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Victor Serge, The Unconquered

William Giraldi   May 25, 2015
Midnight in the Century emerged from Serge's years of deportation in Orenburg, in the Urals. / Alexey Shockov

Some writers are destined to have two deaths—the first in life, and the second in memory. The lucky ones can be resurrected from that second death by cultural circumstance and the aid of overseeing angels, irked by injustice, believing these Lazaruses should be helped from their tombs. In 2004, Susan Sontag opened her essay “Unextinguished” with this query, much to the present case: “How to explain the obscurity of one of the most compelling of twentieth-century ethical and literary heroes, Victor Serge?”

How indeed. A self-educated and unwavering Russian Marxist who fought in the Bolshevik Revolution, Serge was born in Belgium (in 1890), wrote in French, lived mostly in European exile, and died in Mexico (in 1947). Although a handful of his unpublished books appeared in France after his death—including the much-lauded Memoirs of a Revolutionary—and his best novels began sporadically to appear in English between the ‘60s and ‘80s, Serge was essentially undergoing his second death, ignored by the custodians of literary talent. Sontag suggests several possible reasons, none of them good enough: Serge was perceived as primarily a revolutionary rather than a literary artist; his writing did not belong clearly to either French or Russian literature, so neither claimed him; and his radical politics earned him potent enemies, both on the pro-Communist left and among the tastemakers of bourgeois culture.

In 2001, Verso published Victor Serge: The Course is Set on Hope, an inclusive biography by Susan Weissman. Soon after, New York Review Books began reprinting Serge’s work: Memoirs of a Revolutionary, Unforgiving Years, and Conquered City. Sontag’s essay appears as the introduction to Serge’s masterwork, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, a novel about the unstanchable hysteria of Stalin’s purges. Serge’s novel Midnight in the Century, just reissued in a translation by Richard Greeman, was published in Paris in 1939, that sinister year of the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the hecatomb of Poland.


Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   May 25, 2015
Pie charts: the injection of sex appeal the humanities so desperately need. / Jimmie

• Over at The Nation, Moira Wegel imagines the effects of digital humanism, or those “digital tools [that] promise to give dusty humanities courses a fresh sheen of Silicon Valley sex appeal for the undergraduates who might not otherwise take them.” Also known as pie charts.

• This week in The Mansions of Secret Billionaires, and in Real Estate Agents Acting like Enraged, Honor-bound Butlers: “Stephen Lindsay, one of the real-estate agents who sold the house, spoke to me only after I agreed to leave my phone and bag in another room. He then put the family’s lawyer on speakerphone and announced that he would take the secret of Witanhurst’s ownership ‘to the grave.’”

• In Baffler no 21, Josh MacPhee asked:  “Who’s the Shop Steward on Your Kickstarter?” Well, the news in today is that “If Kickstarter is a store, then Indiegogo is that guy in the alley selling watches sewn into the lining of an open trench coat.”


Hello, Twitter! It’s Barack.

Niela Orr   May 22, 2015
Something Old and Something New: this week, the nation's first black president joined Twitter, and racists swiftly followed. / Twitter

This Monday, President Obama joined Twitter. That, clearly, was his first mistake. In short order, a barrage of racist tweets greeted our first African American president.

The whole contretemps called to mind the premise of the popular “Obama’s Anger Translator” skits, which is that since the most visible and powerful black man in public life can never for a moment risk being perceived as an angry black man, well, then someone else has to take on all the unresolved rage percolating around the presidential id.  Obama himself masterfully exploited this conceit during his speech before this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner. But while Obama’s flirtation with his own inner angry black man was an indulgent whim of the powerful, there was nothing fanciful or amusing about the torrent of Twitter abuse Obama endured simply on the basis of his skin color.

Still, one can’t help but imagine a moment of comic release. Fans of the Key and Peele show, which originated the sketch on Comedy Central, can readily picture how this variation on the theme would play out. The president would eagerly start getting interactive with the American public at the Oval Office, over a din of expectant studio-audience laughter: President: “Hello, Twitter! It’s Barack.” Trolls: “Get cancer nigger.” Cut to Obama stifling rage, and sending the following message: “I’m sorry you feel that way. Did you know that if I did have cancer, it wouldn’t be treated as a pre-existing condition under the Affordable Care Act?” A few more exchanges like this would coax out his anger translator Luther, played by Keegan-Michael Key, who’d let loose with a disbelieving and profane tirade.


Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   May 22, 2015
You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave, or get a tattoo, or keep a beer in the communal fridge. / Vaguely Artistic

• Last week, we scratched our heads over the strange requirements for would-be tenants of the Woodside, California, “Startup Castle”—including prohibitions against multiple tattoos, wearing makeup, and attending political protests. This week, Fusion follows up with some former castle-mates on the pros and cons of the unique housing situation. As one house member reportedly said, “This place is a prison. It’s like living in the Hotel California, except we can’t even drink wine here.”

• NewCo New York is offering the chance to tour 120 NYC startups as part of a two-day open house organized by tech mogul John Battelle. Now you can be the thirty-year-old kid at BuzzFeed’s Take Your Children to Work Day, for a fee, of course.

• Today in billionaires: a billionaire hedge fund manager, Ken Fisher, explains what most investors get wrong: “You start with the presumption that if everybody is worrying about something, you don’t have to worry about it—because they’re doing it for you. You should worry about something else.” Happy Friday everyone, the man with his hands on $64 billion of investment capital says you should just chill out.


Stacking the Deck

Scott Beauchamp   May 21, 2015
The disturbing intercession of the federal government saw to it that local objection to the death penalty wouldn't affect the outcome of the trial. / A Name Like Shields Can Make You Defensive.

The Boston Bombings have achieved the status of a proper-noun title, reaching that rarified echelon reserved for the high-profile American atrocities that, like total eclipses, occur a few times each decade.

With that status comes ubiquity. Everyone is familiar with the appalling details that form the identity of the case: internet vigilantes misidentifying the bomber, Boston being shut down for a city-wide manhunt, the shootout with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s alpha, older brother, Tamerlan, the police finally trapping Dzhokhar himself in someone’s covered boat, the sense that it all, somehow, related back to that larger plot-arc of American violence—the Global War On Terror. Like any of the other infamous crimes of the decade, the narrative of the Boston Bombings was collectively fashioned into something even more sensational and lurid than it had to be, closing up any remove from which we might try to contemplate what justice should look like in this situation.

The federal government’s relentless pursuit of the death penalty in the case is just one more aspect of that self-perpetuating tragic drama. It’s difficult to see how sacrificing Tsarnaev will force him to atone, or bring the victims peace of mind. One of the three people killed in the bombing, Martin Richard, was only eight years old. Other people in his family were seriously injured. And yet the Richards pleaded with the prosecution to drop the death penalty. They aren’t the only ones uncomfortable with state execution: according to a WBUR-Boston poll, only 26 percent of Bostonians support Tsarnaev being murdered for murder. It’s difficult to see what good this Old-Testament violence-exchange will do anybody.


Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   May 21, 2015
It's back to the BART for some techies who've been enjoying a luxury commute. / Fred Roessler

• Private bus service Leap has been ordered to cease and desist by the state of California, and is shutting down operations while navigating what it calls a final regulatory “hurdle.” For Leap’s unfortunate commuters, it means no more “polished wood, black leather, spacious seating, . . . [or] two varieties of iced coffee.”

Roll Call blogger David Hawkings reports on the surprising number of congressmen sleeping in their offices to avoid paying rent in Capitol Hill. According to Hawkings,

No senators appear to be doing so, and the House contingent seems to be exclusively male — and lopsidedly Republican . . . Boasting about sleeping in the office is an easy way for the younger generation of fiscally conservative tea party Republicans to signal both their prudence and their disinterest in becoming “Washington insiders.” At the same time, a central aspect of GOP orthodoxy is that too many Americans have become reliant on federal largesse when they could be out working—“takers, not makers,” in one often-used construction.


Hell’s Pundits

Chris Lehmann   May 20, 2015
Drop your practiced sneers, elitists, and sidle up to the Shot-skis! / Tom Purves

When the news broke this weekend that a violent biker melee at a theme restaurant in Waco claimed nine lives and otherwise injured 18, there were all sorts of solemn topics available to the interlocuters of pundit discourse. 

There was the awkward contrast of the Waco episode with the recent protests in Baltimore over the police killing of Freddie Gray, for example. Yet there were no anguished cries from cable anchors asking what the hell happened to produce the majority-white, Lone Star corps of malefactors. Rand Paul didn’t step to the podium to declare that motorcycle gangs attract their members and inculcate their violent folkways via a culture-wide breakdown in family structure. Most of all, there was a glaring disparity in law enforcement response. Baltimore authorities arrested more than 200 people over the course of the riots, with half of the hastily jailed detainees released without charges. The many teenagers who remained in custody, meanwhile, received unusually harsh sentences, particularly given that a good number of them were first-time offenders. Infamously, one teen protestor who turned himself in for damaging a police car was held on a $500,000 bond that his family was nowhere close to being able to pay—while the six Baltimore cops charged in Freddie Gray’s killing were assessed $350,000 bonds that they made the same day they were detained.

If the black protestors in Baltimore felt like they had been ferried off to a gulag, then Waco’s violent offenders looked as though they were cooling their heels at the DMV. The Waco police authorities let the 170-plus gang members involved in the gunfight mill about in the restaurant parking lot as the cops took their time processing the crime scene. Bikers looked bored and restive; they clustered around pickup trucks, chatted, smoked and fiddled with their smartphones, awaiting directives from local law enforcement. And even after they were brought in for their arraignments, the Waco justice system carelessly let three of them go on $50,000 bonds—not the $1 million the courts had actually assessed.


Daily Bafflements

The Baffler   May 20, 2015
Sister Megan Rice who crept into Tennessee's "Fort Knox of Uranium" is not guilty of sabotage. / Windell Oskay

 • Sister Megan Rice, the 85-year-old nun who humiliated the government by creeping into Tennessee’s “Fort Knox of Uranium,” with bolt cutters and a Bible, has been released from her three-year prison term. The appeals court deemed that “vague platitudes about a facility’s ‘crucial role in the national defense’ are not enough to convict a defendant of sabotage.” (Via Mother Jones.)

• In his memoir, The Great War of Our Time, Michael J. Morell, ex-deputy director of the CIA, claims: “ISIS was one of the terrorist groups that learned from Snowden, and it is clear his actions played a role in the rise of ISIS.” How? He doesn’t say. Cliffhanger.

A bank is coaching graduates in the nonsense art of the thirty-second Twitterview and the TwitterResume. Exponents of the form amiably insist it encourages candidates to be “direct.”

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