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Barry Blitt’s “The Shining”

May 24, 2019 | News | No Comments

The cover for the June 3, 2019, issue, by Barry Blitt, portrays three men who have been enormously helpful to President Trump: Lindsey Graham, William Barr, and Mitch McConnell. “Assembling an image with the President’s enablers presented a problem: Who to include, who to leave out?” Blitt said. “I barely had enough room for the President himself. In any case, I expect there will be other opportunities to draw Devin Nunes, Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan, Sean Hannity, etc., etc., etc.”

Read John Cassidy, Margaret Talbot, and Susan B. Glasser for analysis of how the President’s men burnished his reputation.

For more of Blitt’s covers, see below:

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Earlier this spring, Karl Rove, the veteran Republican strategist, was making the rounds in Congress to talk up Rivada Networks, a telecommunications company with a 5G business model predicated on partnering with the Department of Defense. Rove, who is not a registered lobbyist but is an investor in Rivada, met with staff members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and had a phone call with his old friend, John Cornyn, a Republican Senator from Texas who is a co-author of the Secure 5G and Beyond Act. As the broadband system is structured now, the F.C.C. allocates radio spectrum through periodic auctions where the highest bidder—typically one of the major telecom companies—wins control over bandwidth for a fixed number of years, setting prices and choosing where to invest in infrastructure. The D.O.D. spectrum, which is set aside by the government for classified, unclassified, and emergency communications, blankets the country but is often unused. Rivada wants to monetize it—minute by minute, hour by hour, as needed, to telecom and other companies—and share the proceeds with the government. (If the military needs the airwaves, Rivada’s software would automatically bounce commercial users.) “Its technology has the coolest name,” Rove told me. “Ruthless preëmption.”

The Rivada system, Rove explained, would bring 5G cellular services to rural America, which has largely been left behind by the big telecom companies. “We’re becoming a country divided between those that have access to high-quality broadband and those who don’t,” Rove said. “And it used to be that that divide was perhaps more between rich and poor, and that still remains, to some degree, but it’s more urban and suburban versus the rest of America.” The former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and the 2020 Trump campaign manager, Brad Parscale, have been making a similar case, in editorials and tweets. (Both say that they have no financial stake in Rivada, which is privately held, and have not been paid by the company or its associates.) Bypassing the auction process, the Rivada argument goes, will allow less-well-resourced companies to enter the market at a lower cost, which will spur development of cellular services in underserved areas. “We’re an advanced developed country, but we are paying among the highest prices in the world for broadband,” Rove said. “Economically, we’re entering a world in which the use of spectrum is going to become an important tool for economic growth and vitality.”

Aside from Rove, the only other known investor is Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire, self-avowed libertarian, and early Trump supporter. In a recent essay, Jonathan Lee, a telecom attorney, wondered, “What is it about Rivada’s plan/service that requires lifelong ‘free market’ defenders to embrace the heavy hand of government?” To Scott Wallsten, the president of the Technology Policy Institute, the answer is obvious. “They’re hoping to get access to spectrum without having to pay for it,” he said. “And, I mean, it’s this hugely valuable commodity, worth billions and billions. If someone is just given it, that’s just a gigantic subsidy.” If Rivada’s proposal were to be adopted, it would create a new asset class—bandwidth—that could be traded on the commodities market, like oil or soybeans. And it would make Rivada, which holds patents to run this market (a process known as dynamic spectrum arbitrage), an extremely lucrative company. Charles Duan, the director of technology and innovation at the R Street Institute, a D.C. think tank, recently wrote in Fortune, “The company would be able to extract payments from potentially every player on the network.”

Declan Ganley, the Rivada chairman and C.E.O., is an enigmatic Irish businessman with an uncanny ability to spot markets before they materialize. He began building his fortune in his early twenties, trading forestry holdings in Russia and aluminum in Latvia after the fall of the Soviet Union. In Albania, Ganley and his associates established the Anglo-Adriatic Investment Fund to collect the privatization vouchers that the Albanian government was handing out to its citizens. (It failed when the government changed the rules.) In the late nineties, Ganley began buying wireless-spectrum licenses throughout Europe, eventually selling them to Comcast. In 2001, he put together a consortium of investors to create Cable Bulgaria, the country’s first private cable-television company. “It is a cash cow, not just for the next two years but for the next 80 years,” Ganley told the Wall Street Journal at the time, calling Bulgaria the Silicon Valley of the Eastern Bloc. (He no longer owns it.)

When the Coalition Provisional Authority (C.P.A.) took over governance of Iraq, in 2003, Ganley tried to capture some of the billions of dollars allocated for reconstruction by bidding to build the country’s cellular-phone system. When that proposal was rejected, he endeavored to set up and run its emergency-communications system. Defense contracts are typically awarded on a competitive basis. But Jack Shaw, the U.S. Deputy Under-Secretary of Defense for International Technology Security at the time, helped Rivada partner with a Native Alaskan company, Nana Pacific, to take advantage of a provision in federal contracting law that allows small, minority-owned businesses to obtain government contracts without having to bid for them. That law also exempts Native American companies from a three-million-dollar contract cap, as well as from having to be minority-run. But the plan went sideways when the C.P.A. discovered that a clause had been surreptitiously inserted into the contract that opened a back door for Ganley’s group to build the Iraqi commercial cellular network after all. According to a report in the Irish Times, it was Ganley who instructed Shaw to add the clause that let Rivada circumvent the telecommunications bid; Ganley denies the assertion, claiming instead that he—Ganley—was a whistle-blower who was “raising questions about being encouraged to purchase expensive equipment that was not needed for his project.” In any case, the D.O.D.’s inspector general, and then the F.B.I., got involved. Shaw, who had served in the Ford, Nixon, Reagan, and both Bush Administrations, was eventually fired, and Nana Pacific lost the contract.

But, in the years since, Rivada has continued to partner with a number of Native Alaskan corporations to obtain government telecommunication projects without having to go through the bidding or review process. It is a scheme that has scored Rivada hundreds of millions of dollars of defense contracts, as well as contracts from the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. (Companies that partner with Indian-owned businesses also get a five per cent incentive from the D.O.D.) Over the years, Ganley has developed deep ties to the American military and the Republican Party establishments, as well. Since 2007, Rivada has donated nearly half a million dollars to the Republican Governors Association; one of its board members is Edwin Feulner, the founder and former president of the Heritage Foundation.

A few years ago, the First Responder Network Authority, which is also known as FirstNet, was created by Congress to establish “a nationwide, interoperable public safety broadband network.” The Department of the Interior sought proposals for the project, which was worth $6.5 billion, and Ganley made a push for it. According to Rivada’s spokesperson, Brian Carney, the company was proposing “a network for first responders that was allowed to monetize any excess capacity that the first responders weren’t using. We’d provide free service to first responders, and any time they weren’t using the network we would sell that on a wholesale basis to the highest bidder, on a dynamic basis where the market sets the price and we share that revenue with the government.” In the run-up to the request for FirstNet proposals, Rivada added the former governors Jeb Bush and Martin O’Malley to its board. Even so, the company’s application to submit a bid was denied by the Department of Interior after the reviewers rated Rivada’s business management, leadership and program management, architecture and infrastructure, and, perhaps most crucially, security, to be unacceptable. The “substantial number of significant weaknesses and deficiencies” in Rivada’s proposal, they wrote, “introduce excessive, increased risks” that might “result in [its] inability to perform.” They also determined that Rivada “did not adequately demonstrate that its proposed wholesale marketplace . . . would be adopted by potential customers,” creating “a significant risk of unsuccessful performance.”


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Ganley, who is notoriously litigious—having sued the government of Albania for the failure of the Anglo-Albanian Investment Fund, the government of Mexico for disqualifying Rivada from a contract bidding process, the Irish broadcaster RTE for its portrayal of him in a forty-minute-long television documentary, and an Irish blogger for a defamatory tweet—turned around and sued the U.S. government. In her decision denying Rivada’s claims, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims judge Elaine Kaplan noted that, among many other deficiencies, Rivada “lacked relevant experience managing subcontractors in ordinary settings, let alone in completing projects of this size and complexity.”

Rivada’s FirstNet plan differs from its 5G plan primarily in terms of which government agency would be sharing its spectrum. According to the retired brigadier general Robert Spalding, who worked on cybersecurity for 5G networks at the National Security Council, the D.O.D. is unlikely “to give up its spectrum voluntarily,” since “conventional wisdom in D.O.D. says you never give up spectrum.” Although Rivada is asking the Pentagon to share, not cede, its airwaves, Spalding said that “right now, at least, D.O.D. doesn’t distinguish between the two.” But Rivada, which boasts retired generals, a retired admiral, a former D.H.S. deputy secretary, and a former director of foreign policy for Donald Trump’s transition team on its board, is well positioned to navigate the military and national-security bureaucracy. Earlier this month, the National Spectrum Consortium, a trade organization with ties to both the Pentagon and the White House, put out a call for a “technical concept” paper on spectrum sharing, which suggests that Rivada may yet find a willing partner in the D.O.D. “The National Spectrum Consortium is talking about making awards by September,” Carney, the Rivada spokesperson, said. “One of the things they’ve called for is proposals for dynamic spectrum sharing in a 5G context.”

Last week, a reporter for the Verge tested out Samsung’s new 5G phone on Verizon’s service in Chicago. The result illustrated everything that is wrong about the way the two major American telecom companies, Verizon and A.T. & T., are deploying 5G. While standing near a 5G node, the reporter was able to get phenomenally fast Internet speeds that allowed him to download an episode of “The Office” in eight seconds. But, once he moved away from the node, the speed dropped precipitously and ceased to exist when there was no longer a sight line. Verizon, like A.T. & T., is building its 5G system on a millimetre-wave spectrum, which has tremendous capacity—hence its speed—but extremely limited range. Much of the rest of the world has chosen to forgo the blazing speeds of millimetre-wave technology, opting instead for 5G systems that operate on mid-band spectrums that, while not as fast, have greater range and reliability. According to Jessica Rosenworcel, the senior Democratic commissioner at the F.C.C., “if we want to serve everywhere in the country—and not create communities of 5G haves and have-nots—we need to pivot fast to an auction of mid-band spectrum. It’s especially important for rural America, where the challenging economics of service do not support the high cost of high-band infrastructure for mobile use.”

The D.O.D. spectrum that Rivada wants to share—again, without going through the F.C.C.’s auction system—operates on the mid-band. Rove’s argument that Rivada’s wholesale open-access system will bring 5G cellular services to rural America is appealing to those of us who live in places where those services don’t currently exist. Whether or not it would actually come to fruition is anyone’s guess. Mexico’s wholesale open-access system has been a bust. And CoverageCo, a company that Rivada’s spokesperson, Brian Carney, pointed to as an example of an innovative rural-service provider, went out of business last year. Its goal was to provide coverage in my home state, Vermont. According to a report at the time, “a key revenue stream—customers of major cellular carriers connecting to cellular networks through CoverageCo’s antennas, allowing the company to collect fees from those carriers—didn’t bring in enough proceeds to make the business viable, simply because call volumes in many areas weren’t high enough.” Rosenworcel, at the F.C.C., told me, that although the Rivada effort “diagnoses the right problem,” its system “is not the cure we need.”

Ganley has also been pitching the Rivada plan as a way to “destroy the Chinese business model,” because “it drops the price of capacity” and gives carriers an incentive to bypass equipment made in China that might pose strategic threats to individuals and infrastructure. (This argument has less valence now that the Trump Administration has blocked U.S. companies from using technology made or designed in countries deemed to be a national-security threat.) Cybersecurity is crucial for the coming 5G network, which promises to connect almost all human activities and industrial control systems to the Internet. That is one reason that the government is banning equipment manufactured by Huawei and other companies with ties to the Chinese government and its intelligence services from American telecom networks. But it isn’t clear that a nationwide system run by Rivada would be secure. Though sharing spectrum with the Department of Defense is not inherently risky, a single company running a nationwide spectrum-allocation system may prove vulnerable to attack. “If there’s one point of entry then, presumably, if you breach that one point, you’ve got access to the whole network,” Wallsten, at the Technology Policy Institute, told me.

Four years ago, when Rivada was pursuing the FirstNet contract, the company projected revenues of twenty billion dollars over seven years. With its nationwide 5G system, it hopes to claim a sizable share of a market projected to be worth $3.5 trillion. Even if Rivada fails to deliver 5G service to rural communities, or challenge Chinese dominance, gaining access to the Defense Department spectrum could still earn the company an enormous amount of money. “There are lots of people who have studied spectrum and know that it’s becoming increasingly valuable, and they look at a wholesale network and see it as a very viable and strong commercial enterprise,” Rove said. “The downside is, if the wholesale market doesn’t emerge, they still have a very valuable nationwide 5G network that could be sold off, if need be in parts, which is pretty good collateral.”

So far, the Trump Administration has not taken up the Rivada gambit, though it offers the President a way to appeal to his rural base while also seeming to take action in the race with China for 5G supremacy. But, as Thomas Hazlett, a professor at Clemson University, who specializes in the information economy, told me, “Trump is a target of opportunity on this. Certainly, his predilections for overturning normal processes are known. The idea is that you have this kind of special project, and it goes against the liberalization trend at the F.C.C., and you tie it to national security and all these other issues. The political system would seem to be ripe for that.”

Does Trump Have an Off-Ramp on Iran?

May 24, 2019 | News | No Comments

The Trump Administration’s pronouncements on Iran have gyrated at a vertiginous pace in recent days. On Sunday, after a golf game at his club outside Washington, D.C., the President returned to the White House and unleashed his fury on Twitter. “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran,” he vowed. “Never threaten the United States again!” On Monday, a calmer Trump told reporters that Washington had “no indication that anything’s happened or will happen.” Any provocation would be met with “great force,” he added, yet he would also “certainly negotiate” if Iran called. Then, on Tuesday, the acting Defense Secretary, Pat Shanahan, declared that the (still unspecified) threat from Tehran had been contained. “We’ve put on hold the potential for attacks on Americans,” Shanahan told reporters. “Our posture is for deterrence. I just hope Iran is listening. We’re in the region to address many things, but it is not to go to war.”

A showdown may seem less imminent, but the dangers still lurk. Americans are nervous. The majority now believes that the two nations will go to war within the next few years, a new poll by Reuters/Ipsos reported this week. It’s up eight per cent from a similar poll a year ago. The numbers may reflect the rhetorical drumbeats of war more than a real understanding of the threat on the ground, since the Administration has refused to explain it. Fears may well rise further. On Thursday, the Pentagon reportedly proposed to deploy a military surge of five thousand to ten thousand U.S. troops to the Middle East, as well as more warships and Patriot missiles, to deter Iran. They would join a growing array of American military might—a battleship-carrier strike group led by the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, a bomber task force including B-52s, and marines who specialize in “expeditionary warfare”—now being deployed off the Iranian coast. It’s no longer a slow creep.

“President Trump will insure that we have all the resources necessary to respond in the event that the Islamic Republic of Iran should decide to attack Americans or American interests or some of our great soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, who are serving in that region, or the diplomats serving in Iraq or elsewhere,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on “Fox & Friends,” on Thursday. “The exact force posture, the President is looking at every day.” The President, Pompeo said, “is determined to change the course of that regime.”

Iran has countered with its own provocative rhetoric. On Monday, the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, responded to Trump on Twitter. “@realdonaldTrump hopes to achieve what Alexander, Genghis & other aggressors failed to do. Iranians have stood tall for millennia while aggressors all gone,” he wrote. “#EconomicTerrorism & genocidal taunts won’t ‘end Iran.’ #NeverThreatenAnIranian. Try respect—it works!” On Tuesday, President Hassan Rouhani distanced Iran from engagement. “Today’s situation is not suitable for talks. Our choice is resistance only,” he said. And, on Wednesday, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei vowed that Iran’s youth “will witness the demise of the enemies of humanity, meaning the degenerate American civilization, and the demise of Israel.” He also publicly criticized his own President and foreign minister—a rarity in Tehran—about how they handled the 2015 nuclear deal, produced after two years of tortuous talks with the world’s six major powers. Iran seems as divided as Washington at a critical time. Meanwhile, Tehran still has its own array of troops and proxy militias across the Middle East; many are positioned in the same arenas as U.S. troops.

The question amid the buildup and rhetorical flames is how to prevent a showdown either soon or a few years down the road, and how to eventually de-escalate. As tensions flared between the two nations, I called on John Limbert, one of the fifty-two diplomats taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran after the 1979 revolution. We’ve had a running conversation about the Islamic Republic since I covered his four hundred and forty-four days in captivity. Limbert is a scholar of Iranian politics, history, and culture; he often invokes lines from the great Persian poets—Hafez, Rumi, and Sa’adi—in his elegant Farsi. I asked him how we ended up in yet another Iran crisis—and why Washington and Tehran have still not figured out a way to deal with each other.

“Part of it is that we haven’t engaged much for forty years,” he told me. “We assume the worst about the ‘other,’ and our assumptions become self-fulfilling prophecies.” One of the core unanswered questions in Washington, he noted, is whether Iran’s bad behavior is any different or worse than its targeting of U.S. facilities, personnel, interests, or allies over the past four decades. And are Iran’s recent military moves—reportedly deploying short-range missiles in the Gulf and proxies in Iraq and Syria, or attacking four oil tankers—offensive or defensive? Might Tehran be responding to America’s pledge to cut off all Iranian oil exports, its designation of the entire Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, and its withdrawal from a nuclear deal that had been endorsed unanimously by the U.N. Security Council?

Before Trump, six U.S. Presidents struggled to read Iran, Limbert noted. Estrangement produced misreading, mixed signals, missed opportunities, and outright blunders. Without formal contact, the state of play often swung between hostile actions and diplomatic overtures. The two governments were perpetually out of synch. The pattern, the former hostage said, reminded him of a line from the twentieth-century Iranian poet Shahriyar: “You came to me at last, O love of my life. But why now?”

The Reagan Administration engaged in a secret arms-for-hostages swap—trading weapons that Iran needed to fight Iraq in their eight-year war, in exchange for Iran’s help freeing Americans seized by Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy in Lebanon. Top U.S. and Iranian officials travelled to each other’s capitals to negotiate. But tensions flared, too. Iran’s allies bombed two U.S. embassies and marine peacekeepers in Beirut, killing hundreds, and Iran’s navy dropped mines in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. Navy shot up Iranian naval vessels and downed a passenger plane, killing hundreds.

In his Inaugural Address, President George H. W. Bush made an offer to Iran. “There are today Americans who are held against their will in foreign lands. . . . Assistance can be shown here and will be long remembered. Good will begets good will. Good faith can be a spiral that endlessly moves on,” he said. President Hashemi Rafsanjani orchestrated the release of the remaining U.S. hostages in Lebanon. Iran later complained that the good will was never reciprocated.

During the Clinton Administration, Iran offered Conoco, an American company, the largest oil contract ever tendered, a move to open a commercial channel with a country still publicly dubbed “the Great Satan.” President Bill Clinton, under congressional pressure, responded by imposing an embargo on all oil imports, trade, and investment. In 1998, President Mohammad Khatami called for a “dialogue among civilizations” to bring down “the wall of mistrust.” Two years later, Clinton lifted sanctions on Iranian carpets, pistachios, and caviar. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright expressed regret for the C.I.A.’s role in the 1953 coup in Iran that had ousted a democratically elected Prime Minister and allowed the Shah to return to the Peacock Throne from temporary exile. Politically, the timing was off on both countries’ overtures.

After the 9/11 attacks, in 2001, the George W. Bush Administration worked closely with Iran on Afghanistan. They even shared intelligence. Tehran was pivotal in convincing its local ally, which had led the fight against the Taliban, to accept the U.S. candidate in a new government. Months later, in his State of the Union address, in 2002, the President labelled Iran as one of three nations in an “axis of evil.” In 2003, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran offered a “grand bargain” to resolve all differences. The White House did not respond. In 2004, the American and Iranian ambassadors in Baghdad were authorized to meet, but nothing came of it. Iran provided war matériel to proxy militias in Iraq that were linked to the deaths of more than six hundred U.S. troops between 2003 and 2011.

In an address during the Persian holiday of Nowruz, in 2009, President Barack Obama said that his Administration “is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran, and the international community.” He achieved the biggest breakthrough of any President, during two years of direct talks that produced the Iran nuclear deal, in 2015. The deal limits various parts of Iran’s controversial program for between ten and twenty-five years. It’s still in effect, despite Trump’s withdrawal, a year ago. The other five major powers—Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia—still support it, and Iran has complied, according to more than a dozen reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Obama’s calculation was that removing the most dangerous flash point and establishing a diplomatic channel would open the way for talks on other issues: Iran’s missiles, support for extremist movements, human-rights violations, and meddling in the Middle East. Yet he didn’t make further inroads in his last few months in office.

At the U.N. last fall, both Trump and Rouhani signalled, albeit from different positions, that the diplomatic door was still ajar. Rouhani offered talks based on the original nuclear deal; Trump offered talks based on a new and different pact to include all issues between the two nations. Nothing happened. The President has since accelerated his “maximum pressure” campaign. The irony in Trump’s recent Twitter tantrums is that, years ago, he predicted that Obama would be the one to attack Iran. In 2011, he tweeted, “In order to get elected, @BarackObama will start a war with Iran.” In 2012, he wrote, “Now that Obama’s poll numbers are in tailspin—watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate.” On September 16, 2013, he tweeted, “I predict that President Obama will at some point attack Iran in order to save face!” On September 25, 2013, he rubbed it in. “Remember what I previously said—Obama will someday attack Iran in order to show how tough he is.” Instead, two days later, Obama telephoned Rouhani while he was attending the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, in New York. It was the first direct contact between Presidents of their respective countries since the Revolution.

One of the many tragedies in the tortured situation today, Limbert noted, is the two countries’ common history. For all their differences, the United States and the Islamic Republic are both the products of revolutions steeped in religious values that ousted long-standing monarchies. In 1946, President Harry Truman issued an ultimatum to Joseph Stalin that forced the Soviet Union to end its occupation of Iran after the Second World War. It was the first crisis of the then new United Nations. It helped Tehran reassert its sovereignty. For decades afterward, Tehran and Washington remained pillars of each other’s foreign policies.

After the Islamic Revolution, in 1979, relations started off well, too. The country’s first leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, wrote to President Jimmy Carter five days before returning to Tehran from fourteen years in exile, “You will see we are not in any particular animosity with the Americans.” The U.S. continued selling arms to Iran until the takeover of the American Embassy, ten months later, after Washington agreed to take in the ailing former Shah. The revolutionaries feared that the United States intended to restore the monarchy a second time.

Forty years later, relations are still haunted by those ghosts, Limbert told me. “There’s an obliviousness to each other’s history—and to what the other may think,” he said. The current suspicion, distance, and disdain make the prospect of finding an off-ramp in the current crisis seem more remote than ever.

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What to Do in New York City This Weekend

May 24, 2019 | News | No Comments

These are our top picks for the weekend of May 24th-26th. For more event listings and reviews, check out Goings On About Town.


Garry Winogrand once defined a photograph as “what something looks like to a camera.” Keep that in mind when viewing the Brooklyn Museum’s fiercely pleasurable, if somewhat flawed, show, consisting mainly of hundreds of digitally projected Kodachrome slides, most from the nineteen-sixties. Winogrand, the all-time champion of street photography, died in 1984, at the age of fifty-six. He is most famous for his hyperkinetic shots of unaware pedestrians, taken with high-speed black-and-white film. The relatively long exposures required by color film steered him to subjects more static: people seated rather than walking, or at a beach instead of on the street.—Peter Schjeldahl

Plus: Summer Art Preview, and more art reviews.

Night Life

The Mexican-American singer and guitarist Omar Apollo started recording soulful R. & B. experiments in his home town of Hobart, Indiana, in 2016. His first few releases were lovestruck, melancholic reflections, lightly washed in reverb and peppered with smooth vocal loops. But on his new EP, “Friends,” which came out in April, Apollo injects his sound with hefty doses of funk and dance, hinting at the multifaceted musical universe that he has at his fingertips. After this Saturday night set at Bowery Ballroom, he performs on Sunday at Music Hall of Williamsburg.—Julyssa Lopez

Plus: Summer Night Life Preview, and more night-life reviews.

Food & Drink: Tables for Two

At Van Ða, the menu acts as something of a survey course in Vietnamese cooking. It’s divided by headings that sound almost like the titles of academic papers, covering a range of styles and city-specific dishes—“Street Food: Sidewalk Classics, Reinvented”; “Saigon: Bold, Modern, Driven”—and the perspectives and specialties of the two chefs, who both happen to be women. The most unusual section is largely attributable to the owner, Yen Ngo, a Vietnamese-born chef in her late forties who moved to the U.S. in 1980; it’s called “Hue: Ancient, Refined, Royal,” after her parents’ home city, which was Vietnam’s imperial capital from 1802 to 1945 and is famous for traditional dishes that don’t tend to travel abroad, including bite-size delicacies akin to Chinese dim sum.—Hannah Goldfield

For more restaurant reviews, click here.

The Theatre

Jesse Eisenberg’s “Happy Talk,” for the New Group, is a confident, wide-ranging work, buoyed by undeniable star power. Lorraine (Susan Sarandon) is a suburban housewife with delusions of theatrical grandeur. She indulges the fantasy by rehearsing for her Jewish Community Center’s production of “South Pacific,” but shares her real life with her unresponsive husband, Bill (Daniel Oreskes), her ailing mother, and Ljuba (Marin Ireland), her mother's caregiver. Eisenberg’s script, under Scott Elliott’s direction, skillfully serves up cleverness, poignancy, plot twists, and menace. Ireland is phenomenal as the plucky Serbian immigrant, and Sarandon creates a character that earns, by turns, our admiration, revulsion, and pity.—Ken Marks

Plus: Summer Theatre Preview, and more theatre reviews.


This weekend, Film Forum launches an extraordinarily ambitious three-week series of international films, “The Hour of Liberation: Decolonizing Cinema, 1966-1981,” with screenings of “Black Girl.” It’s the Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène’s first feature, in which an intimate drama is mapped on a grid of race and class—and in which political liberation is inextricably linked to cultural independence.—Richard Brody

Plus: Summer Movies Preview, and more movie reviews.

Classical Music

It’s hard to turn one’s nose up at the three principal offerings of the inaugural Burgers, Bourbon & Beethoven Festival, which unfolds Saturday, on the idyllic acreage of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. This Memorial Day-weekend concert and cookout kicks off the second season of the Angel’s Share classical-music series and features bites from Harlem Public and Madcap Café, bottles from WhistlePig, Widow Jane, and others, and a performance, by the String Orchestra of Brooklyn, of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony and Beethoven’s ever-popular Fifth Symphony.—Oussama Zahr

Plus: Summer Classical Music Preview, and more classical-music reviews.


This year’s DanceAfrica festival, at BAM May 24th-27th, is focussed on Rwanda. Although some of the events invoke the country’s 1994 genocide, the emphasis is on rebound and healing through tradition. The headlining act, Inganzo Ngari, a popular Rwandan folkloric troupe founded in 2006, performs crop rituals and a big-wigged warrior dance alongside the Brooklyn-based BAM/Restoration Dance Youth Ensemble, a festival mainstay whose spirited members never fail to bring down the house.

Plus: Summer Dance Preview, and more dance reviews.

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Conferences can be a bit like summer camp: people come together for a few intense days once a year, then return to their regular lives. Last week, in Tallinn, Estonia, I attended the Lennart Meri Conference on foreign policy and security. (I go most years.) I was on a panel with Leonid Volkov, a close associate of the Russian anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny; Volkov also leads a resistance effort against the Russian government’s recent attempts to regulate and restrict the Internet.

The topic of the panel was Russia: civil society, the diaspora, and the possibility of change. For the purposes of the talk, I represented the diaspora and Volkov civil society. I was not optimistic; he was full of hope. He said that it was a tremendously exciting moment to be living in Russia. In one of the country’s largest cities, Yekaterinburg, where Volkov grew up, hundreds of people had been demonstrating for several days against the planned construction of a church in a public park. Several people had been arrested and many had been injured in confrontations with police, but Volkov thought that the protesters might succeed.

Our panel was on Saturday; the conference ended Sunday. I flew home to New York and Volkov flew to Moscow. Early on Tuesday morning, he tweeted that the taxi he was in was followed and then stopped by the police. A minute later he tweeted, “I am being detained, no reason given.” He was taken to a police station and held overnight. On Wednesday morning, he faced a judge, who sentenced him to twenty days behind bars, in connection with a protest that took place last September.

According to OVDInfo, an independent Russian publication that tracks political prosecutions, Volkov was found guilty of violating a law that bans organizing a public event that results in harm to health or property. On Twitter, Volkov recounted the court’s allegation: that, by organizing a live Webcast of a protest on September 9, 2018, against the federal government’s plan to raise the retirement age, he had incited someone to scratch a car. “What do you know, I incited mass disorder by virtue of the spoken word and thought,” Volkov tweeted. “And managed to scratch someone’s Toyota Camry in Moscow while being in Vilnius myself.” In court, he said that he was in Lithuania during the protest. But police testified that Volkov had organized the protest and was therefore responsible for the car-scratching, and also for two people who hit police officers that day.

Volkov, who is thirty-eight, is a software engineer who, in 2013, ran Navalny’s campaign for mayor of Moscow. That summer, in the lead-up to the election, Navalny was sentenced to five years in prison on trumped-up embezzlement charges. Thousands of people risked arrest by protesting in central Moscow that day, and the state backtracked, releasing Navalny the following morning. Alexey Navalny’s brother Oleg, however, was sent to a prison colony: he was a hostage. Following the mayoral election, in which the incumbent mayor triumphed, Volkov left the country to take a job as a tech executive in Luxembourg. After a year and a half, though, he returned to Russia—he wanted to get back to organizing. The state immediately found a crime to charge him with: he was accused of wrestling a microphone away from a television reporter, during a protest in Novosibirsk, and breaking it. I thought that, like Alexey Navalny’s brother, Volkov would become a hostage behind bars. But Volkov was convinced that the authorities were just trying to get him to leave the country. In August, 2016, a court sentenced Volkov to a fine.

The tactic that the state has finally adopted against Navalny is to arrest him for a few weeks at a time, which doesn’t bring out protesters but still makes Navalny’s life very difficult. Now, it seems, the same tactic is being used against Volkov, perhaps in the hopes that he will leave the country and stay out. Volkov did spend most of this past academic year abroad, as a World Fellow at Yale University. According to Navalny’s Twitter account, when the police detained Volkov, they said, “We’ve been waiting for you.”

Like Navalny, Volkov seems to have accepted frequent arrests as part of his regular life. I flew home to New York and took the subway home; he flew home to Moscow and got locked up for twenty days. But he was right about Yekaterinburg: for now, at least, the protesters have succeeded in stopping the construction of the church.

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“There is a natural aristocracy among men,” Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams from Monticello, in 1813, in one of the best-known passages from their vast post-Presidential correspondence. “There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtues or talents; for with these it would belong to the first class. The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trusts, and the government of society.” Jefferson went on to grouse about his failure, decades earlier, to persuade Virginia’s state legislature to create a public-education system. Had he succeeded, he wrote, “Worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and completely prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts.”

Jefferson was hardly the first person to dream of bettering the world by creating a public-spirited and deserving élite, selected and trained through the education system; that idea goes back at least to Plato’s Republic, and has reappeared again and again, everywhere from political manifestos to science fiction. In the United States, in the early twentieth century, the advent of I.Q. tests made the dream seem newly attainable to its enthusiasts. The SAT, that ubiquitous and obsessed-over standard college-admissions test, was introduced in the nineteen-twenties as an adaptation of the Army Alpha, the first mass-administered I.Q. test, which was given to recruits in the First World War as a way of assigning them to tasks and as a general demonstration of the wonders of intelligence testing. In the thirties, James Bryant Conant, the newly installed president of Harvard, began promoting the use of the SAT as a way to create, finally, Jefferson’s idea of a natural aristocracy. (He regularly quoted from Jefferson’s famous letter to Adams.) By 1950, Conant had succeeded in establishing the test as the standard connecting device between high school and college for millions of young Americans.

Much less well known than Jefferson’s letter is Adams’s reply. He was having none of Jefferson’s distinction between natural and artificial aristocracy, because, he argued, the former always degrades over time into the latter. “Both artificial Aristocracy, and Monarchy, and civil, military, political and hierarchical Despotism, have all grown out of the natural Aristocracy of ‘Virtues and Talents,’ ” he wrote. “Your distinction between the aristoi and pseudo aristoi, will not help the matter. I would trust one as Soon as the other with unlimited Power.” Adams looks awfully prophetic today. So does Michael Young, the mid-twentieth-century British sociologist who introduced the term “meritocracy” into the language—meaning it to be understood as a misguided idea, because it would supercede more traditional social-justice causes, such as labor organizing. In his strange, irresistible dystopian fantasy, “The Rise of the Meritocracy,” from 1958, Young’s clueless narrator goes on for chapter after chapter about the wonders of the new I.Q.-based élite, and then a footnote informs us that he has been killed by a populist mob.

In retrospect, there were always two big problems with the idea of an American natural aristocracy. First, educational achievement is highly associated with family background—so if you’re aiming to negate the effects of family background, making big, life-determining decisions about teen-agers who are still living at home with their parents is not a good way to do it. Second, at least in this country, the natural aristocracy has not been as selfless as its many promoters over the years believed it would be. Admission to the most élite colleges is widely perceived as a ticket to success, not to membership in an ascetic cadre of Platonic public servants. That’s why fortunate parents, whose children are already advantaged in the system, so often enact Adams’s prediction and energetically try to turn the natural aristocracy, such as it is, into an artificial one founded on wealth and birth, by doing as much as they possibly can to insure that they pass their own status on to their children.

The College Board and the Educational Testing Service, the purveyor of the SAT, has announced that it will begin using an “Environmental Context Dashboard,” which will give colleges a second score to use alongside the SAT: an “adversity score” that aims to quantify a student’s level of socioeconomic disadvantage by considering a number of neighborhood and high-school factors. In the past, the College Board has resisted at least two attempts to correct for the SAT’s class-replicating aspect. One was called the Measure of Academic Achievement and the other the Strivers Index. It’s a sign of progress that the College Board is willing to acknowledge officially what everybody has known for years. But the new score won’t affect a student’s actual SAT score, and it won’t explicitly take race and ethnicity into account.

Most discussions of admissions to élite colleges are built around the never-quite-directly-expressed idea that, somewhere around the next bend and soon to make itself apparent, is the right way to do it—one that can be straightforwardly applied and that will be universally recognized as fair. Dream on! It’s relatively easy to say (but hard for private universities to put into effect, because they are so dependent on gifts) that athletes and children of donors and alumni shouldn’t get a preference. But what about race? People definitely don’t agree about whether that should factor into admissions. And what about economic disadvantage—should it be only somewhat important, or important enough reliably to trump pure academic measures? What if affluent parents, and their well-paid enablers, find ways to game the Environmental Context Dashboard, as they did long ago with the SAT itself? (Imagine small, island-like affluent schools and neighborhoods that can hide inside larger and less fortunate places that generate high adversity scores.) Élite admissions is a zero-sum game. Many more people aspire to places in a small handful of colleges than can go to them. Every time a new kind of applicant wins, another kind of applicant loses. It’s impossible to achieve a clean, widely agreed-upon separation between teen-aged natural and artificial aristocrats.

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Another idea lurking beneath the surface of the admissions debate is that, if only we can get élite admissions right, that will mean we’ve got America right—that the ideal cohort of élite college students will go on to build the ideal society. That was, in effect, Jefferson’s expectation, and also Conant’s. Again, dream on! John Adams had it right: not only is the perfect selection system a chimera; even if it were not, the perfect empowered élite would be a chimera, too. Just as a long series of fixes can never truly sever the SAT’s link to privilege, engineering a natural aristocracy isn’t all that alluring an idea to begin with. A country where power, money, and prestige are more evenly and less systematically distributed—where, in particular, it matters far more whether you went to college than where you went to college—would be a much fairer place. It would be a shame if the quixotic quest for the perfect adjustment to the SATs and élite admissions draws our attention away from what ought to be our real preoccupation if we want to build a better society.

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In May, President Donald Trump instructed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to impose a ban on foreign-made equipment, much of it from China, that might pose a security threat to the U.S. Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, characterizes the new U.S. policy as “bullying” and called it a threat to “liberal, laws-based order.” Evan Osnos joins Dorothy Wickenden to discuss Chinese hacking of the 2012 American election and decades of intellectual theft, and China’s response to the Trump Administration’s “nuclear option” in the trade war.

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There’s a theoretical aspect to Joanna Hogg’s urgent and ambitious autobiographical drama, “The Souvenir,” along with its dramatic one; but, far from reinforcing each other, these two aspects are in conflict—neither wins, but both are weakened. It’s set mainly in London, in the early nineteen-eighties, when Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a young filmmaker and film student in her early twenties, encounters a man named Anthony (Tom Burke), who’s about ten years older and much worldlier than she is. It’s a movie about love and art in which Hogg’s strong identification with the protagonist takes the place of psychology and self-examination, and a movie about memory in which little in the action suggests any effort to recover the past. The effect is a peculiar one—a vast framework of ideas and experience gives rise to an anecdotal movie, one that’s much less audacious than the inspiration that gave rise to them.

Anthony works—or claims to work—for the Foreign Office, and claims to be working on dossiers of critical political moment. He’s a former art student ablaze with artistic talent and passion, a dandy with a fine wardrobe, an intellectual with a flamboyantly aphoristic manner, and—at first unbeknownst to Julie—a heroin addict. Julie maintains a close relationship with her parents, especially her mother (Tilda Swinton, who is Swinton Byrne’s real-life mother), and attempts to make progress in her art, conceiving a project and enrolling in film school. Anthony’s critical sensibility, despite its harshness, helps her along, even as the stresses of their relationship distract her from school and fray her nerves.

Hogg’s most notable accomplishment is in her calibration of the lead performances, which are quasi-theatrical yet distinctively cinematic. Swinton Byrne, who has never had a major movie role before, endows Julie with a quietly tremulous sense of self-doubt and inquisitive yearning—as well as a deer-in-the-headlights gaze at Anthony’s distantly lurid brilliance and aggressive emotional provocations. In Burke’s performance, Hogg brings out Anthony’s ravaged superciliousness, a noble and ornate façade of exquisite refinement that’s on the verge of shattering under the pressure of his addiction and the deceptions and ignominies that it entails.

What’s more, Hogg catches crucial differences between Julie (along with the rest of her film-school entourage) and Anthony, by way of both wardrobe and gesture. Anthony’s exquisite clothing and manners—including the muted monochrome of his voice—stand out from the unpondered spontaneity of the scruffier students. But most important, Anthony embodies an entire collective history in the tense control of his behavior; he’s completely still, unless and except when he wants to move, whereas Julie and her other friends are fidgety, loosely strung, and uncontrolled. Hogg’s sense of casting proves decisive; Swinton Byrne’s on-camera inexperience and lack of theatrical training lends her a searching uncertainty that’s a crucial emotional element of the drama.

That drama, however, proves far less substantial and less considered than the casting and direction of actors. Knowing that I’d soon be seeing “The Souvenir,” I deliberately avoided reading my colleague Rebecca Mead’s recent profile of Hogg, in order to avoid comparing the specifics of Hogg’s life story while contemplating the version of it that she places onscreen. I didn’t have more than a general notion of the movie’s connection to Hogg’s personal life, but, as I watched the movie, I nonetheless sensed that it was a very slight and narrow representation of the protagonist’s experience—that it reflected much less than Hogg knew or could have imagined about Julie. The film is conspicuously inscribed in the concept of memory and the transformation of personal experience into art. Yet Hogg never dramatizes her access to the elements of her inner life or any struggle for engagement with it. The film offers no sense of searching for memories or grasping at its details or its import. Hogg’s proximity to her earlier self seems complete and total; there’s no cinematic device to suggest a present-tense filmmaker reaching back to an earlier stage of her own life and art.

Hogg’s identification with Julie seems just about total—Julie is in just about every scene in the film, she’s often the only person in a given scene, and she’s the only character with any subjective sequences at all. But there are very few point-of-view shots showing what Julie sees, very little attention paid to her inner experience. (For instance, when she first talks with Anthony, there’s no frontal view of his face; when Julie is on the phone, what she’s hearing from the person on the other end of the line is never heard; what she’s reading when she opens her mail isn’t disclosed, and neither is what she’s seeing while taking photographs with her 35-mm. S.L.R. or shooting film with her handheld 16-mm. movie camera.) Hogg depicts Julie from the outside, mainly detaching herself from Julie’s point of view but never standing far enough outside to reveal any curiosity about Julie’s thoughts or state of mind. And it isn’t only psychology that’s missing from “The Souvenir”; the film also lacks a basic interest in how Julie responds to situations—what she does in crucial moments of her life—or how she responds to her relationship with Anthony.

Many tense and conflict-riddled scenes between Julie and Anthony are cut dismayingly short just as they’re getting going, inviting dramatizations that Hogg never provides. For instance, Anthony speaks abusively to Julie, calling her “a freak” because of her “fragility,” adding, “You’re lost and you’ll always be lost.” What is Julie’s response? It isn’t shown. Likewise, Hogg cuts away after Anthony criticizes Julie’s film-school application. On a luxurious Venice jaunt with Anthony, Julie sits in a posh hotel and weeps, for good reason. But when Anthony demands that she cheer up because he finds her sadness “punishing,” Hogg cuts away again to a later event, as they head to the opera. After Julie—finding Anthony’s drug paraphernalia and seeing his many needle marks—orders him out of the apartment, Hogg cuts away again, rather than film his response and their confrontation.

The real-life Hogg comes off, in Mead’s piece, as a voluble storyteller, describing her copious cache of notebooks, letters, and diaries dating from the time of her life that the movie covers, and also recordings of therapy sessions in which she discusses that time. She also tells some noteworthy stories that provide the context and the background for the film—but they’re exactly the kind of moments that Hogg elides. Julie’s apartment, in the film, is what Mead calls “an inch-by-inch reconstruction of Hogg’s elegant student digs,” complete with furnishings that belonged to the filmmaker at the time, such as a grand, ornate bed that turns up in Julie’s apartment midway through the movie. Hogg explains that she had such a bed and that she and the real-life version of Anthony had bought it at auction; yet the movie offers no such rationale, no such grace note of the characters’ relationship. As a result, the film offers the viewer not a few excerpts from a full range of a life but merely the absence of what made it full. The very story of Hogg’s replication of her flat in a studio—for that matter, imagining her work with the production designer and set decorators to realize it—offers a more powerful evocation of the pull of memory than anything in the film.

The movie’s idiosyncratic composition, comprising many static takes that deliver the action with a plain reserve, doesn’t so much fragment the action enigmatically as reduce it to anecdotes and information. The bold and admirable act of will that it took to make the film is distinct from the aesthetic willfulness with which it was made. A far more conventional director might have been inclined to ask more questions of the script, to show more of the action, to reveal more about the characters, and, as a result, to make a more engaging and insightful movie. In that sense, “The Souvenir” reveals the pitfalls of classic auteur cinema, the concept of the screenwriter-director who relates her own experience by way of dramatic fiction. Hogg knows the story as no one else does; her authority is, in the literal sense, unimpeachable. It may be her very intimacy with the subject of the film that leaves her incurious about it—she offers a daring and heartfelt view of her own life but, in delivering it, leaves it unexplored. In the end, “The Souvenir” is a movie about experience that doesn’t itself offer much of an experience.

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