I’ve passed the house of Mrs. Revere
Often enough when her windows were open
To know she’d rather listen to Schubert
Most evenings than watch whatever the networks
Are beaming into her neighbors’ homes.
Now that she’s lived, as I have, far longer
Than twice Schubert’s 31 years,
I wonder if she’d be willing, as I tell myself
I would be, to subtract some of the time still left her
If it could be carried back to his era
And added to his scant sum. My guess
Is she’d gladly donate a year, without any prodding,
While a month might be my best effort.
Not a grand gesture, but still not nothing:
To fall asleep at the end of a balmy June
And wake next morning on the first of August,
Allowing Schubert to develop some themes
He barely had time to sketch. And I hope I’d promise
To give Mrs. Revere a week now and then
To help her recruit more donors to our project.
We’d belong to a band whose members
Would be entitled to see themselves as patrons
As well as clients, benefactors as well
As recipients, joined in a secret fellowship
We’d acknowledge by signs when we passed on the street.
And whenever I wished that Schubert might guess
The role we played in lengthening his career
And dedicate one of his extra pieces to us,
She’d say the last thing she wanted was music
That sounded in any way beholden.
And I might reply by asking why deny him
The pleasure of knowing how much he mattered
To people he’d never meet. A smile from him,
And then he’d turn back to making something timeless
From something destined to pass away.
The upcoming event I’m most looking forward to: The NBA season is starting, andfor the first time in years, my Lakers have an intelligently constructed roster. (Rob Pelinka, all is forgiven.) In the spirit of preseason expansiveness, I will note that this year, the Lakers could possibly—an elastic word!—notch their 18th NBA championship, passing the Celtics, who also have 17. There is even some chance they could do it by beating the Celtics themselves in the finals. As the winter wears on, timelines will branch, and many hoped-for futures will fall away. But so long as that one is alive, I’ll be locked in. [Related:It had to be the Lakers (From 2020)]
Best novel I’ve recently read, and the best work of nonfiction: I’ve been on a Don DeLillo kick, primarily for the line-to-line style. I tore through The Names and am now reading Underworld, but between them I read Libra, my favorite book of his so far. It’s a fictionalization of the Kennedy assassination. DeLillo’s novel alleges a conspiracy, but does so largely within the established facts of the Warren Commission’s report. The result is a dark, paranoid American fable that reads so real, I’m making it my nonfiction pick, too. [Related:Don DeLillo on the anniversary of Apollo and Earthrise]
A quiet song that I love, and a loud song that I love: Quiet: Air’s “Alone in Kyoto,” especially on a train. Loud: Rihanna’s sludgy, wall-of-sound cover of Tame Impala’s “New Person, Same Old Mistakes.” The original was already great, but I haven’t returned to it since hearing her version.
A cultural product I loved as a teenager and still love, and something I loved but now dislike: I fell hard for R&B during its ’90s golden age. At one point, the intro to my voicemail was D’Angelo’s “Me and Those Dreamin’ Eyes of Mine.” No regrets. Almost all of it still bangs, but some of the genre’s more saccharine songs are getting a skip from me now. Keith Sweat’s “Make It Last Forever” is safe. Most Boyz II Men songs aren’t, except for the one with Mariah.
An author I will read anything by: Lauren Groff. As a result of some bad decisions, I once had to spend nine hours at the Denver airport. I coped by bingeing Fates and Furies, Groff’s much-copied dueling-perspective take on marriage. I liked that book a lot, but it was her fourth novel, Matrix, that really set the hook. It takes place in a 12th-century convent in England that she reimagines in great sensory detail—to have read this book is to remember the chill of the convent’s stone walls. Groff always has at least one eye on the natural world, and I love that she’s unafraid to write in a spiritual key. It puts her books into larger, more ancient conversations than your average work of Brooklyn autofiction. [Related:The writer who saw all of this coming]
The last debate I had about culture: I’ve been making a regular, if somewhat half-hearted, case that Lewis Strauss, Robert Downey Jr.’s character in Oppenheimer, is misunderstood. [Related:Oppenheimer’s cry of despair in The Atlantic]
Something I recently rewatched, reread, or otherwise revisited: My son and I just saw a rerelease of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Alamo Drafthouse. It was nominally for research; I’m writing a nonfiction book about a team of scientists who are trying to make first contact. But he and I also have history with this movie. A few years ago, we saw a 70-mm print on the IMAX screen at the Smithsonian. The late Douglas Trumbull, who did many of the special effects, gave introductory remarks. This viewing couldn’t match that, but the images still cast a spell. There was a small collective gasp among the audience when the screen filled up with the famous tracking shot of Dave, the red-suited astronaut, walking through a shimmering octagonal corridor toward the pod-bay doors and the deeper human future.
A poem, or line of poetry, that I return to: Rilke: “Spring has come again. The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.”
A painting, sculpture, or other piece of visual art that I cherish: As part of a recent career retrospective, the artist Laurie Anderson painted an entire room at the Hirshhorn Museum, here in Washington, D.C., with a base layer of slick black. She then used chalky white paint to cover its floor and walls with illustrations and quotes, many of them existential in one way or another. When it first opened, I went with my daughter, and we were both taken aback by its forcefulness. No matter where you looked, you couldn’t escape Anderson’s thoughts. A lot of what gets marketed as immersive art these days is a warm bath—a swirly Van Gogh light show set to tinkly music. Anderson’s room is confronting. I’ve taken several people to it since, and they’ve all come out wobbly, but grateful.
A favorite story I’ve read in The Atlantic: Our October cover story, “Jenisha From Kentucky.” Among its other virtues, it’s a brilliant detective tale. The writer, Jenisha Watts, conducts a thorough and painful excavation of her childhood. She uncovers family secrets and holds them up to the light. She reimagines her past, present, and future selves. The language is beautiful and direct. It’s perfect for a Sunday morning. [Related:What it’s like to tell the world your deepest secrets]
The Week Ahead
Land of Milk and Honey, a novel by C. Pam Zhang about a chef who escapes a dystopian smog by taking a mysterious job on a mountaintop in Italy (on sale Tuesday)
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved tale, directed by Wes Anderson and starring Benedict Cumberbatch (streaming on Netflix this Wednesday)
Season 4 of Lego Masters, where enthusiasts compete in various building challenges, (premieres Thursday on Fox)
Dogs Need Understanding, Not Dominance
By Kelly Conaboy
In 2022, the researchers Lauren Brubaker and Monique Udell recruited 48 parents and their children for a study on the behavioral effects of different parenting styles. The adult subjects were given a survey about their expectations for their children, and how they typically respond to their needs; the children were tested to determine their attachment style, sociability, and problem-solving skills. I should probably mention that the children involved were dogs.
The dogs who were cared for by owners with an “authoritative” style, meaning one where high expectations matched a high responsiveness toward their dog’s needs, were secure, highly social, and more successful at problem-solving …
The language might sound familiar to those acquainted with the concept of “gentle parenting,” a philosophy that’s become popular in recent years. Tenets of gentle parenting, including a focus on empathy in parent-child interactions, and avoiding punishment in favor of helping the child understand the reasons behind their actions and emotions, have been linked to positive outcomes for kids.
And although children are obviously very different from dogs, a parallel shift in approach has been happening in humans’ relationships with their canine kids.
To see a great white shark breach the waves, its powerful jaws clasping a shock-struck seal, is to see the very pinnacle of predatory prowess. Or so we thought. Several years ago, in South Africa, the world was reminded that even great white sharks have something to fear: killer whales.
Long before they started chomping on yachts, killer whales were making headlines for a rash of attacks on South African great white sharks. The killings were as gruesome as they were impressive. The killer whales were showing a deliberate sense of culinary preference, consuming the sharks’ oily, nutrient-rich livers but leaving the rest of the shark to sink or wash up on a nearby beach.
After the initial news of the attacks, the situation only got weirder. Great white sharks started disappearing from some of their best-known habitats around South Africa’s False Bay and Gansbaai regions, in the country’s southwest.
“The decline of white sharks was so dramatic, so fast, so unheard-of that lots of theories began to circulate,” says Michelle Jewell, an ecologist at the Michigan State University Museum. In the absence of explanation, pet theories abounded. Some proposed that overfishing of the sharks’ prey to feed Australia’s fish-and-chips market led to the sharks’ decline, although some scientists were critical of that idea. Others thought the disappearance was directly caused by the killer whales. Perhaps they were killing all of the sharks?
“Any time you see large population declines in local areas, it’s cause for conservation concern,” says Heather Bowlby, a shark expert with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “In a place where animals used to be seen very regularly, and suddenly they’re not there anymore, some were concerned that they all died.”
Now, though, scientists know a bit more about what happened. In a recent paper, Bowlby and her colleagues argue that the sharks’ disappearance was caused by the killer whales. But the sharks aren’t dead. They just moved. Across South Africa, the scientists found, the white-shark population has undergone a pronounced eastward shift.
To Jewell, who wasn’t involved in the research, this makes sense. “We know that predators have a huge influence on the movement and habitat use of their prey, so this isn’t really surprising,” she says. “The issue is that lots of people weren’t used to thinking of great white sharks as prey.”
Alison Kock, a marine biologist with South African National Parks and a co-author of the study, says researchers cracked the mystery after reports of white-shark sightings started flowing in from sites farther east y. “As False Bay and Gansbaai had major declines, other places reported huge increases in white-shark populations,” she says. “Too rapid to be related to reproduction, since they don’t reproduce that fast.”
“It had to be redistribution,” she says, adding: “The white sharks moved east.” Places like Algoa Bay had seen great white sharks before, but not anywhere near this many.
In the white sharks’ absence, South Africa’s west coast is changing. New species like bronze whalers and seven-gill sharks have moved into False Bay. For the tour operators who ran shark dives in the area, however, the shift has been difficult. Some have survived by switching to offering kelp-forest dives—driven in part by the popularity of the documentary My Octopus Teacher. Many, though, have gone under.
But what of the great white sharks’ new home farther east? No one quite knows how these regions are adapting to a sudden influx of apex predators, but scientists expect some significant ecological changes. They’re also warning of the potential for more shark bites, because people living in the white sharks’ new homes are not as used to shark-human interactions.
We may never know exactly how many white sharks died in killer-whale attacks. The prized and presumably tasty livers targeted by the killer whales help white sharks float, which means many dead white sharks may have sunk uncounted. Overall, though, Kock is glad to see the mystery solved.
“This has been very worrying for me, and it was good to see evidence that they hadn’t all died,” she says. “But it’s still unbelievable to me that I can go to [False Bay’s] Seal Island and not see any white sharks. It’s something I never expected, and I miss them a lot.”
Caesars are back, big caesars and little caesars, in big countries and little countries, in advanced nations and developing nations. The world seems to be full of self-proclaimed strongmen strutting their stuff, or waiting in the wings and plotting a comeback after a humiliating fall. And we thought it couldn’t happen here. How can these uncouth figures with their funny hair, their rude manners, and their bad jokes take such a hold on the popular imagination? How can anyone bear to listen to their endless resentful rants? Surely, they can’t get away with this? People will see through them before it’s too late.
But no. Here they are again, and in numbers. Look who’s leading in Argentina’s presidential race: Javier Milei, a former tantric-sex coach with a wild mop of dark hair and Elvis-impersonator sideburns, known as El Peluca (“The Wig”), who stumps the stage to the backing of a hard-rock group. El Peluca promotes monetarism, free love, and the sale of human organs; claims that climate change is a hoax; and wants to burn down the central bank and close the ministry of education—in short, a ragbag of eye-catchers, because eye-catching is what the would-be caesar is all about.
The little caesars of today seem to get along quite nicely without any systematic ideology worth the name. For what consistent line have Donald Trump, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, India’s Narendra Modi, China’s Xi Jinping, and even Britain’s Boris Johnson been operating on, beyond a shouty sort of nationalism and a carefully advertised hostility to immigrants—a mixture familiar from ancient times? The great Pericles himself instituted a law barring anyone not of Athenian parentage from claiming citizenship (his own, foreign-born mistress fell foul of the law).
Yet why should this surprise us? Dictators of one sort or another have been an ever-lurking threat throughout history. They interrupted and betrayed the constitutional traditions of ancient Greece and the Roman Republic: Peisistratos, Critias, and the Thirty Tyrants in Athens; Sulla, Marius, and Julius Caesar in Rome. As early as the time of Thucydides and Plato, the word tyrannos had mutated from a neutral term for “king” into our modern pejorative sense of “tyrant.” Absolutist rulers broke up the city-states of medieval Germany and Italy.
Nice-minded people may shy away from lumping together the excesses of a petty charlatan with the horrific deeds of a mass murderer. How can there be any comparison between a Johnson and a Putin? But only a dullard could fail to notice the painful similarities in their methods:the unabashed mendacity; the contempt for law, parliaments, and due process; and, above all, the relentless propaganda, inflaming old resentments and provoking new ones. “Propaganda, propaganda, now it all depends on propaganda,” Adolf Hitler declared at a tense moment during the Beer Hall Putsch. The putsch failed. But the lesson was learned, and not just by Hitler.
Big caesars may come to power by outright lawless violence or by more or less legitimate means, as Louis-Napoléon, Benito Mussolini, and even Hitler did, and then consolidate their dictatorship in a so-called self-coup or autogolpe. Little caesars go only as far as they need to within a reassuring constitutional framework, which of course they cynically abuse by fixing elections, neutering parliament, and manipulating the courts. “Tinpot dictators” says it nicely. Yes, caesars occupy a broad spectrum, but the caesarist style is always much the same.
It is an uncomfortable thought that caesars may pop up in any country and under all sorts of economic and political conditions. Which is why so many of us prefer not to think it. We would rather look back on any such experience as an unlucky blip that left scarcely a scratch on the body politic, mere “kerfuffle,” as Boris Johnson notoriously brushed aside Trump’s impeachment and acquittal on charges of inciting insurrection against his own government.
But the damage is real enough. In Britain, the tendency on the political right is to concede, at most, that Johnson was too chaotic to be prime minister, too much of a joker to get anything much done. But it was largely Johnson’s personal achievement to smash the U.K.’s legal and political ties with Europe and cripple its continental trade. Less noticed are Johnson’s Five Acts, which came into force last year: restricting the right to judicial review; dissuading the poor from voting by requiring ID at polling stations (which even Johnson’s ally Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg described as a form of “gerrymandering”); bringing the Electoral Commission under the direct control of the government; granting the prime minister the unrestricted right to dissolve Parliament; giving the police the right to ban “noisy” protests; and, of course, stringent (but so far wholly ineffective) immigration controls. These measures bear a strong family resemblance to the repressive Six Acts of Lord Liverpool’s government in 1819, and are likely to be remembered with equal loathing.
Those who continue to indulge the memory of Johnson as an overpromoted but endearing clown who kept us amused for a while should also recall his power-grabbing and obnoxious style of government. He purged the party of 21 senior members of Parliament, including two ex-chancellors of the exchequer. He sacked some half a dozen top civil servants in defiance of constitutional tradition. He expanded the Downing Street apparatfrom a few dozen to more than 100 functionaries. He diluted the ministerial code, so that offenders might escape with a reprimand instead of automatic dismissal, and then proceeded to let off or ignore a string of gropers and chiselers. And he repeatedly lied to Parliament about Partygate, which forced him to slink out of office in a humiliating exit never before experienced by a British prime minister.
Last year in the U.K., the Year of the Three Prime Ministers, may not have been as bloody as A.D. 69 in ancient Rome, the Year of the Four Emperors (two of them were murdered and a third topped himself). But it was a uniquely excruciating moment in our modern political history, when chaos collapsed into farce, and at ruinous expense to the nation, while the world looked on in amazement and contempt.
And how has America fared? There was nothing original about Trump’s agenda. Protectionism, hostility to foreign entanglements, persecution of immigrants (the title of Most Hated Immigrants passing over the years from the Italians to the Irish to the Jews, to the Chinese, to the Japanese, to the Mexicans)—all of this has been the staple fare of the American right since the 19th century. What is original about Trump, as is true of all caesars and would-be caesars, is the technique: the tweets, the rallies, the bullying, the nicknames, the floodlights, the slogans.
A caesar creates his own visual culture and basks in it. Emperor Augustus had the text of his boastful brief autobiography, Res Gestae Divi Augusti, cast in bronze or carved in stone and then erected in public spaces all across the empire; today you can still see surviving fragments of this huge exercise in global PR. Ever since, the caesar has been a pioneer in the use of new media, including the inventions of printing and photography, the development of advertising, later cinema, radio, and television, and finally—perhaps most potent of all—social media, which gives him unrivaled direct access to every voter. Trump said quite frankly, “Without the tweets, I wouldn’t be here.”
The caesar’s delight in the visual image is no accident. He thrives in the moment; he is the enemy of long-winded statutes and codes of law and practice, and is the king of the photo opportunity. He is an endless source of stunts, gestures, masquerades: He may appear in the guise of a Greek god or a Roman emperor, or a construction worker or a fighter pilot, never resting in his efforts to convince the public that life is simply more vibrant, more fun when he is around. His verbal messages are deliberately simple, aimed at the lowest common denominator in his audience (a method extolled ad nauseamby the author of Mein Kampf). These communications also necessarily involve a good deal of distortion of the truth. Caesars are shameless liars. After two millennia, scholars have cottoned on to the fact that Julius Caesar embellished or invented large parts of his history of the Gallic Wars. Napoleon’s communiqués were so overblown that “to lie like a bulletin” became a catchphrase.
Caesars know how to intimidate as well as charm, to frighten and shock, often by the use of foul language. Remember how Johnson scuppered Theresa May’s deal with the European Union by repeatedly denouncing it as “polishing a turd.” When, in the 1650s, Oliver Cromwell was attacked by judges for his lawless actions, he reportedly vilified them for invoking “Magna Farta,” and called the Petition of Right “the Petition of Shite.”
Only a caesar can get things moving by making the circumstances abnormal. Otherwise, the new “national conservatism”—or the less pleasant inflections that its name brings to mind—is likely to remain the niche pursuit of a disgruntled minority. Yet the one thing that the movement’s Statement of Principles does not mention is leadership, because its promoters know that this is an indecent subject. The yearning for a strongman cannot be openly admitted. But they can’t do without him.
Only a caesar has the chutzpah to break the rules, and to break open the treasury, as Julius Caesar did to grab the gold and silver needed to prosecute his war against Pompey, and Trump did under his emergency decree 9844 to grab the billions of dollars to build his Mexican wall, which Congress had denied him. By contrast, the idea that there is some hidden continuity between the conservatism of, say, Margaret Thatcher and today’s new right is fantasy. Thatcher was bossy and overbearing, and she made quite a few bad mistakes (her attempt to impose a poll tax, for one), but she was a stickler for the rules—as well as being a qualified lawyer, not a profession followed by most caesars—and she was deeply distressed when she was thought to have broken the code, as, for example, over the Westland Affair.
Political analysts are rather reluctant to consider the phenomenon of caesarism. They prefer to think up new abstractions, or revive old ones, to describe the political tendencies of our day: authoritarian populism, white nationalism, illiberal democracy, neofascism. These terms may convey the broad outline of what we see around us, but not the motive force: We get a good idea of what the cart looks like, but where’s the bloody horse? Without the spark of a caesar, the rumbling discontents are unlikely to catch fire. Caesarism isn’t just a cute trope; it’s an ever-recurring danger. The crucial thing is to spot the incoming caesar before he crosses the Rubicon—and above all, to stop him from doing the comeback-kid act. Nobody said it was easy.
But it can be done. This is an age of caesar-toppling, too. In the past three years, a U.S. president has been impeached twice, before and after being thrown out by the voters, and a British prime minister has been forced to resign by mass defections among his own ministers and then forced to leave the House of Commons by the Privileges Committee. The constitutional checks and balances worked. Accountability kicked in. We must never fall into the complacency of assuming that we have reached some liberal-democratic nirvana. History goes on, and it is still ours to make and remake. If applied with a little persistence, the rules can always break the rule-breakers in the end.
For years after World War II, the “liberal consensus”—the New Deal idea that the federal government had a role to play in regulating business, providing a basic social safety net, and promoting infrastructure—was a true consensus. It was so widely popular that in 1950, the critic Lionel Trilling wrote of the United States that “liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.”
But the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional tied the federal government to ensuring not just economic equality, but also civil rights. Opponents of the liberal consensus argued that the newly active federal government was misusing tax dollars taken from hardworking white men to promote civil rights for “undeserving” Black people. The troops President Dwight Eisenhower sent to Little Rock Central High School in 1957, for example, didn’t come cheap. The government’s defense of civil rights redistributed wealth, they said, and so was virtually socialism.
This intersection of race and economics was not new to the second half of the 20th century. It reached back into the past to resurrect an argument made by former Confederates during the Reconstruction years to overturn federal protection of Black rights after the Civil War.
Some of today’s Republicans are in the process of making that argument reality. Their insistence that all their opponents are socialists goes hand in hand with their effort to suppress Black and brown voting. When former President Donald Trump insists that the country has fallen to communism and “Marxists,” what he’s really saying is that a government in which racial minorities have a say is illegitimate.
The accusation of “socialism” had sharp teeth in the 1950s, as Americans recoiled from the growing influence of the Soviet Union and the rise of Communist China. But Republicans’ use of the word typically had little to do with actual, Bolshevik-style socialism. The theory that the people would rise up and take control of the means of production has never been popular in the United States. The best a Socialist Party candidate has ever done in an American presidential election was when Eugene V. Debs won about 6 percent of the popular vote in 1912.
Rather, in the United States, the political charge of socialism tended to carry a peculiar meaning, one forged in the white-supremacist backlash to Black civil rights in the 1870s.
During the Civil War, the Republicans in charge of the government both created national taxation and abolished legal slavery (except as punishment for crime). For the first time in U.S. history, voting in federal elections had a direct impact on people’s pocketbooks. Then, in 1867, Congress passed the Military Reconstruction Act, extending the vote to Black men in the South. White southerners who hated the idea of Black people using the vote to protect themselves started to terrorize their Black neighbors. Pretending to be the ghosts of dead Confederate soldiers, they dressed in white robes with hoods to cover their faces and warned formerly enslaved people not to show up at the polls.
But in 1870, Congress created the Department of Justice to enable the federal government to protect the right of Black men to vote. Attorney General Amos Akerman oversaw the prosecution of more than 3,000 members of the Ku Klux Klan, winning more than 1,000 convictions. Meanwhile, Congress passed laws to protect Black voting.
Suddenly, it was harder for white southerners to object to Black rights on racial grounds. So they turned to a new argument, one based in economics.
They did not want Black men voting, they said, because formerly enslaved people were poor, and they would vote for leaders who promised to build things such as roads and hospitals. Those public investments could be paid for only with tax levies, and most of the people in the South with property after the war were white. Thus, although the infrastructure in which the southern legislatures were investing would help everyone, reactionaries claimed that Black voting amounted to a redistribution of wealth from white men to Black people, who wanted something for nothing.
Black voting was, one magazine insisted, “socialism in South Carolina.”
This argument that poor Black workers were dangerous socialists offered justification for former Confederates to block their Black neighbors from the polls, to read them out of American society, and ultimately to lynch them. It’s a peculiarly American version of “socialism,” and it might have been a historical anomaly had a small group of business leaders and southern racists not resurrected it in the 20th century as part of a deliberate effort to destroy the liberal consensus.
After World War II, most Republicans joined Democrats in believing that the federal government had to oversee business regulation, welfare programs, and infrastructure. They knew what businessmen would do to the economy unless they were checked; they had seen people homeless and hungry during the Depression.
And they scoffed at the notion that the New Deal system was a bad idea. They looked around at their homes, at their candy-colored cars that they drove on the new interstate highways built under what was then the biggest public-works project in U.S. history, and at their union-boosted paychecks in a nation with its highest gross domestic production ever, and they dismissed as a radical fringe the people trying to undermine this wildly successful system.
But the federal protection of civil rights added a new element to the liberal consensus that would threaten to tear it apart. Between 1967 and 1977, a North Carolina billboard urged people in “Klan Country” to “help fight Communism & Integration.”
The stagflation of the ’70s pushed middle-class Americans into higher tax brackets just when they needed their income most, and helped spread the sense that white tax dollars were being siphoned off to help racial minorities. As towns and governments tried to make up their declining funds with higher property taxes, angry property owners turned against the government. Republicans courted white workers by painting the Democrats as a party of grievance and special interests who simply wanted to pay off lazy Black supporters, rather than being interested in the good of America as a whole.
In 1976, former California Governor Ronald Reagan ran for president with the story of a “welfare queen” from the South Side of Chicago—code words for “Black”—who lived large on government benefits she stole. “She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands,” Reagan claimed. “And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names.” There was such a woman, but she was a dangerous criminal rather than a representative welfare recipient. Nonetheless, the story illustrated perfectly the idea that government involvement in the economy handed tax dollars to allegedly undeserving Black Americans.
Reagan suggested a solution to such corruption. In August 1980, he spoke to voters in Philadelphia, Mississippi, 16 years and just a few miles from where the civil-rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner had been found murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan as they registered Black voters during 1964’s Freedom Summer. There, Reagan echoed the former Confederates during Reconstruction: “I believe in states’ rights,” he said.
Reagan’s campaign invited voters to remember a time before Black and brown voices and women began to claim equal rights. His campaign passed out buttons and posters urging voters to “make America great again.”
Voters put Reagan in the White House, where his administration cut taxes and slashed spending on public welfare programs (while pouring money into defense spending, and tripling the national debt). In the name of preventing socialism, those programs began the process of hollowing out the middle class.
In the years since 1981, wealth has moved dramatically upward. And yet, the language that linked socialism and minority voting never ceased to escalate.
Talk hosts such as Rush Limbaugh insisted that socialism was creeping through America at the hands of Black Americans, “feminazis,” and liberals. After its founding in 1996, the Fox News Channel joined the chorus of those who insisted that their political opponents were socialists trying to wreck the country. Republicans insisted that Barack Obama was a full-fledged socialist, and in 2018, Trump’s White House Council of Economic Advisers used the word socialism 144 times in a 72-page report attacking Democratic politicians. Trump’s press release for the report read: “Congressional Democrats Want to Take Money From Hardworking Americans to Fund Failed Socialist Policies.”
There is a long-standing fight over whether support for the modern-day right is about taxes or race. The key is that it is about taxes and race at the same time: Since Reconstruction, white supremacists have argued that minority voting means socialism, and that true Americans stand against both. In recent history, that argument has led Republican-dominated state legislatures to make voting harder for people of color, and to rig the system through gerrymandering. Three years ago it led Trump and his supporters to try to overturn the results of a presidential election to keep their opponents out of power. They believed, and insist they still believe, that they had to destroy the government in order to save it.
Coca-Cola often experiments with new flavors, and they’re usually flavors you can imagine, having tasted them before: vanilla, cherry, lemon. But the latest is called Y3000, a reference to the far-off year 3000, and one that Coca-Cola says was concocted with the help of, in some way, artificial intelligence. It smells like circus-peanut candies and tastes mostly like Coke.
The company says this soda was made to evoke a “positive future,” with a label that has “a futuristic feel,” due to its color palette of silver, violet, magenta, and cyan. The Coca-Cola logo on the Y3000 bottle is made of “fluid dot clusters that merge to represent the human connections of our future planet.” Customers can scan a QR code on the bottle to open a website that uses the AI model Stable Diffusion to turn photos of their surroundings into images with a similar color scheme and sci-fi aesthetics. In these images, the future looks sleek and very pink.
Y3000 is one of many recent Coke offerings promising a “flavor” that does not make a reference to anything like a known terrestrial taste. They have names such as “Ultimate” (Coca-Cola with “the electrifying taste of +XP,” which is a type of point you can accrue in video games) and “Soul Blast” (Coca-Cola that tastes like the Japanese anime Bleach). “Starlight” is “space flavored,” “Byte” tastes like “pixels,” “Move” tastes like “transformation.” “Dreamworld,” which is decorated with an M. C. Escher–like illustration, “taps into Gen Z’s passion for the infinite potential of the mind by exploring what a dream tastes like.” Coca-Cola did not respond to my requests for comment, but its senior director of global strategy, Oana Vlad, does recognize that some people might wonder what these flavors actually taste like. “We’re never really going to answer that question” in a “straightforward” way, she told CNN in June. But “the flavor profile is always, we say, 85 to 90 percent Coke.”
Coke is already an abstraction, some complicated combination of cinnamon and nutmeg and vanilla and citrus and secret things. Further abstracting it with “pixel” and “dream” flavors is a brilliant way to get a lot of attention. So is referencing AI—a logical next step after the company dabbled with NFTs. Since the introduction of ChatGPT 10 months ago, the world has become captivated by the technology and the maybe apocalyptic, maybe wonderful future that it promises. AI is suddenly everywhere, even in our cola. It makes no sense! Which is why we have to try it. “Their shenanigans are something that’s always interesting to us,” Sean O’Keefe, a professor of food science and technology at Virginia Tech, told me.
O’Keefe doesn’t drink soda, which he refers to as “flavored, colored sugar water.” But if the soda was designed by AI to taste like the future, what choice does he have? “I don’t buy Coke, but if I see Y3000, I’m gonna try it,” he said. Of course—that’s what I did too. There are a ton of foods and drinks that exist more to be sampled once and photographed for the internet than to be habitually consumed—see the Grimace Shake, which was all over TikTok this summer. Around the same time, my colleague Megan Garber wrote about mustard-flavored Skittles, describing the product as a “pseudo-snack—produced not to be eaten but to be talked about.” These limited-edition Skittles were, she explained from the site of a terrifying-sounding marketing event held in Washington, D.C., “nearly impossible for the average consumer to obtain.”
These kinds of products are really spectacles, the artist Allie Wist argues. Wist has a master’s degree in food studies, and much of her art has to do with food. In the description for last year’s Extinct Armoatorium, a plexiglass box filled with the smell of banana, dirt, and fungus, she wrote about the history of artificial banana flavoring, which, she wrote, is based on “the sweeter taste” of the Gros Michel banana, a cultivar that was wiped out in the 1950s by a fungus (although this origin is sometimes contested). Artificial banana is now more real than the banana it’s based on, she suggests, because the real banana doesn’t exist anymore. Wist cited Jean Baudrillard’s 1981 essay “The Precession of Simulacra,” and told me that “the real world is now actually produced through the simulation world of images, videos, and, I’d argue, artificial flavoring and processed foods.” Rainbow bagels, chips with fake smoke flavoring, future-flavored cola—all “represent a lifestyle or an aesthetic fantasy” more than they do eating, she said.
I smelled the AI Coke about 10 times before I tasted it, and felt a creeping sense of recognition. At first it reminded me of bubblegum, although that isn’t a real flavor either. It was a bit more like Juicy Fruit gum, a flavor that O’Keefe described as a combination of pineapple, banana, and citrus—familiar enough to avoid alienating consumers, which is key. “We have to consider capitalism’s role in this,” Wist said. “Capitalism removes any real value of exchange and contains no inherent interest in morality or purpose.” This is why a company that already sells billions of dollars of products a year might continue coming up with “ever more provocative flavors,” as she put it, including one that alludes to a point in the future after which many cities may no longer be habitable.
A few years ago, I went to a postapocalyptic dinner party hosted by the chef Jen Monroe. I had a bunch of nice, jellyfish-forward food and then a rectangle of gelatin. One-half of the gelatin rectangle was pink and strawberry-flavored and delicious. The other half was blue and disgusting. Many people spit it out. “I decided it’s okay to serve food you hate to make a point,” Monroe told me after. “That would be the most sci-fi avenue, where we’ve abandoned food as food altogether.” The dinner party was supposed to take place in 2047. It was sad, but it was also kind of fun. It made me think, At least we can sample something strange at the end of the world.
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The U.S. government is on the brink of a shutdown, and the deadline for Congress to pass a new spending bill is September 30. I spoke with Russell Berman, who covers politics for The Atlantic, about what led to this moment—and how the power to avoid a shutdown lies with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic:
Lora Kelley: How did we get to a point where the government is on the verge of shutting down?
Russell Berman: Every year, Congress has to figure out how to appropriate funding for the government starting on October 1. So September 30, the end of the fiscal year, is almost always the deadline for a shutdown.
Right now, the Republicans have a very thin majority in the House. To keep the government open, McCarthy would have to strike a deal with Democrats. But he is facing demands from the hard-liners in his caucus to pass a bill with only Republican votes. If he cuts a deal with Democrats, there are more than enough Republicans who, if they want to, could remove him as speaker.
McCarthy has been unable to get the 218 Republican votes required to pass basically anything. Last week, he tried to pass a 30-day extension of federal funding to keep the government open for an additional month. And he couldn’t even pass that bill. The fact that the Republicans can’t pass a bill with members of their own party makes McCarthy’s hand even weaker with these negotiations.
Lora: How likely is a shutdown looking?
Russell: At this point, it looks very likely. It’s not a fait accompli. But I talked to one Democratic representative who said there was a 90 percent chance the government would shut down. You will hear the same thing from Republicans. One of the things that makes it very likely is that a number of Republicans are openly rooting for a shutdown. They want to make a point about the level of spending, the administration’s border policies, and the way that Kevin McCarthy has been running the House.
Lora: What would it take for the government to stay open?
Russell: It’s conceivably very easy. All Kevin McCarthy has to do is talk with the Democrats. The Democrats are willing to keep the government open, at least for a few weeks to buy time for negotiations, and they would probably agree to just continuing government funding as it’s been.
Another way that this could end is through the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is going to try to pass a short-term bill and send it to the House. Then it will be up to McCarthy. He’ll have a choice: If he brings up this bill, it probably would pass with mostly Democratic votes. Though, again, he would be threatening his speakership. Really, Kevin McCarthy will decide whether the government shuts down.
Lora: What actually happens when the government shuts down? What happens to government workers, and how would it affect other Americans?
Russell: Employees deemed essential—for example, people who guard nuclear weapons, guard the president, and do the jobs needed to protect national security, among many others—will keep working. The hundreds of thousands of federal workers deemed nonessential will be furloughed. They will not be getting paid until Congress reopens the government.
If it’s a shutdown of only a few weeks, the macroeconomic effects are usually pretty small, but people who don’t work for the government may be affected too: Federal parks and museums would close. If, for example, you were planning a trip to Yellowstone National Park, or the Smithsonian museums in Washington, hopefully your travel is refundable.
Lora: In our era of polarized politics and infighting within political parties, should Americans expect that shutdowns will become par for the course?
Russell: Unfortunately, they are already normalized. If the government shuts down, this will be the third presidential administration in a row in which we’ve had a government shutdown. Before that, there had been well over 15 years without one. Sometimes, we’ve had two or three years where they’ve been able to agree to these funding bills without too much drama. But now, there’s a cycle that seems to happen whenever there is a new dynamic in Washington, most commonly when Republicans take control from Democrats in the House.
Lora: How might a government shutdown affect how voters view President Joe Biden heading into the election?
Russell: A government shutdown can reflect poorly on everybody. That includes the president, even though in this case, it’s really not Biden’s fault at all. The problem for Biden is that most voters don’t pay close attention to the infighting that happens on Capitol Hill.
The broader issue for Biden is that he has tried to present himself as a stable president, in contrast to his predecessor. And so anything that represents political instability undercuts that, and could make it look as if he has not delivered on that promise.
Abraham Lincoln was a politician, though people like to describe him in ways that sound more noble. Contemporaries considered him a Christlike figure who suffered and died so that his nation might live. Tolstoy called him “a saint of humanity.” Lincoln himself said he was only the “accidental instrument” of a “great cause”—but he preserved the country and took part in a social revolution because he engaged in politics. He did the work that others found dirty or beneath them.
He always considered slavery wrong, but felt that immediate abolition was beyond the federal government’s constitutional power and against the wishes of too many voters. So he tried to contain slavery, with no idea how it would end, and moved forward only when political circumstances changed. “I shall adopt new views so fast as they appear to be true views,” he said shortly before issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.
At each step, he tried to build coalitions with people who disagreed with him … Some of us have lost patience with that skill—or even hold it in contempt—because we misunderstand it.
About 250 million years from now, living on the coast could feel like being stuck inside a hot, wet plastic bag. And that bag would actually be the best home on the planet. Inland areas would be hotter than summer in the Gobi Desert, and up to four times as dry. This is life on Pangea Ultima, the supercontinent that an international group of scientists has predicted will form on Earth in a quarter of a billion years.
“It wouldn’t be a fun place to live,” Alexander Farnsworth, a climatologist at the University of Bristol, told me. Farnsworth is the lead author on a new paper published today in Nature Geoscience detailing how a supercomputer model predicted what Earth would be like in the far-distant future. According to his team’s calculations, 250 million years from now, the continents will reunite and Earth will become unbearably hot, rendering much of the land uninhabitable and leading to mass land-mammal extinction. If the team is right, everything would be, as Farnsworth put it, “very bleak.”
The possibility of a future supercontinent isn’t the shocking part of the new study. Continents drift around the planet at about 0.6 inches a year, much slower than your fingernails grow, but on a long enough timescale, their subtle migration can dramatically alter the Earth’s appearance. “We know we’ve had several supercontinents in the past, so it makes perfect sense to say it’s not going to stop now,” Damian Nance, a geologist and supercontinent-formation expert at Ohio University who was not involved in the new research, told me. Pangea, the most recent one, has the widest name recognition, but geologists believe that several others have formed throughout Earth’s history. Roughly 1 billion years ago, the Amazon and the Baltics were neighbors on the supercontinent Rodinia. Several hundred million years before that, another tectonic hodgepodge called Nuna dominated the planet.
But geologists have long debated what the next supercontinent could actually look like. One theory, known as “Amasia,” is pretty much what it sounds like: The Americas will drift westward across the Pacific, smash into Asia, and take up residence near the North Pole. Another school of thought predicts that the Americas, Africa, and Eurasia would instead squeeze out the Atlantic Ocean and reunite along the equator. Pangea Ultima—first described in 2003 by the paleogeographer Christopher Scotese, another author on the new paper—would be the outcome of such a fusion.
In the new paper, Scotese, Farnsworth, and their colleagues attempt to describe life on Pangea Ultima. The supercontinent, they write, would be a victim of its own size: With the temperature-regulating benefits of oceans restricted to the shores, land temperatures would increase by a whopping 14 degrees Celsius. (To put this in perspective, the Paris Agreement aims to keep global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.) The continent’s interior would bake, becoming a desert shrubland dappled with long, barren stretches. Volcanoes and other geological mayhem would pump carbon dioxide—more than doubling our planet’s current levels—into the atmosphere. This could lead to short-term cooling, but ultimately, the authors write, it could warm the planet about 11 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. The sun would also be an issue: Using previous forecasts, the team predicted that it’d be 2.5 percent brighter in 250 million years, sending more heat down to an already sweltering Earth.
The model doesn’t account for every possible variable that would influence Pangea Ultima’s climate. Crucially, it ignores any additional warming that human beings might cause by emitting greenhouse gases. Elena Shevliakova, a climate modeler in NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory who was not involved in the research, pointed out that it also fails to factor in possible cooling factors such as ice sheets, lakes, and straits. “This is, in some ways, the worst-case scenario possible,” she told me.
But between the sun, the volcanoes, and the deserts, the model suggests that parts of present-day South America could reach upwards of 140 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and cool to only 113 degrees in the winter. Such temperatures, sustained over millions of years, might threaten all life on Earth, the authors argue. They predict that as little as 8 percent of the planet’s land could remain habitable for mammals, if they survive that long.
That, other researchers caution, is a huge if. Daniel Schrag, a geologist at Harvard, says that if Pangea Ultima were to form (which is far from certain, in his mind), assuming that mammals would still be around is a leap. After all, we mammals have been around for only about 175 million years so far. Besides, life—mammals included—has demonstrated its ability to evolve and adapt to new environments.
Making a claim about the state of the world this far into the future “seems reckless and speculative at best,” Schrag wrote in an email. But other experts told me that the paper might have some utility. Shevliakova said that long-term projections act as a kind of stress test for climate-projection tools; in this case, the team applied a UK Meteorological Office model, often used for near-term climate-change projections, to a very different time period and question. The fact that the model behaved as expected this far in the future “reflects the robustness of the methods and science being used to deal with present-day climate change,” Shevliakova said.
Nance, the Ohio University geologist, said that long-term predictions can also help fine-tune our forecasts for the next 50 to 100 years. “You can sort of step outside the box a bit and look at other processes besides fossil-fuel burning that might increase or decrease carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and over what time frame these processes happen,” he said.
Those uses hold true whether the far-future world turns out to be more or less hellish than predicted. They might, in fact, be the most important lesson to be taken from this paper, because we can’t know whether Farnsworth and his team got it right. As Shevliakova put it, in 250 million years, it’s not like you and I are going to be around to check.
In the 1989 surrealist satire Chameleon Street, two Black men bicker after one says that he prefers women with light skin and “good hair.” After being criticized for the comment, the man makes a self-deprecating joke: “I’m a victim, brotha. I’m a victim of 400 years of conditioning. The Man has programmed my conditioning. Even my conditioning has been conditioned.” Nearly a decade later, the rap duo Black Star would sample the dialogue at the beginning of their song “Brown Skin Lady,” which is framed as a rebuke of this pervasive bias against dark skin and kinkier hair, and an ode to an idealized vision of a head-wrap-donning natural woman whose “skin’s the inspiration for cocoa butter.”
Cocoa butter, a popular component of hair and beauty products targeted at Black women, is an essential ingredient in The Other Black Girl, a new Hulu series based on the 2021 office-novel-slash-surreal-thriller by Zakiya Dalila Harris. The story follows Nella Rogers (played by Sinclair Daniel), a 26-year-old assistant at a New York publishing house where almost all of her co-workers are white. One day, the sweet, muted chocolate scent of cocoa butter wafts toward Nella’s cubicle; she’s soon introduced to her cool new Black colleague, Hazel (Ashleigh Murray), who’s just been hired. But Nella’s initial excitement soon transitions into fear as she realizes that something sinister is hiding beneath Hazel’s head wraps. It turns out that Hazel is a member of a group of young, professional Black women who all use a magical hair grease—one that helps deaden the stresses of corporate racism. Hazel, whom the group calls its “Lead Conditioner,” likens it to “CBD for the soul”; her arrival at Wagner Books is a recruiting mission to force the personality-changing pomade onto Nella, so they can add a future book editor to their ranks.
For more than a century, Black writers (and, later, filmmakers) have been sublimating the worst chapters of American history into horror, science fiction, and other speculative works. These genres afford creators the freedom to embellish, reimagine, and comment on social ills by manipulating fear of real phenomena. In the context of horror, disembodied hair—or the wild hair of an unruly character—can elicit particularly visceral reactions. (There’s a reason that one specific image comes to mind when you think of The Ring.) The fraught history of Black hair in the United States provides no shortage of inspiration—not just the way it’s been legally policed, but also the mind-numbing pain of a scalp burn caused by chemical relaxer left in too long, or the headaches that come with tight braids. Taming Black hair can be a haunting endeavor, and works such as The Other Black Girl have used these real-world anxieties as a launchpad for more fantastical stories.
The Hulu adaptation is one of several recent productions that use elements of horror and speculative fiction to dramatize the liabilities of managing Black hair, especially in the workplace. In They Cloned Tyrone, a sci-fi mystery film released earlier this year, the protagonists discover an underground lab where an Afro-sporting white scientist has been conducting behavioral experiments on Black people. To inure Black women to the injustice around them, the nefarious entity has been adding a mind-controlling substance to the chemical relaxers they use to straighten their hair.
A similar plot device appears in the 2020 film Bad Hair, a horror satire set in 1989 Los Angeles, where a production assistant gives in to corporate pressure to ditch her natural Afro-textured hairstyles and get a long, silky weave. With her palatable new tresses, she finally gets considered for the TV hosting gig she’s been working toward for years, but her luck changes when her weave overpowers her—literally—and sets off a bloodthirsty rampage. Or take the 2018 horror-comedy short Hair Wolf, a modern vampire story set in a Black hair salon. Directed by Mariama Diallo (who also directed two episodes of The Other Black Girl), the film follows a white influencer obsessed with Black cultural signifiers who insists on getting “boxer braids”—and whose leeching presence starts changing the appearance of the salon’s stylists.
Though these genre works vary in tone and skillfulness, they’re all rooted in the same historical reality: For centuries, Black hair has been surveilled, stigmatized, and even banned from public view by laws such as Louisiana’s 18th-century tignon law, which mandated that Creole women of color cover their hair with a scarf “as a visible sign of belonging to the slave class, whether they were enslaved or not.” After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned employment discrimination based on race, Black workers began fighting for their right to wear their natural hair without employer retaliation.
Some of these struggles continue today: Because of their hairstyles, Black students have been dismissed from school activities or barred from walking in graduation ceremonies with their classmates; Black job candidates have had employment offers rescinded. At the same time, some social progress has been achieved at the statehouse: Beginning with California in 2019, the CROWN Act (which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair”) and similar bills have been passed in 23 states, making this form of discrimination illegal. Section I of the California law begins with an acknowledgment that the “history of our nation is riddled with laws and societal norms that equated ‘blackness,’ and the associated physical traits, for example, dark skin, kinky and curly hair to a badge of inferiority, sometimes subject to separate and unequal treatment.”
Hulu’s The Other Black Girl immediately introduces hair as a locus of its characters’ private unease (whereas in the novel, the anesthetizing hair serum isn’t introduced until nearly two-thirds of the way through). In its opening scene, a meek-looking Black woman tries to escape an unseen threat at the Wagner Books office in 1988. As she awaits the elevator in a panic, she reaches through her full, mostly straight hair to scratch her scalp. By the time she makes it onto the subway, she’s rubbed her skin raw, and her fingers emerge from her hair covered in blood. This is the work environment that Nella Rogers, with her Afro and her anxiety, will enter 35 years later—the hunting ground where Hazel will attempt to draw Nella into her cocoa-butter coup.
Hazel, whom the white higher-ups at Wagner seem to love as soon as they meet her, doesn’t look quite like the stereotypical “office pet” Black woman of TV shows past. Hazel sports faux dreadlocks, not straight hair of any kind. They’re often piled high atop her head, a wrap holding them in place. Her styling is decidedly modern, vaguely Afrocentric; she projects the sort of effortlessly chic authenticity that Nella, who keeps her hair in a simple Afro, longs for.
The Other Black Girl is at its best when it treats these differences between Nella and Hazel with humor. Nella’s friend, Malaika (Brittany Adebumola), for instance, is a Rihanna-loving style chameleon who judges Nella’s hair and attire with as much vigor as she questions the eerie plot unfolding at Wagner. While Malaika chaperones Nella at a “hair party” in Hazel’s Harlem brownstone, she tries to figure out what’s in the product that Hazel wants to use to braid Nella’s hair. After Hazel declines to answer, Malaika chastises her gullible friend for going along with the plan. “Girl, I taught you better than that,” Malaika says to Nella. “You are on a hair-care journey, and you’re gonna throw it out the window for some unknown ingredients?”
These comic moments recall the witty asides that peppered the show’s influences, most notably Get Out and Scandal. They’re also particularly engaging because the series is pretty light on thriller elements—and because they don’t feel bogged down by explanation. These scenes suggest that the show trusts its viewers to already know that natural hair care usually really is a journey. They reminded me of a bit in the shape-shifting sketch-comedy seriesRandom Acts of Flyness, whose first season featured an episode in which a white judge sentences an anthropomorphic textured wig for offenses including “general badness,” “a tendency to split ends,” and “criminal damage to a perfectly functional plastic comb.” Spoofs like that sketch are especially refreshing because they know how exhausting such conversations about “good hair” can be. The sketch addresses a painful, sometimes dangerous form of discrimination, but the absurdity of its visuals and the confidence of its writing keep it feeling inventive.
The Other Black Girl doesn’t quite succeed at threading its disparate styles into one cohesive series. But the end of the season suggests that a second chapter could land with a little more finesse. In the show’s final scenes, when Nella seems to have acquiesced to the cocoa-butter conspiracy, we see her at Wagner rocking a long, silky black wig. Her co-workers are in awe of the newly minted editor’s empowered disposition, but behind the closed door of her fancy solo office, Nella smirks slyly. She’s in on the secret now, and she’s going to have some fun. What she’ll do as an undercover Conditioner is anybody’s guess.
Kaitlyn: We know it’s not called “the Windy City” because of the wind, but we don’t remember why it’s actually called that. Maybe it’s because, on our eighth annual fall trip, Ashley took me and Lizzie to her hometown of Chicago for a whirlwind tour of its most important sights. Hmm?
We went to the Bean. Though its plaza is under construction and it’s surrounded by fences keeping tourists about 20 feet away, many peered hungrily through the gaps to get an unobstructed view. We went to a combination liquor store and bar where we shared one shot of the city’s signature drink, Malört (70 proof, tastes like novacaine), and glimpsed a few minutes of a Bears game. We had deep-dish pizza and hot dogs with pickles on them. The one thing that we didn’t do—because it seemed dangerous and probably too nerdy—was drive really fast through the underpasses that provide the backdrop for the car-chase scenes in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 Batman movie, The Dark Knight, while listening to the Hans Zimmer–led soundtrack at max volume.
In short, we loved Chicago. After checking out the prices on draft Budweiser and huge apartments with river views, we resolved to invent a new type of modern woman who isn’t bicoastal (because the plane ride is too long and Los Angeles is just horrible); instead, she lives in New York and also in Chicago. (Just like Christopher Nolan’s Batman!) I guess it would be hard to figure out what to do about the winter, but she would come up with something.
Lizzie: Faithful readers may remember last year’s trip to Santa Barbara, when we “went Sideways” (by visiting all of the filming locations of 2004’s Sideways). This Chicago trip didn’t start out with quite the same level of thematic cohesion, but Kaitlyn did make sure the Batman franchise received several mentions (from her) as we touristed, and the movies’ consistent themes (like chaos, destruction, and deception) proved prescient.
Consider the night we went to the Chicago Magic Lounge, a venue dedicated to the art of “Chicago-style” magic. We went in expecting to be tricked, but we got so much more …
We began our evening at King of Cups, a gothic “craft-cocktail lounge” with an in-house tarot-card reader. By the time we arrived, there was already a waitlist for the tarot-card reader and no tarot-card reader in sight. Had he been made invisible by a Chicago-style magician? Or was this our first taste of deception? Perhaps both! While we drank happy-hour espresso martinis ($8), Kaitlyn wowed us with her own magic trick, which involved folding up a $1 bill and unfolding it until George Washington was upside down. You kind of had to be there. We figured we should keep this in our back pocket in case the Chicago Magic Lounge was holding auditions.
Kaitlyn: The Magic Lounge was the big event of the weekend. And that seemed to be true not only for us but for much of the city. When we arrived, there was a long line to get into what appeared to be a laundromat, but was in fact an Art Deco speakeasy where magic is performed. (I normally hate speakeasy culture, but this was different and not as annoying.)
Ashley had told us that Chicago was a city “full of girlies,” but I didn’t really know what this meant until we were seated at the Magic Lounge. All around us, there were girlies out on dates—one girlie wore a shirt made entirely of fake pearls; another sipped a cocktail that was the color of skim milk and garnished with a flower. They were extremely pretty and didn’t look mean.
Our first taste of “Chicago-style magic,” which is close-up magic performed right at your table while you sip a glass of lambrusco or what have you, was performed by a large man in a suit, who was wearing a pinky ring and made some self-deprecating comments about being sweaty and a deceiver. “We do call them magic tricks,” he said. He took five $1 bills out of his wallet, referring to them as his life savings, then flopped them around until they turned into $50 bills. He held one of the $50s up to the light so that we could see its watermark and everything. I was impressed and relieved. “I thought he was going to do my magic trick,” I whispered to Liz.
Lizzie: That would’ve been something! In fairness to the magician, his trick was more impressive than Kait’s (though I’m sure he spent a lot more time practicing). One thing about doing magic tableside: You really have to have some people skills. We watched as our magician made his way around the room, stopping to perform different tricks mere inches away from skeptical ticket-holders, maintaining an incredible sense of enthusiasm each time. He didn’t have the authority of the stage or a choreography of smoke machines to keep us distracted. Add to that, he was performing for amateur magicians like Kaitlyn, and you start to get a sense of how high the stakes were.
Luckily, the tableside stuff went off without a noticeable hitch, and we were buzzing with excitement by the time the lights dimmed.
Kaitlyn: The stage show was hosted by an incredible woman named Jan Rose, who had corkscrew curls and was wearing a different sequin-covered blazer each time she appeared on stage. She ran us through a surprisingly bittersweet PowerPoint presentation about the history of Chicago magic. At a certain point, it seems, there was a good chance that walking into any random bar or restaurant in Chicago would result in seeing at least a little sleight of hand. But all of these places are now gone, and this made us regret being born into dull times. I was personally insulted by fate. Why, oh why couldn’t we have gone to Little Bit O’ Magic Lounge (“Fun, food, and prestidigitation”), or the Pickle Barrel, a restaurant in which every table was given an all-you-can-eat barrel of pickles, and there was also magic and also (according to a comment on a blog post I just read) bartenders who could make balloon animals?
This reverie was interrupted by Jan Rose sharing that, when she herself was a magician, she did a trick with another magician named “Heeba Hubba Al,” which involved a sugar cube, a pencil, and her right hip (at least I think that’s what she said). Obviously this reminded me, in a jarring way, of the famous “You wanna see a magic trick?” scene in The Dark Knight. (The trick is that the Joker smashes a pencil through someone’s eye socket and presumably into their brain.) According to an oral history published in New York magazine, they used a real pencil! No CGI. That’s movie magic.
Lizzie: As Jan ran through newspaper clippings of Chicago magic shows past, I noticed that one of them used the tagline “It’s fun to be fooled!” I can’t say that I 100 percent agree with the sentiment. Take April Fool’s Day, for example, one of the most popular times for fooling and being fooled. No one likes April Fool’s Day, except maybe the people born on April 1 who love presents.
But is magic actually about fooling people? I’m not actually being fooled by the tricks. For example, you may be surprised to hear that I understand that our table magician didn’t actually turn five $1s into five $50s, because if he could do that, he would probably quit his job at the Chicago Magic Lounge. And I know that Criss Angel can’t actually levitate. But I think it’s fun to see people do things you can’t do. This is why professional sports are popular.
Kaitlyn: The first stage magician went by only his first name, Fenik, and his hair was bright white all the way down to the roots. Jan said that he is very famous in Mexico. He was funny. He mocked the typical magic-show audience by rolling up his sleeves, saying he has to do this because whenever he makes a coin disappear, everyone says, “You put it up your sleeve,” and when he makes a lemon disappear, they say, “You put it up your sleeve,” and when he makes a watermelon disappear, they say, “You put it up your sleeve.” Haha!
First, Fenik did a trick in which a bunch of ropes start out the same length and then become different lengths, which I thought I’d seen before. At one point, he held up the first rope and said it was “as long as my body” and then the second rope—“as long as my legs”—and then the third rope—“as long as my … head!” Lizzie didn’t like that joke. She said it was not offensive to her, but it’s just not her kind of humor.
I have to admit, some of Fenik’s other tricks were a bit too involved for 11 p.m. There were multiple audience-member assistants—two of whom were named Blayne and Zayn—and I kind of lost the plot at a certain point. I started yawning around the time that another Chicago girlie led Fenik through the room with a pair of silver coins taped over his eyes. He stopped in front of some guy at a distant table to tell him he was pretty sure that the item in the guy’s hand was made of green plastic, but because we couldn’t see to confirm and the guy didn’t let out a shout or anything, it was hard to be that impressed. At the end, he read Zayn’s mind. That was nuts.
Lizzie: Yes, I was impressed by Fenik’s mind-reading. At the same time, I hoped he couldn’t read mine. He wouldn’t like it!
Our headliner was Ryan Plunkett, a Chicago local and founding ensemble member of the Chicago Magic Lounge. Plunkett told us almost immediately that he was going to be bullshitting us, which I appreciated.
He started with a trick almost like Three Card Monte, where an audience member had to decide which plastic cup a walnut was in. Plunkett said we would never win, because he was cheating, and we never did. From there he moved on to some coin and card tricks, ending with an “Is this your card?”–style finale. I liked him, and if he were ever performing in New York I might go, except for the fact that, from our minimal research, magic shows in New York seem to be a lot more expensive than those in Chicago.
On the drive home, we discovered that many of the highway entrances were closed off because of Mexican Independence Day celebrations, and there were no clear detour routes. More deception! Eventually, Ashley got us home and Kaitlyn did some light digging into Ryan Plunkett’s personal life before we all fell asleep.
Kaitlyn: The morning after the magic show, a thick fog rolled in over the city of Chicago. We observed it moodily from our borrowed apartment on the 36th floor while eating candy for breakfast. With help from some online forums, I tried to teach myself the bill-swapping trick, but it wasn’t to be. Unfortunately, success seemed to depend on deftness, dexterity, and flair. I had hoped it would be a series of simple steps I could just memorize and follow, as with everything else I’m good at in life.
While we waited for the weather to clear up, Ashley showed us how to pretend to levitate (amazingly, she knows this), and we watched some videos of David Copperfield. “Nathan says his dad took him to see David Copperfield once,” I told Ashley and Liz. Then we watched a clip of Copperfield putting a duck through a “Duck-o-Matic,” squashing him flat. (And un-squashing him later.) Lizzie was like, “What if the camera panned over and Nathan was in the audience, looking exactly like he does now?” This video was from 1986. “We would all scream,” I said. She wondered, further, if I would take a photo and send it to him and demand an explanation. “If I found out that my boyfriend was an immortal demon, would I text him about it?” She nodded. Well if that was really the question, then the answer was absolutely not. We would be off to the dustiest library in Chicago to flip through some heavy books on the occult and figure out what Nathan might be after. Geez. You have to be able to count on your girlies for that much.
Lizzie: To me, it seems like just asking him would be the most obvious first step. What does an immortal demon say when presented with photographic evidence of his immortality? Only after we hear whatever that is do we head to the library, unconvinced and unnerved.
For the rest of the trip, we found magic everywhere—in delicious cornbread, fuzzy textile art, and, again, $3 beer and $1,800 apartments right on the river (much of the magic was price-based). We’re magic people now! And we could probably be famous magicians too, if we just worked a little on our finger dexterity.
Kaitlyn: We took the “L” (elevated rail) to the airport, and would you believe it runs directly into the terminal? Chicago really is an amazing place.
Back in the grand but not always magical city of New York, Ashley’s boyfriend drove us all home from the airport. Then, from my own Brooklyn bed, I watched a bizarrely illustrated breakdown of how David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear. I was shocked because the explanation is so stupid. I can’t believe anybody fell for it. It just goes to show, you’re being hustled every minute in this town. [Shaking my head, chuckling.] Ah, but you kind of like it. We like it!
Lizzie: It’s fun to be fooled! Or something like that.