• print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

    To Bust You Shall Return

    All four of Nicholas Lemann’s major books examine crucial episodes of American history through the prism of lives that shaped or were shaped by that history. In 1991’s The Promised Land, Mississippians Ruby Lee Daniels and George Hicks embody the Great Migration as they relocate to Chicago. In 1999’s The Big Test, the Educational Testing Service’s Henry Chauncey and Los Angeles attorney Molly Munger carry Lemann’s analysis of an SAT-fueled meritocracy more privileged than it knows. Redemption’s alarming and often brutal 2006 account of racist terrorists destroying Reconstruction makes flawed

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

    Merit Schmerit

    When Americans talk about inequality, we prefer to skip over an important foundational question: Are richer people better than poorer people? In general the unspoken assumption is yes. Conservatives tend to believe richer people are better because capitalism is designed to reward goodness: Thrift and hard work make wealth, so wealthy people must be thrifty and hardworking. Liberals tend to believe richer people are better because capitalism provides them with more opportunities and access to experience, while poorer people are on average deprived of good education and international travel.

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

    Journals of the Plague

    Ebola “begins as a mystery story,” as the science writer David Quammen puts it in his excellent 2014 primer Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus, which expands on a chapter from Spillover, his enchanting study of zoonotic diseases. Every new infectious disease is a mystery, of course, but the dramatic efficiency with which Ebola kills—it is highly lethal and infective, causes hemorrhagic fever, and has a brief incubation window—lends it an apocalyptic aura. Indeed, science writer and New Yorker contributor Richard Preston introduced The Hot Zone—his best-selling 1994 account

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  • print • Sept/Oct/Nov 2019

    Fetal Positions

    As the earth melts, societies age, and economies slow, a narrative of humanity’s inevitable decline has settled in and calcified. It seems as though there’s no story left to tell but that of a slow descent into a gray future beset by any number of catastrophes. To hear pronatalists tell it, many of these will happen because we aren’t having enough babies. Fertility rates have hit an all-time low in the United States. For conservatives, this spells doom for all manner of American traditions: Social Security, masculinity, a robust economy, even democracy itself. New York Times columnist Ross

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  • excerpt • June 20, 2019

    Why Conspiracies Thrive

    In the dark of the night of July 19, AD 64, a fire broke out in the slums of Rome and, swept along by vicious winds, devastated the town, leveling several districts entirely. The fire burned for six days, died down, was reignited, and burned for three more. Hundreds of people were killed; many more were left destitute and homeless.

    In the midst of it all, the famously conniving Emperor Nero—who was away in his holiday home on a cool hillside when the fires began—was reported by the historian Tacitus to have placidly watched the city burn as he nonchalantly played his fiddle or plucked his

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  • print • Summer 2019

    Severe and Pervasive

    The lawyer and philosopher Linda Hirshman is a second-wave, no-BS feminist who thinks like a law professor and writes with journalistic chops. She’s also known for writing as if white women’s middle-class experience were universal. It was little wonder that Hirshman dedicated her 2006 manifesto, Get to Work, to a similarly contentious figure, Betty Friedan. In that book, Hirshman laid out a five-point “strategic plan” for “all women to find and be able to pay for the kinds of satisfying lives that a grown up should want to lead.” In short, she rails against being a stay-at-home mom (as she puts

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  • print • Summer 2019

    A World to Win

    Capitalism isn’t working. We know this deep in our bones even if we live in one of the few cities where life is bustling and busy and we can pretend that this situation can continue. Yet even in those cities, the signs are everywhere. They are in the ubiquitous homeless population sleeping in the door-nooks of closed stores or in tent cities. In New York, where I live, they are in the crumbling subway system, its stations jam-packed with frustrated commuters trying to get to work even as the city begs to give tax breaks to Amazon for the honor of hosting its new campus. The system is broken.

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  • print • Summer 2019

    Speak, Memories

    Last Witnesses was the second book by Svetlana Alexievich, originally published in 1985, the same year as her first, The Unwomanly Face of War. Both of them, like the three major works that followed—Zinky Boys (1990), Voices from Chernobyl (1997), and Secondhand Time (2013)—could be briefly and superficially described as oral histories. They indeed consist of testimony, recorded and transcribed, by witnesses to major events and periods in the history of the former Soviet Union.

    Oral history is an important research tool, but it has not often been treated as literature. Although it obviously

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  • print • Summer 2019

    Full Metal Racket

    The aim of venture capital is to bet on the long tail: Invest in many different start-ups, knowing most will fail but hoping at least one big success will more than offset the losses. For this reason, the business has always been focused on technology companies, which offer the greatest potential for fast growth and outsize returns. Most venture capital firms today are located in Silicon Valley, and nearly all the major tech companies, including Amazon, Apple, and Google, relied on venture capital funding to get off the ground. The playbook is simple: Raise capital from institutional investors

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  • print • Summer 2019

    Our Woman in Tehran

    It’s six o’clock in Tehran and Kate Millett needs a drink. It’s not easy, being a maquisard of the feministas. It is March 1979, only weeks after the departure of the Shah of Shahs. Iran is in the throes of revolution. Streets are being renamed, monuments defaced, pissed upon, torn down; there is graffiti everywhere. Call it the chrysalis phase after five decades of Pahlavi absolutism: No one knows what’s being born, but everyone wants it to be beautiful. (Beauty, alas, is in the eye of the beholder.) Millett, forty-four years old, tousle-haired and bespectacled in the frog glasses of her era,

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  • print • Summer 2019

    Between the Reenactments

    Not many writers mix up geniality and astuteness as enjoyably as Tony Horwitz does. He’s got a rare knack for spotting topics whose eccentricity lets him juxtapose the baleful past and the cuckoo present in arresting, provocative, hugely entertaining ways. Most readers first discovered his originality thanks to 1998’s Confederates in the Attic, which turned the wacky world of Civil War reenactors into fodder for an inspired, seriocomic meditation on the war itself as America’s ultimate unfinished business.

    He did it again with Blue Latitudes, following in Captain James Cook’s watery footsteps

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  • print • Summer 2019

    Totalitarian Recall

    There was a time, according to A. B. Magil and Henry Stevens, authors of the urgent 1938 tract The Peril of Fascism: The Crisis of American Democracy, when “fascist” was “the most commonly used epithet in the American political vocabulary.” Do tell!

    What existed back then was an entrenched, self-identified fascist regime in Italy; a newer, kindred one in Nazi Germany, which had adopted the Italian ideal of a “totalitarian state”; a quasi-fascist government in Japan; and a fascist-inspired revolt in Spain, not to mention sympathetic parties and youth movements throughout Europe.

    But what do

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