The Big Story
Today’s edition of The Scroll is guest-edited by Armin Rosen
Whether Facebook is having the worst couple days in its history or the worst couple days in any major social media website’s history will be a fun one to debate at some point—although at the rate things are going, we’ll be debating it on some medium other than Facebook. Yesterday, the rapacious and just barely tolerated Boomer content farm suffered a humiliating outage during six prime business hours. Worst of all, two far better and more useful services, ones that Zuckerberg didn’t build but bought with the spoils of the one terrible website that he did actually create, were also knocked out. The WhatsApp outage likely froze the basic functioning of government in much of the world, Israel included. And for six harrowing, Instagram-less hours, the world’s fashionistas and experience-hounds had to endure the simple, solitary inner knowledge of a life fully lived, a terrible fate for anyone whose Yeezys happened to have arrived in the mail yesterday morning.
But the Great Crash was a sideshow. In fact, it’s not even the biggest crisis that Facebook is dealing with right this very second. On Sunday night, a senior employee who leaked reams of documents to The Wall Street Journal about the company’s contradictory and sometimes complacently expedient approach to content moderation, users’ mental health, allegedly dangerous conspiracy-theorizing, and other matters of potential policy concern revealed her identity in a 60 Minutes interview. Today, Frances Haugen testified before a Senate subcommittee. Tomorrow, who knows—maybe a book deal? A book deal if Facebook’s lucky: There aren’t a lot of sources of real cross-ideological agreement these days, and Facebook hatred can be a quaintly comforting throwback to an era of better feelings. Liberals think the website is a den of lies that got Donald Trump elected president; conservatives think the site is a willing handmaiden of Woke Capital and an engine for censorship. Both ends of the spectrum are increasingly suspicious of large businesses that have the whiff of monopoly to them. It could turn out that the company’s real troubles haven’t even started yet.
More: https://www.cnn.com/2021/10/04/tech/facebook-instagram-whatsapp-outage/index.html, https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-facebook-files-11631713039
-Attorney General Merrick Garland has advised the FBI to track and respond to threats against educators and school boards, a move critics interpreted as a reaction to parent activism over the inclusion of so-called critical race theory in school curricula. Republican Sen. Tom Cotton said Garland is “cracking down on dissent”; his colleague Josh Hawley tweeted that the announcement is a “dangerous abuse of power.” Read more: https://www.politico.com/news/2021/10/04/garland-fbi-educator-threats-515104, https://twitter.com/SenTomCotton/status/1445203103280734209, https://twitter.com/HawleyMO/status/1445373053542834184
-More political shenanigans over U.S. funding of Iron Dome, this time from the other side of the aisle. Libertarian-minded Republican Sen. Rand Paul wants to condition $1 billion in funding for the Israeli missile defense system—a thin hedge against unspeakable chaos for millions of Israelis and Palestinians—on the money being taken out of future aid to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Paul’s amendment meant the funding can’t be passed by unanimous consent in the Senate, and it led to a showdown with New Jersey’s Bob Menendez, one of the Senate Democrats most consistently supportive of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. Read more: https://jewishinsider.com/2021/10/senate-remains-at-a-standstill-on-iron-dome-after-menendez-paul-faceoff/
-It’s easy to lose track, since they seem to happen so often these days, but there is indeed another ecological crisis menacing California. With forests probably still smoldering somewhere, a massive leak from an offshore oil platform threatens to ravage the ecosystem in the area around Huntington Beach—and it seems that both the platform’s operator and California authorities were slow in responding to the breach. Read more: https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2021-10-04/oil-spill-amplify-energy-notification-pipeline
-After 18 months of some of the strictest lockdowns in the democratic world, an increase in the novel coronavirus’s more transmissible Delta variant has led isolated New Zealand to the same conclusion as nearly every other country: COVID-19 can’t be eradicated, at least not through non-pharmaceutical means. Read more: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/04/world/australia/new-zealand-covid-zero.html
-The United States’ increasingly bitter legislative standoff continues. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democratic Senate moderate, hasn’t budged on his support for a lower-spending infrastructure bill as part of a compromise with Republicans on raising the debt ceiling, while President Joe Biden seems pretty confident he can strong-arm everyone, including the usually intractable Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, into passing his signature legislation in its $3.5 trillion entirety. Read more: https://www.cnn.com/2021/10/04/politics/manchin-debt-ceiling-biden-economic-package/index.html
-Nike is pulling a ton of business from Israel, but not because of BDS. It might actually be for an even more ominous reason! In an era of vertical integration and an ever-shrinking zone of what can be considered “real life,” the athletic apparel giant is bringing more of its retail business online and decided it just doesn’t need the extra cost and hassle of relationships with retailers in tiny, far-off countries. Read more: https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/nike-to-terminate-sales-in-israeli-stores-680993
-The New York Public Library has launched a bold social-psychological experiment, one whose success we should probably all be rooting for: Fines and late fees have been eliminated, starting today. Read more: https://twitter.com/KendraWrites/status/1445392863232200718
-The City of London Corporation votes tomorrow on whether to authorize the construction of a high-rise complex that would hedge in the 18th-century Bevis Marks synagogue, something that would cast one of the icons of Judaism in Britain in permanent shadow and that observers think could threaten the historic congregation’s future. Read more: https://www.cityam.com/bevis-marks-synagogue-city-of-london-corporation/amp/?__twitter_impression=true
-Bookmark this one, folks, because you never know when it might come in handy. Yeshiva World News has a helpful, potentially crisis-defusing, maybe even life-saving guide to how to repair a ketubah with textual errors without violating Jewish law—and to do it quickly enough so as not to leave everyone standing under the chuppah for the most excruciatingly awkward hour of their lives. Read more: https://www.theyeshivaworld.com/news/headlines-breaking-stories/1897142/uh-oh-correcting-a-kesuvah-at-the-wedding.html
-The Yankees and Red Sox will meet in the Major League Baseball playoffs tonight, in what’s sure to be a pale imitation of their titanic post-season showdowns of the early-to-mid-2000s. The winner of the 8 p.m. single-elimination Wild Card round will advance to play the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Back Pages
It’s understandable that the 10th anniversary of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret passed without much comment last week. Margaret is a masterpiece of 21st-century American film that is, among numerous other things, a defining portrayal of New York in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and a disquieting inquiry into the contemporary non-Orthodox American Jewish condition. But it’s a masterpiece in the same way the lost unexpurgated print of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons probably was. Fox Searchlight just didn’t understand what Lonergan was doing, or why the Gangs of New York screenwriter and future Manchester by the Sea director used the expensive services of Anna Paquin, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, and Allison Janney on a three-hour auteur piece about a moody teen and a bus accident.
Filmed in 2005, the 150-minute Margaret—already a project much fought and sued over and a release bastardized from a still-never-seen 165-minute version edited in part by Martin Scorsese—made $623,000 at the box office against a $14 million budget when it finally hit theaters in the fall of 2011. Lonergan’s 186-minute cut, now considered the definitive version of the film, saw daylight as a DVD release in 2012. I’ve yet to encounter someone who’s viewed the extended version and not been astonished by it. As the kind of person who subscribes to and probably occasionally reads The Scroll, there’s a good chance you’ll be astonished by it too.
There’s a lot going on in Margaret. Some viewers may be tempted to read it as a work of scorching cultural dissent that casts a withering glance at progressive private schools, latte liberal attitudes toward Israel, the decline of the nuclear family, and modern alienation from the Western canon. Well, maybe. But maybe not: This is a film that has admirers across the ideological spectrum, and Lonergan is an artist who is brilliant enough to be able to build and then demolish just about any viewer’s conviction that they’ve found a kindred spirit in him. His greatest work exists on a level much higher than anyone’s petty and particular mental prejudices, occupying the realm of actual wisdom.
To me, this is primarily a movie about teshuva, or maybe about how teshuva can go wrong—or maybe about how it can go wrong in the ways you originally intended, but then right in ways you didn’t intend. Its core plot is something like the Book of Jonah on the Upper West Side, with high school classrooms and lawyers’ offices standing in for the fish’s belly and Tarshish.
As with Jonah, the action is deceptively simple: 17-year-old Lisa Cohen believes that she distracted a bus driver into striking a middle-aged woman outside of the 74th Street Fairway, someone who dies in profound agony as a crowd gathers to watch (this indecently violent public death being the first and most explicit of the movie’s many nods toward 9/11, an event which is never actually mentioned). In her shock, Lisa tells the police that the driver did not run a red light, even though she knows he did. Over the course of trying to right this double wrong of dishonesty and negligent manslaughter that she’s convinced she’s committed, Lisa is inducted into the harsh and hypocritical realities of the adult world, a realm in which ultimate fairness is nothing but a useful fiction and where no one seems capable of taking on any real moral or practical responsibility for much of anything, no matter how obviously horrible.
But Lisa faces an even deeper problem, a question that goes beyond some fictive rebalancing of the imaginary cosmic scales. She faces the question of not just how to perform teshuva, but why. Why does she believe the bus crash is even her problem to solve? “I’m not just using this as my moral jungle gym,” she pleads to the best friend of the woman she believes she’s inadvertently killed. But the claim reflects back on itself—Lisa knows that her motives matter here, and she knows that she doesn’t quite understand what those motives really are, and she at least senses the solipsism in treating do-goodery as an engine of individual growth or as a way of purging one’s own inner guilt. She knows her quest has to be something more than a “moral jungle gym.” But what if that’s all it is?
Where the light breaks into this often upsetting (but also very darkly comic) movie is through Lisa’s quest actually becoming something more than a teenager’s plaything, though not in ways our heroine anticipates—and not in the way we anticipate, either. Teshuva is repentance, but it literally means “return.” And without giving away too much, a film about a teenager discovering the impossibility of moral rectification in a fallen world subtly morphs into the story of a girl finding her way back home, returning to the comfort and certainties that only family can really provide. Not just family, but art, too: The final 10 minutes of this movie are an unforgettable emotional and aesthetic frenzy, culminating in a physics-defying crane shot that descends on a single point in a packed Metropolitan Opera House orchestra section. Perfect justice isn’t ours to have, but the eternal sources of meaning are still there, painful and costly as it can be—painful and costly as it is—to find them. Margaret insists that the potential for return remains when seemingly everything else in our lives and in society and in ourselves has failed us, even for Lisa, even for everyone watching, too.
Tablet’s afternoon newsletter edited by Jacob Siegel.