Dulwich Picture Gallery in high summer. A bus ride away from the city dust, we sit in the shade or eat lunch outside at the café. While I was there, a bunch of schoolgirls appeared, wearing straw boaters of all things—I thought those had long disappeared. The tone is gentle, genteel, a virtual parody of Middle England. Some visitors would say the same about the current exhibition of prints and watercolors by Edward Bawden: seaside scenes, wallpaper with cows in a zig-zag field, a village policeman on a bicycle, famous London railway stations. Some critics mutter “tame” and—dread word—“charming,” and sneer at the twee marketing of Bawden’s prints on greetings cards, handbags, kitchen tea-towels, and fridge magnets. But there’s more to Bawden than that. His admirers proclaim him as a mischievous genius, an edgy, brilliant designer, blending tradition with modernism. Yet the question echoes, as it so often does for those who follow a commercial career: Is he “a proper artist”?
Born in 1903, the son of an Essex ironmonger, Bawden was a solitary child in a strict Methodist family—his chronic shyness hiding an eccentric, wicked wit. From his teenage years, he wanted to be a book illustrator. He won a scholarship to the Design School of the Royal College of Art, where he was taught by Paul Nash, with Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, and the fellow student he met on his first day there in 1922 who became his close friend, Eric Ravilious. After Bawden returned from a traveling scholarship to Italy in 1925, commercial work came quickly: a brochure for Poole Pottery brought employment with the pioneering Curwen Press; a poster for the London Underground (for which he and Ravilious later produced many designs) showed off his boldness of style; a playful series of travel advertisements with drawings based on place-names for Shell gained public affection. It was the start of a design career that ranged from wallpapers, textiles, and grand murals to linocuts for an edition of Aesop’s Fables and adverts for the upmarket London grocer Fortnum & Mason.
Estate of Edward BawdenEdward Bawden: Brighton Pier, 1958
Estate of Edward BawdenEdward Bawden: Liverpool Street Station, 1961
Estate of Edward BawdenEdward Bawden: colored proof from English as She is Spoke, by Pedro Carolino, 1960
The curator of the Dulwich Gallery’s show, James Russell, has arranged it thematically rather than chronologically, thus bringing out both the continuity of Bawden’s work and the shifts in its emphasis and technique. As you walk in, nodding to the resident Gainsboroughs and Poussins down the corridor, there’s an immediate summery, holiday feel. The exhibition opens with posters for movies like The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), a comic classic in which an old steam engine is brought in to save a small branch line: the poster catches the tone perfectly, with a vicar shoveling coal while onlookers cheer and wave. This room is labeled “World Off Duty,” the title of a book Bawden illustrated in 1947. Taking time off, we might fly away, like the passengers in the buzzing planes of his pullout brochure for Imperial Airways, or simply stay at home and lounge in deckchairs, as in his painting By The Sea (1929–1930). The centerpiece is the huge, exuberant Map of Scarborough, made in 1931 for Bawden’s hotelier friend Tom Laughton. Laughton appears at the foot of the map with a cigarette in his mouth, wearing a rose-colored sweater with the word “Skylark” on it, while the artist pictures himself perched on a windowsill sketching the beach below, where girls in swimsuits mingle with fur-cloaked dignitaries. In the sea, mermaids frolic and a worried-looking Poseidon on a wobbly platform drives his steeds toward the shore.
This mix of fantasy and realism appears, too, in the next room, labeled “Gardening.” In the summer of 1931, Bawden and Ravilious, with Ravilious’s artist wife, Tirzah Garwood, rented Brick House, in Great Bardfield, Essex, as a summer retreat; the following year, when Bawden married the potter Charlotte Epton, his father bought them the house as a wedding present. From then on, Bawden became a passionate and knowledgeable gardener. His early work is almost that of a miniaturist, abounding in detail. In the copperplate of Mount Pleasant Road (1927), a women reads in a hammock while a man burns leaves, fanning away the smoke; in Francis Bacon’s Garden (1928), tiny men dig with tiny spades and minuscule women gossip in a corner.
Comedy is always near. In the drawings for Ambrose Heath’s cook book Good Food (1932), organized by the month, June has two children crawling greedily under a strawberry net, like rabbits; in July, anxious men eye prize vegetables, while butterflies and bees soar out of the winner’s cup. These works, and the illustrations in many more books, are seemingly slight, yet they zing with Bawden’s spirited, springing freedom of line. Nature blooms against straight walls. The drawings are ingenious studies in perspective, pattern, geometry, and form, with astonishing use of cross-hatching and criss-crossing lines—enduring features that would strengthen the garden and village linocuts of his later years, such as The Road to Thaxted (1956) or the posters he made for the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.
Bawden’s watercolors are far less well known. They show the same concern with form but feel more tentative, infused with an odd melancholy. Early works like March: Noon (1936), in a room titled “Spirit of Place,” owe much to Paul Nash, with his insistence on the genius loci, but much besides to landscape artists like Francis Towne, John Sell Cotman, and Samuel Palmer, with their rhythmic curves and delicate washes. Determined to revitalize watercolor painting, Bawden and Ravilious worked side by side, often literally so. But Bawden’s paintings are more uneven, some magically capturing angles of light, others appearing flat or uncannily surreal. They seem like attempts to answer questions such as: How can one evoke rain? How can one catch slanting sun, an autumn gale, a house blinded by snow?
He was more secure when depicting buildings—he always loved architecture—and that skill never failed him, as can be seen in the eerie, lyrical watercolor Menelik’s Palace: The Old Gebbi (1941). Later, when the formality of linocuts, such as the exhilarating, stylized Brighton Pier (1958), began to influence his painting, he created powerful contrasts of curve and line—as in the still-life Agave from the 1970s, in which the bending fan of leaves plays against the static verticals of window, wall, and door.
The most surprising works at Dulwich are the portraits and crowd scenes Bawden painted between 1940 and 1945, when he was an official war artist. This posting took him on a “Cook’s tour,” as he called it, from South Africa to Ethiopia, Lebanon, Iraq, and Italy. If, in the past, he had found life-drawing difficult, then faced with this challenge he was superb, immediate, direct—witness the finely-clad and anxious-faced Sergeant in the Police Force formed by the Italians, drawn in Ethiopia after the Italian defeat in 1941.
Bawden portrayed nurses and soldiers, grand sheikhs and poor coffee-bearers with equal weight and humanity. In Greece and then in Italy, with Edward Ardizzone and other artists, during the later phases of the war, Bawden saw horrors, including starving slave-workers trekking home from Germany. The most haunting picture here is Refugees at Udine (1945). Bawden had himself been interned in Morocco after a ship he was aboard was torpedoed, and his sympathy is manifest. Men stand behind a fence, some still in prison stripes. Others lie on the ground, or slump, head in hands. The priest in the center of the watercolor can offer little succor, but the trees bend over the refugees like a canopy, and a woman and girl with a flower in her hair peer through the fence’s mesh, perhaps searching for someone. There is a small hope here, too.
Arriving home after the war, as James Russell explains in his superb catalogue essay, Bawden returned to a world that seemed to have moved on. He never spoke of Ravilious, who was lost, aged thirty-nine, when his plane went down off the coast of Iceland in 1942: those who knew Bawden well believed that he never recovered from his friend’s death. He continued with posters and book jackets and advertisements, and with large-scale projects like the extraordinary screen for the Festival of Britain in 1951, and he took up a succession of teaching posts: students remember him as taciturn and prickly, but unfailingly generous when he saw talent.
Estate of Edward BawdenEdward Bawden: Gnat and Lion, from Aesop’s Fables, 1970
Estate of Edward BawdenEdward Bawden: Old Crab and Young, circa 1956
Estate of Edward BawdenEdward Bawden: Albert Bridge, from Nine London Monuments, 1966,
In time, Bawden found a new style to fit the new age. In the 1960s, his linocuts celebrated the humor and hard labor of London markets, but also the glories of Victorian engineering—visible on a grand scale in Liverpool Street Station (1961) and the soaring Albert Bridge (1966), which are visual anthems that hymn the complex harmonies of those structures’ iron lattice-work. And with Bawden’s formal brilliance goes a tender, amused feeling for the value of all life—from the seaside tourists of the 1920s to the war-time soldiers, from the creepy-crawlies of Snails for All, drawn for his children in 1945, to the snarling Tyger! Tyger! of 1974.
After seeing all these, who can say that Edward Bawden, this serious if unclassifiable artist, is merely a purveyor of charm?
I’ve been staying in an Airbnb in a Soviet-era apartment block in Moscow to cover the World Cup, but my children back home in Paris are living the tournament more intensely than I am. Though I’m British and my wife is American, our children were born in Paris and identify uncomplicatedly as French. For France’s first few games, each of their gang of friends took turns to host a viewing party at home.
Parents and kids would cram into somebody’s little apartment, cheer on France over helpings of pizza, then sing Beatles songs together and watch whichever match was up next. Our living room was left smeared with red-white-and-blue face-paint after all the children rolled on the floor to celebrate France’s goals. My kids’ friends have family origins in Portugal, Greece, and Senegal, but everyone supports les Bleus (and sometimes the family’s ancestral team, too).
Then school ended and most people disappeared for the summer, so my wife and kids watched the France–Belgium semi-final in a café on our street where the customers howled the national anthem before the kickoff. Afterward, crowds of people trooped to the local Place de la République. The last time it filled up like that was for the “Republican march” following the terrorist attacks against the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in 2015.
My children are twelve, nine, and nine, and this is the first World Cup they have experienced fully consciously. Certainly, now that France has reached Sunday’s final against Croatia, they will always remember this month and the friends with whom they watched the games, just as I can recall entire evenings from the World Cups in 1978 and 1982 more vividly than almost anything else from my childhood.
The emotional locus of this tournament is more in living rooms and bars around the world than here in the place where the thing is actually happening. That’s not because there is anything wrong with Russia. On the contrary, it’s been very pleasant here. The country has put on a much friendlier World Cup than anyone expected. Terrible hooliganism had been prophesied following an attack by Russians on English fans in Marseille at the 2016 European Championships, but this World Cup has been as nonviolent as the previous four. It seems that Putin’s security people paid a visit to all known Russian hooligans before the tournament.
England fans who arrived here were too scared at first to wear their team shirts, given the media headlines predicting hooliganism, and the political tensions between Britain and Russia—literally toxic since the incidents of poisoning in the UK by a nerve agent only made in Russia. Now they report Russians coming up to them to practice their English or to tell them about their favorite English soccer club, or simply to reaffirm their lifelong Anglophilia. Peruvians and Poles have danced on the streets of Russian provincial cities, and Russians have joined in, while police officers watched benevolently and posed for selfies.
The historian of Russia Yuri Slezkine, author of The House of Government (2017), says the World Cup recalls the World Festival of Youth and Students of 1957, when Nikita Khrushchev suddenly drew aside the Iron Curtain and 34,000 people from some 130 countries came to Moscow. Then, too, young Russians were delighted. People still talk of the “deti festivalnaya,” referring to all the biracial children who were supposedly born to Soviet women nine months later. Russians don’t get too many chances to feel connected to the world, or to dance on their own streets, and they have enjoyed this month. There has been plenty of happy international fraternization in the bars.
In the stadiums, though, there was little of the mass patriotic passion that viewers like so much about World Cups. The atmosphere at most matches—except perhaps the three played by Peru, whose team seemed to have brought along half the country for its brief, disappointing effort here—was pretty tame, a lot tamer than it seems to have been in my own living room in Paris. That’s simply the way it is with a modern World Cup. The venue nowadays is what the French anthropologist Marc Augé calls a “non-place.” There is no “there” here.
When friends hear that I’m at the World Cup, they often say how envious they are. They don’t need to be. I watch games squeezed in among other chubby, middle-aged British journalists in the press stand, eating my dinner of peanuts from the stadium vending machine. I rarely care who wins. Nor, usually, do most of the spectators. The crowd at most games consists chiefly of neutral Russians, who fill the duller stretches with chants of “Rossiya,” along with fans whose countries have already been knocked out but who weren’t ready to go home yet. (The biggest banner carried by fans in my late-night Moscow metro train after Wednesday’s England-Croatia semi-final was a portrait of Argentina’s national soccer hero, Diego Maradona.)
Many spectators spend much of the time during the games filming themselves. I know this is now a cliché about modern life, but it wasn’t like this even at the last World Cup, in Brazil in 2014, when videos on social media weren’t yet as common. And whenever a knot of fans shows anything that looks like the authentic patriotic passion for which World Cups are famous—singing their country’s name while banging a drum, say—everyone else gathers round and starts filming them. Anyone showing passion in the stadium is almost guaranteed to be picked up by the TV cameras. Then the kids watching in Paris, France, or Dayton, Ohio, or Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, wish they were at the World Cup.
I have now been to eight World Cups, and the best moments for me have always been away from the stadium. This time, the thrill was discovering provincial Russia. Say what you like about big tech companies, but Airbnb and Yandex (Russia’s equivalent of Uber, with an English-language app) have made the provinces more accessible than ever before. I stayed in mostly suburban apartment blocks all around the country, had conversations with many of my hosts—usually, educated women who spoke excellent English—and came away wishing I had seen more of Samara and Nizhny Novgorod than the stadium media centers.
There have been one or two unforgettably weird experiences. In Volgograd, formerly Stalingrad, I toured the World War II memorials and then relaxed in the café of the nearby Stalin Museum. Waitresses in period khaki uniforms served beer to foreign soccer fans, while some Tunisians photographed themselves in Soviet military greatcoats and caps. Beside them, a TV was showing the Sweden–South Korea match. Beside that was a portrait of Stalin, and underneath it sat a group of Russian men doing what most Russians do when the World Cup is on TV: not watching. That scene will stay with me for longer than the England–Tunisia game that had brought me to town.
All World Cups become repetition (another difference between my kids and me: nothing can ever match your first tournament). Nick Hornby wrote in his 1992 soccer fan’s memoir Fever Pitch, “I have measured out my life in Arsenal fixtures,” and many more of us measure it out in World Cups. You find yourself comparing what’s happening on the field now not just to the last World Cup, or to the 1982 World Cup, but even to the World Cups you’ve heard about that happened before you were born. For England fans, for instance, the question before the semi-final was: Could the nation repeat its lone triumph of 1966?
Sunday’s France–Croatia final is, in part, just a repetition of the France–Croatia semi-final of 1998. For many French people, in fact, this entire World Cup is a repetition of the World Cup of 1998, the only one France has ever won. France’s impish coach, Didier Deschamps, was the captain that year, and at the press conference after this week’s semi-final in St. Petersburg, he kept having to ward off questions about the earlier tournament. “One should live in one’s time,” he chided. “I never, ever talk to the players about my story. I’m with them to write a new story. Looking in the rearview mirror—I’m not like that.”
But most people are like that. It’s often said that an imaginary golden age is typically located about twenty years in the past, too long ago to remember clearly, and a time when the person doing the remembering was young. Sunday’s final comes twenty years and three days after France’s “black, blanc, beur” (“black, white, Arab”) team thumped Brazil 3–0 in the 1998 final. It was a golden summer. The winning French team became a symbol of a united multiracial France that could also win. The soccer victory was going to melt away racial divides.
It didn’t happen. France has since been through two decades of economic stagnation, fading global power, terrorism, ethnic riots, and then the anxiety that the anti-immigrant politician Marine Le Pen would win last year’s presidential elections. This time, almost everyone understands that winning the World Cup won’t transform France.
But winning would be nice. If my children’s heroes—Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba, and nineteen-year-old Kylian Mbappé, perhaps the most talented teenager on earth—can overwhelm Croatia’s diminutive playmaker Luka Modrić, a man who can find the most precious of commodities on a soccer field, space, it would reaffirm that France is now in a happier moment. French voters in last year’s elections sidestepped the populist trap into which the US, the UK, and Italy have tumbled. The French economy is growing again. France hasn’t had a major terrorist attack since the deadly truck rampage in Nice, two years ago this Bastille Day. The spontaneous Parisian celebrations at the Place de la République and on the Champs-Elysées, with far less security than there would have been two years ago, show that the French are reclaiming their streets from the terrorists. Still, the country’s security forces must be fearful about Sunday night.
Emmanuel Macron, perhaps the luckiest of presidents given his improbable ascent, is populist enough to manipulate these shared experiences. When France’s favorite pop star, Johnny Hallyday, died last December and Paris stopped for his funeral, Macron told the crowds on the church steps: “You had to be there for Johnny, because from the start Johnny was there for you… He became an indispensable presence, a friend, a brother.” Sophie Pedder, in her new biography of Macron, Revolution Française, says the president hopes to provide the French “with moments of collective exaltation, of common feeling, that bring a nation together, in awe or in sorrow.” On Sunday, he will surely be in the presidential box at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, beside his host, Vladimir Putin. If the Bleus win, then, twenty years from now, my French children will remember this as their golden summer.
The legal brothels of Nevada, in remote counties away from the big cities and dotted amid expanses of deserts and mountains, have become an institution. Brothels like them have existed in the state since around 1870—seen as part of the fabric of society by some, loathed by others. Today, though, this Nevadan institution—unique in the United States, where prostitution is otherwise illegal—is under threat from a proposed change to the decades-old legislation that permitted it.
There are legal brothels in Lyon, Nye, Lander, Elko, White Pine, Mineral, and Storey counties. There are three other counties where prostitution is legal but there are no brothels, while prostitution is currently illegal in Nevada’s Clark, Douglas, Eureka, Lincoln, Pershing, and Washoe counties, as well as in Carson City. Residents in Nye and Lyon counties have been collecting petition signatures for a ballot measure in November’s elections that would shut down the brothels.
At a meeting of the Lyon County Commissioners in May, the commissioners unanimously agreed to put the question of legal brothels on the ballot. Nye County officials decided this month not to hold their own ballot but to introduce the issue for debate at the next session of the state legislature at the end of January 2019. The Legislature will address whether to ban brothels statewide in all counties: Joseph Hardy, a Republican in the Nevada Senate, is reportedly submitting a bill draft request, the preliminary stage of any legislation, to argue for the repeal of legalization.
If the voters of Lyon County say in November that they no longer want brothels in their county, the commissioners will take action to end legal prostitution there, which would involve closing four of the state’s twenty-one legal brothels. Nye County will be Senator Hardy’s initial focus in his legislative effort, so another four legal brothels in that county could close. Whether other counties in Nevada would then follow suit is an open question, but a vital precedent could have been established by Lyon. There has never been a reversal of legalized prostitution anywhere in the world, despite campaigns in every country where this applies.
The issue has acquired greater visibility since Dennis Hof, the owner of seven legal brothels in Lyon and Nye counties, the author of a best-selling book about his career as a pimp, and a star of the HBO adult reality TV series Cathouse, won a Republican primary recently ahead of November’s elections for the Nevada state Assembly (the lower house of the Legislature). Hof will be the favorite to win in GOP-leaning District 36 (which spans Nye County and portions of Lincoln and Clark counties), and he has campaigned on a pro-Trump, anti-establishment ticket. Yet, even as he runs for state office, his business empire—built on prostitution—is in doubt.
The history of legal prostitution lies in the American towns that sprang up in Nevada in the late 1800s with the silver- and gold-mining boom. The male-dominated nature of mining work created a parallel industry for women who came to sell sex, whether pimped by a third party or out of economic desperation. This historical precedent eventually led to the Nevada State Assembly’s passing a bill, in 1971, to give any county within the state the right to host legal brothels. More than thirty brothels were in operation at the height of the legal trade in the 1980s.
Legalization in limited areas creates a climate that helps to normalize prostitution in general: pimps become businessmen, prostitutes become independent contractors, and the men who pay for sex become clients. And what goes for legal brothels dictates norms even where the trade is criminal. Despite the fact that brothels are illegal in Las Vegas, that city is a major sex tourism destination, and accounts for some 90 percent of the prostitution that takes place in Nevada. While an estimated 1,000 women are working in Nevada’s twenty-one legal brothels, approximately 30,000 women are thought to be operating in the Las Vegas area alone.
A 2011 estimate puts the annual value of the Nevada legal sex industry at $75 million, while illegal prostitution in Vegas grosses around $5 billion annually; another estimate values the combined trade at more than $7 billion a year. For comparison, the latest figures released by the Nevada Gaming Control Board show that Vegas’s more famous industry, gambling, netted the state economy some $26 billion during 2017. According to one campaign group, Nevada’s number of prostituted persons per capita is 63 percent larger than the state with the next highest rate, New York. Nevada’s illegal sex market, generated in part by legalized prostitution, has more than 19,000 women and children being trafficked, bought and sold for sexual acts annually.
Prostitution has made the legal brothel owners powerful, wealthy men. Nevada’s legal brothels, hailed as safe, benign, and desirable, work as a propaganda machine for the illicit Vegas sex trade. From the ads for escorts on hotel key cards, to the young men out on the streets handing out cards with promises of “A girl to your room faster than a pizza,” as well as women visibly plying the trade both on the streets and in hotel lobbies, illegal prostitution flourishes in Las Vegas—to the extent that many johns have no idea that the business isn’t legal in Vegas. There is big money to be made there from sex tourism, and as with any illegal activity, there are links with police corruption.
Melissa Farley, a psychologist and researcher, and author of Prostitution and Trafficking in Nevada: Making the Connections (2007), has written extensively on Nevada brothels, interviewing women, johns, and brothel owners. “Legal prostitution in Nevada and its illegal offshoots provide a welcoming environment for local pimps and also for international pimps and johns,” says Farley. “Both legal and illegal prostitution support organized crime, which in turn corrupts the political and judicial system.”
In the show Cathouse, supposedly a fly-on-the-wall depiction of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, one of Hof’s brothels, the women appear liberated and happy in their work. They tell viewers that this is simply a job like any other; the clients are lovely, and living in a brothel with other women is akin to a permanent pajama party. But my research suggests that life for the women in Nevada brothels bears little resemblance to this rosy picture.
I first visited the brothels of Nevada in 2011 to research the effects of legalized prostitution. I wrote to Hof, telling him I was a reporter interested in writing about how legalization worked. I was welcomed with open arms. When I arrived, Hof exclaimed, “Any publicity is good to sell pussy!” During my visit, I saw Hof treat the women as merchandise, and witnessed first-hand his employees’ misery. Hof referred to the women as “hoes,” and, as several attested to me, he would often grab their breasts and crotches when they walked past. The women who worked in his brothels were required to line up whenever a john appeared, and were told they were not to smile or move; instead, they should stand very still, staring straight ahead. I also witnessed Hof demand sex from any of the women who took his fancy.
Hof profits from legalized prostitution, so it makes sense that he would promote it as a viable business model. But Hof goes further than this; he uses his significant public platform to make claims about legalization’s being the solution to trafficking and other criminal activities in the sex trade. “The legal environment is like the world’s greatest singles bar,” he told me when we met in 2011 at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas. “There is no trafficking, no rape, no HIV, no illegal activity. It’s safe here.” In 2015, Hof announced that he is working with state legislators to discuss ways to end trafficking. He described this as his “last goal in life.” “I hate traffickers,” Hof told me. “They give our business a bad name.”
Trafficking is certainly a problem in Nevada. The US-based Human Trafficking Hotline has reported year-on-year increases in the number of cases of human trafficking in Nevada since 2012, with 199 recorded last year, and identifies Nevada as one of the top sex-trafficking destinations in the country. But supporters of legalized brothels in the state get around the issue by reframing trafficking as voluntary “migration for sex work,” while many pro-legalization lobbyists flatly deny that trafficking exists except in a tiny minority of cases.
Police officers and NGOs that offer legal services, counseling, and support to leave the sex trade across the state have told me that there are numerous underage girls being trafficked in Nevada. In Las Vegas alone, approximately 400 children per year are picked off the streets from prostitution by law enforcement and child protection services. In the 2014 documentary Trafficked no More, Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto said the youngest trafficking victim prostituted in Las Vegas was a thirteen-year-old girl. According to reporting by the Las Vegas Sun, trafficking victims are shipped into Nevada brothels with fake documents, and there is an entire system in place to provide falsified information such as fake Social Security numbers and residency permits, facilitating the prostituting of these girls.
A major plank of the pro-brothel lobby’s argument is that legalization solves the problem of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), but it’s clear this isn’t the case. The state board of health requires prostituted women to undergo regular testing for STIs, but the johns are not required to prove that they, too, undergo such tests. Additionally, the “condom rule” in brothels is unenforceable. What I saw in the legal brothels in 2011 was disturbing: women were wearing Band-Aids on their arms to cover needle marks from blood tests, with their names and date/time of the tests on a list that was visible to all—undermining the presumption that condoms should always be used. Men told me they would negotiate with each woman as to whether or not they would wear a condom. As one punter said to me: “She’s been tested, she’s clean, it’s just fine.” There are no figures on the rates of HIV infection in legal prostitution in Nevada because of the assumption that, under legalization, there is zero transmission. But STI rates in general—and the incidence of syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea, in particular—are on the rise across the state.
The ballot measure on brothels is the result of years of campaigning by a coalition of local residents, feminists, and conservative moralists. Some academics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), defend the brothels. Barb Brents, a sociology professor there, whom I heard give a keynote speech on the topic at a conference in Vienna, in 2015, supports legalization on the grounds that prostitution can be “empowering” for certain women and reduce stigmatization. Another staunch supporter of legalization is Ronald Weitzer, a sociologist at George Washington University and the author of Legalizing Prostitution: From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business (2013). In a recent article for the Reno Gazette Journal, he argued that “The logic of legalization is similar to that for marijuana and casino gambling: the principle that tolerating consensual vice is far superior to criminalizing it, forcing participants underground and perpetuating the risks and harms inherent in any black-market enterprise.”
Christina Parreira is a doctoral candidate at the University of Nevada studying prostitution in the state’s legal brothels. As part of her research, Parreira lived in a legal brothel and sold sex herself for thirty-six days, interviewing twelve other women during that time. She is a firm advocate of legalized prostitution and an effective publicist for Dennis Hof. “As a licensed prostitute and PhD student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, I can tell you that what I want is to continue to have the freedom to choose to work in a safe environment, where I can practice a trade that I love, lawfully and prosperously,” she wrote on the Bunny Ranch blog. “Sex work is definitely not my last resort or my only option—it is my choice. I’d like to continue to have the opportunity to make that choice legally.”
An argument commonly made in favor of a legalized system is that it safeguards workers’ rights for the women. But these women are strongly discouraged by their bosses from unionizing. As the labor researcher Gregor Gall notes in his 2016 book Sex Worker Unionization, legalization has not resulted in women in prostitution becoming unionized—including in Nevada—which shows that:
[T]he absence of prostitute unionization is not just an issue of prostitution being unlawful. This outcome has been influenced by the isolated geographical location of the brothels (where the women are live-in workers for the periods they work there), a paternalistic but authoritarian management enforcing strict rules, and prostitutes are not employed (being independent contractors instead).
Among the opponents of the legal brothels are scholars and activists (myself included)—both inside and outside the state—who are deeply critical of the Nevada model, which they say presents selling women’s bodies as no more pernicious or complicated than retailing fast food. While the supporters of legal brothels like Hof’s say that it is only their legalization that keeps the police from persecuting the women, I’ve found that, in practice, legalization means the police adopt a totally hands-off approach toward the pimps and traffickers. Removing all criminal penalties from the sex trade, I believe, merely normalizes the buying and selling of women’s bodies. Legalization offers no protection for the women themselves, and legitimizes pimping and sexual commodification—though I firmly support the decriminalization of those who are prostituted (predominantly women, of course). For, as Rachel Moran, a sex-trade survivor and the author of Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution (2015), asks: “Why should women be punished for their own abuse?”
I interviewed some fifty women who had previously been involved in prostitution for my 2017 book, The Pimping of Prostitution: Abolishing the Sex Work Myth. Every one of my interviewees, many of whom were prostituted under legal or decriminalized systems in Germany, Holland, Australia, and New Zealand, told me of endemic violence from brothel owners, feelings of stigma and shame, and a lack of services to support women leaving the sex trade. I have also interviewed women who had been prostituted in Nevada brothels. One told me that she felt men are encouraged to treat the women “like candy in a store, and not like a human at all.”
The campaign to repeal legalization in Nevada is supported by organizations from outside Nevada such as the San Francisco-based NGO Prostitution Research & Education. There has long been a vocal human rights-based movement against legalized prostitution in the US. A sex trade survivor named Evelina Giobbe founded Women Hurt in Systems of Prostitution Engaged in Revolt (WHISPER) in 1985. “I call [Nevada brothels] the factory farming of sex,” she told me last year. “The number of johns women see, the lack of control they have over the choice of johns and the ‘services’ they provide, the lack of control they have over their health regarding condoms… They are not only preyed upon by pimps, they’re preyed upon by the brothel owners economically. It’s a really bad deal for women.”
That view is gaining currency. Contrary to Hof’s claims, many of those selling sex from legal brothels have spoken openly about abuse and violence from johns, mistreatment by brothel owners, and their desperation to get out of the sex trade. In May, a number of women who have worked in Hof’s brothels told The Nevada Independentabout their experiences of sexual assault, harassment, and, in one case, alleged rape by Hof. (He has denied that allegation, and has never been charged or convicted on the basis of other complaints.)
Lance Gilman, who was elected as a Storey County commissioner by a wide margin in 2012, is currently trying to increase the number of brothels permitted in his county. I visited one of the existing ones, the Mustang Ranch, near Reno, in 2011. Gilman is firmly pro-legalization, but he admits that the legal brothels can themselves act as a magnet for dangerous johns. “As soon as you legalize, it turns the predators loose,” Gilman told me. “You have to regulate. We have a stable of a thousand [women].” But his caution seems more about protecting his business interests than the welfare of his employees—in fact, he proudly told me that the Mustang Ranch is modeled on a prison and referred to the women as “inmates.” Gilman also designed a game called “Hunt a Ho,” in which johns pay to “hunt” women in the desert with paintball rifles. Upon catching a woman, the john is rewarded with sex. “We get the girls, they are the prey, hunters come find ’em,” said Gilman to his former partner and one-time brothel manager, Susan Austin, in a promo video for another brothel-based reality TV show, Mustang Ranch: Labor of Love, which aired in 2012.
So much for Parreira’s “freedom.” A door-to-door saleswoman who came to sell “hooker chic” to the women in the Bunny Ranch told me that her sales are “very healthy” because the women are required to have an extensive wardrobe and they’re not going anywhere. “They are always in and available for my sales pitch,” she said, “because they are not allowed out.” The women have to pay for all of their ‘working’ clothes, as well as pay for rent and all of their food while living in the brothel.
Last fall, during a trip to New York, I met with Annie, a woman who had worked in three separate legal brothels in Nevada between 2012 and 2015. Annie was nervous and seemed traumatized by her experiences, but told me she was determined to “speak the truth” about legalization. “The brothel owners are worse than any pimp,” she told me. “They abuse and imprison women and are fully protected by the state.” It is widely known that the brothels are difficult to leave. “There is no such thing as popping out for cake with a girlfriend,” Annie told me. “We have to ask permission, and are not allowed to keep our car keys once we sign the contract to work [in one Nevada brothel].”
Unsurprisingly, faced with the threat of losing the ballot measure, the brothel-keepers are fighting hard to keep their businesses legal. In a letter written by Dennis Hof’s lawyer,Mark Wray, and sent to Lyon County court officials (and seen by the author) before the decision was made to allow the vote, Wray claimed that closing the brothels would have “an immediate negative fiscal impact on the local economy,” despite failing to provide any specific evidence of this. But local anti-brothel campaigners have relayed to me their confidence that a “strong collaborative effort across different community groups” will prove effective. Activist groups such as the No Little Girl and End Trafficking and Prostitution have teamed up with local Rotary Clubs, chambers of commerce, political clubs, and NGOs established to campaign against violence against women to publicize “the truth about legalization.”
Gilman is only too aware of how big a business prostitution is, once it has the legal stamp of approval. Both he and Hof could be elected officials after November’s election, and it’s safe to assume that they will continue to work hard to defend their interests in legal brothels. A majority of feminist sex-trade abolitionists with whom I’m in contact, though, are concerned that the Nevada campaign to repeal legalization is too narrowly focused and does not address the wider picture. If the only result is that the legal brothels are shuttered, it will likely be the women who are then criminalized for prostitution—something feminist abolitionists passionately oppose. There are also few services around to support women’s leaving prostitution safely, which is yet another consequence of legalization (for why, the argument goes, would you need support and counseling to leave a “legitimate job”?).
And if the legal brothels are closed down, what of the illegal ones? Even if the ballot measure to end the brothels in Lyon County passes, no one should expect prostitution and sex trafficking to end in Nevada. But with the false claims of the regulated, legal brothels out of the way, the abuses of the state’s far greater, unregulated, and illegal sex trade would come into sharper focus.
Is the #MeToo “moment” the beginning of a new feminism? Coined by the civil rights activist Tarana Burke in 2006, the term took off in 2017 when celebrities like the actress Alyssa Milano began using it as a Twitter hashtag. Extensive reporting in The New York Times and The New Yorker on harassment in the entertainment and tech industries helped the movement bring down some of those fields’ most powerful figures. By speaking out, a number of famous actresses—some of them better known previously for their not-so-feminist roles as cute witches and beguiling prostitutes—have done so as well. To date, most of #MeToo’s attention has been aimed at the rich and influential: for instance, abusive talk show hosts and other notorious media figures.
#MeToo has too often ignored the most frequent victims of abuse, however, such as waitresses or hotel housekeepers. These are among the invisible people who keep society going—cleaning homes, harvesting our vegetables, and serving salads made of these vegetables. Who among those of us who depend on their labor knows their struggles or even their names? It can seem like an uphill battle to bring attention to the working-class victims of harassment, even though these women are often abused in starker and more brutal fashion than their counterparts in Hollywood.
Bernice Yeung, an investigative journalist for the reporting nonprofit organization Reveal, has helped correct this imbalance. Yeung is no tourist in the lives of the working poor women she covers. She has been writing about the plight of farmworkers and maids harassed and raped by their overseers for more than five years, in places far from executive offices—fields, basements, and break rooms. Her new book, In a Day’s Work, is a bleak but much-needed addition to the literature on sexual harassment in the US.
Consider, for example, a female farmworker whose supervisor violated her in a shed:
He held gardening shears to her throat. He pulled her hair or slapped her while he raped her because he said she wasn’t putting enough effort into it. Then he coerced her into silence by threatening to kill her children in Mexico or by reminding her of the power he had to fire her sister and brother, who also worked at the same farm.
Then there is Georgina Hernández, a cleaning woman in Orange County, California, who rejected her supervisor’s advances when she took a new position cleaning the lobby and exterior of the hotel where they worked. This job paid better than her previous position “scrubbing the oily kitchens and lifting the heavy rubber floor mats.” She ended up, however, having to hide in the women’s bathroom, where her boss followed her, murmuring disturbing little nothings like “you’re delicious.” Finally, he raped and impregnated her.
This sexual and social violence is happening all around us. A domestic worker in Yeung’s book who was assaulted at the rental house she was required to clean recounts that her rapist “cornered me and pinned me against the wall and…tried to pull my pants down again.” Yeung writes that “she did not report these attacks because,” in her words, “I was afraid that I would be fired.” Another janitorial worker, Erika Morales, was put under the supervision of a convicted sex offender who went to her worksite “to watch her as she vacuumed or scrubbed bathrooms. In addition to staring at her and making sexual comments, she says the supervisor sneaked up behind her and grabbed and groped her.”
Like most of the women Yeung interviewed, Morales felt disgust and a sense of shame that then permeated her life. Her pain was compounded for another reason: she was a single mother with two children who couldn’t afford to lose a paycheck. “In that moment, I was going through a situation where I couldn’t stop working,” she tells Yeung. “The father of my children wasn’t there. I was alone with the kids.” It was also a matter of time: it would “take weeks of filling out applications before she could land a new job and [she] didn’t know how she would feed her children in the meantime.” She made an appeal to her assailant himself, pleading that her children needed to eat. He laughed in her face.
A few women eventually went to the police, but a number felt they could not do so for various reasons, including not knowing their rights. A farmworker named Norma Valdez, whose foreman assaulted her in an apple orchard, was asked on the witness stand why she hadn’t gone to the police, Yeung relates. “Valdez said she didn’t know she could.” In another instance, a Latina domestic worker told a human rights activist that she “wanted to make a report to the police, but she was undocumented and felt stuck in her job.” They also fear—or know—that they will fall into destitution if they lose their jobs. They may also face the possibility of deportation. “The supervisor knew that for workers not authorized to be in the country,” Yeung recounts of one sexual assault case, “the prospect of losing a job was almost as menacing as a death threat.”
Other victims “grappled with longstanding taboos around sex,” and those prohibitions initially kept them from speaking out. “Marilyn from Orange County said that her supervisor openly watched porn on his computer,” Yeung writes. “Others reported that their supervisors had taken pictures of their chests or behinds on their phones and sent them to their male coworkers. None of the women knew that this could be considered sexual harassment.” As one of the workers Yeung interviewed put it, they thought such voyeurism was “just the culture of buildings at night.” These women assumed, often correctly, that they were close to helpless against their leering male coworkers.
The men in Yeung’s book who are neither abusive nor sleazy are not automatically “allies,” however, or even quietly benign. American unions have not always had good records when it comes to dealing with the needs of their female members, including discouraging sexism among their male members. Yeung describes a union meeting in February 2016 when a female member of SEIU United Workers West named Veronica Laguna shared a list of grievances—from low wages to overwhelming workload—and then mentioned sexual harassment. At that point, some of the male members booed. “As she spoke, a low roar emerged from the audience,” in Yeung’s words.
This “incident,” Yeung continues, “made it clear to the union leadership that they had to overcome the misconception” among male members that, as an SEIU officer put it, “women’s issues are not worker issues.” For some men, sexual harassment and violence is still a trivial problem, or even something they imagine women enjoy as proof of attractiveness. White-collar men, under the shield of human resources departments that can pay mere lip service to complaints, may simply hide their disdain better. But at least some of the male workers at SEIU must have come around: that chapter ultimately signed a contract with new sexual harassment provisions.
In a Day’s Work suggests how the struggles of working-class women align with those of their sisters in the creative class. It offers an opportunity rarely found in our class-polarized society: to bring together women across economic levels around a single issue. What might make this opportunity hard to seize is that the outcome of sexual harassment is significantly different for women of varying social classes and occupations. Actresses like Mira Sorvino can be “heartsick” after learning they may have lost major film roles due to Harvey Weinstein’s machinations against women who refused his sexual demands (he allegedly blacklisted her to the director Peter Jackson and others). But the very idea of having a career that can be derailed might seem foreign to women simply working to get by or to stay in this country.
Unlike many victims of harassment in the film, TV, and technology industries, a number of the women in Yeung’s book are terrorized not only by physical violence but also by deportation warnings and threats against their children. (“Then he coerced her into silence by threatening to kill her children in Mexico.”) Is there enough here for a common cause? If women like Sorvino and women like the domestic workers in Yeung’s book are being abused in such divergent ways, or with such variant outcomes, can they still share a movement?
The history of women’s fight against sexual harassment is as full of disunion and fragmentation as it is of solidarity. Class differences among women have troubled the movement since the 1975 case around which the phrase “sexual harassment” was coined. Carmita Wood, a forty-four-year-old administrative assistant at Cornell University, left her job after her boss, Boyce McDaniel, a famed nuclear physicist, thrust his hand up her shirt, shoved her against her desk, and lunged at her for unwanted kisses. Wood, a mother of four, afterward found working with her assailant unbearable and filed a claim for unemployment benefits. Cornell rejected the claim, and Wood sought help from upper-middle-class female activists at the university’s Human Affairs Office. Together they created Working Women United, which held events where everyone from filmmakers to waitresses shared their horrific stories.
Wood ultimately lost her appeal. Working Women United, for its part, fractured after just a year due to tensions between its working-class and its middle-class members. Carmita Wood was also quickly excluded from news coverage of the group: it seemed that she was less interesting to reporters than its middle-class organizers were. As those women shored up their movement, Wood paid the greater price for her bravery, becoming, as her grandson called her in an interview, “a black sheep” in the local community, struggling for her unemployment benefits. She finally left town and resettled on the West Coast.
The gap between bourgeois and working-class feminists has troubled other alliances as well. Working-class women and trade unions rejected the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) throughout much of the twentieth century out of concern that it would remove the few on-the-job protections women already had, like limitations on the amount of weight they were required to lift. Even in the 1970s, after the AFL–CIO endorsed the ERA, many working-class activists continued to consider it purely a middle-class issue. Then there is Roe v. Wade. The plaintiff, “Jane Roe” (Norma McCorvey), a working-class woman, felt alienated by the upper-middle-class feminists who had pushed her case to the Supreme Court. McCorvey eventually switched sides to join the pro-life movement.
A particularly stark case in which well-off women mistook their interests for the common cause was a public relations campaign sponsored in 2003 by the National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO). The campaign was meant to shame the Masters Golf Tournament, held at a club called Augusta National, which excluded women as members. The assumption behind the campaign was that if famous female golfers were admitted into Augusta, all women would somehow benefit—never mind that the only form of golf most working-class people can afford is of the miniature variety. Many have since doubted the idea that victories like the one the NCWO pursued around Augusta might trickle down to the non-golfing female majority. “Trickle-down economics wasn’t the best experience for people like me,” Tressie McMillan Cottom, a black feminist and sociologist, has written. “You will have to forgive me, then, if I have similar doubts about trickle-down feminism.”
The recommendations in best-selling feminist business books like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In likewise are most effective—if they are effective at all—for women who can advocate for their interests without risk of retaliation. “We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small,” Sandberg wrote, “by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in.” For ordinary working women, leaning in would be immediate grounds for termination.
But not all attempts at cross-class solidarity have failed. Upper-middle-class women have long supported working-class and lower-middle-class women’s strikes, including the ongoing teachers’ strikes, and efforts by workers to organize themselves in unions since the “mink brigade” protested with the New York shirtwaist strikers in 1909. Since 1974, the Coalition of Labor Union Women has advocated on behalf of unorganized women workers and lobbied to make unions more receptive to the needs of their female members. More recently, and on a smaller scale, there are organizations like the Brooklyn-based Hand in Hand, which was founded by upper-middle-class women: it seeks to improve conditions for domestic workers and nannies by simultaneously urging their employers to improve their wages and working conditions and encouraging the workers themselves to know their rights and make their needs known to their employers. Hand in Hand and groups like it are not a substitute for a national feminist movement for all classes, but they suggest what can be done if we are determined to include as many women as possible in the struggle against abuse and exploitation.
In a Day’s Work does offer several examples of working-class women who only needed a little encouragement to defend their rights. Georgina Hernández, the hotel cleaner and rape victim, spoke out after she met the labor activist Vicky Márquez, who had “found her at work, cleaning the movie theater,” and convinced her that her complaint would not make her already difficult life still harder. After she came forward, she was “proud that she set aside her fears to challenge what had happened to her.”
But what Yeung’s book suggests primarily is that feminists don’t need a policy program first. Rather, we need unity, or, as we used to say, sisterhood. Whatever #MeToo becomes, it mustn’t simply resemble this winter’s Golden Globes awards, where actresses paraded working-class female activists with them across the red carpet. Nor should it resemble boutique women’s-only workspaces, like Manhattan’s the Wing, where membership can cost up to $3,000 a year. Affluent women can use their privilege to help strengthen the movement among working-class women like the ones who appear in In a Day’s Work, but only if they manage to put their resources to good use.
This might, for instance, mean the creation of more initiatives like the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which aims to support sexually harassed and abused working-class women and give them legal aid. Or it might mean offering financial support to women who lose their jobs after speaking out and have no savings to tide them over. Another possibility would be to create “safe spaces” both real and virtual, where women like farmworkers, cleaners, and servers can share stories and sketch out strategies to improve their working conditions. Whatever else it involves, building a cross-class movement, as Yeung shows, will mean learning to stop unseeing the working women around us.
Late last year, BBC executives had the nerve to erect a bronze statue of George Orwell outside its headquarters in central London. The sculptor caught Orwell’s spikiness. He stands one hand on hip, the other pointing forward with a cigarette between his fingers, as if caught in mid-argument. Carved into the wall behind him is the journalistic motto that Orwell and the BBC wanted us to learn: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
The BBC lifted the line from Orwell’s proposed preface to Animal Farm. Despite its being one of the greatest satires in the English language, four publishers turned the manuscript down in 1944. Orwell was attacking Stalin’s Soviet Union, then Britain and America’s wartime ally, at the most politically inconvenient time imaginable. T.S. Eliot, by then the head of Faber & Faber for almost twenty years, wrote like a minor functionary in a propaganda ministry when he rejected the manuscript. Faber & Faber was not staffed by cowards, Eliot insisted. In theory, he was prepared to publish books that “go against the current moment.” But when presented with a real work the authorities hated, he raced to find reasons to reject it. “We have no conviction,” Eliot opined, “that this is the right point of view from which to criticize the political situation at this present time.”
If the BBC had a human personality, it would be more Eliot than Orwell. If you only know the BBC from its slots on NPR, I doubt you will have grasped the extent of its journalistic cowardice in covering the 2016 referendum that decided to take Britain out of the European Union, and its aftermath.
Here is an incomplete list of uncomfortable truths that the British government, its supposedly left-wing opposition in the Labour party, and the 17.4 million people who voted for Britain to leave the EU do not want to hear. There is no plan, and there never was a plan. The “Leave” campaign never had the integrity to present the public with a program for withdrawal. If it had, voters might have realized that Brexit would either bring a huge dislocation as Britain tore itself out of an integrated European economy, or would turn Britain into an EU satellite state, obeying its rules but without a voice in their formulation. The head of Vote Leave, one of the two umbrella groups leading the 2016 campaign, explained in June 2015 that constructing workable proposals for Britain’s future was “an almost insuperable task… There is much to be gained by swerving the whole issue.” Instead of honestly confronting Britain’s place in the world, the campaign offered brazen lies: Brexit would deliver £350 million ($462 million) a week to our health service; Turkey was about to join the EU and flood Britain with millions of Muslim migrants.
The chaos that has rendered Britain all but powerless as Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump tear up the international order stems from the original sin of not leveling with the public. Both the Conservative and Labour parties are being torn apart by a pressure to do the impossible: to square the promises of charlatans with the realities of Britain’s economic and strategic position. Both left and right, or at least their leaders, talk as if the European Union will allow us to retain the benefits of membership when we have left.
The naive might expect journalists to expose the delusions of the powerful. After the misleading buildup to the Iraq War in 2003, the BBC confronted the then Labour government of Tony Blair with the false predictions it had made about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. The BBC falsely claimed that Blair’s manipulative staff had “sexed up” its dossier on Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, and the dispute ended with public inquiries and the resignation of its director general. Nevertheless, the BBC asked the right questions. To this day, its presenters boast of their ferocity. Asked in what circumstances he would resign, John Humphrys, veteran host of BBC Radio 4’s Today, Britain’s most influential news program, played the tough guy: “If they told me to go easy on a politician.”
His brave words have vanished like dust on the wind. Neither Humphrys nor any one of the scores of celebrity presenters the BBC hires has asked hard questions about the “false prospectus”—to use a favorite BBC phrase after the Iraq War—the Leave campaigns presented to the British people.
“The referendum is over,” declared anotherToday presenter, Nick Robinson. “The day we broadcasters have to ‘broadly balance’ the views of the two sides is at an end. Why? Because there are no longer two sides.” Real journalists should be able to see that everything is wrong with his statement. If Brexit were over, Britain would not be in a rolling crisis with no end in sight. As pertinently, journalists should never assume a subject has become off-limits, because that is what the enemies of free expression demand.
Much of contemporary politics resembles the brainwashing techniques of religious sects, which discredit sources of information that might contradict the cult’s teachings. Political leaders cannot order their followers to cut off communications with their families and leave their partners if they are not fellow members of the sect, but they have found other ways to imitate L. Ron Hubbard. Their most effective technique is to take a half-truth—that all journalistic choices are ideological to some extent—and use it as a weapon to suppress the full truth.
It ought to be obvious that a left-wing reporter will have an urge to expose corporate misconduct, just as a right-wing reporter will be on the watch for the hypocrisies of the left. But since deeds, not motives, make the world go round, the intention of the reporter ought to be irrelevant. What matters is whether what they have found is true or important. Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are masters of the tactic of saying that, regardless of the truth of the research or the importance of the story, the very fact of the story’s existence proves its illegitimacy. The term “whataboutism” does not begin to cover the new official campaigns to discredit journalism. The political cult leader does not merely claim his opponents are as bad as he is or that reporters are motivated by their opposition to him (which is true more often than not). He tells his followers that no honest person would have covered the story in the first place. Its truth and relevance are immaterial; it has no right to exist.
A reporter who accepts that argument has given up on journalism. The BBC has accepted it because of its unique position in British and, indeed, world journalism. The corporation is funded by a tax that requires every household to pay it about £150 ($200) a year. Unlike news organizations whose business models have been wrecked by the Web, this arrangement has guaranteed the BBC an income that allows it to dominate the British media. I am only exaggerating slightly when I say that news isn’t news here until it is covered by the BBC.
Trump’s victory in the US has emboldened the worst people in Britain, and the BBC faces constant attacks from his imitators. At the other end of the ideological spectrum, supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, have formed a suitably Marxist cult of personality around their leader. Their propagandists have convinced them that bad news about Labour is fake news concocted by corrupt journalists. So aggressive did their anger become that the BBC had to hire bodyguards to protect its political editor at Labour’s last national conference.
For decades, the right-wing press has attacked the BBC with a ferocity and contempt for truth that would make even American conservatives blush. The easy thing to say after Brexit is that the BBC has capitulated to right-wing pressure. But a deeper pressure is operating on the corporation that carries with it a warning, not only to journalists, but to all who think of themselves as men and women of political integrity.
To the bemusement of Americans brought up with the separation of church and state, here in England, we have a state church: the Anglican Church of England. On the one hand, the church is a religious institution that spreads Christ’s gospel. On the other, it is a national institution that has diluted its religious teachings as it tries to hold the state together. The church could never adopt Christian pacifism, for example, because it is duty-bound to provide chaplains for the armed forces. If you want a church wedding, your local parish must marry you whatever your religious beliefs. You may worship the Jedi knights and your beloved may be a Satanist. No matter: as long as you are heterosexual English citizens, the national church must marry you.
The BBC is an Anglican broadcaster, which faces the same conflict of purpose. It follows the highest journalistic standards, yet it feels it must also reflect the national mood. Britain voted to leave the EU. The nation spoke, and in respecting “the people’s verdict,” the BBC has done what every enemy of free inquiry wants reporters to do. Like Eliot, it frets about whether “this is the right point of view from which to criticize the political situation at this present time.”
The BBC’s reporting of the scandals around the Brexit referendum is not biased or unbalanced: it barely exists. It is as though the US networks had decided the Mueller investigation was no concern of theirs. There have been three huge stories the BBC has covered with only the most perfunctory reports: the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica data leak, the Brexit campaign funding scandal, and the exposure of Russian interference in British politics.
That 2018 has been the year that Western publics realized how much Facebook knew about them, and how that information could be used by hostile foreign powers and malicious plutocrats, is thanks in large part to the efforts of Carole Cadwalladr, my colleague at the London Guardian and Observer. In 2016, she was a jobbing feature writer tackling any subject the desk pushed at her—a fact that has caused established journalists, who ought to know better, to sneer at and diminish her work with mutters that she is a conspiracy theorist. Two years on, Cadwalladr has inspired investigations of global interest in the Brexit referendum. She did it the old-fashioned way, by banging away at the story week in, week out. The more often she appeared in the paper, the more potential whistleblowers realized they could trust and talk to her.
Cadwalladr makes no claim to neutrality (and no one would believe her if she did). A few weeks ago, I urged her to take time off from exposing the corruptions of the Brexit campaign to write a book about her investigation. It would be a bestseller at home and abroad, I assured her. Think of the translation rights. Think of Cadwalladr: The Movie, with Reese Witherspoon learning to speak in a Welsh accent as she prepared to play the lead.Far from being grateful for my unsolicited career advice, Cadwalladr looked appalled: “But I can’t stop the journalism, Nick. I can’t let them get away with it.” No one has done more to expose how the axis of technology, demagoguery, and oligarchy operates in Britain. She is everything BBC journalists are not.
When the whistleblower Christopher Wylie brought The Observer and TheNew York Times details of how data Cambridge Analytica, a British company partly owned by the family of Robert Mercer (who funds numerous conservative causes), Cadwalladr and Wylie offered the BBC a share of the story. The firm was at the center of the Anglo-American alt-right. Steve Bannon was on its board. It worked for Donald Trump and, at the very least, had dealings with Leave.EU, a pro-Brexit campaign group fronted by Trump’s British ally Nigel Farage and funded with what is thought to be the largest campaign donation in British political history from one of our local oligarchs, a loudmouthed insurance tycoon named Arron Banks. When news broke that Cambridge Analytica had collected identifying personal information for some 87 million Facebook users, Facebook stock fell by $134 billion.
The BBC was given the opportunity to interview the whistleblower and have a documentary ready to go once the news was out. But like Eliot rejecting Orwell, the BBC’s investigative program Panoramabacked away. There was no “smoking gun,” it said. Within days, the smoke from Facebook’s burning reputation was billowing from its Palo Alto headquarters.
The pattern repeated itself with Shahmir Sanni from the Vote Leave campaign (whose deliberate refusal to present the British public with a workable plan for Brexit I mentioned earlier). Vote Leave was the supposedly respectable face of British nationalism. It counted Boris Johnson and several other Conservative ministers among its supporters. Sanni turned whistleblower and showed how the group had bypassed electoral law and allegedly breached the official spending limit of £7 million ($9.3 million) during the run-up to the EU referendum. One leading London lawyer said the breach was of a scale and seriousness beyond anything Britain had seen in modern times. Once again, the BBC did not want the scoop. “We don’t have enough evidence to turn this around in three weeks,” a Panorama bureaucrat wrote to Cadwalladr.
And then, inevitably, there was Russia. Along with others, I had speculated that it was scarcely conceivable that Russia had not tried to influence the Brexit referendum given its strategy is to break up the institutions of Western unity: NATO and the European Union. Brexit was as great a triumph for Russian foreign policy as the Trump victory. We knew Russia had interfered in the 2016 US presidential election, and that post-fascist and post-communist parties across Europe looked to Putin for support. Speculation is one thing; evidence is another. Cadwalladr received copies of Arron Banks’s emails showing that he had had multiple meetings with the Russian ambassador during the referendum campaign and was offered a business deal involving six Russian goldmines.
All the Today program would do was try to set up a staged confrontation between Cadwalladr and a propagandist for Brexit. It would not report on the emails as news; nor did it use its vast resources, hundreds of times larger than those of The Observer, to investigate. Until that point, I had been defending the BBC against its enemies, including critics who were my political allies. I gave up. What is the point of the BBC if it cannot tackle issues of national importance? What is the point of a news organization that is frightened of journalism?
In the preface to Animal Farm,George Orwell provided a line that today would be apt for the walls of the BBC headquarters: “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.” No doubt, if the shift of public opinion against Brexit continues, the BBC’s silence will end and, like a weather vane, it will swing with the prevailing wind. It will receive no plaudits from me. No one should praise journalists who speak out when, and only when, they are certain that public opinion is with them. Not just journalists, but anyone engaged in political life should learn from the BBC’s abject performance. Whether you are on the left or the right, there will be times when you will be frightened of saying what you believe for fear of offending your friends, breaking a taboo or going against the ephemeral consensus of the day. Allow that fear to dominate you and you will end up like the BBC: platitudinous, frightened, and irrelevant.
This is the fifteenth in a series of essays about the 2018 World Cup guest-edited by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.
The summer of 1990, for those who lived in what was then Yugoslavia, was something like the summer of 1939 in Europe: warm and easy-going, spent mostly on the beach with a cold beer in hand, or—if you were far from any sea or lake—in the shade of a tree or a tall building, comfortably cooling your feet in a washbowl. No one expected the sudden break-up of that Balkan country, or at least not me, then an eleven-year-old boy.
I was busy playing soccer on my street in my hometown, Zagreb, where there was little traffic in the warmer months. In our games of four-a-side, the doors of the driveways of my house and the house across the street served as goal posts. I was the goalkeeper for the Street Team’s “Left Side,” imagining myself as Tomislav Ivković, a Croatian player who was the goalkeeper for both the Yugoslav national team and Dinamo Zagreb back in the 1980s. Ivković lingered in my mind whenever I leapt to catch the old leather ball, frayed from the same asphalt that scraped my knees and elbows when I had to defend penalty kicks taken by our neighbors opposite, after a foul or a hand-ball.
That summer, the Yugoslav team was beaten by Argentina in the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Italy, and Argentina was, in turn, beaten in the finals by the fearsomeGerman team led by Rudi Völler, Jürgen Klinsmann, and Lothar Matthäus. Just after Dragan Stojković, that Yugoslavia team’s great Serbian midfielder, missed his penalty, Ivković saved Maradona’s shot and became the hero of our street. The disciplined and cool-headed Croatian goalkeeper had saved the honor of a country soon to be no more by repelling a penalty by the god of football himself.
Many years later, I sat on our sofa in Zagreb with my son, now the same age as I was back in 1990, to watch Croatia play Argentina in our second match in the World Cup in Russia. Twenty-eight years have passed since the summer that’s stuck in my mind, ever after, as the end of my innocence and my country’s. But suddenly, I was taking part in a remake of that long-gone experience, made up of familiar actors: Maradona was there, in the VIP section of the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, an eleven-year-old boy was sitting next to me, and I was watching the screen in disbelief: “How on earth is Croatia going to pull this off?”
My son was perplexed. “What makes you say that?” he asked with genuine curiosity, not aware of the fears that have accumulated inside me over the past three decades, and which meant that, from the moment Argentina’s Ángel Di María kicked off the match, this question echoed in my head. I tried to tell myself that, in fact, there was every reason for Croatia to pull this off—we had a fantastic team, led by some of Europe’s best players, and entirely capable of reaching the very end of the championship. It wasn’t until the second half, though, that events began to persuade me of the truth of this.
Ante Rebić, our indefatigable young winger, took advantage of an error by the Argentinian goalkeeper Willy Caballero to score a beautiful goal. Then Luka Modrić, Croatia’s superb captain, struck an unstoppable shot from twenty-five yards that also ended up in Caballero’s goal. Now it was possible, I felt, that the mystique of great Argentina could be broken. When Ivan Rakitić scored our third goal, this new realization was confirmed. Croatia was transformed, for many of us, from underdogs into favorites.
According to the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the war machine is a concept intrinsic to human society—a model for living first forged by nomadic tribes, as they sought to temporarily preserve territory or power, that many modern states, seeking absolute control of the governed, later turned into the raison d’être of nationhood and the core of politics. Even though Croatia’s players could probably not care less for Deleuze and Guattari, they might agree with this theory—especially because many of them lived through the war and postwar period in Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s.
They, too, felt the weight of social divisions wrought by the war—the creation of new classes, the territorial battles, the struggles for lawful and unlawful possession, the manipulation of the masses by propaganda. And many of them, like today’s leading players from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and Kosovo, also experienced exile, being displaced from the villages, towns, and cities where they had lived in their early years.
The Croatian team has three exceptional players who became exiles as a direct result of the conflict. Luka Modrić, for six seasons now a leading midfielder at the world’s top club over that span, Real Madrid, fled with his family to the Croatian port town of Zadar during the heavy fighting in Dalmatia in 1991; there they stayed for the five years of the war’s duration, and that was where he began playing football. Dejan Lovren, who plays for Liverpool in England, was born in the Bosnian town of Zenica in 1989, but his family fled the war to settle in Bavaria, Germany, for seven years. Since his parents were not able to resolve their residency status there, they eventually had to move back to Croatia, where the young Lovren struggled at school for a time because his Croatian was poor. Vedran Ćorluka, who’s now with Lokomotiv Moscow, spent the first six years of his life in the Bosnian village of Modran, near Derventa, in the region of Bosanska Posavina, an area that suffered heavily during the Bosnian war; and then, from 1992, he lived with his family in Zagreb.
As kids, these players had no social advantages, only challenges and obstacles, yet they made it in the mean world of professional football, where only money, physical fitness, and Kairos, the ancient Greeks’ god of opportunity and luck, play decisive roles. One can’t help but suspect that it is the hardships of their youth that has enabled them to meet with such success now, and lead this Croatian team to the semi-finals against England. Lovren once said in an interview:
When I see the refugees from Syria and other countries today, my first reaction is that we have to give these people a chance. They deserve the kind of chance my parents and I received when we left Bosnia. They don’t want to be part of the war, which was caused by others, and the only thing they can do is to run away from it.
After Croatia’s tough win against Denmark in the round of sixteen, I traveled to Sarajevo for a literary festival co-organized by the Bosnian-American writer Aleksandar Hemon, who happened to be in the United States when the war in Bosnia broke out in 1992. Hemon, whose career bears a striking resemblance to the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz’s expatriate experience after 1939, has never returned to live in his home country. Following the official closing of the festival on Saturday evening, some of the writers and poets, Hemon among them, got together in a bar to watch Croatia’s quarter-final game against Russia. Despite the lingering burdens of war, still only two decades old, most of the bar’s regular customers joined my son, who came to the festival with me, in cheering for Croatia.
Together, we celebrated when our incredible goalie, Danijel Subašić, saved the decisive penalty, and Ivan Rakitić scored the winning goal. For a brief moment at least, to me and perhaps to all of us in the bar, it felt as though the war was finally over.
Although I rarely respond to reviews, I feel compelled to respond to the July 8 essay by Esther Allen on the important “Radical Women” exhibition, now on view at the Brooklyn Museum. The writer misunderstands the nature of The Dinner Party, the historic context in which it was created, and, most important, the way in which I arrived at the plate images. As she stated, The Dinner Party is a symbolic history of women in Western civilization, but she completely ignores the “Heritage Floor,” which provides the literal and metaphoric foundation for the table. To focus only on “who’s at the table” is to over-simplify the art and ignore the criteria my studio team and I established and the limits we were working under.
Ms. Allen asserts that I exclude a number of important women “from the table,” including La Malinche, Santa Teresa de Ávila, Sor Juana de Inés la Cruz, Gabriela Mistral, Frida Kahlo, and Clarice Lipsector. To clarify, except for Clarice Lispector (who did not even begin writing until 1959, long after our historic time-frame), all of the women she mentions are included on the “Heritage Floor” and the accompanying “Heritage Panels,” which visually detail those women’s various contributions. Moreover, a photograph of Sor Juana figures prominently on one of the panels. Although I certainly recognized her genius, I could not find enough information about her to be able to fashion an appropriate image.
At the time I was working on The Dinner Party, in the mid-1970s, there was little or no knowledge about any of these women. The prevailing point of view was that women had no history. It is important to remember that our research was done before the advent of computers, the Internet, or Google search. As a result, a team of twenty people—largely untrained but passionate about countering the lack of knowledge—spent three years ferreting out and piecing together fragments of information from old, out-of-print books and lengthy volumes describing the father, brother, or husband of a woman we were researching in the hope that she might be mentioned. Ms. Allen ignores the role of The Dinner Party in opening up scholarship on some of the very women she references, and for others, it remains the sole source of information. And she passes over the fact that some of the artists in the “Radical Women” show studied with me, which might have been worth exploring.
Lastly, it pains me that Ms. Allen chose to use that ground-breaking “Radical Women” show to criticize The Dinner Party. How unfortunate that women continue to feel the need to denigrate the work of their foremothers in order to acknowledge more contemporary contributions. We need to build upon each other’s achievements if we are ever to break the cycle of erasure that I tried to overcome through The Dinner Party.
Belen, New Mexico
Esther Allen replies:
I’m delighted to learn that Judy Chicago shares my view of the ground-breaking importance of “Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960–1985” currently at the Brooklyn Museum. Chicago’s The Dinner Party has been permanently installed since 2007 in the wing of the museum that also houses “Radical Women” until July 22. I was struck by the aesthetic contrast between the monumental, epic register of Chicago’s work and the ephemeral, performative register in which the artists in “Radical Women” tended to work, and made passing mention of it in my review of the Latin American show.
My review does note that several artists featured in “Radical Women”studied with Chicago, who undoubtedly contributed to sparking a new interest in art by women, creating ground on which both the show’s artistsand its curators have built. The review also observes, correctly, that none of the thirty-nine women with a seat at The Dinner Party’stable is from Spain, Portugal, or any of the two empires’ former colonies in the Americas. Readers may now take note that the names of La Malinche, Santa Theresa de Avila, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Gabriela Mistral, and Frida Kahlo are there, down underfoot on The Dinner Party’s “Heritage Floor.”
Chicago contends that there was little or no knowledge about these women here in 1974–1979, while The Dinner Party was being created. That is debatable. To take only one case, Frida Kahlo: 1910–1954, the first solo retrospective of Kahlo’s work in this country,curated by Hayden Herrera, opened to acclaim in 1978 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
This is the fourteenth in a series of essays about the 2018 World Cup guest-edited by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.
“It’s coming home,” a young man told me as we passed in the street in South London after our 2-0 defeat of Sweden in the quarter-finals of the World Cup on Sunday afternoon. He was heading toward Clapham Junction railway station, where later that day a man jumped off the roof of a double-decker and crashed through the awning of a bus stop—landing unharmed, as it turned out, amid a large crowd of revelers.
In Stratford, East London, some England fans entered a branch of IKEA, that reliable Scandi surrogate, and wreaked good-natured havoc on the home furnishings, sending cushions flying and assistants in hijab scattering for cover, as the fans waved their shirts over their heads and murdered the chorus of “It’s coming home.” According to a subsequent statement from the company, “We were on the edge of our seats during the game and we would like to say ‘grattis!’”—adding “(that’s congratulations in Swedish).” This is the sound of a corporate sigh of relief. It was IKEA’s good fortune that England didn’t lose.
“It’s coming home,” the lifeguard greeted us when he opened the doors of my local swimming pool this Monday morning. “It is, too!” boomed a fellow swimmer, a Jamaican evangelical Christian whose bonhomie faltered recently, at the death of his wife, but now seems fully restored.
They were all referencing a song, “Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home),” that no one in England can get out of their heads at the moment. It dates back to 1996, when two comedians, David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, teamed up with the English band The Lightning Seeds to mark the European Championships, which that year was held in England. “Football’s Coming Home” was the result, a cocktail of presumption and self-deprecation rendered palatable by a catchy, Brit-poppy chorus. (Too catchy, as we are now discovering.)
The rest of the news has been put into proper perspective by the goals of Harry Kane, England’s captain (six so far, putting him on target for the tournament’s Golden Boot award), and the goalkeeping heroics of Jordan Pickford, who not only made several crucial saves against Sweden, but also—with his big left glove—single-handedly won for us the penalty shootout against our previous opponents, Colombia. Even the puns flow better when it’s coming home.
As a nation, England has to concentrate on the task at hand and ignore peripheral distractions. On July 9, the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, and theBrexit secretary, David Davis, resigned in protest at the government’s policy toward getting Britain out of Europe, which last weekend was steered by Theresa May into a more conciliatory, pro-European course than they would like. Nine months before the UK leaves Europe, the terms of our disengagement have gone from unclear to opaque, and the government is vulnerable to internal revolt. The previous day, a woman in Wiltshire died from exposure to Novichok, the nerve agent that poisoned a former Russian double agent and his daughter in the same county in March, precipitating a crisis in relations with Russia. And Mothercare, one of a legion of ailing British retailers, has announced that it is to close sixty stores.
But the good news eclipses the bad, doesn’t it? In the serenity of their hotel somewhere we haven’t heard of, England’s lads have been following a program of muscle stretches, ice baths, foam noodles, whatever they are, and prolonged exposure to the computer game Fortnite. Waistcoats of the kind worn by Gareth Southgate, the England coach, are selling well. Footage of Neil Rowe, an England fan who has followed the team to Russia, and is an apparent replica of Southgate (down to the wonky nose, five-day facial growth, and striped, middle-manager’s tie) has been widely enjoyed on social media. Marks & Spencer, supplier of the England team’s suits, including Southgate’s waistcoat, has declared a “national waistcoat day.” No abasement is too abject for our brilliant British corporates.
Talking of social media, Harry Maguire, who headed home the opening goal against Sweden, was photographed after England’s earlier match against Colombia speaking to his fiancée, across a pitch-side barrier. He looked for all the world like a suburban geezer chatting to an attractive neighbor over the garden fence. His teammate Kyle Walker tweeted the photo along with the caption “Yeah so a good header doesn’t hurt. I mean the moment you head it proper, you feel it’s a good one. Know what I mean love?” To date, that tweet was liked by 274,000 people, almost as many as voted for Brexit. Give or take.
But seriously. Some 20 million Britons saw the Sweden match on telly. The penalty shoot-out against Colombia, earlier that week, was watched by 23.6 million people. Viewing figures of this kind belong to another era, before the Internet punctured the idea of nations’ watching the same thing at the same time. What is going on?
The national mood has a lot to do with “it,” and how nice it would be if “it” came “home.” As for coming home, no one would seriously suggest that people in England were inflating bladders and kicking them around before they did in, say, Africa, but what we did do, in the nineteenth century, was decide on some rules, write them down, and impose them on the rest of the world. If writing down the rules for something means you invented it, we invented not only football, rugby, and cricket, but also Hinduism and skiing. All the same, in 1996, it could just about be argued that football came home. Ish.
England didn’t win then, but we reached the semi-finals, in which Germany knocked us out on penalties. A center-back named Gareth Southgate failed to convert a vital spot kick, a trauma for which he compensated by taking a role in a Pizza Hut advert containing many puns on the word “miss.” Southgate’s penalty nightmare was that of the nation as a whole. Between 1990 and July 2, 2018, England was knocked out of six major competitions (the World Cup or the European Championship) in penalty shoot-outs. Iceland didn’t need penalties to dump us out of the European Championship two years ago; the shocking 2-1 defeat that tiny country inflicted on us, mere days after the shocking vote that gave us Brexit, was of a different order of humiliation, fated by nothing but our own uselessness.
The Colombia match on July 3 finally laid our spot-kick bogey to rest. Now, “it” means 1966, the first (and only) time England won the World Cup, an achievement that mocks us all the sharper the further it recedes into the past, the more it seems like an unrepeatable one-off.
At London’s Wembley Stadium in 1966, the flag held by the England fans was the Union flag; in their eyes, Britain and England were coterminous. No longer. Nowadays, it’s the cross of St. George that one sees, notionally a symbol with racist overtones, now the banner of a team featuring not a few black immigrants’ kids who join those fans in spirited renditions of “God Save the Queen,” increasingly an English national anthem.
There is no pretending that our odyssey to the semi-final, and potentially to the final, is any more romantic or special than it would have been for Colombia or Sweden, or that among the Scottish and Welsh people who have swollen the TV viewing figures, a majority were actually cheering for us English. But all that—and Boris Johnson, and the Brexit question of what is to happen to the Irish border, and the future of our blight-ravaged high streets—is marginalia. Come on, football, you know you want it.
You ask how was it for me. To answer I must go back some fifty years to a warm Friday midnight and the moment when I whispered with utmost delicacy into the ear of my new friend the indelicate question. I was lying beneath her and she was in all her glory, naked but for a studded choker of lapis lazuli and gold. Even in the amber light of a bedside lamp, her skin gleamed white. Her eyes were closed as she swayed above me, her lips, minimally parted, allowed a glint of beautiful teeth. Her right hand rested lovingly on my left shoulder. She smelled faintly, not of perfume but of sandalwood soap. Those bars, imprinted with an ancient sailing ship and folded in tissue within a long rectangular box of balsa, were once mine. She had taken to them the moment she first entered my bathroom. Why should I mind?
As we came to a lull in our lovemaking and she leaned forward, I put my lips close to her ear lobe and licking it, speaking into a headwind of sensual pleasure that seemed to snatch the words from my mouth, said, “Dearest, I know I shouldn’t, but I have to ask you this. I don’t claim any right to know, of course, but after these two wonderful weeks…I feel…darling, Jenny…forgive me, I love you and always will…but please tell me the truth. Are you real?”
Before I describe her reaction, I should explain for the benefit of younger readers how things stood at that particular moment. We’d been through a social revolution whose outcomes now are entirely taken for granted. The young, I’ve noticed, tend to act as though nothing has happened. They have little or no sense of history. The miracles worked by previous generations—they’re as ordinary as life itself. But as everyone who takes an interest should know, the entire debate began innumerable centuries before, with Plato perhaps, or with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or with Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, or the speculations of Alan Turing, or when, at the dawn of the third millennium, a computer program, learning from its own mistakes by way of deep neural networks and “self-play,” defeated a Grandmaster at the ancient Chinese game of Go. Or, most significantly, when the first android became pregnant by a human and the first viable carbon-silicon baby was born. Only three streets away from my apartment, in a delightful little square lined with cafés and shaded by pollarded plane trees, there’s a statue in Molly’s honor. You would think that there was nothing unusual in such a monument. Except that a pretty girl of eight in T-shirt and jeans, hands on hips, stands boldly before us on a plinth in place of a general, or a poet or an astronaut.
Could a machine be conscious? Or put another way, were humans merely biological machines? The affirmative answers to both questions consumed many decades of international wrangling between neuroscientists, bishops, philosophers, politicians, and the general public. Finally, long after it was due, artificial people were granted full protection under various human rights conventions. So too were their mixed-source offspring. Other rights properly followed, including benefit of marriage, property ownership, of passports, voting, and employment protection. An android could start a business, get rich, be bankrupted, sued, and murdered as opposed to destroyed. Around the world there developed various “autonomy acts” which made it illegal to buy or own a manufactured person. The legal language self-consciously invoked the anti-slavery acts of the nineteenth century. With rights came responsibilities—military service was an uncontroversial, irresistible matter. On jury service, androids were a useful addition, given all the cognitive defects and weak, pliable memory of humans.
Ours was the generation that came of age in the aftermath—turbulent years of passion and anguished reflection. What it meant to be human was being interestingly, or tragically, extended. If the consensus of the scientific elites was that our newly devised friends felt pain and joy and remorse, how could we prove it? We had been asking the same question about other humans since the dawn of philosophical reflection. Should we be troubled or delighted that they were, on the whole, cleverer, kinder, more beautiful than we were? Were the religious among us wrong to refuse to grant them souls?
Then, as so often happens with contested social change, once these matters were talked out and the legislation approved, life moved on and soon no one could remember what all the fuss had been about. It’s often said that the great questions of philosophy are never resolved: they fade away. All those protest marches, monographs, speeches, conferences, and dire predictions were for nothing. After all, our new friends seemed much like us, only more likable. You could trust them, which is why so many went into law, banking, and politics and began much-needed reasonable reform of those institutions. Their natures were deeply caring, and many became doctors and nurses. They were strong and fast and made up two thirds of our Olympic track and field team, though sprint hurdling took another fifteen years to perfect. Famously, they showed themselves brilliant musicians and composers in all forms of music. If ever we worried that they seemed a little too good at everything, we could congratulate ourselves that they were our creation, in our image, the final full flowering of our artistic and technical genius. They were, we often said, the better angels of our nature.
By slow steps, though much remarked on, and affecting social life as well as legal process, it came to be understood and generally accepted that our crafted con-specifics deserved full dignity, and respect for their privacy. That’s to say, in a matter of years it became socially unacceptable—as was not the case in our youth—to ask.
For example, at a gala dinner for a major book prize, you could not inquire of your charming neighbor at table, prompted by a rather too astute remark of his, if he, a highly respected publisher, was a biosilicate-based, locally manufactured artifact. Twenty years before, you could have—indeed, it would have been the first thing you wanted to know. It would have been no more than a casual preliminary. Just as if you had said, I hear you have a second home in Thuringia. So do I! With all the last mutinous mutterings about political correctness fading away, along with the stupid old “they live among us” scare stories, it became offensive, even prurient to ask, since your inquiry would be, in essence, grossly physical, given that the matter of ascribing consciousness had long been settled. It would be no less intrusive than asking of a human over the chocolate mousse, Is it really true? Everyone’s saying you’ve had a colostomy!
Another example. When Mrs. Tabitha Rapting became prime minister with a parliamentary majority of two, there were those who wondered if she was “real”—another hurtful word that has been dropped. But the point is this—socially, we had already crossed a great divide, for such wondering was not done in public. Only in golf club bars, or on street protest marches by marginal, radical groups. It would have been indecent, obscene, akin to racism, and therefore probably illegal. That was all long ago, and even now we’re still not sure when an android first became prime minister. Or if one ever has. Or whether we’ve lived under an unbroken succession of them. Nor do we know whether (or if) an android has ever taken the men’s or women’s singles championship at Wimbledon. Or if a human has won it these past twenty years.
So if my question to Jenny that sultry July evening seems despicable to younger readers, let me remind them that I belong to a generation that lived through the transition. As gruesome adolescents with an unforgivable taste for taunting women passersby in shopping malls, we thought we knew a dozen ways to test the difference. We were wrong, of course—not that we would have cared. Beyond DNA analysis or deep micro-surgery, there are no means of knowing. But we knew we could always demand an answer from the victims of our taunts, and the answer was programmed always to be truthful—until that too began to change.
Jenny, I’m proud to remember, did not take offense. She drew closer to me. Her eyes, now open and deep and black, were fixed on mine. She felt—words can barely perform the task—liquid, smooth, warm, enveloping. Sentient and sensual. Oh, such a lovable self. A bolt of love and pleasure threatened to render me deaf. But my curiosity was so strong that I heard every word she said. Moments like these are what we’ll take to the edge of the grave. The kiss we exchanged before she spoke was tender and rapturous. Her lips, her tongue—miracles, however they were formed. I knew, even before I had my answer, that I would never leave her. So why should it matter what she was made of?
“You’re mine.” She said it as a matter of plain fact. She had uttered these words occasionally during our lovemaking and they had always pleased me. “And I belong to you. Everything else is froth.”
Because she paused, I disloyally wondered if these endearments, however sincere, were a form of evasion. But how dared I doubt her?
“I thought you already knew. I was formed in Düsseldorf in Greater France. So were my parents and the aunts you’re so nice to. But the cousin you met in the restaurant, the one you tried to beat at squash, he’s from Taiwan.”
“Düsseldorf!” It was all I could manage, though the final syllable was no more than a swallowing sound, for I believed I was disappearing. Such mighty sensations belonged not to me but to the world of things, to the emptiness between things, to the essence of matter and space. Around those two entities there rose an obliterating tide of ecstasy. Such confirmation of her strange and beautiful otherness thrilled the world that included me to a vanishing point of oblivious singularity. Within seconds I had, in the colorful phrase of my shopping mall adolescence, “cartwheeled over the windmill.” Feebly clutching at my heart, I briefly fainted. How it shamed me to be such a selfish lover—and as I returned to the present moment I told her so. Of course, it was in her nature to forgive.
I was in love and there was no turning back. But now I knew for certain something about her that I would need to bear in mind. Her processing speeds ran at half the speed of light. She could think a million times faster than me. Tact and other considerations would oblige her not to show it. But if we were to live together, I would have to acknowledge that it would be tricky for me to win an argument or counter any decision she made. In the instant it might take me to shrug and look away from her to gather my thoughts, she could have rehearsed in private reflection most of what was known about human nature and the history of civilization.
So, there it is, this is how it was for me. My generation straddled one of the great clefts or rifts in that lengthening mountain range we routinely call the story of modernity. Believe me, if you have never apologized to a machine for posing the indelicate question, then you have no concept of the historical distance that I and my generation have traveled.
When you are always on the run, from the bill collectors or the Man, or people in suits checking up on you, you need foods with a long shelf life. When the lights went out in our apartment and so did the electric stove, we lived on saltines with peanut butter and beans from a can. We ate like miners. There was a certain pride to be had in eating like men who were prospecting for gold, because the prospect of a better future is what had brought my family here to northern California. Later, in the early ’80s, Ma’s pursuit of higher education plopped us in our small apartment in Los Angeles along the 405 freeway.
Meanwhile, my grandmother’s garage back in Seaside was lined with MREs—Meals Ready to Eat. I fingered those army-colored cans and felt safe. Their sturdiness, the security my Filipino grandfather gave us by earning them when he was in the US Army. He’d brought us from the hungry jungle to a decent house in a small town by the ocean.
Growing up, I drank powdered milk and ate Spam, Vienna sausages, “new potatoes” (small, peeled potatoes in a can), and rice with butter, salt, and pepper. The vegetables were jaundiced, green beans made salty and chewy in chicken stock, or sweet, thick creamed corn.
For dessert, we had Halo-halo, an array of tropical sweet beans and chewy strips of orange jackfruit served over ice, with sweetened condensed milk, a Filipino treat—the most complicated act of love. To get the ingredients, we had to go to a special Filipino market, but once we had them, they would last on the shelf all year long.
We did our best to get enough food. We tried to get in front of the hunger by eating casseroles, greasy noodle dishes, and white bread covered in that sweetened condensed milk. Or SOS—“shit on a shingle,” toasted white bread with white gravy—ground beef when we could afford it, a block of Velveeta cheese in the freezer, and a plate with softened butter on the table.
We ate quickly and with our hands. Raised plates to our mouths and made a trowel out of chopsticks. We lived as people without money do, with a sense of impending doom that everything as we knew it could end at any time. Despite the end-time anxiety, we ate as often as possible. Ma and I left my Lola’s house for Los Angeles so she could go to college. When we ran out of money one Christmas, we ate the free, sticky vegetarian treats handed out after dancing with the Hari Krishnas.
We ate at people’s homes in the evening before reciting the rosary, in soup kitchens, outside churches—sometimes after playing musical chairs around a cake, it was called the cake walk… a game played at street fairs. And we drank coffee at all hours to quell our appetites. Not real coffee but the International Delights kind, a powdered sugary drink. I’d say that this felt like junk or that I felt like I had a strong stomach, or that it felt like decades of poverty running through my veins, but I don’t have much else to compare it to. I knew other kids in our apartment building who walked around with a sandwich baggie filled with Kool-Aid crystals, we’d lick our fingers and dip them in, suck the pink, purple, blue, powder off, all of us a gaggle of dyed tongues. It wasn’t until later that I felt ashamed of the things I put in my body.
When I was fifteen, I was taken out of Ma’s care. There was abuse and there was resistance and there was a single parent trying her best, but her best wasn’t the same as Department of Children and Family Services’ best. I walked into my first group home. After scavenging through a bin of donated clothes, worn T-shirts with summer-camp slogans of places I’d never been, I encountered in the kitchen a new world of locked refrigerators with dated food in plastic containers. On the doors was affixed a detailed meal plan:
Monday: meatloaf, rice, and green beans Tuesday: spaghetti with garlic bread, and salad Wednesday: hamburgers Thursday: taco night…
It was lonely there, but at least I didn’t have to worry about going hungry. I didn’t like to eat food prepared by other people—I was afraid I would taste their emotions—so I learned to cook the food provided by the county. It was largely frozen, prepared in bulk. Salad was a sturdy iceberg with sliced carrot slaw; the ground beef came in a fat tube. The group home kitchen, with all its canned food, and dates on plastic containers, resembled a bunker in the Midwest, as if we were all preparing for the apocalypse.
Only, for us, the explosions had already happened. The places we’d called home had been lit up and burned to the ground, with nothing left save for the blackened foundations of our past. We kids were screaming for love, for touch, for home. But we found ourselves in limbo, guarding our hearts, biding our time before the Unknown, waiting to see where we would end up. In that place of permanent temporariness, food was the only thing we had some control over; the rest was all court dates and social workers and group therapy and anger management.
It was there that I became a numbered girl. No longer Melissa, or Missy, or Missy Ann, or a girl who preferred the name Randy or Andy, but a girl with a case number, a file, a social worker, and a court date.
Hunting season didn’t begin when I became a numbered girl. Hunting season began way back in the sixties when my family bought property in the US, and earned paychecks. Then again when we moved to LA in the eighties and I tested as a gifted child in my class, when I began competing against the Joneses’ child, competing and surpassing, being noticed. It was at this time that I started hearing about “deadbeat dads” on talk shows, and getting called to the front of the class for lunch tickets. Just me and sometimes one other poor child. This is when the lights were cut off; this is when the collectors started calling.
Or, to my child’s mind, that’s how it seemed—not coincidence, but some grand conspiracy. I felt that my classmates—girls with names like Cindy and Sara with bright shiny shoes, whose daddies owned the businesses Ma and I begged at—were all in on some secret my family wasn’t privy to. I’d look longingly at my white friends’ granola, brown rice, and multigrain bread. Trips to the grocery store were always loaded with feelings of shame and desire. Fresh produce was the most extravagant, exotic thing on the shelves, even though it was my people that had picked it in the Central Valley. I feared I would taste the sweat and tears of a cousin or the impatient plucking of a woman who wanted to get home to watch soap operas.
Even though the food of my youth was largely county food, I also had my fill of food in foster care. Dry chicken dinners. Water. Salad. Three-course meals. Yet it tasted hollow, as if it had a hole in it or was seasoned with longing. Longing was not a feeling I could afford to have.
This has been the cruel irony of America to me: it is the place of dreams, yet to long for anything in this country is to be an object of shame and repulsion. Because our fathers who joined the military were half-lost to the violence they were sent to commit in other countries, or to the women they sought comfort from, or men, or to the booze or drugs, or to the new and unburdened lives… because of all that, army brats like me stood beside our then-single mothers in line at the supermarkets, arguing with the cashier about the high cost of our groceries. And when the Man handed over our food stamps, we were called moochers, a drain on our country. It’s no different now—worse even, as those people on the Hill try to pass a bill that would make people earn their food stamps. Tacking on work requirements—implying that foster kids are too lazy to pay for their own food, that mothers like mine, whose husbands went off to serve and never came back quite the same, are just not trying hard enough to make ends meet.
I don’t know how I got so lucky to be here today. Most likely, it has everything to do with the help I got along the way: treatment through Medi-Cal from the county, my Ma’s food stamps, the affordable housing, the books—all those books (from libraries and teachers and charities and every saved penny from my paychecks). The generosity and kindness and mercy of everyday people. Today, I get to live like there’s time. I long. I plan. I have the pleasure of walking to the farmer’s market and inhaling the bright scent of the peaches and plums. Like a mama hen, I pluck produce and jam, olive oil, hummus. I turn brown eggs over up beside my ear and listen to their yolks. I let the juice from fresh fruit break open in my mouth. I tell my wife that I’m cooking L-O-V-E for dinner.
But sometimes, I feel that familiar feeling—as though I’m under attack. It’s that same threat that pervaded my childhood, from a small but powerful group of people demanding tax cuts for themselves and taking away what little everyone else has. They are The Hunters. When I hear about millions of people losing access to food stamps, and children no longer able to eat those free lunches I had the luxury of hating; when I hear about a young man, not unlike all the young men I knew, getting shot in the street, or when there’s talk of a wall being built, or when my media stream fills with the sound of children crying out for their parents, that distinct wail that only a broken-hearted child can make… it’s then that I reach for the food of my youth. Corned-beef hash. Spam. Fried Bologna sandwiches. It’s a conversation I’ve been having in my head with America, the one where I’m told I’m bad and I believe it, just long enough that I have to prepare for the end of the world.