A Terrorist Attack in Lower Manhattan

A Terrorist Attack in Lower Manhattan

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A man drove a rental truck down a bike path for more than twenty city blocks in lower Manhattan on Tuesday afternoon, running over pedestrians and bicyclists, ramming a school bus, and killing eight people and injuring eleven others, in what the authorities called a terrorist attack.

The man exited the vehicle and brandished what the police later said was a paintball gun and a pellet gun and was then shot in the abdomen by an officer. “At first we thought it was an accident,” a woman who only gave her last name, Lin, said. She was picking up her child at a nearby school. “It was school-dismissal time, kids were all lingering around, it’s Halloween.” After the man rammed the school bus, “he got out of the car, staggered out, and almost started running,” she added. “He had guns in the air; then, before you knew it, the cops were there. We heard four shots fired.”

The attack, which occurred just blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks, was reminiscent of a series of recent attacks in Europe and the United States in which vehicles were repeatedly used to attack civilians. The Islamic State has urged its followers to use trucks and cars as weapons to carry out attacks. The driver, Sayfullo Saipov, arrived in the United States from Uzbekistan 2010 and was a legal permanent resident, or green card holder, the Times reported. Saipov, a twenty-nine-year-old resident of Paterson, New Jersey, was in police custody at a local hospital and expected to survive.

“We have been tested before as a city,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference. “New Yorkers do not give in in the face of these kinds of actions. We will respond as we always do. We will be undeterred.”

Parents ran and screamed, searching frantically for children who were exiting nearby schools at the time, which included two elementary schools and a high school. All of the schools were placed on lockdown immediately after the incident. “People were running and screaming because it’s when people pick up their kids,” a woman who arrived a few minutes after the attack and asked not to be named said. “Just a lot of screaming and running . . . people who were very upset, parents running with strollers.”

Jeremy Moller, Omar Kastrat, and Leo Shestakov, all tenth graders at nearby Stuyvesant High School, said that they had just left school for the day and were standing outside a deli on Chambers Street when they heard a commotion. “We were in that dog park, in between two buildings, and people started running up to us, like, ‘Someone got hit, someone got hit,’ ” Shestakov said.

Moller described chaos. “When I went to look, the guy was in the middle of the West Side Highway carrying a gun and getting chased by, like, a big guy,” he said. “I think he was just a random pedestrian, who, like stepped up or something, ’cause the police weren’t there yet,” Moller said. “When the police came to try and close him down, he started running back towards the street. . . . It was scary because the guy had the gun out in his hand and he looked kind of shaky, like he didn’t know what he wanted to do.”

“Everyone started freaking out, people started grabbing their kids and stuff, everyone got scared,” Moller said.

Crystal Owens was delivering mail for the U.S. Postal Service in an apartment building near Stuyvesant High School when the commotion started. “I was delivering mail and the residents started coming in all panicky. They were starting to say, you know, ‘What happened?’ ” She left her truck where it was and decided to do the rest of her route on foot. “Just to hear of it, it’s heartbreaking. You see all the children about to go out and have fun–you know, Halloween.”

An hour after the attack, a group of parents stood in front of a police cordon, waiting for their children to leave P.S. 89, an elementary school on Warren Street.  Police officers, dressed in blue and trying to manage the crowds, shouted, “Just wait, just wait. Your children are coming.” A door opened, and dozens of kids trudged out, eating chips and candy. Some wore Halloween costumes. There was a girl in a princess dress and a boy in a Batman outfit. They mostly seemed not to know what had happened, and they calmly found their parents, who strained to mask their panic by waving and smiling broadly as their children approached. A press scrum materialized along the corner of the police cordon, and cameras clicked. “No pictures of kids. They’re underage,” a policeman yelled. One mother left the scene pushing a stroller, sobbing.

At the time of the attack, on West Street, Annie Thoms, an English teacher at Stuyvesant High School, was leading a class discussion on Amy Tan’s book “The Joy Luck Club” in Room 838. Stuyvesant looms over the scene. Just afterward, an assistant principal came on the loudspeaker telling everyone that classes would be on a “shelter in” status, with no one allowed in or out of the building. Everyone was to stay put and pass the time. Speaking by phone after six o’clock, Thoms said that she had been with her twenty-eight students for three hours.

“We were talking about the different ways we have to make choices in the cultures we are part of. We talked about it in our personal lives and in Amy Tan’s narrative,” she said. “Especially after 9/11, every time I see that something is a terrorist incident, and someone has said ‘Allahu Akhbar,’ I feel a pit in my stomach, because terrorism is the evil opposite of what Islam is. So many of our kids here at Stuyvesant are Muslim, and they fear being tarred with this kind of thing.”

The classroom faces north, and Thoms and her students could hear sirens on the street. They figured there had been a terrible accident. But then Thoms’s husband called to tell her what had happened. She then told her students to get out their phones and call their families to tell them they were O.K. Thoms, who went to Stuyvesant herself and was a teacher at the school during the 9/11 attacks, said the students were “of course” worried about what was going on, but they also managed to pass the time calmly. They wrote chemistry formulas and Chinese lessons on the blackboard. They sang. They braided one another’s hair. They played online games.

“They remained very calm even in the face of knowing something was very wrong,” Thoms said. “They are a super group of ninth graders. But it’s also a hard thing.”

“There were other students who saw and heard things, awful things, heard gunshots, or saw the guy crashing his vehicle, so others clearly felt a more active sense of danger,” she went on. “But my ninth graders here didn’t. They are old enough and aware enough that this is something terrifying, and yet they are who they are. From 9/11, it’s burned in my memory: after we evacuated the school, some kids kind of danced down the stairs, not because they weren’t scared but they had to find some life. You have to be human. You can’t be terrified all the time. And if you are thirteen and fourteen, especially, you can take it in, but you can’t let it overwhelm you.” She said she waited until the students were on their way home to cry.

Jonathan Blitzer contributed reporting.

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November 1, 2017 at 07:15AM

Paul Manafort and the Case of the $250,000 Antique-Rug-Store Bill

Paul Manafort and the Case of the $250,000 Antique-Rug-Store Bill

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In the indictment against Paul Manafort, made public on Monday, with the first wave of revelations in the Mueller investigation,
there’s a telling pattern that appears on pages 7 through 14 in a
listing of dozens of payments that overseas companies, allegedly owned
or controlled by Manafort and his associate Richard Gates, made to
several businesses in the United States. For years, starting in 2008,
Manafort and/or Gates made routine payments—often every other week,
sometimes every other month—to the same small group of companies. There
is an unnamed home-improvement business in the Hamptons, a
home-automation company in Florida, an antique-rug store in Alexandria,
Virginia, and others. The indictment holds that these payments were for
personal purchases, but that doesn’t appear to make much sense. It’s
hard to imagine a person who spends twelve million dollars over six
years but only shops at a handful of stores, and nearly always happens
to have a bill that ends in multiple zeroes: $107,000, then $20,000, then $250,000. At an unnamed men’s-clothing store in New York, Manafort spent $32,000, $15,000, $24,000, and other multiples of a thousand.
For money-laundering experts, this fact alone would be cause for
suspicion. It is extremely rare for even a single purchase to end in
three zeroes. An even more glaring sign is that the payments all came
from businesses in Cyprus controlled by Manafort and/or Gates. And then,
in February and March of 2013, the funds stopped flowing from Cyprus, and
began to come from accounts in the Grenadines.

That timing is significant. The Cyprus payments stopped just as the
global accounting firm Deloitte published a report on behalf of the forty-seven-nation Council of Europe, detailing
stunning, naked criminality in the banking system of Cyprus and
heralding a crackdown on money laundering in that country. The Republic
of Cyprus is a small, middle-income country of a little more than a
million citizens, yet its banking system has hundreds of billions of
dollars in assets—more than nine times its gross domestic product. (The
U.S. banking system is roughly the same as its G.D.P.) Cyprus was,
economically speaking, more a group of global banks with a tiny country
appended to them than a country that happened to have some banks. Many
of those assets are owned by shell companies with, according to the
report, “an average of three layers” of ownership, meaning that the
banks were an anonymous shell company that was owned by another
anonymous shell company that was owned by a third anonymous shell
company. The actual identity of the true owner of an account was known
in only nine per cent of the hundreds of hidden accounts that Deloitte
studied. At some banks, the high-risk clients—those who trigger
multiple signs of money laundering—made up more than half of the
customer base.

None of that would have shocked anybody who was paying attention. Cyprus
has long had a reputation for money laundering. Yet official groups had
been giving Cyprus a pass for years; the Council of Europe itself had
given the country high grades for its anti-money-laundering efforts just
two years before. The report came out just as the European Union and
others were spending billions of dollars to bail out Cyprus’s teetering
banking system. That European institutions were, effectively, bailing
out Russian oligarchs, and gangsters became a political and media
obsession. The situation called for that rarest of events: a government body
saying the clear truth about something everybody already knew.

The experience of Manafort this week and Cyprus in 2013 have much in
common. Both cases involved activity that bears several of the hallmarks
of money laundering. It was happening fairly openly, and many could have
spotted it: the banks that processed the payments into and out of
Cyprus, the banks in Cyprus themselves, government regulators in each of
the countries through which the money flowed, the various businesses—and
their accountants—that received the funds. They were only exposed
because of overwhelming external political pressures. Government sources
generally estimate global money laundering to account for around one
trillion to two trillion dollars each year. That is serious money that
concentrates in two types of places: offshore money centers such as Cyprus that profit from processing such payments and, crucially, a
handful of global cities that have become central nodes in the global
money-laundering economy, most notably New York and London. A former
high-ranking official in New York State government told me that a
serious attempt to reduce money laundering in New York City would be
impossible because it would so severely damage the local economy. The
Treasury Department, under President Obama, launched an effort to
curtail money laundering through real-estate purchases in New York,
Miami, Los Angeles, and a few other American cities by insisting that
purchasers reveal their true identity when paying all cash for
high-value properties; this measure was strengthened early in the Trump Administration. (It’s still easy enough to evade the rules,
however: one can simply buy several lower-value properties in a single
building and then remove the walls between them, to create one
mega-unit.)

Manafort’s scheme, if proven, was brazen. It is remarkable that a
sophisticated operator would feel so comfortable funnelling millions of
dollars through Cyprus-based shell companies and bank accounts into the
United States. He was probably right to feel invincible. Absent the
Mueller investigation into possible collusion between the Russian
government and the Trump Presidential campaign, Manafort would likely never have been caught. It seems reasonable to assume that many others are doing much the same and, similarly, have little fear of prosecution.

However, right now there also must be several people who, like Manafort,
are part of the Trump world and are thus subject to unusually intense
scrutiny, and who have operated in one or more of the parts of the world
associated with money laundering. A brief glance at Trump’s business and
political partners reveals many who, one might assume, are being given
close attention. No doubt Mueller’s team has looked into the financial
pasts of many in the Trump orbit. The Manafort indictment makes clear
that Mueller will work toward their arrests even if their crimes have
little to do with Trump himself, presumably creating an incentive to
collaborate with Mueller’s investigation.

However the Mueller investigation ends, the world cannot continue to
accept money laundering as inevitable, and only prosecuted when it is a
useful tool toward some other end. Money laundering is terrible in and
of itself. It transfers wealth away from tax-funded democracies and
toward kleptocracies, rewarding crime and punishing legitimate
businesses. Hopefully, one of the lessons of the Mueller investigation
will be that global criminals should feel quite a bit more afraid about
the illicit transfer of their money around the globe.

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November 1, 2017 at 07:15AM

A Black Woman, Steel Worker, and Artist, Through the Eyes of LaToya Ruby Frazier

A Black Woman, Steel Worker, and Artist, Through the Eyes of LaToya Ruby Frazier

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The photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier can capture the decline of an entire economy, the vulnerable cycles of American industry, within a single human face. Like the documentarians Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks before her, she scales down social upheaval to the intimate, modest scale of portraiture. It is the long shadow of the Rust Belt steel boom that especially compels her; she is a black child of Braddock, a “financially distressed municipality” of Pittsburgh, according to the Pennsylvania government, where Andrew Carnegie and the barons of metal had once established monopolies on that dangerous, alchemical work. Frazier was born in 1982, and when she was growing up the steel mills of Pittsburgh were closing down, and jobs were going overseas. Residents moved toward work. In 1920, at the industry’s peak, Braddock’s population topped twenty thousand; by 1990, it was down to forty-six hundred. Frazier remained—for her family, she had to remain—and devoted her photographic practice to tracking the fragile endurance of her “ghost-town” home town. She has called the camera the key to her, and her community’s, survival. She approaches her subject “not as a curious or concerned outsider but as a vulnerable insider.”

Sandra Gould Ford, in her office in Homewood, Pennsylvania, 2017.

Courtesy LaToya Ruby Frazier / Gavin Brown’s Enterprise

In 2015, the same year she was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant, Frazier met Sandra Gould Ford, another insider, at a conference in Pittsburgh. In an e-mail correspondence, Frazier told me that she felt an instant affinity for Ford, who is an artist, photographer, teacher, and writer. Frazier learned that Ford had been a secretary and clerk at Jones & Laughlin Steel Company, a competitor of Edgar Thomson Steel Works, where Frazier’s step-grandfather had worked. There were other synchronicities—both had lived in Pittsburgh’s Talbot Towers housing project in the eighties, when Frazier was a newborn and Ford was a newlywed, Frazier told me. Ford occupied a part of Frazier’s mind for two years, until the two women reconnected this past summer and began an artistic collaboration. The result is “On the Making of Steel Genesis: Sandra Gould Ford,” a joint series, currently on view at the August Wilson Center, in Pittsburgh, that forges a record of Pittsburgh’s black working-class life from Ford’s excerpted photographs and Frazier’s humane storytelling.

Sandra Gould Ford’s copy of the July, 1945, issue of “Men and Steel,” Jones & Laughlin’s magazine for employees and shareholders. Cyanotype print.

Courtesy LaToya Ruby Frazier / Gavin Brown’s Enterprise

Frazier’s portraits of Ford give the sprawling show its center. Once she began photographing Ford, Frazier told me, “it was difficult for me to stop.” “We were inseparable. I’d arrive at her house in Homewood, PA around 10 am and spend the entire day until 10pm or 11 pm.” Through Frazier’s lens, Ford is conveyed as a woman full of grace, humor, and memory. She smiles, but just barely, cradling a hard hat in her home office, her jacket emblazoned with a Jones & Laughlin insignia. From a distance, Frazier finds Ford sitting on the bank of the Monongahela River, a body of water that had been corrupted by the once-blasting furnaces and mines. In another, Ford inspects old J. & L. meters, choked by overgrown brush. Frazier’s deferential vantage point gives the impression that she is following Ford, physically and spiritually. Theirs is not the conventional dynamic of artist and muse; both photographer and subject are black women at work.

Frazier, the portraitist, sometimes suspends us in the sky. As her aerial photographs scan Pittsburgh’s changing grid, Ford supplies the exhibit’s history. A self-appointed archivist, Ford did lay anthropology work following J. & L.’s closure, “documenting the human traces on the factory infrastructure.” Frazier wrote to me. She collected original copies of company grievance records and fatal-accident reports, and hundreds of documents pertaining to the closing of the mill. At J. & L., photography was forbidden, but Ford took pictures anyway, at covert angles. “Goodby Mice + Rats,” is scratched into one wall in a photo taken right after the complex shut down; “Pensions Please” is etched into another.

Workplaces create special cultures, and the disappearance of industry can see those cultures reduced or obliterated. Frazier chose to make cyanotypes of Ford’s documents, turning them a chemical dark blue. This emphasis on process, I think, reminds the viewer that art, too, is a synthetic labor, an accumulation of intentions, of access, and of time. In a sense, the re-making of Ford’s J. & L. paraphernalia acts as oblique portraiture of a community of workers, of the unknown and the dead. Frazier, who does not mince words when it comes to her moral instincts, told me that the exhibit is intended as a memorial. The artist-archivist, invested in the virtues of both occupations, is a public figure the country needs.

“On the Making of Steel Genesis: Sandra Gould Ford” will be on view at the August Wilson Center, in Pittsburgh, until December 31, 2017.

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November 1, 2017 at 07:15AM

Reasons to Believe in Ghosts in America

Reasons to Believe in Ghosts in America

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About a year ago, I spent some days in Savannah, Georgia, and I bought a
ticket for a ghost tour: my first. It was mid-evening, on a Saturday.
The plan was to see haunted things around town and then hurry to a
dinner reservation. I am not normally a spooky type of person—I avoid
horror movies, and I don’t believe in ghosts—but Savannah boasts about
being a haunted city, and it sounded nice to spend a twilight hour being
told stories in parks. It was a lovely, creeping Southern autumn night:
lukewarm, humid, and redolent of turning leaves and moss. At least four
people in the group of ticket-holding hauntees were on the upslope of a
bachelorette party. The guide was very earnest on the subject of ghosts;
he began by playing wind-tunnel-like noises on his phone, and asked us
whether we heard screaming voices in them. It would have shocked me if I
had, since most phones I’ve encountered have a lot of trouble getting
even normal voice reception in the middle of New York. But other people
seemed to have better spiritual hearing than I did.

We walked around and saw the façades of gorgeous mansions whose
residents had been murdered, or had killed themselves, or else had
chanted spells. At one house, our guide said that sometimes, on some
nights, the owner shines a blinding light on tours and screams for them
to go away. This didn’t really seem so haunted, to me, but it was
something to which I could relate.

Then we stopped at Calhoun Square, a small park trimmed in stately
homes. A hurricane had come through only days before, and the lawns
between the brick paths were still scattered with beaten branches and
leaves. The guide said that Calhoun Square was the most haunted square
in old Savannah. People walking here, across the centuries, had reported
feeling shadows pass through them, a tightness or a great weight on
their chests. The other spooky thing that we should know about Calhoun
Square, he said, was that it had been a burial ground for slaves—some
people estimated that a thousand bodies rested deep beneath the grass,
but no one really knew for sure, because the graves were mass and
unmarked. The bodies underneath, he said, made it a super-haunted place.

I thought about the Calhoun Square tour the next day, and on the fight
home, and on and off through the week after that. The directed blindness
of the guide’s account (this place has strange effects on passersby, and
it’s unclear why—also, hundreds of uncommemorated slaves were dumped
here) got me thinking about America’s fascination with the occult and
the particular discomfort that spooky explanations can displace. I’d
never considered what people meant when they expressed a fear of
ghosts, or what it is to posit haunting in a person or a place.
(“Haunted by the past,” we say, usually about people who require
therapy.) Those of a rationalist bent assume—at least, I did—that
individuals who report feelings of “shadows passing through” are
breathing fumes of superstition. But is superstition really the right
word for such a thing? It reveals a lot, perhaps, that, when the
citizens of a Southern town report feeling strange paroxysms when they
walk over the bones of humans raised as chattel, the only options seem
to be that there is something ectoplasmic going on or that they’re nuts.

Is it possible, instead, that haunting is real—as real as the feeling in
your throat when you pass the chair where your mother always used to
sit—and that Americans are bad at confronting the physical fact of our
pasts? Savannah boasts about being one of America’s most haunted cities,
chased by centuries of unexplained misfortune and bad feeling. Yet its
boosters rarely speak in the same breath about its history as Georgia’s
largest slave port and market—a past today largely un-noted in the
landscape.

Obfuscation or compartmentalization of this kind is the norm in the
U.S., not the exception. Americans like to think that they’re
straightforward people, but the national culture of discussion is
opaque, clouded by euphemism, denial, and hope. When times go dark, we
talk our way around physical evils: “jobs” for xenophobic roundups,
“freedom” for the acquisition of murderous arms. In recent weeks, it has
become apparent that innumerable women, in a range of industries, have
been compelled to live with abuse and rape in silence, or in speech that
does not free them from bodily fear.

In other words, haunted is precisely what we are: physically, painfully.
And we still create our hauntings in our language and in how we live.
The habit of unacknowledgement—the Middle English aknowen meant both
to understand and to admit—is woven so deeply into centuries of
productive culture, in the fields and in the factories, the kitchens and
the cubicles, that bodily fear and spiritual anguish can, in fact,
adhere to the physicality of a place for multiple people who pass
through. That place is haunted. We talk about the ghosts who chase and
haunt us because we don’t like to face much about our pasts.

This Halloween, especially, perhaps it makes sense to pin less on the
ghouls, zombies, witches, and spirits and more on ourselves, the society
that turns places into a world. One of the perverse reckonings of recent
months has been the exhumation human terrors. We have watched people
with guns kill more than any spectre could. We have seen the proof of
racism and hatred on prime-time TV. This is the vilest time in recent
memory, but it is, perhaps, one in which we are able to avoid a spookier
future. The task is to face and to name what’s being dug up—to stare
down the demons. I still do not believe in ghosts, but I do believe in
haunting in the world. If someone played a clip of white noise in the
night today, I’d hope to hear the screams.

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November 1, 2017 at 07:15AM

Dark Matter Gets Its Day

Dark Matter Gets Its Day

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Not long ago, the actor Tilda Swinton—cosmic muse to cinéastes, fashion
designers, and physicists—took on another shape-shifting role as the
voice of a new a planetarium film, “Phantom of the Universe: The Hunt
for Dark Matter
.” “As we look out
into the night sky, we are both dazzled and comforted by the patches of
light we find there,” her narration begins. In time, Swinton continues,
astronomers started to suspect that there was something more out there
than these brilliant moons, stars, and galaxies—“something hiding in
the dark spaces.” The film premièred in Mexico City, on Sunday, and
today has special showings worldwide in celebration of this, the
inaugural Dark Matter Day.

Everything that humans have seen up until now exists in the 4.9 per
cent of the universe
that interacts with light. The rest is hidden from view. Most of it, physicists believe—68.3 per cent—is dark energy, an enigmatic force that
drives the accelerating expansion of the cosmos. The rest—26.8 per
cent—consists of dark matter, a ghostly goo that is thought to hold the
cosmos together. This is why the Interactions Collaboration, a global
consortium of particle-physics laboratories, has reimagined Halloween as
Dark Matter Day. “Dark matter seems to ‘hide’ in plain sight and doesn’t
play by the known rules of physics,” a promotional
F.A.Q.
explains.
“It’s like a costumed trick-or-treater who rings the doorbell and then
dashes away, and scientists are trying to unmask it!”

Dark matter was first theorized, in the nineteen-thirties, by Caltech’s
Fritz Zwicky, who reputedly referred to his colleagues at the Mount
Wilson Observatory, in Los Angeles, as “spherical bastards,” since he
found them equally disagreeable from all sides. (Costume idea!) Forty
years later, Vera Rubin, of the Carnegie Institution for Science, in
Washington, D.C., confirmed Zwicky’s theory. Studying the rotation of
galaxies, Rubin and her collaborators observed that, given the galaxies’
spiralling speeds, and given their visible mass, these stable structures
should in fact be flying apart. This amounted to circumstantial evidence
that an invisible incarnation of matter—a halo, as it’s occasionally
called—kept them whole.

Now thousands of physicists have joined the hunt. But looking for the
subatomic source of dark matter—the leading candidate is known as the
WIMP, for weakly interacting massive particle—has proved an expensive
and frustrating, if occasionally edifying, odyssey. At the European
Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), in Switzerland, where Dark
Matter Day will be celebrated with Dark Matter Cake—baked with the
cosmically correct proportions of white-chocolate chips (visible
matter), dark-chocolate chips (dark matter), and beetroot (dark
energy)—the universe’s mystery ingredient is “definitely in the
spotlight now,” Oliver Buchmueller, a senior physicist at Imperial
College London, told me. Now that the Higgs
boson
is well accounted for, dark matter has become one of the Large Hadron
Collider’s main targets. The favored model for predicting dark matter
has long been supersymmetry. As Swinton explains in the film, “According to this
theory, for every known particle, like an electron or quark, there’s a
corresponding superparticle with a much greater mass.” But since none of
these partners have shown themselves at the L.H.C., researchers are now
testing more generic scenarios. “One hypothesis is that the Higgs could
be a portal connecting us to the dark world,” Buchmueller said. “We know
that the Higgs boson gives mass to all our fundamental particles. But,
instead of just decaying to these particles we know in the visible
world, the Higgs might also decay to the dark-matter particles.” So far,
though, no dice.

The same is true at SNOLAB, in Sudbury, Ontario, a facility buried more
than a mile underground, in an active nickel-and-copper mine. Here the
goal is to actually observe dark-matter particles as they pass through
the planet; the overlying rock filters out the noisy cosmic rays that
would otherwise smother the signal. On a visit in August of last year, I
joined a group of miners aboard the 8:05 A.M. cage, travelling downward
at twenty-five miles per hour. (Thankfully, I didn’t faint; enough
SNOLAB visitors do that the miners call them SNOflakes.) I was there to
see the DEAP-3600 liquid-argon detector, which, after six years in the
making, was just about to become operational. The ultra-pure argon,
cooled to minus 297 degrees Fahrenheit, is meant to serve as a conduit
of sorts, lighting up in the presence of dark matter. Almost a year
later, in July, 2017, the DEAP team published its first results: “No
candidate particles are observed.” As Richard Gaitskell, the spokesman
for the equally unsuccessful Large Underground Xenon detector, in the
Black Hills of South Dakota, told me, “So far we’ve always gotten a
negative result. Which means we only know what dark matter isn’t.” The
upshot, he said, is that “there are basically thousands of models of
particle physics lying bloodied in the gutter.”

Along the way, however, there have been consolation prizes. In
September, 2009, M.I.T.’s Tracy Slatyer and her colleagues analyzed new
data from the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope and spotted a fuzzy blob
of gamma rays extending far above and below the core of the Milky Way
galaxy. Could this be a relic of dark matter, they wondered? Alas, it
turned out to be something else—“Just something we hadn’t dreamed of
yet,” Slatyer said: a figure-eight-shaped pair of bubbles, likely an
eruption from a black hole five million times as massive as our sun.

In examining these so-called Fermi bubbles, Slatyer and another team
noticed something more: an
excess of gamma rays emanating from the galactic center. “We believe
that dark matter piles up in the center of galaxies, because it’s pulled
there by gravity,” she told me. That makes the galactic center a good
place to look, though also a frightening place, she noted, because it’s
populated by so many violent and high-energy astrophysical phenomena.
The gamma-ray excess could come from dark matter, or it could come from
a population of rare millisecond pulsars—city-sized neutron stars
spinning around at a rate of a thousand times per second. Slatyer is
ninety-five per cent confident that this is another false alarm. (Her
more optimistic colleague gives dark matter a fifty-fifty chance.) But,
Slatyer said, “the best thing about these false alarms in astrophysical
data is that even if they turn out not to be dark matter, they often
tell you about something very interesting. You get a discovery either
way.”

Perhaps the most pessimistic proposition involves the recent revival of
a radical theory from the nineteen-eighties known as MOND, or modified
Newtonian dynamics, which hypothesizes that there is no dark matter—none
at all. Rather, the galactic conundrum is solved by a shift in our
understanding of gravity. “When I was a kid, I would wake up one night
out of every thirty and think, Oh, my God! It’s probably MOND!” Nima
Arkani-Hamed, of the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, told
me. “And the other twenty-nine nights, I would be happy that it was
probably dark matter. Then I became a scientist, and now it’s once a
year that I’ll look up and be, like, Oh, my God. Maybe it’s MOND. But I
don’t think it is. It doesn’t smell right to me.”

But, then again, the worst-case scenario is that, in ten years, or a
hundred, this spooky predicament remains a mystery. Sure, the joy is in
the hunt—and, as Swinton concludes in her narration, “Ultimately, it’s
the big questions that bring humankind together”—but to spend lifetimes
searching for something and not finding it would be, well,
astronomically frustrating. “The problem is, we have no idea what we are
looking for,” Hugh Lippincott, of the Fermi National Accelerator
Laboratory, outside Chicago, said. “And there is a not insignificant
chance, probably better than fifty per cent, that we are never going to
find it. That’s the scary part.”

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November 1, 2017 at 07:15AM

Simon Schama, Zinzi Clemmons, and More Books We’re Reading This Week

Simon Schama, Zinzi Clemmons, and More Books We’re Reading This Week

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“American Wolf,” by Nate Blakeslee

In the summer of 2002, I went west to Yellowstone, for a seasonal job in the park. I was twenty and had never lived west of the Mississippi; I planned on getting my fill of real wilderness. I didn’t realize that my arrival came just a few years after Yellowstone’s controversial reintroduction of wolves, an animal nearly extinguished in the early twentieth century, in the Lower Forty-eight, that once existed in nearly every habitat from Mexico City to the Arctic Circle. A chance encounter that summer with Rick McIntyre, the park’s first ever “wolf interpreter,” has stayed with me. He was holding a spotting scope at a pullout in the Lamar Valley—the closest thing America has to a Serengeti, and the best place to view wolves. Looking through his scope, at a den of cubs, I began to realize both how wild and precarious my temporary summer home was.

McIntyre is the central human character in “American Wolf,” a new book by the journalist Nate Blakeslee that tells the life story of a single gray wolf living both within and—much more dangerously—just outside Yellowstone. An alpha female and hunter nonpareil, her name is O-Six. (You may have heard of her: she became famous.) Blakeslee draws O-Six in novelistic, sometimes anthropomorphic detail, using the conflicting insight and perspective of biologists, politicians, ranchers, environmentalists, lawyers, other animals, and hunters. Mostly, though, Blakeslee presents O-Six and her evolving, adoring pack—the Motown-sounding “Lamars”—from the empathetic perspective of “the watchers.” These are the civilian non-scientists, like McIntyre, whom Blakeslee describes as “the Michael Jordan of wolf-watching,” an observer so wolf-obsessed that he once went eight hundred and ninety-one days in a row with at least one sighting. The sightings were a kind of sustenance for him, and, as the book romps on, they are for the reader, too. Seeing a wolf is exceptionally rare, and this book is as close as most readers will come.

McIntyre, who is also a writer, grasps the relationship between storytelling and conservation. Rather than simply collecting and publishing facts and figures about wolves, he focusses on telling their engrossing tales—which he, with his five million words of field notes, is uniquely positioned to do—to the tourists he encounters daily. Indeed, it’s McIntyre’s private dream to one day “tell a story so good,” Blakeslee writes, “that the people who heard it simply wouldn’t want to kill wolves anymore.” Blakeslee, without saying so outright, has tried to do the same with this book. O-Six dies in the end, you’ll be saddened but not shocked to learn, the victim of a man with a gun in search of a trophy. “It was almost sad,” Blakeslee quotes the unnamed man saying. “I’m a hunter, but I’ll admit to that.”—Charles Bethea


“The Story of the Jews, Volume II,” by Simon Schama

Four years ago, I raced through Simon Schama’s gripping “The Story of the Jews, Volume I: Finding the Words: 1000 B.C.–1492 A.D.,” and I’ve been waiting ever since for Volume II. What happened next? Would everything be O.K.? Probably not. At last, “The Story of the Jews, Volume II: Belonging: 1492–1900” has arrived. I’m only halfway through the sixteenth century and already  . . .  oy  . . .  the suffering! But also  . . .  the courage, the ingenuity, the generosity, the chutzpah! The Marrano “New Christian” heiress Beatriz de Luna and her sister Brianda, who were among the richest women in Europe, embodied all of these qualities. Using their vast fortune, political skills, talent for elaborate subterfuge, and far-flung connections, they helped many of their fellow “secret Jews” cross borders and escape the clutches of the Inquisition. In the process, they created a template for the Jewish mercantile multinationals of the future.

Schama’s great gift as a historian is his ability to tell the big story through the individual stories of remarkable people like Beatriz and Brianda. A memorable example is David Ha-Reuveni, a man of mysterious origins who claimed to be the long-awaited emissary from the Lost Tribes of Israel. He finagled his way into the presence of kings, emperors, and popes with his scheme to unite a Christian army with a completely made-up Jewish army in a war against the Ottoman Empire. As Schama recounts David’s fantastic, sometimes hilarious, ultimately doomed journey, he paints a vivid picture of the hazardous lives and messianic longings of the Jews of Europe, and the gullibility, perfidy, and greed of their rulers. As expected, Volume II is a thoroughly engrossing, worthy sequel to Volume I. But, also as expected, it is not a happy story. —David Sipress


“What We Lose,” by Zinzi Clemmons

Recently, I came across an excerpt from Zinzi Clemmons’s début novel, “What We Lose,” mistakenly thinking it was memoir. Thandi, Clemmons’s narrator, carefully reeling after the death of her mother, occupies a voice so clear that she, and her grief, feel immediately tangible. Clemmons began to piece the novel together years ago, at a workshop, shortly after her own mother died. Like Clemmons, Thandi is American, with a black American father and a “coloured” South African mother. The book has the texture of a diary, with brisk chapters that include photographs and handwritten graphs on which Thandi attempts to map the trajectory of her anguish. The mother’s death precipitates a familiar crisis: Thandi goes to South Africa, where the dissonance of her split national heritage causes stress and revelation. Thandi is heartbroken, sometimes glib, and more than a bit funny. Throughout the book, her personal suffering informs her politicized worldview. Not long after the first anniversary of her mother’s death, for example, she dwells on the spectre of the politician Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the “mother of the nation” of South Africa, who was once implicated in killings in Soweto: “I do not see the mother with her child as either more morally credible or more morally capable than any other woman,” Thandi says, as her own pregnancy looms. Like so many stories of the black diaspora, “What We Lose” is an examination of haunting.—Doreen St. Félix


Looking for new books? Every Tuesday, our writers and editors tell you what they’re reading. Browse The New Yorker Recommends to discover more cultural recommendations from our staff.

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November 1, 2017 at 07:15AM

The Papadopoulos Plea Deal and the Great Blowhard Convergence of the 2016 Election

The Papadopoulos Plea Deal and the Great Blowhard Convergence of the 2016 Election

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Among Monday’s many
revelations
,
the most interesting reading came in the form of George Papadopoulos’s
plea deal. Papadopoulos is the former Trump-campaign adviser who, we
found out, has for months been coöperating with the special counsel
Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump
campaign and the Russian government. The text laying out Papadopoulos’s
guilty plea, in which he admitted to making false statements to the
F.B.I., introduced new characters into the Trump-Russia story: the
Professor and the Female Russian National. It revealed that Papadopoulos
had worked with the Professor and the Female Russian National to try to
arrange meetings between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. The
new members of the cast appear to be every bit as incompetent and
mendacious as the ones we already know. This text thus moves us one step
closer to understanding the scale of the great blowhard convergence that
was the 2016 campaign.

Take the Female Russian National. Papadopoulos, according to the plea
agreement, believed her to be Vladimir Putin’s niece. To have a niece,
however, the Russian President would have had to have a sibling. All of
the available biographies of Putin, both official and
unauthorized,
agree: the Russian President had two older brothers who died as
children, before Vladimir was born. He was an only child. He doesn’t
have a niece.

Then there is the London-based Professor. E-mail messages cited in the
plea agreement provided enough clues to his likely identity: Joseph
Mifsud of the London Academy of Diplomacy, an institution that seems to
have been started as a for-profit venture by the University of East
Anglia and then transferred to the University of Stirling. Stirling’s
Web
site lists Mifsud
as a teaching fellow, with no additional details. Until about the middle
of the day on Monday, Mifsud had a profile page on the site of a London
law firm; he was also
identified here as
a “professor,” until the page was taken down. Mifsud’s presence on the
Russian Web barely predates his acquaintance with Papadopoulos: starting
in November, 2015, three articles with Mifsud’s
byline appeared on
the site of the Valdai, Putin’s personal club for Kremlin-friendly
Western academics. Mifsud’s pieces, written in heavily accented English,
are disjointed compilations of Euroskeptic grumblings. By Tuesday,
Mifsud had
confirmed,
to the Daily Telegraph, that he was the professor in question and
acknowledged that he had met with Papadopoulos, but he denied that he had
introduced him to the Female Russian National.

According to the plea agreement, the Professor and the Female Russian
National (who was not Putin’s niece) promised Papadopoulos that they
would introduce him to the Russian ambassador in London. They were
lying. But that’s O.K., because Papadopoulos lied, too: he reported back
to the campaign that his “good friend” the Professor and “Putin’s niece”
had introduced him to the Russian ambassador. A campaign supervisor
praised his effort: “Great work.”

Reading the plea deal is a bit like reading the minutes of a Politburo
meeting, in which every speaker rises to report a triumph and receive a
round of applause and everyone is lying. Bonuses and medals are
dispensed for roads constructed or steel produced in the imagination—and
the ritual is the sole point of the exercise.

Or maybe it’s like watching a Donald Trump rally, or reading Trump
tweets claiming that he has accomplished more than any President in
history. Or like watching the June Cabinet
meeting
during which members of the Administration took turns lauding Trump and
thanking him for the honor of serving in his great Administration. In
all of these cases, people with imaginary expertise boast of phantom
accomplishments and receive praise for them.

Back in April, 2016, the Professor told Papadopoulos, over breakfast at
a London hotel, that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton to the
tune of “thousands of emails.” (Mifsud has now told the Telegraph that
he never said that.) At the same time, a (presumed) Russian Foreign
Ministry functionary, with whom the Professor and the Female Russian
National had connected Papadopoulos by e-mail and Skype, was asking
Papadopoulos to arrange a visit to Moscow for Trump. Papadopoulos
bombarded the campaign with requests and promises. The campaign seemed
to have no interest in arranging a visit, and strung Papadopoulos along
for months before finally encouraging him to go on his own. He didn’t.

Earlier, the Trump associate Felix Sater had been sending
e-mails
promising to use his Kremlin connections to arrange a real-estate deal
in Moscow so impressive that, as Sater wrote to Trump’s lawyer, it would
“get Donald elected.” (In the same e-mail, Sater claimed that he had
“arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putins private chair at his desk and
office in the Kremlin.”) Sater appears to have been lying about the
connections. The deal never materialized, even if the Presidency did.

At around the same time that the Professor was dangling the “dirt”
carrot in front of Papadopoulos, the British music producer Rob
Goldstone used the same bait to get Paul Manafort, then Trump’s campaign
manager, and members of the Trump family to sit down with the Russian
lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. But Goldstone (or Veselnitskaya) appears
to have lied about having the dirt—unless, of course, it’s the Trump
clan that lied about the contents of the meeting. A few months later,
following the election, a new round of boasting commenced. Just as the
President-elect was starting to trumpet his extraordinary
accomplishments, an unknown number of Internet-ad-buying and
troll-deploying executives back in Russia reported that they had
succeeded in influencing the American election. Putin took a victory lap
as the most powerful man in the world.

The peculiar problem of the Mueller investigation shows up in the
footnotes of the Papadopoulos plea deal. “Defendant Papadopoulos later
learned that the Female Russian National was not in fact a relative of
President Putin,” one footnote says. “In addition, while defendant
Papadopoulos expected that the Professor and the Female Russian National
would introduce him to the Russian Ambassador in London, they never
did.” The next one notes that the Trump campaign never had any intention
of arranging a trip to Moscow for the candidate.

How do investigators decipher a story in which just about every
participant was lying to just about every other participant just about
all the time, usually for the sole purpose of exaggerating his own
significance and power? And how do the rest of us connect it to reality?

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November 1, 2017 at 07:15AM

Why Is the U.S. So Susceptible to Social-Media Distortion?

Why Is the U.S. So Susceptible to Social-Media Distortion?

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As executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter head to Capitol Hill to testify before Congress, one thing is already clear: American carnage came at a bargain price. Russian trolls spent tens of thousands of dollars on Google ad products and somewhere over a hundred thousand dollars on Facebook ads, and the Russian social-media blitzkrieg of 2016 shook Western democracy to its foundation. That’s the story, anyway, and it’s already a legend of informational warfare: American innovation cleverly turned against its makers. But the frenetic need to explain Donald Trump’s election and the entirely justifiable fear of social media and of Russian interference has obscured a bigger question: Why does this stuff only work so well in America?

Since Trump’s rise to power, the the Russians have attempted to influence other elections—in Germany and in France—with nowhere near the same success. In Germany, the Times reported, “the major political parties entered into a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ this year not to exploit any information that might be leaked as a result of a cyberattack.” In France, the G.R.U., the Russian military-intelligence directorate, allegedly dumped masses of hacked data from Emmanuel Macron’s campaign just before the Presidential election. Voters there responded with the standard French shrug, then elected him in a two-to-one landslide. In Canada earlier this year, Russian disinformation targeted Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland (a friend of mine, for the record). Freeland was already a target of Vladimir Putin, banned from travelling to Russia for her support of Ukrainian causes. In January, pro-Putin social-media accounts began circulating stories about Freeland’s grandfather, who had edited an anti-Semitic newspaper in Poland during the Second World War. Here’s what happened next: Freeland’s political opponents, most notably Tony Clement, the public-safety critic in the Conservative Party’s shadow Cabinet, immediately declared that it was the responsibility of all journalists and politicians to call out the “smear.” The national broadcaster, the CBC, ignored the affair. Jewish organizations didn’t bother to respond. The whole thing disappeared. By April, Freeland was giving a plenary address to the World Jewish Congress, in New York.

The parameters of social-media conflict are difficult to grasp because Facebook posts seem irrelevant when compared to war or geopolitics—one is an online amusement, diversion, and sometime news source, while the other is life and death. But Marshall McLuhan predicted that the Third World War would be “a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation,” and that’s exactly what it has turned out to be. America seems more vulnerable than other developed countries to the kind of distortion that Facebook and Twitter bring to news and politics. Arguably, the social-media distortion affects America more profoundly than other countries because of the very specific, even unique, way that Americans make meaning. This gullibility is a consequence of the country’s ancient faith in self-determination as an all-encompassing guiding principle.

Self-determination is the source of America’s oldest political commitments and its deepest clichés—“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” the cowboy, the astronaut, Thoreau at Walden, Emerson on “Self-Reliance.” In America, everyone is entitled to his or her own vision of the universe. Therefore Mormonism. Therefore Scientology. Therefore the various phases of Bob Dylan’s career. Self-determination is a moral state and not simply an economic one. How else would so many new religions, new art forms, be born out of a single country?
The idea that meaning will blossom from individuals rather than be imposed from an outside order is why America, though imperial, has never considered itself an empire. This self-determining instinct attaches to both the left and the right. “The ultimate victory will depend upon the hearts and the minds of the people who actually live out there,” President Lyndon B. Johnson said of Vietnam. “ ‘You’re on your own. Here’s a copy of the Federalist Papers. Good luck,’ ” John Bolton said of Iraq. The idea that meaning is something that comes from within a person is so entrenched in American thinking that even Americans who spend decades abroad cannot quite imagine that people work any other way.

How did the Russian social-media campaign turn this American idealism, its faith in people’s ability to make up their own minds, against them? The tactical specifics of how Putin influenced the 2016 Presidential election have yet to emerge, but one thing that is obvious is that, on the broad question of media and social-media manipulation, Trump learned from Putin. “My image and name are a widely marketed brand used by anyone who feels like it,” Putin said in 2004. Already by then he had achieved complete exposure, with his face on T-shirts, pins, coins, and cakes, nostalgically recreating the iconography of a Soviet strongman in a consumerist framework. The Russian scholars Julie A. Cassiday and Emily D. Johnson, in their essay “A Personality Cult for the Postmodern Age,” make the key observation that parodic images, not just images of strength, empowered Putin—postcards of the man struggling at a pottery wheel or wearing a Byronic scarf served his empowerment as much as the images of him fishing shirtless or at the dojo. “In the context of the Putin craze, all meaning is relative,” they write. “The contemporary cult accords a surprisingly active and even playful role to ordinary citizens: each individual determines for himself what the presidential brand denotes.” Trump, too, has stumbled upon a realization that his enemies have yet to make: it is important for him to be a joke as well as a monster.

Celebrity authoritarianism works through the free-floating nature of the political icon—the meaning of Trump or Putin is determined person by person. Mockery helps both. “Everybody is joking about Donald Trump now, but it’s a very short way from joke to sad reality,” Masha Alyokhina, from Pussy Riot, warned, in 2015. “If you want in your country to have your own Putin, you can vote for Donald Trump.”

The Trump-Putin breed of celebrity authoritarianism operates on a crude double strategy—control the media you can, muddy the rest. The Russian disinformation campaigns are based not just on promoting the viewpoints that it wants promoted but by destabilizing entire systems of meaning. Or, rather, these two goals are the same: the reason Putin wants to tear down Chrystia Freeland is because she is one of the world’s staunchest defenders of an international rules-based order. Trump, too, wants rules and institutions stripped; the more completely they collapse, the more his power increases.

The ironic double-pose of the celebrity that Trump and Putin hold—monster and joke—fits the social-media era perfectly. Social media gives everybody their own little world of self-selected meaning, the tools for a truly abstracted, self-determined universe; you can look at anyone or anything the way you want to look at it. Your friends are networks of self-reinforcement, chosen click by click.

Facebook has transformed image-making in politics everywhere in the world. In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is a social-media star and his main competition is the newly elected leader of the New Democratic Party, Jagmeet Singh, who, based on his fashion-forward Instagram feed, may be even more gifted than Trudeau at viral politics. Facebook has made the current crop of Canadian politicians ten thousand times better dressed than the Canadian politicians of any previous generation. The average age of Canadian political leaders is now forty, and if you want to be in politics in Canada today, you’d better know how to buy interesting socks.

But Facebook and Twitter have not brought to Canada anything close to the extreme information distortion that they have to American politics—rather the opposite. Viral politics here has devolved into a kind of smooth feelgoodery without the turbulence of debate, guys doing pushups for charity, not sharing crude memes or spreading lies so brazenly transparent that they mimic defiance. The “Freeland Affair” in Canada and the French “bof” to the leaked Macron e-mails are not extraordinary feats of civic achievement. They are, in every meaning of the phrase, common sense. In the case of Freeland, most Canadians recognized that if we’re going to start judging each other by the politics of our grandfathers, nobody’s reputation is going to survive. America lacks that common sense. It has extraordinary sense instead, which is why, even now, even in the middle of its great darkness, artists and entrepreneurs still love America, still need it, still want to move there. America is the place where you can come up with your own meaning.

The 2016 election was not the accidental outcome of a new technology; the forces that led to the election of Trump were primordial, not novel. The latest technology has revealed an ancient crisis. The most glorious feature of American life is also a great weakness—a glamorous flaw. Nobody is going to tell Americans what to think. They have to work it out for themselves.

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November 1, 2017 at 07:15AM

On eBay, a Fantastical, Earnest World of Haunted Dolls

On eBay, a Fantastical, Earnest World of Haunted Dolls

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The doll’s hooded blue eyes and pursed lips are framed by the jagged
bangs of a white-blond pageboy haircut. The eBay listing warns, “Haunted
Doll Dakota Spirit Child *Very Active* *Experienced Only*.” In the
description below, the seller, ackiej25, explains that the doll is
embodied by the spirit of a child named Dakota, who was murdered by his
mother. Belying the doll’s placid features, Dakota “can be quite angry
at times,” ackiej25 warns, and should not be treated like any other toy:
“He cannot be positioned near any mirrors, or he will break them.” The
listing concludes with a breezy note that “all paranormal and
metaphysical items sold in my store are for entertainment purposes
only.”

I first started cruising haunted-doll listings after hearing a “Haunted
Doll Watch
” segment on
the comedy-advice podcast “My Brother, My Brother, and Me.” The show’s
McElroy brothers alternately chuckle and gasp over the toys as a kooky
time-waster, and at first that was the reason that I browsed them, too.
I was surprised at the volume: eBay has long been a destination for
serious doll collectors hunting for antiques, but searching “haunted
doll” yields hundreds of results (six hundred and sixty the last time I
checked). The results range in price from around five dollars to the
high hundreds. Initially, I would click on the dirty, slumped-over
grotesqueries right away—but I discovered that once you’ve seen one
cracked porcelain face with a dead-eyed pout, you’ve seen ’em all.
Instead, it’s the sellers’ storytelling that provides the charge.

A doll is just a doll, but a haunted doll requires proof—or at least
enough of a backstory that a prospective buyer can embrace the
possibility of the supernatural. And so, in their item descriptions, the
sellers are sincere, enthusiastic, authoritative; the text is peppered
with scientific-sounding acronyms such as E.M.F. (electromagnetic field)
and E.V.P. (electronic voice phenomenon). As if by common decree, most
of the haunted dolls fall into one of three categories: baby, Victorian
lady, and clown. The babyish dolls, like Dakota, are often advertised as
containing the spirits of murdered children, while Victorian dolls tend
to be sexual succubae, an improbable number of whom have been cursed by
the Chilean sex demons Fiura and Trauco. The creepiness of the clown
dolls is self-explanatory. In prose that varies wildly in grammatical
correctness and punctuation (and is often formatted in bold Comic Sans,
that typographic punch line), sellers report phenomena and knit together
origin stories: “We have even heard laughs in the middle of the night I
thought I could Handle it but this is a next level of haunted I need it
gone,” posts a seller who goes by punkinleah. Another seller,
dark_horse200, writes, “a client came to me, asking for me to research
his doll and let him know whether or not the spirit that was within the
doll was evil.” The results, as you might imagine, were not good: “When
I went to contact him about what I found, the client had completely
disappeared on me.” Just our luck: “Haunted Ouija doll – Blinks, Noisy,
demonic spirit portal” ships for free anywhere in the United States. The
shivery sincerity of the listings, and the lack of narrative polish,
make the browsing experience feel like the online equivalent of
wandering into a cluttered booth in a run-down antique mall off a
country highway.

When dealing with a corporate behemoth like eBay, though, complications
arise. The site prohibits the sale of “intangible items, or things that
buyers can’t confirm that they’ve received.” Even more explicit:
“Listings that offer someone’s ‘soul’ or a container that claims to have
someone’s ‘soul’ aren’t allowed.” To comply, most sellers, like
ackiej25, include a disclaimer that metaphysical activity is not
guaranteed. The grudging legalistic language, when accompanied by a
lengthy story recounting ghostly activity, only seems to reinforce the
sellers’ veracity. Many of them put “for entertainment purposes only” in
scare quotes, suggesting friendly collusion with the buyer. “Look, I
have to say this doll’s not haunted,” the seller seems to wink. “But,
between you and me, it’s totally haunted.”

And though I may declare that I don’t believe in ghosts, if the
push-pull of my doll browsing is any indication, well, I very obviously
believe in ghosts. The haunted dolls appeal to the same part of me that
is too afraid to watch “The Babadook” but reads the Wikipedia summary
right before bed. At the heart of my affinity might be what the critic
Julia Kristeva calls “abjection,” in which desire and repulsion form “an
inescapable boomerang.” I almost envy those who go through with a
purchase, whether out of curiosity or true belief. Some first-person
accounts
make owning a haunted doll sound like having a fun
roommate
,
but I’m far too suggestible to take the big leap from lurker to owner.
The last thing I need is to be disfigured in my
sleep
by a jilted bride. I, too, might end up pleading, “I thought I could
Handle it but this is a next level of haunted.”

But whether any of these dolls are truly haunted seems beside the point.
As I scroll through pages of smudged cheeks and wonky eyes, pausing on “
‘Gracelyn’ (not vampire)” and “Bethany, Sad, Lonely Spirit” and “MECA
VERY OLD POWERFUL SOUL,” I feel smug that even a sprawling corporation
like eBay, with all its accompanying blandness-inducing powers, can’t suppress the batty and outright bizarre. In their unapologetic weirdness
and scrappy prose, haunted-doll listings offer a reprieve from the
Internet age’s slick, ironic posturing and its distancing effects.

Are the sellers, too, sincere? I hope at least some of them are.
Checking the user profiles reveals that some abruptly switched to the
haunted-doll biz from different mercantile areas—but who’s to say they
weren’t believers all along, even when they were only using eBay to
unload Nokia accessories and secondhand clothes? Of the many profiles
I’ve clicked through, nearly all have overwhelmingly positive rankings,
and some have hundreds of satisfied customers. As for the buyers, their
appreciation seems equally sincere. Their reviews convey confidence in
the legitimacy of the sellers’ claims, corporate policies and skeptics
be damned. As one satisfied buyer of a “Beautiful Antique Nun Doll”
raves, “Thank You! Can’t wait to start experiencing things!!”

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November 1, 2017 at 07:15AM

Social Contracts Up for Review

Social Contracts Up for Review

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Doing the “Cha Cha Slide” at Weddings

This agreement, reached during the summer of 2000, states that WEDDING
GUESTS will “slide to the left” and “slide to the right,” and also
“crisscross” in unison, in celebration of holy matrimony. Its renewal is
dependent on the extension of coverage to new wedding classics,
including the “CUPID SHUFFLE,” the “WOBBLE,” and “SINGLE LADIES,” minus
the bridge. This contract will also undergo an update to Section 9.2,
a.k.a. the “CHARLIE BROWN” clause, formally permitting all participating
parties to look around, confused, for this portion of the dance.

Using the Weather as a Neutral Topic of Conversation

This contract will need to be amended, as WEATHER is too often
interchangeable with CLIMATE, a topic definitely off the table now that
scientific facts are highly controversial. Casual observations about the
WEATHER will no longer be permissible. All WEATHER-related talk must be
limited to a general acknowledgment that WEATHER is occurring. For
example: “There sure is WEATHER out there”; or, “Inside, there is no
WEATHER. But, outside, there is”; or, “Another day, and WEATHER is still
happening in many locations and places.”

Letting Babies Be So Naked in Public

Frankly, we’ve turned a blind eye to this one for too long. BABIES
should no longer get to act and dress like they’ve been on a three-day
bender. You think BABIES are the only ones whose gut reaction to wearing
shoes is to want to take them off immediately? Try wearing an obligatory
strappy heel for a bachelorette party, BABIES. Then we can talk. This
contract should either be rescinded or reworked to allow a little bit of
nudity for EVERYONE who can argue beyond a shadow of a doubt that they
“just really need this right now.”

Saying Some Form of “Bless You” When a Person Sneezes

This contract will be renewed. The agreement that we collectively wish
health and blessings upon SOMEONE following the violent expulsion of
their SALIVA and SNOT is one of the purest things left in our society.
Additionally, WE should evaluate what other bodily functions this
contract may be extended to cover, as sneezing has held a monopoly for
millennia. It’s time we ask ourselves if we want to live on the wrong
side of history or if we want to start acknowledging and celebrating
PUBLIC FARTS.

Making a Stranger Temporarily Guard Your Belongings from Other Strangers

As this, too, is a reminder of the good remaining in the world, this
contract will be renewed, with minor updates to its terms and conditions.
The selection process (i.e., identifying the closest stranger nearby)
will remain the same. Associated duties (i.e., watching a stranger’s
belongings “for, like, a sec”) will also remain unchanged. However, the
STUFF GUARDIAN will be allowed one (1) sneaky peek at whatever the STUFF
HAVER is working on/reading/hoarding, because the promise of that is
truly the only reason ANYONE agrees to keep an eye on a half-drunk chai
latte and a faux-leather passion planner.

Only Screaming Internally When Straight People Say They’re “Trying to Get Pregnant”

Contract renewal will be denied. All WITNESSES will henceforth be
permitted a single, sustained, audible scream in response to the public
statement that a COUPLE is engaging in sexual intercourse 24/7. In lieu
of a scream, WITNESSES may also send the COUPLE anywhere between one (1)
and five (5) daily texts reading, “just thinkin of u and wonderin if ur
having unprotected sex rn!”

Travel

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November 1, 2017 at 07:15AM