediately informed that he was wrong, but
did not apologize or respond to Muslim
groups stung by his remarks.
Mr. Pompeo, now the director of the
Central Intelligence Agency, has been
chosen by President Trump to succeed
Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. He
faces what is expected to be a smooth
confirmation hearing in the Senate. But
an array of voices are raising alarm over
what they say is Mr. Pompeo’s record of
anti-Muslim remarks and ties to anti-Islam groups. American Muslims, Jews,
civil rights groups like the American
Civil Liberties Union and former State
Department officials are among those
pushing senators on the Foreign Relations Committee to take a closer look.
“My concern is that Mr. Pompeo has
left a trail of horrific, inaccurate, bigoted
statements and associations vis-à-vis
Muslims around the world,” said Shaun
Casey, a former director of the State De-
partment’s office of religion and global
affairs under the Obama administration. Mr. Casey questioned whether Mr.
Pompeo, with such a record, could be “a
credible representative” for the dozens
of Muslim-majority countries he would
have to conduct diplomacy with.
Islamic and Jewish groups have
raised similar concerns about John R.
Bolton, a former ambassador to the
United Nations who is Mr. Trump’s
choice for national security adviser.
Mr. Bolton and Mr. Pompeo both have
ties to individuals and groups promoting a worldview that regards Islam not
so much as a religion, but as a political
ideology that is infiltrating America and
other Western countries with the goal of
imposing Shariah law, the Muslim legal
code. These groups believe that the vehicle for this takeover is the Muslim
Brotherhood, and they allege that
American mosques, civic organizations
and leaders and even government officials who are Muslims are suspected of
being Muslim Brotherhood operatives.
Mr. Pompeo as a congressman arranged a briefing for one such group,
Act for America, or ACT, in Washington
and accepted the group’s National Security Eagle Award in 2016, according to
the group’s website. Local ACT chapters
have protested the construction of
mosques, as well as school textbooks
that include information about Islam,
and have promoted “anti-Shariah” bills
in state legislatures. The founder of ACT,
Brigitte Gabriel, has written that “the
purest form of Islam” is behind the terrorist attacks: “It’s not radical Islam. It’s
what Islam is at its core.”
Mr. Bolton is chairman of the Gatestone Institute, a research group that
regularly features articles on its website
promoting the notion that pliant European countries, especially Britain, are
submitting to “Islamization” by hostile
Muslim migrants.
The C.I.A., on behalf of its director,
“We’re living with an
administration that is actually
rewarding people with racist
views or racist associations with
some of the highest positions.”
Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director and the nominee for secretary of state. Critics point to
his record of anti-Muslim remarks and of his ties to anti-Islam groups.
said in a statement that Mr. Pompeo
“has worked extensively and successfully to expand C.I.A.’s partnerships
with countries throughout the Muslim
world.” The agency said that in doing so,
he had “saved countless Muslim lives
and added security to the Muslim peoples of those nations.”
When Mr. Pompeo was asked in his
confirmation hearing for C.I.A. director
last January whether he would discriminate against Muslims, given his past
statements, Mr. Pompeo responded that
he believed in having a diverse work
force at the C.I.A. and in cooperating
with Muslim countries that provide intelligence to the United States.
Mr. Bolton, through a spokesman, declined a request for an interview.
At times, Mr. Bolton has seemed to express more nuanced views. In an interview with Herald Radio in 2015, Mr.
Bolton said that the proposal by Mr.
Trump, at the time a candidate, to ban all
Muslims coming into the United States
was “certainly completely wrong.”
“That’s just not consistent with our
views about America and how we
should operate. I think he’s playing on
the frustration and the fear that we see
out in the country,” Mr. Bolton said. “Our
problem is the radicals, the terrorists.
It’s not an entire religion. I think we absolutely have to make that clear. Not because I care about what the rest of the
world thinks, but because I care what we
think about ourselves.”
Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Bolton have appeared frequently on the radio show of
Frank Gaffney Jr., the president and
founder of the Center for Security Policy, a group that argues that mosques
and Muslims across America are engaged in a “stealth jihad” to “Islamize”
the country by taking advantage of
American pluralism and democracy.
On a show in 2015, Mr. Gaffney said
that President Barack Obama displayed
“kind of an affinity for, if not the violent
beheading and crucifixions and slaying
of Christians and all that, but at least for
the cause for which these guys are engaged in such activities.”
Mr. Pompeo agreed, saying, “Frank,
every place you stare at the president’s
policies and statements, you see what
you just described.”
The idea that American Muslims are a
subversive fifth column is rejected by
mainstream experts. Muslims make up
less than 1 percent of the American population, and many of those who are immigrants came to the United States to
escape authoritarian Muslim countries.
Wa’el N. Alzayat, who was a Middle
East expert at the State Department
and senior policy adviser to Samantha
Power, the former United Nations ambassador, said of Mr. Pompeo’s comments, “Imagine if this stuff had been
said about Jews, or African-Americans
or Chinese-Americans. And yet, we’re
living with an administration that is actually rewarding people with racist
views or racist associations with some
of the highest positions in our government.”
Mr. Bolton, a fierce critic of Mr.
Obama, wrote the foreword to a 2013
book by Pamela Geller and Robert
Spencer, “The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on
America.” Ms. Geller has said that the
only moderate Muslims are secular
Muslims, and that allowing Muslims to
pray in public schools or workplaces
would lead to the “mosque-ing” of
Six liberal Jewish organizations recently issued a statement warning that
the appointment of Mr. Bolton was “dangerous.” Among their objections: “This
willingness to support anti-Muslim bigotry violates fundamental Jewish and
democratic values of tolerance, equality
and respect.” As national security adviser, Mr. Bolton does not need to be confirmed by the Senate.
Many analysts predicted that Mr.
Bolton and Mr. Pompeo would push to
have the State Department declare the
Muslim Brotherhood to be a foreign terrorist organization. The designation
would mean that any individuals or organizations accused of association could
be subject to investigations, seizure of
assets, and other legal actions.
As a congressman, Mr. Pompeo cosponsored legislation to designate the
Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. When he became the C.I.A. director, analysts at the agency warned that
such a designation would be ill-advised,
Politico reported. But there was still enthusiasm for such action. Mr. Bolton
said on Mr. Gaffney’s radio program last
July, “Why doesn’t the United States get
on with the business of declaring the
Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist
Arsalan Suleman, the acting special
envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation during the Obama administration, said that designating the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist association would be misguided, because
the group had morphed into different
forms in various countries. In Egypt, the
Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed by
President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi after he
took power from a Muslim Brotherhoodaffiliated president. In Jordan, the group
still participates in electoral politics.
TUESDAY, APRIL 10, 2018 | 7
Facebook’s other critics: Its viral stars
The Shift
For the past two years, Ryan Hamilton
has been getting Facebook-famous. Mr.
Hamilton, 28, manages a network of
Facebook pages and makes viral videos for his Hammy T.V. channel —
mostly lowbrow fare with titles like
“Shocking Pit Bull Social Experiment”
and “World’s Hottest Pepper on Girlfriend’s Thong” — that have earned
him a level of popularity typically
associated with Kardashians and BuzzFeed food clips.
But to hear Mr. Hamilton tell it,
Facebook has failed him.
“It’s a complete mess,” he said. “No
one trusts Facebook.”
Unlike the United States lawmakers
who will grill Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, in congressional
hearings this week, Facebook influencers generally aren’t bothered by data
privacy issues or Russian propaganda
campaigns. Their concerns are closer
to home.
They say that the company’s recent
decision to emphasize stories shared
by friends and family as well as
trusted news outlets — part of the
company’s response to an epidemic of
sensationalized clickbait and false
news, and an attempt to foster what
Mr. Zuckerberg has called “meaningful
social interaction” — has hidden them
from view. They argue that Facebook
owes much of its growth to the kinds of
entertainment they offer, and that
users will spend less time on the social
network if it’s not shown to them.
“Facebook has got to start treating
influencers with more respect,” said
Roozy Lee, a social media promoter
who manages a network of celebrity
and influencer Facebook pages with
more than 200 million combined followers. “These people need to make a
Chief among influencers’ complaints: Even though Facebook has
made it easy for them to reach enormous audiences, it has been slow to
deliver tools that would let them share
in the advertising revenue their posts
generate. Facebook has also cracked
down on certain types of link-sharing
deals that many influencers have used
to earn money on the side.
Fidji Simo, a vice president for product at Facebook, said the creator community is “incredibly important” to the
company. “We’ve been listening closely
to them to better understand what
more we can do to help them achieve
their goals and develop their presence
on Facebook,” she said.
Until recently, Facebook influencers
mostly kept their complaints to themselves out of fear of angering the com-
pany. But as Facebook flails in the
public eye over its data and privacy
issues, some influencers are seizing on
a moment of vulnerability to push for
Facebook appears to be paying
attention. In recent weeks, the company has invited groups of influencers
to meetings at its headquarters in
Menlo Park, Calif. Topics discussed at
the meetings included improving reach
for creators, branded content policies
and better lines of communication with
company leadership, according to a
person with knowledge of the meetings, who spoke on the condition of
anonymity because the talks were
Arguments about monetization —
letting creators share directly in advertising proceeds — are as old as the
system itself. YouTube, which opened a
revenue-sharing program more than a
decade ago, has long been accused by
angry creators of demonetizing videos
for arbitrary and inscrutable reasons.
Those complaints gave rise to violence last week, when Nasim Najafi
Aghdam, a YouTube creator who had
been angered by the platform’s revenue-sharing policies, shot and injured
three employees at YouTube’s headquarters in San Bruno, Calif., and then
killed herself.
Instagram, the Facebook-owned
photo and video app, has long hosted a
thriving community of influencers. But
Facebook itself, which was seen by
some creators as old and uncool, has
had a harder time attracting them. It
has been trying to steal attention from
YouTube in recent years by courting
popular creators and promising them
access to the platform’s gargantuan
user base. In 2016, Mr. Zuckerberg
proclaimed a “new golden age of video,” and the company spent millions of
dollars enticing media organizations
and celebrities to create videos on
In 2015, the social network began
testing a revenue-sharing program
with a limited group of creators, and
last November it rolled out Facebook
Creator, a special app designed for
professional users. Recently, the social
network announced that it was testing
some additional tools for creators,
including a way for users to purchase
monthly subscriptions to their favorite
creators’ pages.
But some of these features are still
not widely available, and many influencers say that Facebook’s charm
campaign amounts to too little, too
“It feels like they’ve pulled the biggest bait-and-switch of all time,” said
Dan Shaba, a co-founder of The Pun
Guys, a Facebook page with 1.2 million
followers. “They’ve been promising
monetization from the moment we got
Mr. Hamilton, he of the hot-pepper
thong video, said, “I did 1.8 billion
views last year. I made no money from
Facebook. Not even a dollar.”
Many of the influencers I spoke with
recognized that Facebook had given
them large audiences in the first place,
and that it was the company’s right to
change its policies at will. Several also
acknowledged that some of their videos represented the kind of cheap
entertainment that Facebook has
consciously chosen to de-emphasize,
as it tries to prioritize high-quality and
local news. (In January, Mr. Zuckerberg said that the company had “made
changes to show fewer viral videos to
make sure people’s time is well
Still, the influencers said, the company owes its most popular creators
something. And they warned that by
making it harder for users to see viral
videos, Facebook may be jeopardizing
its own business, which relies on users
spending lots of time on the platform.
“I understand where they’re coming
from,” said Mr. Shaba. “Facebook was
turning into a viral media dumpster,
and they wanted to eliminate that. Still,
I’d still prefer that over seeing a million wedding pictures.”
Rick Lax, a magician whose videos
garner more than a billion views per
month, said that while he largely
agreed with Mr. Zuckerberg’s position,
he disagreed with the idea that viral
videos couldn’t be worthwhile.
“A good video can be the catalyst for
a meaningful connection,” Mr. Lax
said. “Think of a good Facebook video
like a Mother’s Day card. It doesn’t
stop someone from sharing her feel-
ings with her mom — it gives her a
jumping-off point.”
While waiting for Facebook to invite
them into a revenue-sharing program,
some influencers struck deals with
viral publishers such as Diply and
LittleThings, which paid the creators
to share links on their pages. Those
publishers paid top influencers around
$500 per link, often with multiple links
being posted per day, according to a
person who reached such deals.
In January, Facebook threw a
wrench into that media economy by
changing its branded content policy to
prohibit creators from accepting
money for such link-sharing deals, and
re-engineering its News Feed algorithms. Traffic to many viral publishers
plummeted overnight. LittleThings, a
women-focused digital publisher that
had amassed more than 12 million
Facebook followers, announced that it
was shutting down and blamed Facebook’s News Feed changes for cratering its organic traffic.
“People are saying that their feeds
are getting stale, and they’re missing
the diversity of content they felt they
had selected,” Gretchen Tibbits, the
president of LittleThings, told me.
“People carefully curated their feeds,
and Facebook took that away.”
Ms. Simo, the Facebook executive,
said in a statement that “our branded
content policies prohibit Pages and
Profiles from accepting payment to
share content they did not have a hand
in creating, since the spirit behind
branded content is to have a collaboration between brands and creators to
produce content.”
In Facebook’s defense, it’s hard to
feel entirely sympathetic for the people
who built huge followings with videos
like “Sweater Pill Hacks” and “Tinder
Girl Gets High Off Fake Weed,” only to
have them pushed out of sight. Facebook is attempting to clean up its
platform, and some creators did clutter
the site with clickbait and spammy
links. But all of this jockeying raises a
larger question about how well Facebook truly knows its users, and how
much it can steer their preferences
without veering into paternalism.
Right now, the social network is
working to improve what Mr. Zuckerberg has called the “long-term wellbeing” of its users. But what if what
many Facebook users really want — as
measured by their clicks and eyeballs
— are prank videos, D.I.Y. hacks and
sensational headlines?
Mr. Shaba, the co-founder of The
Pun Guys, said that he had been trying
to produce more high-quality content
that would have a better chance of
getting boosted by Facebook’s algorithms. But he said that he hadn’t yet
cracked the code.
“Our fans are messaging us being
like, ‘You guys don’t post videos anymore,’” Mr. Shaba said. “We have. You
just aren’t seeing them.”
Social media users feel betrayed after data was mined
Christopher Deason stumbled upon the
psychological questionnaire on June 9,
2014. He was taking a lot of online surveys back then, each one earning him a
few dollars to help pay the bills. Nothing
about this one, which he saw on an online job platform, struck him as “creepy
or weird,” he said later.
So at 6:37 that evening, Mr. Deason
completed the first step of the survey:
He granted access to his Facebook account.
Less than a second later, a Facebook
app had harvested not only Mr. Deason’s profile data, but also data from the
profiles of 205 of his Facebook friends.
Their names, birth dates and location
data, as well as lists of every Facebook
page they had ever liked, were downloaded — without their knowledge or express consent — before Mr. Deason
could even begin reading the first survey question.
The information was added to a huge
database being compiled for Cambridge
Analytica, the political data firm with
links to Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. None of the people
whose data was collected knew it had
happened, including Mr. Deason. “I
don’t think I would have gone forward
with it if I had,” Mr. Deason, 27, said in a
recent interview.
Mr. Deason and his Facebook friends
became early entries in a database that
would ultimately encompass tens of millions of Facebook profiles and is now at
the center of a crisis facing the company.
News of Cambridge Analytica’s data collection, first reported last month by The
New York Times and The Observer of
London, has spurred a #DeleteFacebook movement and brought the social
network under intensifying scrutiny
from lawmakers and regulators in the
United States and Britain.
Still, few of the roughly 214 million
Americans with Facebook profiles know
whether their data was among the information swept up for Cambridge Analytica. Facebook, which learned of the data
misuse in December 2015, was planning
to begin telling affected users this week.
On Tuesday its co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is to testify before Congress.
Records reviewed by The Times show
that roughly 300,000 people took the
survey, but because of the access to
friends’ information allowed at the time,
Facebook said that as many as 87 million users could have been affected.
The Times, which has viewed a set of
raw data from the profiles that Cambridge Analytica paid an academic researcher to obtain, contacted nearly two
dozen affected Facebook users in recent
weeks. Some were angry — one woman
compared it to being robbed — while
others were annoyed but unsurprised,
having grown cynical about tech giants’
use of the data they collect. They are
some of the first known affected Facebook users to be publicly identified. And
nearly all said the misuse of their data
had given them second thoughts about
staying on Facebook.
“I’ve come to grips with the fact that
you are the product on the internet,”
said Mark Snyder, 32, who lives in Pompano Beach, Fla., and was among Mr.
Deason’s friends whose data was collected.
“If you sign up for anything and it isn’t
immediately obvious how they’re making money, they’re making money off
of you,” said Mr. Snyder, who maintains
computer networks for a living.
Mr. Zuckerberg has said the misuse of
data represented a “breach of trust” by
the company. He has suggested that
other app developers could have done
the same.
Until April 2015, Facebook allowed
some app developers to collect some private information from the profiles of users who downloaded apps, and from
those of their friends. Facebook has said
it allowed this kind of data collection to
help developers improve the “in-app”
experience for users. But Facebook appears to have done little to verify how
developers were using the data or
whether they were providing any kind
of experience on Facebook at all.
The questionnaire used to collect data
for Cambridge Analytica was not actually on Facebook. It was hosted by a
company called Qualtrics, which provides a platform for online surveys. It
Personal data on Jim Symbouras was collected dozens of times when 52 of his Facebook
friends took a survey. The information wound up in a Cambridge Analytica database.
Christopher Deason, whose profile data and data from the profiles of 205 of his Facebook friends was harvested as he filled out a psychological questionnaire in 2014.
consisted of dozens of questions often
used by psychology researchers to assess personality, such as whether the respondent prefers to be alone, tries to
lead others and loves large parties (the
answer choices range from “disagree
strongly” to “agree strongly”). The
questionnaire took about 10 to 20 minutes to complete.
When respondents authorized access
to their Facebook profiles, the app performed its sole function: to take the users’ data and that of their friends. There
was no “in-app” experience to speak of;
this was not intended to be the sort of
cute online quiz that tells users which
“Friends” character they most resemble
or how their brunch preferences reveal
their inner Disney princess.
Facebook has said that people who
took the quiz were told that their data
would be used only for academic purposes, claiming that it and its users were
misled by Cambridge Analytica and the
researcher it hired, Aleksandr Kogan, a
28-year-old Russian-American academic. But the fine print that accompanied
the questionnaire may have told users
that their data could be used for commercial purposes, according to a draft of
the survey’s terms of service that was
reviewed by The Times.
Selling users’ Facebook data would
have been an outright violation of the
company’s rules at the time. Yet the
company does not appear to have regularly checked to make sure that apps
complied with its rules. And the final
wording of the survey’s terms of service
is now most likely unknowable: Facebook executives said they deleted the
app in December 2015 when they found
out about the data harvesting.
Cambridge Analytica used the Facebook data to help build tools that it
claimed could identify the personalities
of American voters and influence their
behavior. The firm has said that its socalled psychographic modeling techniques underpinned its work for Mr.
Trump’s campaign in 2016, setting off a
still-unsettled debate about whether the
firm’s technology worked.
The uproar over Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of the data has added to
questions Facebook was already confronting over the use of its platform by
those seeking to spread Russian propaganda and fake news.
“Cambridge Analytica is the big story
on the topic, but there have been numerous stories about Facebook either selling user data or giving third parties access and using it to help advertising,”
Mr. Deason said.
He was especially irked by the ways
Facebook and other social media directed advertisements based on what
users posted or viewed online.
If he recommends, say, a Dell laptop
to a friend, he said, “I go to the next page
on Facebook and there’s a Dell ad.”
“That bothers me,” he said.
Mr. Deason, who runs a computer
business in Roanoke, Va., is probably
among Facebook’s more tech-savvy users. He is keeping his account open for
now because his business has its own
page and he moderates Facebook
groups dedicated to computers.
“But if I were just working my 9-to-5
at the local bank or whatever, and coming home and getting on Facebook to
check on my friends and whatnot, yeah,
I would delete Facebook,” he said.
Many people who took the survey do
not have a background in technology, including Jim Symbouras, 56, a municipal
worker in New York City.
His data was collected dozens of
times after 52 of his Facebook friends
were directed to the psychological questionnaire, many by a site called Swagbucks. The site lets people earn gift
cards to Amazon and other retailers in
exchange for taking surveys or watching video advertisements.
Mr. Symbouras does not personally
know any of the Facebook friends who
granted the app access to his data. He
met them in Facebook groups where
Swagbucks users traded tips for finding
good deals.
Amy Risner, 52, of Collinwood, Tenn.,
was one of those Facebook friends. Ms.
Risner, who does not work full time,
vaguely recalled the questionnaire — “It
was real long, that’s what I remember”
— but was certain she never saw any notice that her data or that of her friends
would be collected.
“If it would have said anything like
that about taking my information — my
personal information — I would have
backed out of it and not done it,” Ms. Risner said.
Facebook, though, is a tough habit to
kick. Asked if she was thinking about deleting her account, Ms. Risner said, “I’m
just too nosy to stay off it.”
Malachy Browne contributed reporting.
8 | TUESDAY, APRIL 10, 2018
Credit card signatures
are quickly fading away
A start-up spirit opens up
Corner Office
Hastily scrawling a name
on a slip of paper becomes
technologically obsolete
Depending on your perspective, Reddit
represents either the best of the web,
or the worst.
Critics say the website’s freewheeling community forums are a cesspool
of hate speech and pornography, where
anonymous trolls can make incendiary
comments without facing consequences.
But the Reddit co-founder Alexis
Ohanian argues that open debate is
essential for a healthy democracy even
if it pushes boundaries, and that the
company is taking appropriate steps to
curb harassment.
Mr. Ohanian stepped away from
Reddit’s day-to-day operations this
year but still sits on the board. In 2012,
he co-founded Initialized Capital, a
venture capital firm that has invested
in start-ups. Last year, he married
Serena Williams, considered by many
the greatest tennis player of all time,
with 23 major championships.
This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was
conducted at the Initialized office in
San Francisco.
How did you get into computers?
I managed to convince my parents to
get me a PC in eighth or ninth grade —
that it would help me with my career.
In reality, I just wanted to play video
games. Then I got a 33.6 dial-up connection, and I was building websites
for strangers on the internet for free. I
just wanted a chance to flex as a web
developer. They had no idea I was this
dorky kid at my parents’ house.
What was your first job?
My first job was at a CompUSA demoing software, and it was the worst
public speaking experience a teenager
going through puberty could have.
Every 30 minutes I’d have to get on a
mic and demo to the whole store some
lame piece of hardware or software
and literally get ignored by people.
People would walk up to me, look at
me and then walk away.
But I got paid well for it, and basically got my 10,000 hours of public speaking out of the way at an early age.
From there I worked as a cook and
dishwasher at Pizza Hut. Then I
worked my way up to a waiter, where I
learned basically everything I’ve ever
needed to know about customer service.
Did you think you were going to be an
I’d been studying for the LSAT. I was
going to be an immigration lawyer. I
had this romantic idea of helping people get citizenship. But then I realized
how much I hated what I was doing, so
I went and got a waffle instead. It was
at a Waffle House I realized I wanted
to start something.
So in 2005, how’d you start Reddit?
I convinced my college roommate to
start a business that would help people
skip lines. That didn’t work out. But
then [the Silicon Valley incubator] Y
Combinator said, “O.K., take our
money and do something else.” And
that was Reddit.
And what is Reddit?
A network of 100,000-plus communities, each one sort of operating with its
own kind of culture and personality. If
you’re a fanatic of sneakers or a particular sports team, it’s all there.
There’s a lot of dark stuff on Reddit,
too. Many readers had questions
about how Reddit deals with hate
Harassment is banned on the site.
Over the last three years, there have
already been a ton of policy changes
and updates. If someone gets harassed, there's a very easy mechanism
to report it and get it taken down.
Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit, said he was trying to create a site where people “are able to be authentic and genuine.”
But the overarching goal here is to
create an environment where people
can feel like they are able to be authentic and genuine, right up to the point
where we can still have a platform
where anyone can feel like they can
find their home there. That is not a
bright, clear line.
The key is how do we create opportunities for these conversations to
actually change people’s views, and
still do it in a way that lets people feel
like they can come to the platform and
be safe?
And still, there’s a lot of stuff people
would consider hate speech or harassment on the site. Why is it allowed?
The general spirit is we want to encourage dialogue. We want to encourage opportunities for people to be
wrong and be corrected. Part of this is
having a place where things can be
said that I find incredibly disagreeable
and reprehensible.
Hopefully, minds can be changed
and discussions can be had. We see it
happening. I don’t see it happening as
fast as I would like because, unfortunately, we live in a pretty broken society and a pretty broken world. But I
think so much of this stems from ignorance. And one great way to combat
this ignorance is with knowledge and
with discussion.
Is the current backlash against big
tech warranted?
Tech has had this notion of being the
underdog. This is an important reckon-
ing for tech to realize that, “no, we're
not anymore.” Tech has become such a
big part of so many people's lives, and
we actually kind of love the role that it
plays in our lives. Until we don't.
You took a break to work on microfinance in Armenia, where your father’s family is from. Why?
I needed to get away from tech, so I
spent a few months in the motherland,
just volunteering for Kiva. I was unplugged, got back to my roots, met a
bunch of Armenian entrepreneurs
making wine or selling clothes — just
good old-fashioned businesses, making
a thing and selling it.
What’s the difference between being
an entrepreneur and being an investor?
As an investor we get to roll up our
sleeves and feel like operators, but in
little doses. We don’t have to live with
the same soul-crushing existential
threats of being a founder.
What do you look for in people you
invest in?
Relentlessness. In football, the best
running backs are relentless. When
they get first contact, they will actually
drive their legs even harder.
What’s your advice for college grads?
Do you really need to go to college?
There is a huge student loan debt
problem in this country. I think there’s
going to need to be a drastic change in
how these universities work. And I
also think we’ve lambasted the trades
for way too long. You can make six
figures as a welder.
What have you learned from your
I thought I was the hardest-working
person on the planet. I thought we
were the hardest-working industry.
That’s what we tell ourselves. It’s all
I’ve had this front-row seat over the
last three years to greatness. It’s a
humbling experience seeing really
what high-pressure situations actually
look like professionally, seeing just
what it takes to actually be that great.
I used to change the channel when
tennis was on. Then I watched my first
match when I met her, and quickly got
an appreciation for the sport. It’s not
just the physical requirements but the
mental requirements. I could not imagine doing my job with millions of people watching.
And what has that taught you about
One thing that I have always respected
in sport is it is so pure in its success
metrics. In business, we can find creative ways to measure ourselves. “Yes,
well, one fund has been more successful than another because they’ve invested in six unicorns.”
But in sport, there’s a winner and a
loser, and you can’t delude yourself
into thinking there’s some other way to
compare or measure. You’re the best or
you’re not. For her to be able to perform so consistently for so long is
pretty amazing.
For nearly a decade, Doug Taylor, a
sales manager who travels often for
work, has signed credit card receipts
with a doodle of a dog wagging its tail.
No cashier has ever rejected his “signature” as invalid. “It gets a laugh, most
of the time,” said Mr. Taylor, 44, who
lives in Mobile, Ala. “Or they just glance
at it and don’t really notice.”
Credit card networks in the United
States are finally ready to concede what
has been obvious to shoppers and merchants for years: Signatures are not a
useful way to prove someone’s identity.
This month, four of the largest networks
— American Express, Discover, Mastercard and Visa — will stop requiring
them to complete card transactions.
The signature, a centuries-old way of
verifying identity, is rapidly going extinct. Personal checks are anachronisms. Pen-and-ink letters are scarce.
When credit card signatures disappear,
handwritten authentications will be relegated to a few special circumstances:
sealing a giant transaction like a house
purchase, or getting a celebrity to autograph a piece of memorabilia — and
even that is being supplanted by the
cellphone selfie.
Card signatures won’t vanish
overnight. The change is optional, leaving retailers to decide whether they
want to stop collecting signatures.
Target plans to eliminate them this
month. Walmart considers signatures
“worthless” and has already stopped recording them on most transactions, according to Randy Hargrove, a company
spokesman. It will soon get rid of them
Mastercard said it has been wanting
to make the change for years, but held
off until cards embedded with computer
chips became common.
Card companies, which cover the
costs of fraudulent credit card spending,
started adding the microchips more
than a decade ago to reduce fraud-related losses. The chips create unique codes
for each transaction, making the cards
much harder to copy. The chips have
long been popular in Europe and Asia
but only took off in America three years
ago, when the card networks began punishing merchants that still relied on the
old card-swipe technology. At that point,
signatures became largely irrelevant in
resolving fraud claims.
“The signature has really outrun its
useful life,” said Linda Kirkpatrick, Mastercard’s head of business development
in the United States.
It took nearly a century for technology to overtake the hand-scrawled
name. The charge card dates back to the
1920s, when stores started issuing embossed metal plates with paper signature strips that allowed customers to
add purchases to their ledger and settle
the bill later.
Thirty years later, banks and merchant networks introduced cards that
worked at a variety of retailers. By the
late 1950s, a shopper could leave home
without any cash and buy groceries, gas
and dinner, secured only by a signature.
Investigators scrutinized signed
credit slips to determine whether cardholders were present when transactions
were made. Signatures were required
on all purchases; merchants that failed
to collect them generally had to absorb
the losses if transactions were disputed.
Retailers could also be held liable if they
failed to notice that the signature on a
receipt did not match the one on the
back of the customer’s card.
Then online shopping took off, forcing
card issuers to come up with new ways
to detect and adjudicate fraud. As their
forensic systems improved, signatures
became a relic.
Card networks began inching toward
getting rid of signatures years ago. Most
stopped requiring signatures on trans-
actions below a certain threshold, typically $25 or $50, as far back as 2010.
But old habits die hard, and the jumble of rules about which transactions required signatures and which did not —
every issuer has its own policies — discouraged many merchants, especially
smaller ones, from scrapping signatures altogether. This time, though, the
card networks are sending a consistent
message: Signatures are obsolete.
“I think they’re done,” said Mark Horwedel, the chief executive of the Merchant Advisory Group, a trade organization that represents large American retailers. Mr. Horwedel said he expected
that three-quarters of his group’s members will have stopped asking
customers to sign their names on credit
card receipts by the end of the year.
Speeding up checkout lines is a powerful
incentive, he said.
Smaller retailers will probably lag behind. ShopKeep and Square, two popular small business payment systems,
said they do not plan to immediately update their systems to allow retailers to
skip signatures on all transactions.
(Both currently allow merchants to disable them on transactions below $25.)
“We’ll play it a little bit by ear,” said
Michael DeSimone, ShopKeep’s chief
executive. “Right now, I don’t think
there’s a high level of awareness about
this. Let’s get the changes in place and
see how they work operationally, and
then we’ll adapt.”
The new rules will vary at each card
network. American Express is dropping
its signature requirement globally, on all
of its cards. Mastercard is ending the requirement only in the United States and
Canada. Discover’s change applies in
those countries plus Mexico and the Caribbean. Visa is making signatures optional in all of North America, but only
for retailers with payment systems that
read chip cards.
“The signature has really outrun its
useful life,” a Mastercard executive said.
Some merchants are hesitant to mess
with a process that customers have built
into their muscle memory. Mikiah Westbrooks, the owner of Brix, a wine bar in
Detroit, said she worried that skipping
signatures will affect her workers’ tips.
She has also occasionally found signatures useful when fighting fraud claims.
A customer who challenged a bill last
summer backed off when she produced
a signed receipt.
“They were lying, and I had proof,”
Ms. Westbrooks said.
But others are ready to cast them
aside. At Snowy Owl Coffee Roasters in
Brewster, Mass., pausing for signatures
noticeably slows things down at rush
hour, said Shayna Ferullo, the shop’s
owner. “Any extra second is valuable,”
she said. “And everyone knows the signature is a joke. No one really signs any
more; it’s all scribbles and squiggles.
Some people do smiley faces.”
Mark Malkoff, a New York comedian,
and his friend Greg Benson posted a
YouTube video that vividly illustrated
just how widely ignored card signatures
are. They went on a spree through a dozen Los Angeles stores, signing obviously fake names on all of their receipts:
Justin Bieber, Jessica Alba, Vin Diesel,
Oprah. On one bill, they went with “Mr.
Fake Name.”
None were rejected.
“Fifteen years, a decade ago, they
would look at your signature, they
would ask for I.D. if it seemed off,” Mr.
Malkoff said. “Now, no one cares. It’s the
most useless, pointless thing.”
Importer who introduced French wines to Americans
On the day Prohibition was repealed in
1933, Sidney Haas was the 12th applicant (and, the family says, the first independent store owner) licensed by New
York State to legally sell alcoholic beverages. He proceeded to transform the
Manhattan butcher shop founded by his
uncle, Morris Lehmann, who had immigrated from Germany in 1870, into a
wine and liquor store.
“My dad was a bit of a maverick,” Sidney Haas’s son Robert said.
Twenty years later, when the store’s
chief buyer in France, Raymond Baudoin, died suddenly, Sidney Haas dispatched his 27-year-old son to Europe to
promptly find a replacement. Fortified
with two years of college French, Robert
Haas, a Navy veteran and Yale graduate, fell in love with France and revised
his objective.
“I discovered I didn’t want to replace
Baudoin,” he told Wine Enthusiast magazine in 2005. “I wanted his job.”
Robert Haas, a maverick in his own
right, helped expand the store into what
would become — after being sold to a rival in 1965 — Sherry-Lehmann Wine
and Spirits, one of the best-known wine
retailers in the United States. He also
founded Vineyard Brands, a leading
wine importer. And, at 62, he embarked
on a high-risk, long-haul venture as a
California vintner.
Planting vines brought over from the
Rhone Valley in France, the winery, Tablas Creek Vineyard, founded in 1989 with
the Perrin family, Rhone wine
producers, now turns out about 30,000
cases a year.
“There’s very little that is more a declaration of your optimism than starting
a vineyard in your 60s,” said Mr. Haas’s
son Jason, the general manager of Tablas Creek.
Robert Haas died at 90 on March 18 at
his home in Templeton, Calif., in the
wine country of San Luis Obispo County.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, Jason Haas said.
Heralding what became known as the
“Rhone Rangers” era of cultivating
grapes like Grenache, mourvèdre and
syrah in California, in 2000 Robert Haas
became the first American elected president of the Académie Internationale du
Vin, an industry promotional and research association.
As early as 1960, the food editor Craig
Claiborne described him in The New
York Times as “widely traveled and
In 1988, Wine Spectator wrote, “By
one estimate Haas has been responsible
for bringing more fine Burgundy to this
country than any other importer of our
Robert Zadok Haas was born on April
18, 1927, in New York City to Sidney Haas
and the former Harriet Bailey, a homemaker.
Raised in Scarsdale, N.Y., he remained a loyal Brooklyn baseball fan
and was a good enough shortstop to get
an invitation from a scout to an open
Dodgers tryout while he was attending
Scarsdale High School.
After one semester at Yale, Mr. Haas
enlisted in the Navy during World War
II and served in the United States. He
earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale in
history, politics and economics in 1950
and went to work in the family wine
store, M. Lehmann.
Robert Haas in 2004. He joined with a
French family to start a winery in California, Tablas Creek Vineyard, in 1989.
His first marriage ended in divorce.
His wife, the former Barbara Glenn, survives him. He is also survived by their
son, Jason, two children from his first
marriage, Daniel Haas and Janet Con-
way; a daughter from his second marriage, Rebecca Haas; his sister, Adrienne Sands; six grandchildren; and a
After joining his father’s business, Mr.
Haas persuaded him to sell futures on
wine that was practically still fermenting. Two decades later he founded the
importer Vineyard Brands in Vermont,
which represented Burgundy and Bordeaux brands like Château Lafite and
Château Petrus. He also promoted California wines from the Napa and Sonoma
Mr. Haas’s relationship with the Perrin family began when he was an importer. While in France, he met Jacques
Perrin, the family patriarch, and his
sons, Francois and Jean-Pierre. They
developed the label La Vielle Ferme in
France and then agreed to partner in a
California vineyard.
There, they found a former alfalfa
farm where the environment — including the weather, topography and the
soil’s limestone base — closely resembled conditions in the Rhone Valley.
Vine cuttings were imported from
France in 1989 and quarantined for
three years by agricultural officials to
make sure they were disease-free. In
1992, Mr. Haas and his partners built
greenhouses, propagated the first vines
in 1994 and began selling grafted vines
and budwood to hundreds of other growers.
Tablas Creek Vineyard winery
opened in 1997, flanking the eponymous
rivulet in the Paso Robles hills about 12
miles inland and midway between Los
Angeles and San Francisco. It introduced the 1,200-gallon wooden foudres,
or vats, popular in France.
Though the operation struggled at
first, it turned a profit in 2006.
Mr. Haas was armed with a discerning palate that could distinguish astringent from vegetal from just a dram during a wine tasting. He was also blessed
with a gift for gab.
“Buying wine is not like buying Tinkertoys,” he told Wine Spectator. “You
have to understand that the man just
spent a whole year of his life making
that particular crop, and he’s not going
to part with it without some show over it.
There’s some discussion necessary.
“Even if there’s nothing to talk about,”
Mr. Haas said, “there’s something to talk
TUESDAY, APRIL 10, 2018 | 9
China’s oppression reaches beyond its borders
As the
continues at
Beijing has
started to
Lauren Hilgers
The first threatening phone call that
Zhuang Liehong got in New York was
in the fall of 2016, on a gloriously warm
September morning. The call came
from a jail where his father was being
held following a protest in Mr.
Zhuang’s home village in Southern
China. “Is this Zhuang Liehong?”
asked an unfamiliar voice. When Mr.
Zhuang said yes, there was a pause
and his father’s voice came on the line.
“Son,” he said, “stop doing what you’re
doing. It will be bad for your family.”
What Mr. Zhuang had been doing,
for the most part, was posting on
Facebook. He was putting up photos
that had been sent by friends and
family, which recorded a police crackdown that had swept his home village,
Wukan. Five years earlier, during the
fall of 2011, Mr. Zhuang had been a
ringleader in a series of protests that
overtook the little seaside village. He
had helped alert his fellow villagers to
land grabs that were chipping away at
village boundaries and filling the pockets of local officials. When those protests ended, it seemed the villagers
had emerged victorious. Villagers had
been granted the right to hold local
elections, and Mr. Zhuang was one of
seven new village committee members
tasked with administrating the village
and returning stolen land.
Back then, Wukan was held up
among democracy activists as a symbol of liberalization,
a hopeful sign that
The targets
China was open to
have included political change. But
the elections were
misleading, the hope
misplaced. Mr.
Zhuang fled to New
elites, former
York in 2014. Two
judges and
years later, he found
himself answering
that phone call in
New York City,
swept up in new political currents. The
Communist Party of China was taking
a recent crackdown on dissent and
moving it over borders. Mr. Zhuang
had moved to the United States to
speak freely about his village. In his
father’s voice he heard the ventriloquism of the corrupt officials who had
sold off his village land. Mr. Zhuang
guessed that his father was surrounded by security personnel. He felt
the phone call suggested a trade — his
father’s freedom for Mr. Zhuang’s
Since 2015, a sweeping crackdown
on internal dissent has ensnared hundreds of human rights lawyers, feminists, journalists and democracy activists. China now spends more on internal security than it does on its military.
And as the crackdown continues at
home, the Chinese Communist Party
has started to expand its reach, looking to enforce censorship, increase
surveillance and silence dissent across
borders. Their targets have included
academics, exiled business elites,
former judges and activists like Mr.
In a twist, as states across the globe
retrench and solidify their hold, the
quest for centralized rule and the
quashing of dissent have caused borders to become porous. Russia stands
accused of poisoning a former spy
living in Britain. Turkish thugs attacked a crowd of protesters in Washington, D.C., during a visit by Turkey’s
authoritarian-leaning president, Recep
Tayyip Erdogan. Some of these tactics
are old. Autocratic regimes have long
sought to eliminate former spies living
abroad. Detaining family members as
a proxy for a high-profile dissident in
exile is an old practice. Technology,
however, has decreased the price of
harassment. The same tools that enabled the uprisings in the Arab Spring,
the same ones that help Mr. Zhuang
promote his cause, make surveillance
and intimidation easier. Now anonymous teenagers can harass on Twitter
and so can agents of state.
The warning call that Mr. Zhuang
got from his father would not be the
last. Over the next few months, they
kept coming. Mr. Zhuang had several
phones, and if he stopped answering
one, the calls would appear on another.
Security officers tracked the phones of
his friends and interrogated them if
they accepted calls from Mr. Zhuang. A
CCTV camera mysteriously appeared
outside the door of the home that Mr.
Zhuang’s mother shared with his
handicapped older brother. Friends
and family no longer visited. His father
was sentenced to three years in prison
and kept sending warnings. His
mother called him from her ram-
shackle home in Wukan. When she
called, she warned her son that, even
in the United States, he was not safe.
The extended reach of the Chinese
government has affected exiles and
immigrants across the world. In Canada, a former Supreme People’s Court
judge, Xie Wendong, reported that his
sister and son had both been detained
by security forces. Chinese government agents sent a lawyer to Canada
to try to persuade him to return to
China. Authorities also ordered Xie’s
ex-wife to bring him back to China,
threatening her with detention if she
failed. In France, Zheng Ning, a former
businessman, was successfully pursued by Chinese agents and ended up
returning to China. In a report released in January, the Citizen Lab, a
research group based at the University
of Toronto, recorded a phishing operation that ran for 19 months, targeting
Tibetans, the Falun Gong-related
publication The Epoch Times and
groups of ethnic Uyghurs.
In the United States, scholars studying China have also reported that
phishing scams and targeted malware
have become a matter of routine —
with repeated attempts to access
research and identify sources. An
outspoken Chinese student at the
University of Georgia recently told
Radio Free Asia that he had received a
call from a Chinese security officer,
asking him to inform on other Chinese
students and activists. Ethnic Uyghur
journalists now living in the United
States have reported the disappearance of multiple family members still
in China.
Chen Xiaoping, a journalist at the
Long Island-based, Mandarin-language media company Mirror Media
Group, issued an open letter on Twitter
in January asking the Chinese government to release his wife, who had been
missing in China for 90 days. She had
disappeared shortly after Mr. Chen
began interviewing the exiled Chinese
billionaire Guo Wengui. Soon after Mr.
Chen released the letter, a video was
anonymously posted on YouTube — a
tape of his wife denouncing his work in
the United States.
The threats that Mr. Zhuang has
received have not dissuaded him from
continuing to protest China’s government. They have, however, stolen his
peace of mind. The political problems
that Mr. Zhuang had were, he felt, with
the local government in Guangdong
Province. He assumed those officials
would not be able to reach him in New
York. And then, when the phone calls
started coming, he began to doubt
himself. Mr. Zhuang, like so many other
exiled Chinese citizens, is finding that
he is still subject to Beijing’s demands.
Worldwide, China’s government is
sending a chilling message: no matter
where you are, speaking freely comes
at a steep price.
is a journalist and the
author of “Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown.”
Anti-Semitism and Britain’s hall of mirrors
Can the
Labour Party
my family
changed so
much? I’m
not sure.
Mark Mazower
As I’ve read about the furor over antiSemitism in Britain’s Labour Party,
I’ve thought of my grandfather and
wondered what he would have made of
In his youth, in czarist Russia, he
had been a revolutionary activist, a
member of the Jewish socialist movement known as the Bund. By the time
the Bolsheviks seized power, he had
fled to England to make a new life in
North London. The Labour Party was
his natural constituency, as it was my
father’s. Can the party that welcomed
my family have changed so much?
To read the recent headlines, one
would think so. Jeremy Corbyn, the
party’s leader, has been under attack
for months. If Britain’s news media are
to be believed, anti-Semitism is rife
within Labour, Mr. Corbyn has willfully
turned a blind eye to it, and successive
internal inquiries have been mishandled. A wave of protest in the past few
weeks has put his leadership under
Yet a survey of anti-Semitic attitudes in Britain, published last September by the respected Institute for
Jewish Policy Research — an organization with no ties to any political party
— contains several findings that are
worth considering amid this uproar.
First: Levels of anti-Semitism in Britain are among the lowest in the world.
Second: Supporters across the political
spectrum manifest anti-Semitic ideas.
Third: Far from this being an issue for
the left, the prejudice gets worse the
farther right you look. And yet, at the
same time, British Jews now generally
believe anti-Semitism to be a large and
growing problem and have come to
associate it with Labour in particular.
The left has had an awkward relationship with what was once called
“the Jewish question” going back to
Proudhon, Bakunin and Marx. And in
Socialist parties across the world,
workers (and, for that matter, peasants) have historically been just as
prone to xenophobia of all kinds as the
middle and upper classes.
Today it would be stupid to deny
that there is anti-Semitism on the left,
including in Britain, extending in some
quarters to Holocaust denial. But for
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, at a rally in London in January.
all the shopworn stereotypes and the
repulsive social media postings, the
scale of anti-Semitism inside the Labour Party is insufficient to warrant
the kind of reaction we have seen
recently. So what explains the furor?
To answer that it is simply the work
of Mr. Corbyn’s enemies inside and
outside the party is tempting. Indeed,
that position has been adopted by
some of his supporters. But it misses
the mark. If people think there is a
problem, we need to understand why.
A key factor is that it is on the left
that criticism of Israel is most likely to
be found. This explains a good deal,
because in recent times the boundaries
between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism have become hopelessly muddled.
To be sure, the two are sometimes
found together. But a lot of people
simply equate them, as Britain’s chief
rabbi himself did in May 2016, and
regard the very idea of anti-Zionism
with suspicion.
The widespread use of what started
out as a European Union attempt to
define anti-Semitism has done nothing
to help. The so-called Working Definition of Antisemitism, internationally
adopted since its formulation in 2005
(including by the British government),
lumps together Holocaust denial with
hostility to Israel. Muddled, catchall
definitions such as these lend themselves to the sort of surreal politicking
that we now see in Britain.
The result is a confusion that turned
the past week into a theater of the
absurd after Mr. Corbyn was slammed
in the British press for attending a
Seder hosted by a far-left, but unmisMAZOWER, PAGE 11
10 | TUESDAY, APRIL 10, 2018
The germs that love diet soda
A.G. SULZBERGER, Publisher
Moises Velasquez-Manoff
DEAN BAQUET, Executive Editor
MARK THOMPSON, Chief Executive Officer
JOSEPH KAHN, Managing Editor
STEPHEN DUNBAR-JOHNSON, President, International
TOM BODKIN, Creative Director
JEAN-CHRISTOPHE DEMARTA, Senior V.P., Global Advertising
SUZANNE DALEY, Associate Editor
ACHILLES TSALTAS, V.P., International Conferences
CHARLOTTE GORDON, V.P., International Consumer Marketing
JAMES BENNET, Editorial Page Editor
HELEN KONSTANTOPOULOS, V.P., International Circulation
JAMES DAO, Deputy Editorial Page Editor
HELENA PHUA, Executive V.P., Asia-Pacific
KATHLEEN KINGSBURY, Deputy Editorial Page Editor
SUZANNE YVERNÈS, International Chief Financial Officer
The U.S. Fair
Housing Act of
1968, which
turns 50 this
week, has
never been
Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, showed utter contempt for his agency’s core mission last month when he proposed deleting the phrase
“free from discrimination” from the HUD mission statement. Yet Mr. Carson is not the first housing secretary to
betray the landmark Fair Housing Act of 1968 — which
turns 50 years old this week — by failing to enforce policies designed to prevent states and cities from using
federal dollars to perpetuate segregation.
By its actions and failure to act, HUD has prolonged
segregation in housing since the 1960s under both Democratic and Republican administrations. The courts have
repeatedly chastised the agency for allowing cities to
confine families to federally financed ghettos that offer
little or no access to jobs, transportation or viable
schools. The lawsuits, filed by individuals and fair housing groups, have forced the agency to adopt rules and
policies that have been crucial in advancing the goals of
the Fair Housing Act.
Mr. Carson was named in such a lawsuit filed last
month by the nonprofit Texas Low Income Housing
Information Service. The suit accuses HUD of illegally
funneling federal money to the city of Houston, despite a
2017 finding by HUD itself that the city was flouting
federal civil rights laws by allowing racially motivated
opposition to stop affordable housing projects in white
Critics of the Fair Housing Act have glibly attempted
to dismiss attempts to end segregation as “social engineering” — as if rigid racial segregation in housing were
a natural phenomenon. In fact, the residential segregation that is pervasive in the United States today was
partly created by explicit federal policies that date back
at least to World War I. It is now widely acknowledged
that the federal insistence on segregated housing introduced Jim Crow separation in areas of the country outside the South where it had previously been unknown. It
stands to reason that dismantling a system created by a
set of government policies will require an equally explicit
set of federal policies.
The federal insistence on rigid racial separation found
its most pernicious expression in the Federal Housing
Administration, created in 1934 to promote homeownership by insuring mortgages. As the sociologists Douglas
Massey and Nancy Denton document in “American
Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass,” the government typically denied mortgages to
African-Americans, shutting out even affluent black
people from the suburban homeownership boom that
remade the residential landscape during the middle
decades of the 20th century.
Government at all levels embraced racial covenants
that forbade even well-to-do African-Americans from
purchasing homes outside of black communities. Cut off
from homeownership — the principal avenue of wealth
creation — African-Americans lost the opportunity to
build the intergenerational wealth that white suburban
families took for granted. The vast wealth gap that exists
today between whites and African-Americans has its
roots in this era.
The argument for what became the Fair Housing Act
emerged forcefully in the 1968 Kerner Commission report, which blamed segregation in large measure for the
riots that ravaged the country in the 60s and called for
national fair housing legislation. The housing law might
well have died in committee had the country not erupted
in fresh violence after the assassination of the Rev. Dr.
Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. It was signed into
law a week later.
The housing act put the federal government on record
as supporting open housing and prohibiting the pervasive discrimination that had locked most African-Americans out of decent accommodations and homeownership.
But the version that passed in 1968 had been declawed —
stripped of enforcement provisions that would have
given HUD strong authority to root out discrimination.
Nearly a quarter-century would pass before Congress
strengthened the law. So during that time, African-Americans were left subject to the harsh discrimination the
original act was supposed to preclude.
This progressive sounding law — which requires entities that receive federal money to “affirmatively further”
fair housing goals — was consistently undermined by
officials of both parties who had little appetite for confronting entrenched segregation.
That realization came home with particular force to
George Romney, Richard Nixon’s HUD secretary, who
initially took the law at its word and tried to enforce it by
turning down grant applications from communities that
continued to segregate themselves racially.
When white communities complained directly to the
Oval Office, Nixon shut down Romney’s effort and eventually forced him out of government. Subsequent administrations shied away from enforcing the law in ways
great and small — but the Reagan administration sold it
out in an egregious fashion that angered even Republicans in Congress. The administration conspired with the
real estate industry to undermine HUD’s already limited
powers, brought cases that attacked integration programs and showed scant vigor in enforcing civil rights
Contributing Writer
There are lots of reasons to avoid
processed foods. They’re often packed
with sugar, fat and salt, and they tend
to lack certain nutrients critical to
health, like fiber. And now, new research suggests that some of the additives that extend the shelf life and
improve the texture of these foods may
have unintended side effects — not on
our bodies directly, but on the human
microbiome, the trillions of bacteria
living in our guts.
These substances may selectively
feed the more dangerous members of
our microbial communities, causing
illness and even death.
Consider the rise in deadly cases of
clostridium difficile, or C. diff, a terrible
infection of the gut. The bacterium
tends to strike just after you’ve taken
antibiotics to treat something else.
Those antibiotics kill your native microbes, allowing C. diff to move in.
Nearly half a million people develop
the infection yearly, according to the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and around 29,000 die, sometimes after long bouts of painful,
bloody diarrhea. By one estimate,
deaths linked to C. diff increased fivefold between 1999 and 2007.
One reason the bug has become
more virulent is that it has evolved
antibiotic resistance and is not as
easily treatable. But some years ago,
Robert Britton, a microbiologist at
Baylor College of Medicine, discovered
something else about C. diff: More
virulent strains were outcompeting
less virulent strains in the gut.
Dr. Britton and his colleagues
wanted to know what gave these
strains their edge, so they combed
through over 200 sugars and amino
acids present in the gut to see if these
microbes better utilized some food
source compared with others. The
results of their investigation, recently
published in the journal Nature, suggest a deceptively banal adaptation:
Two of the most problematic C. diff
strains have a unique ability to utilize a
sugar called trehalose.
Trehalose occurs naturally in mushrooms, yeasts and shellfish, among
other things. It has historically been
expensive to use, but in the late 1990s
a new manufacturing process made
the sugar cheap.
That was good news for companies
that manufactured prepackaged foods,
because trehalose works great for
stabilizing processed foods, keeping
them moist on the shelf and improving
texture. Since about 2001, we’ve added
loads of it to everything from cookies
to ground beef.
What Dr. Britton and his colleagues
contend is that, in doing so, we’ve
inadvertently cultivated the most toxic
C. diff strains, driving what has become a scourge of hospitals.
As evidence, he points to the timing
of recent C. diff epidemics. The virulent
strains existed before 2000, but they
didn’t cause as many outbreaks. Only
after large quantities of trehalose
entered the food supply did they become this deadly.
“What this research shows is that
people should be considering the ecological impacts of food stuffs,” Dr.
Britton told me. “Our gut bacteria are
being bombarded with things that we
never ate — or never ate in the concentrations we eat now.”
Of course, as the old mantra goes,
correlation does not prove causation,
and trehalose is probably not the only
factor behind the rise of epidemic C.
diff. But Dr. Britton also found that
mice infected with those virulent
strains of C. diff that consumed the
sugar fared worse than infected mice
that were not fed the sugar.
His research adds to a growing body
of evidence indicating that common
food additives can push our microbial
communities in unhealthy directions,
not only potentially aiding the emergence of new pathogens, but also encouraging diseases like obesity, diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease.
Let’s back up and
ask: Why have a
microbiome to begin
beings aren’t
with? Why lug
designed to
around a few pounds
eat processed
of microbes in your
foods like
gut? One reason, the
Stanford University
microbiologist Justin
Sonnenburg reminded me, is that these microbes can
rapidly shift in response to new foods,
helping us wring calories from a wider
variety of foods than our bodies would
normally allow.
As an example, he pointed to research on the microbiome of people in
Japan. It has a unique ability to break
down seaweed, and scientists think it
acquired this talent by borrowing DNA
from microbes that live on seaweed
itself. The implication is that by eating
lots of seaweed, the ancestral Japanese
pushed their microbiome to evolve
until it adapted to their diet. And they
were presumably better off for it:
Their microbes could extract more
calories from what they ate, better
nourishing them.
But that same flexibility can be
dangerous when we push our microbial communities too far, says Dr. Son-
nenburg. Our sugary, greasy diet diverges so much from the diet humans
evolved eating, he and others think,
that the microbes of westernized populations may no longer mesh well with
the human body.
Gut microbes are kept slightly removed from the intestinal lining by a
thin layer of mucus, and the Western
diet seems to erode that protective
barrier, bringing microbes too close. (A
diet rich in soluble fiber, on the other
hand, keeps the mucus barrier thick
and healthy.)
Certain food additives also lead to a
weakened mucus barrier. Andrew
Gewirtz, a microbiologist at Georgia
State University, and colleagues have
found that the common emulsifiers
polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose — often found in items like
mayonnaise and ice cream — prompt
an erosion of the mucus barrier in
mice. They also seem to cause the
mice’s microbes to produce proteins
that inflame the gut, increasing the
animals’ tendency toward obesity and
Christine McDonald, a scientist at
the Cleveland Clinic, has discovered
something very similar with the food
thickener maltodextrin, which seems
to both thin the mucus barrier in mice
and nourish a strain of E. coli linked to
Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory
bowel disease.
The microbiomes of patients with
Crohn’s, she found, have an enhanced
ability to break down maltodextrin
compared with people without the
disease, suggesting that the germs
potentially driving the disease profit
from maltodextrin.
The prevalence of inflammatory
bowel disease has, it’s worth noting,
sharply increased in recent decades.
Then there are artificial sweeteners
like sucralose and saccharin, which we
consume in diet sodas and “sugar-free”
snacks in hopes of cutting calories. Our
bodies can’t directly digest most of
them — they’re meant to pass right
through — but it turns out that the
microbes inhabiting our colons can
metabolize the sweeteners, potentially
to our detriment.
Scientists at the Weizmann Institute
of Science in Israel have found that, in
mice, saccharin causes glucose intolerance, a marker of impending diabetes
— and one disease that those who eat
these sweeteners are probably trying
to avoid. When the scientists transplanted microbes from mice fed saccharine to mice that hadn’t consumed
the sweetener, the recipient animals
developed glucose intolerance as well,
suggesting that the microbiome that
was warped by the sweetener, not the
sweetener itself, was causing the problems.
The scientists also fed a small group
of healthy people saccharin-sweetened
drinks for a week. In a subset of volunteers, microbial shifts occurred, accompanied by mounting glucose intolerance. So for some people, diet sodas
may not be any healthier than regular
The big question is whether food
additives are worse than the highsugar, high-fat junk food diet they’re
often a component of. Put another way,
does adding maltodextrin to your
supersize ice cream smoothie really
make it more harmful than it already
Dr. Britton’s work suggests that, yes,
additives may cause additional damage. After all, Americans were eating
junk food long before the virulent C.
diff strains began causing havoc;
trehalose may have tipped the scales.
Bolton’s illegal North Korea war plan
Scott D. Sagan
Allen S. Weiner
John Bolton assumes office this week
with his first controversy as President
Trump’s national security adviser
awaiting him. Six weeks ago, he outlined his advocacy of an attack on
North Korea in a Wall Street Journal
op-ed titled “The Legal Case for Striking North Korea First.”
“Given the gaps in U.S. intelligence
about North Korea,” he wrote, “we
should not wait until the very last
minute” to stage what he called a
pre-emptive attack.
Mr. Bolton’s legal analysis is flawed
and his strategic logic is dangerous. As
he did before the 2003 Iraq war, he is
obscuring the important distinction
between preventive and pre-emptive
attacks. Under rules of international
law based on Daniel Webster’s interpretation of the Caroline case in 1837, a
pre-emptive attack can be legal, but
only if an adversary’s attack is imminent and unavoidable — when a need
for self-defense is “instant” and “overwhelming.”
For example, if America had intelligence that North Korea had alerted
military forces and was fueling longrange missiles on their launchpads or
rolling out missile launcher vehicles,
the United States could reasonably
assume an attack was imminent and
unavoidable and could legally launch a
pre-emptive strike in what international lawyers call “anticipatory selfdefense.”
However, if America attacked because President Trump was worried
that continued North Korean missile
and nuclear weapons development
would ultimately increase Pyongyang’s
ability to hold American cities at risk,
the strike would no longer be “anticipatory” or “pre-emptive.”
It would clearly be preventive — in
legal terms, no different from a North
Korean first strike against America
motivated by Kim Jong-un’s fear that
America might one day attack North
Preventive strikes are not legal
under international law or the United
Nations Charter. Indeed, the charter
has a name for such an operation. It is
A disingenuous lawyer might argue
that an attack on North Korea would
not be a first strike but merely another
strike in a continuing conflict, because
combat in the Korean War halted in
1953 with an armistice, not a peace
treaty. But that is specious. Given the
armistice’s indefinite duration — during which the parties committed to “a
complete cessation of hostilities” — the
right to resume hostilities would require a new legal justification.
A domestic legal issue also arises
because President Trump lacks constitutional authority to launch a preventive strike against North Korea. The
power to declare war lies with Congress. Without its approval, the com-
mander in chief’s powers allow him to
introduce American forces into areas
of hostilities only in emergencies or
military situations “short of war.”
Mr. Bolton’s insistence on not waiting until “the very last minute” to
attack inadvertently acknowledges
that such a strike wouldn’t be an emergency response that would provide an
arguable constitutional basis for a
president to act without congressional
Mr. Bolton did, however, raise a
useful analogy that evokes the need to
assess laws in the context of strategic
imperatives: the
Israeli air attacks on
Playing word
the Osirak nuclear
games with a
reactor in Iraq in
1981 and on a Syrian
attack doesn’t nuclear reactor in
make it
2007. Both strikes
were arguably illelawful.
gal, since there was
no imminent threat
to Israel. But we would argue that
Israel’s strikes were nevertheless wise,
given the longstanding threats against
it from dictatorships in Baghdad and
Damascus, and the low risk that the
attacks would escalate into a war. The
attacks could be called, in legal terms,
“illegal but legitimate.” Israel could
argue that its formal violation of the
law should be excused because it
saved the world from new nuclear
threats from Iraq and Syria.
But that is where Mr. Bolton’s analogy breaks down. The critical difference between an American preventive
strike today and Israeli strikes in 1981
and 2007 is in their timing and the
predictable consequences. Israel did
not risk nuclear retaliation in attacking
the Iraqi and Syrian reactors, which
had not yet been activated. By contrast, North Korea could already
launch nuclear attacks against South
Korea and Japan, and devastate Seoul
with artillery fire, even if its ability to
strike the continental United States is
This is the final strategic illogic of
Mr. Bolton’s advocacy of preventive
war. It is too late for such an attack to
succeed without unacceptable retaliation. No American preventive strike
could guarantee 100 percent effectiveness. If even one North Korean nuclear
weapon were to remain and be
launched against Seoul, an estimated
622,000 South Koreans would be killed
outright. A similar catastrophe could
be wrought on Tokyo. An estimated
250,000 United States citizens and
68,000 American troops also live in
harm’s way in South Korea and Japan.
Despite Mr. Bolton’s enthusiasm,
there are no tolerable military options
for confronting North Korea. Congress
does not have a vote in confirming the
president’s national security adviser.
But it should have a voice in rejecting
dangerous threats to unleash an illegal
and disastrous preventive war.
is a professor of political
science at Stanford. ALLEN S. WEINER is a
senior lecturer in law at Stanford Law
TUESDAY, APRIL 10, 2018 | 11
The tragedy of James Comey
David Leonhardt
Anti-Semitism and Britain
takably Jewish, group called Jewdas.
Jewdas calls itself non-Zionist, and it
revels in the history of the radical
Jewish diaspora; during the Seder,
participants sang Yiddish songs cursing the police (in addition to observing
more traditional Passover rituals).
This group was then denounced by
the president of the Board of Deputies
of British Jews, Jonathan Arkush, as “a
source of virulent anti-Semitism.” The
board, which has claimed to speak for
British Jewry since the 18th century,
usually keeps its head down and
avoids the headlines. In the 1930s, it
held back as other Jewish groups,
mostly on the left, led the struggle
against a nascent fascist movement on
the streets of London. An inglorious
role, perhaps, but one that has allowed
the Board of Deputies to appear nonpartisan and impartial.
Not this time. Interviewed on TV, Mr.
Arkush opined that Jewdas’s members
“are not all Jewish,” as if he were in a
position to make authoritative pronouncements on the subject.
We are back in the usual arena of
communal politics in which notables
bandy writs of excommunication as a
means of confirming their own authority. What happened to keeping shtum?
Is fighting Jewdas really a priority in
the struggle against anti-Semitism?
In this business no one comes out
well — neither Mr. Corbyn nor his
critics. But the lack of perspective and
insight that both sides have demonstrated ultimately have less to tell us
about anti-Semitism than they do
about the diminished state of British
politics. Is anti-Semitism a real issue in
Britain? Yes. Is it worse for the Labour
Party than for others? The evidence
suggests not. Is it the most serious
manifestation of
racial prejudice
The widefacing the country?
spread use
By no means. Musof what
lims have it much
started out as
worse than Jews,
a European
and Eastern European and other
immigrants have
attempt to
also been the targets
define antiof far-right violence,
Semitism has
especially since the
done nothing
referendum to leave
to help.
the European Union.
In Brexit, Britain
faces the most consequential foreign policy decision of
the past half-century, one that will
transform the country’s position in the
world. So far, the government has
handled the negotiations like amateurs. Faced with a hostile use of
deadly nerve agents on its own territory, the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, has responded with his characteristic lack of professionalism. If this is
Sowing the seeds of ISIS
was told, Iranian military officials are
buying up real estate using Syrian
businessmen as their front, turning it
into an Iranian mini-fief within Syria.
Their dream of an Iranian “land
bridge” that allows them access to the
Mediterranean is not quite there, but
their influence will surely grow, as it
has in neighboring Iraq.
As for the Russians, the withdrawal
of American troops is a huge victory.
Without them, the war will come to a
faster, more brutal end, a win for Mr.
Assad and his patrons and proof that
Moscow has the stamina to stay in a
conflict until the end. Last week, as Mr.
Trump planned his exit, the presidents
of Iran, Turkey and Russia met to
decide Syria’s fate. Mr. Assad was not
It is no coincidence that Saturday’s
deadly chemical attack on the suburb
of Douma, which killed 49 people in the
last rebel-held area, came a year after
Mr. Trump’s airstrikes on Assad targets. Is this Mr. Assad — or “Animal
Assad,” as Mr. Trump referred to him
in a weekend tweet — sending a
deadly message to Washington following the decision to pull out troops? Is it
a way of Mr. Assad telling the international community that he can do whatever he wants, knowing he will never
be punished?
Realistically, the 2,000 American
troops have not made a huge difference to the landscape of the war in
terms of humanitarian assistance,
because the United States never had a
vested interest in protecting the Syrian
population; the troops were not deployed in a way that, say, could ensure
the delivery of food or medicine, or
open up besieged towns. But the signal
their sudden withdrawal sends to the
Syrian people, especially the Syrian
Kurds, and the rest of the world will be
Kassem told me that living under the
Assad dictatorship for 40 years, the
national ideology taught him and his
friends that America was the devil.
“We were taught that America was the
enemy,” he said. “Then we figured out
it was all propaganda. But after seven
years of atrocities, do you know what
my friends and people around the
Middle East are saying? That America
is the enemy again. Because they see
the Russians bombing us and the
United States doing nothing. Now they
pull out — when they could have been
our friend or ally.”
Of course, Mr. Trump is not concerned about these things; his sole
metric for success is defeating the
Islamic State — though the vast majority of Syrian civilians were killed by
Mr. Assad’s forces. But any claim of
victory over the Islamic State is premature and naïve. As Kassem and
others note, the seeds of “ISIS 2.0” are
already planted in the thousands of
angry people who have lost their families, their homes, their country. “When
there are a million people dead,”
Kassem said, “when most have lost
everything, ISIS will
say, ‘We told you
As long as
America has
Mr. Trump has
had troops in
said that with AmerSyria, there
ica gone, its regional
was at least
allies, especially
Israel and Saudi
hope for a
Arabia, should pick
up the slack. But that
could make things
to the war.
even worse. Israel
has a long and complicated relationship
with Syria, and it has shown little
willingness to get more involved. And
Mr. Trump is perhaps forgetting that
Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of the
hard-core Wahhabi branch of Islam,
which has inspired jihadists around the
globe and could turbocharge a revived
Islamic State.
As long as America has had troops
in Syria, there was at least hope for a
peaceful resolution to the war. Now the
bottom is falling out. Kassem says he
hears talk about the coming of the
Mahdi, whom many Muslims believe
will bring about Judgment Day, because the region is engulfed in chaos —
a precondition for his arrival. “Everyone is talking end of days,” he says.
is a fellow at the
Council on Foreign Relations and the
author, most recently, of “The Morning
They Came for Us: Dispatches From
how the country’s political elite tackles
issues of such gravity, can we be surprised at how Mr. Corbyn, no less
parochial in his way than his Conservative opponents, has fumbled his own
internal crisis — and how the news
media have fanned the flames?
I am not sure that my grandfather
would have seen much change in the
Labour Party. The ongoing clash
within its ranks between moderates
and radicals would have been familiar
to him. Nor would he have been very
surprised to find prejudice extending
left as well as right: This would not
have affected his preference for the
party of social justice. And since, as a
Bundist, he had grown up in opposition
to Zionism (Bundists and Zionists were
locked in ideological combat from their
birth onward), he would have regarded
pretty searching criticism of Israel as a
far more normal part of the political
landscape than most people do today.
But he could only have been disappointed at the immense change in the
country that took him in, in Britain
itself, losing its way in a hall of mirrors,
distracted by secondary issues while
the country’s fate hangs in the balance.
James Comey is about to be ubiquitous. His book will be published next
week, and parts may leak this week.
On Sunday, he will begin an epic publicity tour, including interviews with
Stephen Colbert, David Remnick,
Rachel Maddow, Mike Allen, George
Stephanopoulos and “The View.”
All of which will raise the question:
What, ultimately, are we supposed to
make of Comey?
He may be the most significant
supporting player of the Trump era,
and his reputation has whipsawed over
the last two years. He’s spent time as a
villain, a savior and some bizarre
combination of the two, depending on
your political views.
I think that the harshest criticisms of
Comey have been unfair all along. He
has never been a partisan, for either
side. Over a long career at the Justice
Department, he was driven by its best
ideals: upholding the rule of law without fear or favor. His strengths allowed
him to resist political pressure from
more than one president of the United
Yet anybody who’s read Greek tragedy knows that strengths can turn into
weaknesses when a person becomes
too confident in those strengths. And
that’s the key to understanding the
very complex story of James Comey.
Long before he was a household
name, Comey was a revered figure
within legal circles. His rise was fairly
typical: first a federal judge’s clerk,
then a prosecutor, eventually a political
appointee. But he was more charismatic than most bureaucrats — six
feet eight inches tall, with an easy wit
and refreshing informality. People
loved working for him.
If you read his 2005 goodbye speech
to the Justice Department, when he
was stepping down as George W.
Bush’s deputy attorney general, you
can understand why. It’s funny, displaying the gifts of a storyteller. It
includes an extended tribute to the
department’s rank and file, like “secretaries, document clerks, custodians
and support people who never get
thanked enough.” He insists on “the
exact same amount of human dignity
and respect” for “every human being
in this organization,” and he quotes the
18th-century preacher John Wesley:
“Do all the good that you can.”
Above all, though, the speech is a
celebration of the department’s mission. Many Justice Department officials, from both parties, have long
believed that they should be more
independent and less political than
other cabinet departments. Comey was
known as an evangelist of this view. To
be a Justice Department employee, he
said in his goodbye, is to be “committed to getting it right, and to doing the
right thing, whatever the price.”
It wasn’t just an act, either. Comey
sometimes chided young prosecutors
who had never lost a case, accusing
them of caring more about their winloss record than justice. He told them
they were members of the Chicken
Excrement Club (or
something like that).
The man
Most famously, in
who may be
2004, he stood up to
the most
Bush and Dick Chsignificant
eney over a dubious
surveillance program.
player of the
But as real as
Trump era is
Comey’s independpreparing to
ence and integrity
were, they also
the U.S. on
became part of a
a book tour.
persona that he
cultivated and relished.
The reason that people knew about
his defiance of Bush and Cheney is that
Comey himself told Congress, at a
stage-managed 2007 hearing. As a
former Justice official later told the
journalist Garrett Graff, “Jim Comey
always has to be positioned oppositional to those in power.”
With this background, you can understand — though not excuse —
Comey’s great mistake. He was the
F.B.I. director overseeing the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private
email server. He and his team decided
that she had not done anything that
warranted criminal charges. And he
knew that Republicans would blast him
as a coward who was trying to curry
favor with the likely future president.
So he decided to go public with his
James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington in June.
explanation for not charging Clinton
and to criticize her harshly. He then
doubled down, releasing a public update on the investigation 11 days before
the election, even as other Justice
officials urged him not to. Department
policy dictates that investigators aren’t
supposed to talk publicly about why
they are not bringing charges. They
especially don’t do so when they could
affect an election.
Comey, however, decided that he
knew better than everyone else. He
was the righteous Jim Comey, after all.
He was going to speak truth to power.
He was also, not incidentally, going to
protect his own fearless image. He
developed a series of rationales, suggesting that he really had no choice.
They remain unpersuasive. When
doing the right thing meant staying
quiet and taking some lumps, Comey
chose not to.
His tragic mistake matters because
of the giant consequences for the country. He helped elect the most dangerous, unfit American president of our
lifetimes. No matter how brave Comey
has since been, no matter how honorable his full career, he can never
undo that damage.
As he takes over the spotlight again,
I’ll be thinking about the human
lessons as well the political ones.
Comey has greater strengths than
most people. But for all of us, there is a
fine line between strength and hubris.
is a historian at Columbia University and the author, most
recently, of the memoir “What You Did
Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home.”
Germs love
diet soda
If that’s true, should hospitals, which
often serve highly processed food —
and are precisely where vulnerable
people are exposed to C. diff — reconsider their menus? What about medicines, which can contain thickeners,
artificial sweeteners and stabilizers —
should they be re-evaluated as well?
We need more research to see if
what scientists observe in mice also
occurs in people, and Dr. Gewirtz is
beginning one such study.
But a bigger problem, he told me, is
that the Food and Drug Administration
isn’t organized to address diseases that
might stem from long-term tweaking of
our microbes and the chronic inflammation that ensues. It’s focused instead, he said, on acute toxicity — how
much of something makes you sick —
and mutagenesis, its ability to trigger
Susan Mayne, the director of the
F.D.A.’s Center for Food Safety and
Applied Nutrition, disputed this characterization, pointing out that the
agency has worked to get trans fats,
which increase the risk of heart disease, out of foods. She added that the
F.D.A. is actively monitoring the microbiome research but the science is still
in “earlier stages.”
What can a person do in the meantime? Your microbiome is most likely
shaped by the people, animals and
even plants and soil you encounter, as
well as the antibiotics you take and
your own genetics, among other factors, and all these influences are hard
to control. But we can control what we
feed our microbes — what we eat.
We would do well to give them as
much soluble fiber as possible, preferably in real food like nuts, legumes and
vegetables. And we can add these
concerns about thickeners, sweeteners
and emulsifiers to our list of reasons to
limit our consumption of processed
is the author
of “An Epidemic of Absence: A New
Way of Understanding Allergies and
Autoimmune Disease.”
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12 | TUESDAY, APRIL 10, 2018
Danger on the web: Click with care
do a web search on the company to see
if its services are legitimate. You can
also check reputable web publications
that review apps, like TouchArcade,
CNET and Tom’s Guide.
For another, when installing an app,
take a close look at what data it gains
access to. Smartphone apps will ask
for access to certain data and sensors.
If an app is asking for data that is
unrelated to the product, don’t install
it. For example, you can expect a mapping app to ask for your location data,
but it shouldn’t need access to your
“If something seems outside of the
scope, like if a calculator app tells you
it needs to use your webcam, say,
‘What, why?’” said Adam Kujawa, the
head of malware intelligence at Malwarebytes, a security firm.
Third, avoid downloading apps from
unofficial app stores and sites that are
not affiliated with large brands. And
keep in mind that alternative app
stores are particularly ripe for malware.
Brian X. Chen
If there was one broad takeaway from
the data leak involving Cambridge
Analytica, the voter profiling firm that
obtained private information from up
to 87 million Facebook accounts, it’s
that you should hesitate before sharing
your data with an unknown brand.
This lesson applies to just about
everything that touches your personal
technology, including the apps that you
download to your phone or computer
and the free online services that you
use. And, yes, it also includes those
seemingly harmless personality tests
run by some unfamiliar organization
on Facebook — the kind that helped
Cambridge Analytica get the data on
To make matters worse, the information that can be stolen from you is
becoming increasingly personal.
Smartphones, for one, are embedded
with microphones, motion sensors and
cameras that can spy on your every
move if corrupted by a bad actor.
Home gadgets like internet-connected
thermostats, power outlets and audio
speakers are capable of collecting
information about what you are doing
at home and knowing when you are
away from home.
It’s time to stop using technology
and the internet as though you were
shopping at a supermarket. In a grocery store, you can reasonably assume
that the food labels are accurate and
the products safe to eat, because the
food industry is heavily regulated. The
handling of personal digital information, in contrast, is loosely regulated.
There have been scores of obscure
companies baiting you with products
that purport to improve your life but
actually capitalize on your data.
“We don’t really know why we’re
trusting that a particular company
with access to our data won’t do something like sell it or rent it or share it
without our consent,” said Lee Tien, a
lawyer for the Electronic Frontier
Foundation, a nonprofit organization
that focuses on digital rights.
The tech behemoths aren’t innocent.
The data leak to Cambridge Analytica
was ultimately Facebook’s fault because its app platform allowed data to
be harvested from people’s friends
lists. About five years ago, Google had
to pay a $7 million fine after acknowledging that it had scooped up passwords, email and other personal data
with its Street View mapping project.
Yet I am recommending taking extra
caution with obscure tech brands
because it is something under your
control. You can take a pause. Don’t
immediately download every app you
see in an app store or on the web just
because it looks like fun. Don’t take
every quiz you see on Facebook (even
if you are dying to know which “Game
of Thrones” character identifies with
you). Don’t impulse-buy internetconnected devices from unfamiliar
brands. Don’t do any of this without
It’s time to stop using technology
as though you were shopping at a
supermarket, where you can
assume the foods are safe.
first doing some research on the reputations of these vendors and their
business models.
Here are some examples of when
unknown brands did us wrong — and
the lessons we can learn.
Last year, The New York Times revealed that Uber had bought information about Lyft, its main ride-hailing
competitor in the United States, from, a free email service that
offered to unsubscribe people from
marketing emails.
How did get data about
Lyft? scanned users’ inboxes for information and sold it to
other businesses, and Uber paid it for
data it found about Lyft receipts.
Here’s the kicker: The truth was
always laid out in the privacy policy,
which said that “we may collect, use,
transfer, sell and disclose nonpersonal
information for any purpose” and that
data could be used “to build anonymous market research products and
In response to the backlash, said it was “heartbreaking” to
see that people were upset and
pledged to be more transparent about
its use of data. The app continues to
It’s a daunting task, but
whenever you have the time, read
privacy policies before sharing your
data with a brand. And do the best you
can to research a company’s business
model. When a service or product is
free, assume that your personal information is being monetized.
“We all need to know that whenever
you’re not paying for the thing, then
you’re paying for the thing in a nonmonetary way,” Mr. Tien said.
Last year, an app called Soniac was
available for Android phones on the
Google Play app store. Soniac marketed itself as a messaging app — and
indeed, it included features for sending
text messages. The less obvious features: The app was also capable of
silently recording audio, taking photos
with the camera, placing phone calls
and downloading call logs.
Lookout, a security firm that follows
malicious software for Android devices, alerted Google about Soniac’s
hidden abilities last year, and the app
was quickly removed from the Play
app store.
Yet Lookout said its researchers had
identified over 1,000 spyware apps
with many of the same characteristics
that Soniac had. Many were served in
third-party app stores that are not
authorized by Google.
The company that offered Soniac,
Iraqwebservice, had published other
spyware apps on the Play store. All of
its apps have been removed from Play,
but Lookout warned that the spyware
would probably resurface.
For one, before you install
an app from a company you’ve never
heard of, look at its user reviews and
Parents, beware: A number of internet
products have specifically collected
data about children. EchoMetrix is a
notorious example. In 2009, the company issued a news release bragging
that it had predicted the winner of that
year’s “American Idol” singing competition.
How did it do that? By looking at
children’s private information. The
company started in 2004 with the
name SearchHelp, offering a parental
control app called FamilySafe for
parents to monitor their children’s
online activities. Five years later, it
rebranded itself as EchoMetrix and
released Pulse, a tool for providing
insight to third-party marketers on
youths, by aggregating data from
millions of teenagers’ chat transcripts
and blog posts, among other sources.
EchoMetrix’s practices attracted the
attention of the Electronic Privacy
Information Center, a privacy rights
group, which filed a complaint about
the company to the United States
Federal Trade Commission. The group
accused EchoMetrix of violating the
Children’s Online Privacy Protection
Act by collecting information on minors without parental consent. In 2010,
EchoMetrix reached settlements with
the commission and the New York
attorney general’s office in which it
agreed not to analyze or share information about children’s private communications or online activities.
EchoMetrix has since rebranded itself
as Protext Mobility, a biotech company.
Be judicious when choosing tech products for your children.
Increasingly, toys are beginning to
include internet connections — before
buying a “smart” toy, do your homework on what the companies are doing
with the data. Common Sense Media, a
nonprofit that evaluates content and
products for families, is a good place to
start your research.
Perhaps the most important lesson
is to acknowledge that you don’t know
anything about the vast majority of
brands you engage with on the internet. So tread carefully.
“These threats aren’t going away,”
Mr. Tien said. “With the expansion of
data collection and the expansion of
what’s possible to collect, it’s just going
to continue to proliferate.”
Tech thinks it has a solution to tech’s problems
Worried about someone hacking the
next election? Bothered by the way
Facebook and Equifax coughed up your
personal information?
The technology industry has an answer called the blockchain — even for
the problems the industry helped to create.
The first blockchain was created in
2009 as a new kind of database for the
virtual currency Bitcoin. All transactions could be stored in the database
without the involvement of any banks or
Now, countless entrepreneurs, companies and governments are looking to
use similar databases — often independent of Bitcoin — to solve some of
the most intractable issues facing society.
“People feel the need to move away
from something like Facebook and toward something that allows them to
have ownership of their own data,” said
Ryan Shea, a co-founder of Blockstack, a
New York company working with
blockchain technology.
The creator of the World Wide Web,
Tim Berners-Lee, has said the
blockchain could help reduce the big internet companies’ influence and return
the web to his original vision. But he has
also warned that it could come with
some of the same problems as the web.
Blockchain allows information to be
stored and exchanged by a network of
computers without any central authority. In theory, this egalitarian arrangement makes it harder for data to be altered or hacked.
Investors, for one, see potential.
While the prices of Bitcoin and other vir-
tual currencies have plummeted this
year, investment in other blockchain
projects has remained strong. In the
first three months of 2018, venture capitalists put half a billion dollars into 75
blockchain projects, more than double
what they raised in the last quarter of
2017, according to data from Pitchbook.
Most of the projects have not gotten
beyond pilot testing, and many are
aimed at transforming mundane corporate tasks like financial trading and accounting. But some experiments promise to transform fundamental things,
like the way we vote and the way we interact online.
“There is just so much it can do,” said
Bradley Tusk, a former campaign manager for Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, who has recently thrown his weight behind several
blockchain projects. “I love the fact that
you can transmit data, information and
choices in a way that is really hard to
hack — really hard to disrupt and that
can be really efficient.”
Mr. Tusk, the founder of Tusk Strategies, is an investor in some large virtual currency companies. He has also supported efforts aimed at getting governments to move voting online to
blockchain-based systems. Mr. Tusk argues that blockchains could make reliable online voting possible because the
votes could be recorded in a tamperproof way.
“Everything is moving toward people
saying, ‘I want all the benefits of the internet, but I want to protect my privacy
and my security,’” he said. “The only
thing I know that can reconcile those
things is the blockchain.”
Blockchains assemble data into socalled blocks that are chained together
using complicated math. Since each
block is built off the last one and includes
information like time stamps, any at-
A co-founder of Blockstack,
says people want to control their data.
tempt to go back and alter existing data
would be highly complicated.
The novel structure allows people to
set up online accounts that can securely
hold valuable personal information
without having to trust a single entity
that can hoard, abuse or lose control of
the data, as happened with Facebook
and the consumer credit reporting
agency Equifax.
A range of corporations and governments are trying to apply the blockchain
model. Various departments of the
United Nations now have blockchain experiments looking to tackle climate
change, the delivery of humanitarian
aid and the identity challenges faced by
stateless people. Coca-Cola and the
State Department recently announced a
project to register foreign employees on
a blockchain to eliminate forced labor.
These experiments have drawn skepticism from Bitcoin aficionados, who say
blockchains are being applied to problems that could be solved more easily
with old-fashioned databases.
Other critics say blockchain development could lead to the same problem
facing the broader tech industry: a willingness to disrupt and overthrow old
systems before the replacement has
been thoroughly tested.
“The blockchain industry is ready and
waiting to say, ‘Yes, we are the solution,’
and they have every incentive to do so,”
said Angela Walch, a research fellow at
the Center for Blockchain Technologies
at University College London. “But
somebody needs to ask the question: ‘Is
it actually better? Is it measurably better?’ ”
Many blockchain projects opened
themselves to criticism and regulatory
scrutiny by raising money through socalled initial coin offerings last year.
These fund-raising campaigns often
brought in tens of millions of dollars in
minutes with little regulatory oversight.
But new blockchain efforts continue
apace, motivated in no small part by
concerns about the emergence of internet giants like Facebook and YouTube.
Most of the biggest internet companies make their money from collecting
personal information and using it to sell
targeted advertisements. This kind of
data collection makes them vulnerable
to hackers and outsiders who want to
leverage the data, as was evident when
gained access to 50 million Facebook
profiles. And start-ups are using the
blockchain in an attempt to pry control
of all that data out of their hands.
Blockstack has built a way to record
the basic details about your identity on a
blockchain database and then use that
identity to set up accounts with other on-
Another founder of the New
York company Blockstack.
In theory, blockchain technology
makes it harder for data to be
altered or hacked.
line projects that are built on top of it.
The animating force behind the
project is that users — rather than
Blockstack or any other company —
would end up in control of all the data
they generate with any online service.
Blockstack is one of several
blockchain-based projects hoping to
create a new generation of online services that don’t rely on having unfettered
access to our personal information.
The idea has gained enough steam
that in the days after news of Facebook’s
relationship with Cambridge Analytica
broke, Twitter was filled with people
calling for blockchain-based alternatives.
“As Facebook is collapsing we need to
replace it with a blockchain based, decentralized platform!” one user, @GerdMoeBehrens, wrote.
“#blockchain WE NEED U NOW!!!”
wrote another, @andymartin46.
But Mr. Berners-Lee has warned that
the development of the blockchain could
come with unintended consequences,
like more criminal operations outside
the oversight of governments.
Even blockchain advocates say the
hype has conditioned people to think
that good answers are close at hand,
when it could take five or 10 years for the
technology to properly develop.
In fact, most blockchain projects are
still plagued by concerns about privacy.
For example, the widely used Bitcoin
blockchain allows certain data — details
of the transactions between users — to
be seen by anyone, even if other data —
the users’ identities — remains obscured. Voting start-ups have solved
this by encrypting the data before
putting it on a blockchain, but there are
questions about whether this will solve
other privacy concerns.
Blockchain-based accounts also rely
on users’ keeping their own passwords
or private keys, which people are bad at
doing. With Bitcoin, when people lose
their private keys they lose access to the
money in their accounts. If they lost the
private keys to blockchain-based online
accounts, they could lose access to their
“We’re not saying that tomorrow you
can flip the switch and a blockchain is
going to solve these problems,” said Michael Casey, a co-author of “The Truth
Machine,” a new book on the blockchain.
“What’s important is how it opens the
door to a new way of thinking about the
problems we face.”
14 | TUESDAY, APRIL 10, 2018
Right on cue, here come the jitters
With typical trepidation,
Tom Hollander prepares
for a Tom Stoppard play
Tom Hollander is nervous. When he
took the part of Henry Carr, the very civil servant at the swirling center of “Travesties,” Tom Stoppard’s 1974 Zurich-set
brainteaser, he worried he couldn’t learn
it. Then he worried he couldn’t pull it off.
He did. First at London’s Menier
Chocolate Factory and then in the West
End, earning career-best reviews. The
production, directed by Patrick Marber
and presented by the Roundabout Theater Company, will open April 24 on
Acting a role more than a hundred
times might relax some men. Not Mr.
Hollander. “I don’t know an actor living
who isn’t in a state of anxiety before a
show opens,” he said.
Tucked into a corner of a theater district bistro a few days before previews
began, Mr. Hollander, 50, worried about
memory, about mortality, about Americans understanding the crucial difference between trousers and pants (this
fun new fear is my fault) and mostly
about whether the little finger on his left
hand, broken in a cringingly funny skiing accident, would heal before the first
He wouldn’t dream of wearing the
cast onstage. “It would change the
meaning of the play,” he said. “Obviously.”
Obviously? It isn’t always easy to tell
when Mr. Hollander is joking, and that’s
a lot of his appeal. He is vitally funny in
dramatic roles, wrenchingly somber in
comic ones. Mr. Stoppard, speaking by
telephone, called him “a comedian, as
well as a tough cookie, a tough egg.” He
is someone, the novelist and screenwriter Julian Fellowes said, who “can play
and suggest many different truths and
emotions at once.”
One more thing: The Daily Mail, playing on Mr. Hollander’s 5-foot-5 frame,
has named him a “sex thimble.” So he
has that to work with, too.
In the last several years, he’s played
an overburdened inner-city vicar in
“Rev.,” a brash aide-de-camp in “The
Night Manager,” a compassionate country medic in “Doctor Thorne” and a periwigged baddie in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” so if he has a type, he’s keeping it
But in Henry Carr, a soldier and a
dandy and a lover and a prig, who moves
through the play sometimes in his
sprightly 20s and sometimes in his fuddled 60s, Mr. Hollander has one of the
great roles and one of the great monologues, a five-page tongue-twirler that
begins the play. Good thing it has come
to him now and not a minute later.
“An actor’s failing powers get you in
the end,” he said mordantly. His glass
was half empty. A waiter poured more
He grew up in Oxford, the younger
child of schoolteachers. Mr. Marber, the
director of “Travesties,” remembered
seeing a teenage Mr. Hollander acting in
a student production of “Volpone.”
“I thought, ‘Who is this cherub?’” Mr.
Marber recalled. “He was an angelic
youth. Very sparkling, very confident.”
Mr. Hollander is sparkling, he is confi-
Tom Hollander, left, who is starring as Henry Carr in “Travesties,” a role that has him
playing younger and older versions of the character. Top, Mr. Hollander onstage as
Henry Carr. Above, with Liam Neeson, left, in the play “The Judas Kiss.”
Mr. Hollander is sparkling, he is
confident. But he is also
self-deprecating and punishingly
dent. He is irrepressibly charming and,
as his friend Ralph Fiennes, who has already seen “Travesties” four times,
said, “He is very, very, very, very clever.”
Olivia Colman co-starred with him in
“Rev.” Her encapsulation: “He’s magic.”
But he is also self-deprecating and
punishingly self-aware. He starts and
stops his sentences, notes when something “is a bit of a cliché,” narrates himself. “He petered out,” he’ll say. “He attacked his chicken with renewed vigor,”
he’ll say. The lunch was book-ended by
espressos, suggesting that Mr. Hollander does not ease up without a fight.
He’s been acting from “Volpone” on,
except for a dry spell after Cambridge
when he worked in a toy shop, and he
still seems a little surprised that he’s
made it his life’s work. Is it a reasonable
life? A useful one?
Doctors, engineers, schoolteachers
like his parents, they’re the ones doing
the useful work, he said. “People in the
entertainment industry shouldn’t take
themselves too seriously.” Still, telling
stories has “an ancient function, that’s
being human, isn’t it?” he asked. He didn’t seem sure.
Acting is useful to Mr. Hollander anyway. Liam Neeson, who starred with Mr.
Hollander on Broadway 20 years ago in
David Hare’s “The Judas Kiss,” wrote,
“He’s small in stature, yet when he per-
forms he becomes huge.”
Mr. Hollander’s self-consciousness
rarely follows him onstage. A good role,
he said, is like taking a paid vacation
from himself. Each television show, each
movie, each play, it’s a chance to disappear into a character. “It’s like going on
holiday without having to get on an airplane,” he said.
Obviously — obviously? — the Zurich
of “Travesties” is a nice place to land. A
minor consular official, Carr meets up
with the Dadaist Tristan Tzara, the novelist James Joyce and the Leninist
Vladimir Lenin, all of whom actually
traipsed through Switzerland in 1917.
Mr. Hollander compared the play to a
disco ball. “It’s like a shower of brilliance,” he said. Will audiences understand it? “Once you’ve given up the attempt, it becomes very, very enjoyable,”
he said.
John Wood created the role of Henry
Carr, winning a Tony Award for his
pains; Antony Sher played it a generation later. When Mr. Hollander and Mr.
Marber discussed the revival, they
knew they wanted to make Carr a more
poignant figure, his younger self
haunted by the war that wounded him,
his older hassled by senility. “It’s a
comic role, but Tom is able to make it a
tragic role as well, which is what I
wanted,” Mr. Marber said.
Carr is always dreaming up titles for
his memoirs: “Further Recollections of
a Consular Official in Whitest Switzerland,” “Memories of Dada by a Consular
Friend,” “Zurich by One Who Was
There.” Does Mr. Hollander, who has
written teasing columns for The Spectator (I’m partial to the one about Joan
Collins), ever plan on writing a memoir?
Does he have a title? Not yet. “I feel . . . it
might be premature,” he said. “I hope it’s
There are a lot of not-yets in Mr. Hol-
lander’s life. For decades, he’s told interviewers that he’d like to marry and have
children. He’s never managed it. “I always thought it would happen. It didn’t
happen. I can’t blame anyone but myself,” he said. Then he made the joke
about attacking the roast chicken.
Mr. Marber has wondered if some
kind of wound, some kind of loneliness
enables Mr. Hollander’s acting. But Mr.
Hollander denies it. “I have the same
wounds as everyone else,” he said.
“There isn’t a particular trauma that I’m
employing on this one, just other than
general trauma of being a human being.”
With lunch ended, at least he could
put the particular trauma of slicing a
roast chicken with a broken finger behind him. After finishing his second
espresso and paying the bill, he collected his coat from the rack. The maître
d’ noticed his hand. “Tom, what happened? Did you punch someone,” he
“If only I’d done something so macho,” Mr. Hollander replied. (The real
story: He failed to exit a Swiss ski lift in a
timely fashion.)
He walked a few blocks of what he
called “the miracle that is Manhattan”
and stepped down into the subway,
swiping his MetroCard. It didn’t take. He
swiped it again.
“That should be the title of my memoir,” he said resignedly. “‘Insufficient
Johnny Cash’s poems return as songs
John Carter Cash helps
his father’s verses find
their musical expression
November 2016 saw the arrival of “Forever Words: The Unknown Poems,” a
posthumous collection of unpublished
poetry written by Johnny Cash, the first
person ever to be inducted into both the
country music and rock ’n’ roll halls of
fame. By turns flinty and tender, devotional and irreverent, haunted and enraptured, Cash’s poems — which date as
far back as the 1940s — proved as multifaceted and emotionally far-reaching as
the man himself.
“Johnny Cash: Forever Words,” just
out from Sony Legacy, gives his verses
even broader expression, enlisting kindred spirits, including John Mellencamp, T Bone Burnett, Kacey Musgraves and Cash’s daughter, Rosanne, to
set a selection of them to music.
The arrangements vary, from ambient electronica and Appalachian Gothic
to contemporary torch song and bluegrass gospel, with scarcely a hint of
Cash’s trademark freight-train rhythms.
Reverberating throughout the album’s
16 tracks, nevertheless, is the unmistakable voice of the Man in Black.
Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, served
as one of the producers for the project,
along with Sony’s Steve Berkowitz. For
Mr. Cash, hearing his father’s words
come alive to music written by others
was tantamount to having the chance to
collaborate with him again.
“When the book of poems came out, I
heard melodies,” said Mr. Cash, talking
about the impetus for the project by
Johnny Cash’s son, John Carter Cash, above, has recalled that when his father’s poems
were published, “I heard melodies.”
Above, the Highwaymen, from left: Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and
Kris Kristofferson.
phone from London while he was on a
promotional tour there last month.
“My father wasn’t here to sing those
melodies, but they were there. I heard
his voice again — that, and I believed
there were artists out there who loved
him who could do his words justice.”
The album opens augustly, with Kris
Kristofferson intoning the words to
“Forever,” an eight-line poem that Cash
wrote in 2003, just weeks before he died.
“You tell me that I must perish / Like
the flowers that I cherish / Nothing remaining of my name / Nothing remembered of my fame,” Mr. Kristofferson begins in a craggy baritone. Then, as Willie
Nelson lightly fingerpicks the tune to
Cash’s 1959 hit “I Still Miss Someone” on
gut-string guitar, Mr. Kristofferson goes
however, being invited to enter the artistic consciousness of — and, in a sense, to
collaborate with — someone who is no
longer alive, especially someone as imposing as Cash, proved too daunting a
proposition, making several decide not
to participate.
“Each artist has their own understanding of the creative process, and, for
some, this just wasn’t something they
would do,” said Mr. Cash. “To them, it
would have been like asking Picasso to
pick up a paint brush and finish a painting started by Monet. They’d say, ‘No
way. I can’t go there.’”
Most of the musicians who were
asked to contribute, though, relished the
chance to do so, among them the perennial Grammy-winner Alison Krauss.
“My father’s words pulled the
artists there.”
on to assert: “But the trees that I
planted / Still are young / The songs I
sang / Will still be sung.”
Hope abounds here, an unshakable
faith of almost biblical proportions, in
the persistence of some form of life —
some sort of enduring relevance — beyond the grave.
The ease with which Mr. Kristofferson
and Mr. Nelson inhabit Cash’s poem is
hardly surprising given their decadeslong friendship with him and their mutual membership in the outlaw country supergroup, the Highwaymen. For some,
Procuring the songwriting skills of her
frequent collaborator, Robert Lee
Castleman, Ms. Krauss said that she approached her track — “The Captain’s
Daughter,” a poem rendered as an old
Anglo-Celtic-style ballad — less as if she
was completing something that was unfinished and more as if she was creating
something new.
A similarly inventive approach
guided Elvis Costello in his jazz-inflected reimagining of the poem “I’ll Still
Love You.” “I looked at the lyric and, before I could stifle the thought, the melody appeared in my head,” Mr. Costello
wrote in an email. “I left Steve Berkowitz sitting at our kitchen table and went
downstairs to the piano and had most of
the tune completed in about 10 minutes.”
“My father’s words pulled the artists
there,” said Mr. Cash of the inspiration
for the music written for the project.
Much of it was recorded at the Cash Cabin Studio his father built in Hendersonville, Tenn., some 20 miles northeast of
Nashville, four decades ago.
“The Brad Paisley song,” Mr. Cash
added, referring to “Gold All Over the
Ground,” one of several tracks based on
romantic verses that Cash wrote for his
wife, June Carter Cash, “is, note for note,
what came out of the guitar the moment
he read the poem. I was there. I was sitting right there with him.”
Each of the artists who appear on the
record identified strongly with the poem
he or she set to music, but maybe no one
so much as the Soundgarden singer
Chris Cornell. Indeed, listening now, it’s
hard not to hear his despairing contribution, “You Never Knew My Mind,” in
light of his 2017 suicide.
“I’ve had those dark moments myself,
just as my father had dark moments and
just as Chris did,” said Mr. Cash. “He and
I both connected with the honesty of
those lyrics.”
Closing the album on an aptly mystical note is the country singer Jamey
Johnson’s ghostly arrangement of “Spirit Rider,” a poem that evokes just the sort
of immortality Cash longs for in “Forever.”
“If you cry out I might hear you on the
wind,” Mr. Johnson begins. “And if the
mountains echo your love to me / Wave
your heart and / I’ll be riding back
“Johnny Cash’s music has, and continues to have, a stubborn staying power,”
said Mr. Johnson, “and that’s because it
preaches. It speaks to our souls. That’s
why we keep coming back to it. It feeds
TUESDAY, APRIL 10, 2018 | 15
Of feminism, sex and aging in Hollywood
In a collection of essays,
Christine Lahti reflects on
life in the business of show
In her airy, antiques-filled loft in
Greenwich Village, Christine Lahti is
trying to fight her way out of a box.
Her hands pat the empty air in front of
her. Then, quickly, she clutches that
pesky invisible kite, but it’s getting
away from her . . . woaaaahhhh! I’m
waiting for the third move in her arsenal, but I think we’ve exhausted the
possibilities. She is not very good at
“I really thought I could generate
some income being a mime,” she says,
recalling one tale in her new collection
of essays, “True Stories From an Unreliable Eyewitness.” This was in 1973,
before the awards — before the Oscars,
the Emmys, the Golden Globes and the
Broadway accolades — before America
discovered this actress of quirky
beauty, intelligence and wit.
All of that would come later. But that
day in Central Park, Ms. Lahti made
$3.35. Mime career over. Lucky for us.
“True Stories” started as readings
performed onstage and became a
loosely connected series of essays
about family, Hollywood, aging and,
most of all, how these life moments
charted her evolution as a feminist. It
is by turns funny, touching and selfrevelatory, and not in a typical actress
humble-braggy way: She can tell
stories about herself that are truly
toe-curling. Did she really approach a
random stranger and ask to be relieved of her virginity? (You can imagine how well that went.)
The 68-year-old actress is at her
New York City home while her husband, the director Thomas Schlamme,
is filming “The Americans” in Brooklyn. We spoke about the book on a
brilliant snowy day, as dozens of candles flickered around us and her S&M
rope dangled from a rafter. (That is
what she called it. It is in fact an art
installation.) Below is a condensed
version of our conversation.
Every mother will appreciate how one
of the finest stage actresses of her
time was told by her children that her
voice was disgusting, and forbidden
to sing and dance in front of them.
You write: “Until the little control
freaks go off to college, you will be in
a song-and-dance straitjacket.”
I had to go full-awkward, because so
much of what is imperfect about me is
awkward and embarrassing — and
hopefully funny.
Christine Lahti at her home in Santa Monica, Calif. Her new book is called “True Stories From an Unreliable Eyewitness: A Feminist Comes of Age.”
Your book seemed to start off as a
traditional memoir, and then it morphed into something else — an awakening of sorts that centers on what it
means to be a first-wave feminist. Is
that what happened?
I started writing, not knowing what it
was going to be. My daughter was sick
of me complaining about, you know,
“There’s no jobs for women over 50, I
didn’t know there was a shelf life for
actresses.” Obviously, I was a little
naïve. And she said, “Stop complaining, stop being dependent on men
hiring you, and write some of your
stories down.”
This book is largely about how you
evolved as a feminist, which included
the rejection of the family model you
grew up with: doctor dad beloved by
his patients but remote to his family;
mother who was sort of an iconic
1950s housewife . . .
. . . who I judged so harshly. I think she
was a product of that internalized
misogyny many women feel, but after
her kids left the house she had another
life — she became a professional painter, and a pilot. None of us have to be
You recount stories of Broadway and
Hollywood that remind us of why the
#MeToo movement was inevitable —
for example, the day a casting agent
assured you a role, when all you had
to do was have sex with the directors.
Did he really say it that casually?
Yes, as if it was an understood thing
that I would automatically do that. It
wasn’t even couched in a joke or an
apology. It was really just, “Yeah,
here’s what you have to do.”
It was something that we all back
then just knew we had to navigate
through. And it sounds benign; it’s not
like they even touched me. But these
experiences aren’t benign. I think that
they break you in some way. Especially
when I was young, and I was full of
hope and optimism about my worth as
a human being and my talent as an
actress. All that was disregarded. It
dehumanized me in a way that devastated me.
But that story was very telling. You
walked home 75 blocks raging, vowing no one would ever treat you that
way again.
And by the time I get home and some
man I want to see calls and asks me
out, I can’t go because I feel like I
weigh five pounds too much. That sort
of sums up a lot of stuff about how
women go through life.
Did you still feel vulnerable, even
after you got more power in your
career? How did you cope with unwanted attention?
Early on in my career, if I wanted the
job, I would giggle and flirt back, be-
cause I wanted the job. But I would
leave feeling dirty and disgusted with
myself and powerless — and dehumanized. But I never had anyone go so far
that I would have to say “No,” and “Zip
up your zipper.” Maybe I was tall and a
little scary or something.
You talk a lot about aging in Hollywood, and you write wonderfully
about your own struggles about getting plastic surgery: the appointments with the doctor, the breaking
of appointments. And you leave us
with a cliffhanger. What did you do?
I haven’t done it yet, but the jury’s still
out. Yeah, you know, I see cutting, and
that’s all I see on the screen. I see
people with face-lifts, and I’m almost
just looking at, “O.K., wow, that’s a
pretty good one. Oh, but her lips aren’t
quite right.” I’m looking at the “work,”
not the acting. I don’t think I’ve ever
seen one that you can’t tell.
It’s a lot of pressure to resist. How
many women in Hollywood haven’t
had stuff done?
I think I’m the only one! (Her publicist
emails later, to make it very clear that
she was joking.) And by the way, I’m
not judge-y about anybody who does it,
because I still might. It’s just that I
resent the pressure to do it. I resent
the need women feel to stay young to
be relevant. I resent all that. And I
want, somehow, to be valued for other
things. I still want that.
You won an Academy Award for directing your 1995 short film, “Lieberman in Love.” What do you want to be
doing now?
I want to either direct or act in movies
about women. That’s what I want to
do. I have a couple of scripts I want to
direct. And I have a series that I’m
developing about an older woman —
everyone wants to put her out to pas-
ture — who’s trying to find a way. She
fights valiantly, and sometimes foolishly, to stay visible. It’s a half-hour
Many of us want to see more of you
onscreen. And can I just say you offer
one of the greatest acting tips of all?
I do?
When you hate someone you’re working with. “Sometimes when I have to
look adoringly into someone’s eyes, I
imagine they’re the eyes of Nellie, my
golden retriever.”
Oh yes! It works. And I’m sure the
ones who hated me thought about their
dog, or maybe their favorite sports
Judith Newman is the author of “To Siri
With Love.”
With sobriety as jet fuel, a memoir soars
The Recovering:
Intoxication and Its Aftermath
By Leslie Jamison. 534 pp. Little, Brown
& Company. $30.
It’s possible to imagine the screenplay
Aaron Sorkin would make from Leslie
Jamison’s memoir “The Recovering:
Intoxication and Its Aftermath.” It
would be a bit like “The Social Network,” but instead of rejection its
themes would largely be of acceptance.
It would open, like that film, at Harvard. While an undergraduate, Jamison was admitted to the staff of the
Advocate, the college’s venerable
literary magazine, whose motto is
Dulce est periculum (“Danger is
Her initiation ceremony had a pro
wrestling theme. “I dutifully showed
up in spandex,” Jamison writes, “and
got taken immediately to the basement
— where one of my wrists was handcuffed to another initiate’s, who was
also handcuffed to a clanging metal
pipe. I was handed a screwdriver, my
first.” She is speaking of a vodka and
orange juice, not an escape tool.
Cut to another initiation ritual, this
time at a Harvard social club where a
secret panel unlocks the door.
“I had to smoke eight cigarettes at
once — with skill, without coughing —
and climb on top of a four-foot pillar
while club members shone a spotlight
in my face and heckled me when my
answers to their questions weren’t
witty enough.”
Jamison was made to “close-read” a
piece of erotic fiction in front of the
assembled. (This is, naturally, how
would-be book critics are assessed at
The New York Times as well.) There
was a food fight. The drink this time
was Beefeater gin.
From Harvard, cut to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where Jamison went
next. One of the attractions/repulsions
of “The Recovering” is watching Jamison spy and then grasp nearly every
rung on the literary-intellectual status
At Iowa City parties, poets wrestled
in kiddie pools filled with Jell-O. Bar
tabs were rung up at the same joints
where well-oiled legends like Denis
Johnson and Raymond Carver drank
themselves into oblivion.
“I spent my days reading dead
drunk poets,” Jamison writes, “and my
nights trying to sleep with live ones. I
love-groped my way through the future
From Iowa she goes to Yale, for a
Ph.D. in English literature, then to the
artists’ colony Yaddo, where she writes
fiction. (She published a novel, “The
Gin Closet,” in 2010; the book that
made her name, a radiant collection of
essays called “The Empathy Exams,”
arrived in 2014.) Trips to Milan and
Mexicali and Nicaragua are recounted.
Jamison places a mental asterisk
next to every achievement and allnighter. These indicate how deeply
unhappy she frequently was, drinking
her way into regular blackouts, cutting
and starving herself, crying in closets
and alleys, having sex with strange
men. That night chained up at the
Advocate? She blacked out and had to
be told, later, that she’d vomited in a
friend’s car.
Jamison had romanticized the “unhinged sparks of luminous chaos” she
saw in the lives and work of writers
like the poet John Berryman. She
wanted a sliver of the authenticating
chaos all to herself; she got it, and
In “The Recovering,” Jamison’s story
is braided with the larger story of
addiction in America. We read about
Nixon’s war on drugs and about narcotics prisons. Theorists, clinicians and
neuropharmacologists are cited. The
career arcs of artist-drinkers like
Berryman, Jean Rhys and Billie Holiday are traced.
This material has been hashed over
many times in previous books, and in
the first half of “The Recovering”
Jamison brings little that’s new to this
discussion. You frequently feel you’re
reading filler; mental sawdust.
The first half is off-putting in other
ways. Jamison is close to humorless as
a writer, and she rubs and rubs our
noses in her bad-girl bona fides. Every
lily is painted, black. She performs a
down-and-out version of what the
essayist and critic Logan Pearsall
Smith called a “swimgloat,” a triumphal glide through society.
The two aspects of this memoir don’t
mix particularly well. I would have
dropped this book gently behind the
sofa if I weren’t contractually obligated
to finish it. But I’ll admit that I’m glad I
did clean my plate.
The great surprise of “The Recovering” is that the second half is close to
magnificent, and genuinely moving.
This is that rare addiction memoir that
gets better after sobriety takes hold.
Jamison joins Alcoholics Anonymous
and, after a relapse, gets sober. She is a
powerful describer of the kind of community she enters with A.A. meetings.
She evokes the church basements and
Styrofoam cups of coffee and day-old
pastries as well as any writer since
Leslie Jamison.
David Foster Wallace.
Wallace turns out to be an important
figure in this memoir. He is among
those writers, along with Denis Johnson and others, whose work improved
after he stopped drinking. Jamison
loves the sense of sobriety in Wallace’s
novel “Infinite Jest” because, she
writes, “it wasn’t stolid, or pedantic; it
was palpable and crackling and absurd. It was so brutally alive on every
Similarly, she loves the way that
Johnson published four novels, a poetry collection, a book of stories and a
screenplay in the decade after he got
sober. “His was the arc I’d been looking for: the possibility of sobriety as jet
The links Jamison draws between
sobriety and creativity derive from
what she calls her “unsexy” dissertation at Yale, which was titled “The
Recovered: Addiction and Sincerity in
20th Century American Literature.”
These are worth the price of admission. They are (I think?) worth the
more than 200 pages it takes to begin
to arrive at them.
Inside every obese person, it is said,
there’s a thin person dying to get out.
Inside every piece of marble, there is a
sculpture. Inside the 500-plus pages of
“The Recovery” is a shorter, finer book
and maybe even a screenplay awaiting
someone. In this case, I am not entirely
unhappy to have taken the long way
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