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The New York Review of Books

The New York Review of Books October 22, 2020

For over 50 years, The New York Review of Books has been the place where the world's leading authors, scientists, educators, artists, and political leaders turn when they wish to engage in a spirited debate on literature, politics, art, and ideas with a small but influential audience that welcomes the challenge. Each issue addresses some of the most passionate political and cultural controversies of the day, and reviews the most engrossing new books and the ideas that illuminate them. Get The New York Review of Books digital magazine subscription today.

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20 Issues

in this issue

3 min.

DAVID COLE is the National Legal Director of the ACLU and the Honorable George J. Mitchell Professor in Law and Public Policy at the Georgetown University Law Center. His latest book is Engines of Liberty: How Citizen Movements Succeed. ROBYN CRESWELL is an Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale. He is the author of City of Beginnings: Poetic Modernism in Beirut. BRIAN DILLON’s Suppose a Sentence was published in September. He is a Professor of Creative Writing at Queen Mary University of London. MERVE EMRE is an Associate Professor of English at Oxford. Her next book, The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway, will be published next summer. CAROLINE FRASER’s most recent book, Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, received the Pulitzer Prize for Biography. Her first book, God’s Perfect Child: Living and…

18 min.
rebellious history

Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals by Saidiya Hartman. Norton, 441 pp., $17.95 (paper) The archive can be maddening. Historians encounter interesting people there whose lives appear in mere snippets, spurring curiosity that can never be entirely satiated. Scholars of American slavery are particularly familiar with this phenomenon. The people who could give the best account of day-to-day life before emancipation were the people most directly affected by the institution: the enslaved. Yet the nature of slavery was such that these individuals were, with few exceptions, silenced. The vast majority of them could not write and were thus unable to leave letters; their marriages, unrecognized by law, produced no licenses to be maintained as part of an official record. Owning no property, they produced…

18 min.
trump’s praetorian guard

President Trump is attempting to turn “law and order versus anarchy” into an election issue that will distract voters from the White House’s incompetence in dealing with Covid-19 and the economic consequences of the pandemic, and provide cover for its perpetuation of systemic racial injustice. He has sent armed federal agents into majority-Democratic cities on the pretext of quelling unrest stemming from Black Lives Matter protests. At the same time, he appears to be encouraging his supporters to sow chaos in Democratic cities in order to create an excuse for redeploying federal forces and to reinforce fears of disorder. Trump’s first martial response to the protests, which have been overwhelmingly though not exclusively peaceful, was to use the active-duty military. On June 1, he had administration officials mobilize low-flying military helicopters…

18 min.
chaos and cathode rays

Nam June Paik an exhibition at Tate Modern, London, October 17, 2019–February 9, 2020; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, June 1–October 4, 2020; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, scheduled to open in April 2021; and the Singapore National Gallery, scheduled to open in the fall of 2021. Catalog of the exhibition edited by Sook-Kyung Lee and Rudolf Frieling. London: Tate, 175 pp., £25.00 On a freezing night in February 1967, the cellist Charlotte Moorman and the artist-composer Nam June Paik performed Paik’s Opera Sextronique for the first time at the Film-Maker’s Cinematheque, beneath the Wurlitzer Building on West 41st Street in New York City. Undercover cops had lurked at rehearsals, eager for evidence of obscenity. Moorman and Paik delivered: Moorman was often naked (or nearly) during their collaborations. (Paik later…

17 min.
sympathy for the devil

Jack by Marilynne Robinson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 309 pp., $27.00 John Ames, the old preacher who has lived in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, all his life, where he is the Congregationalist minister, tells the story of Gilead, the first of a series of interconnected novels that Marilynne Robinson has been publishing since 2004. Toward the end of that meditative, troubled, searching book, the dying minister says that other peoples’ souls are, in the end, a mystery to him. Try as we might, “in every important way we are such secrets from each other … there is a separate language in each of us.” Each human being, he thinks, “is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations.” We have “resemblances,” which enable us to live…

12 min.
ruth bader ginsburg, 1933–2020

PAMELA KARLAN The last time I saw Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a year ago—in October 2019, when I argued Bostock v. Clayton County before the Supreme Court. The case presented the question of whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination in employment “because of … sex,” prohibits an employer from denying someone a job opportunity for being lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Ginsburg’s was the first question, and she began, “Ms. Karlan, how do you answer the argument that back in 1964, this could not have been in Congress’s mind?” Back in 1964, likely no one in Congress thought lesbian, gay, or bisexual people should be protected. But it was in no small part due to her efforts to combat sex-based stereotypes that the Supreme…