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What Happened: October 8, 2021

Tablet’s afternoon news digest: Peace at last, de Blasio’s parting shot, the fate of a notorious Nazi

The Scroll
October 08, 2021

The Big Story

Today’s edition of The Scroll is guest-edited by Armin Rosen

It is a throwback to the utterly alien world of, like, 1997 to care about the moral and political judgements of a council of chin-stroking Norwegian bureaucrats. But even when the Nobel Peace Prize gets it wrong—as it arguably did in awarding Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed a couple years before he launched an ongoing and decidedly unpeaceful assault on the restive Tigray region, and as it arguably does in, well, most years—the honor at least has the power to elevate new would-be global exemplars while revealing what the jet-setting class is currently most anxious about. This year’s prize succeeds on both counts. Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov are the courageous editors of crusading investigative journalism projects that have made them enemies of the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, respectively. This year, it’s journalists battling populist strong-men who are held up as the vanguard of good in the world. As usual, it’s interesting what the committee chose not to honor: The Abraham Accords just weren’t a big enough deal, peace-wise, to be worth recognition, but the Israeli-Arab Accords seem like they’ll survive this Scandinavian slight. Climate activist Greta Thunberg also got skipped over again, as populist threats against the media are apparently a more urgent danger than climate change this particular year.

The Rest

-Speaking of Ethiopia, a major battle looms between rebels and the government, both of whose forces are deployed around a highway in the war-torn and heavily blockaded Tigray region. Britain’s Sky News got a correspondent to the front line, which has become one of the world’s foggier conflict zones. Read more:

-Huge news in New York today. In what might be his last major move as mayor—and maybe his most important decision, period—the outgoing Bill de Blasio announced that the city would phase gifted and talented programs out of its public schools over the next five years. The country’s largest school system, which has seen its enrollment plunge by over 110,000 students since 2000, is scrapping its long-standing structure for unlocking the potential of its brightest students, all in the name of some pretty debatable notions of what racial equity and social justice really mean. The consequences of this experiment, for the city’s tax base and for the children themselves, are the kind of things we might still be cleaning up a few decades down the line. Or maybe this exotic flight of social policy decreed by an unpopular mayor in the last three months of a failed eight years in office will go just fine. Or maybe it’ll end the minute Eric Adams becomes mayor on New Year’s Eve. Read more:

-YouTube announced that it is demonetizing accounts that make what the company considers to be inaccurate claims about climate change. One of the most powerful corporations on earth now has what’s effectively an ideological and political test, specific to an urgently important sociopolitical topic, that determines who can and can’t fully access its services. It’s not really obvious why supporters of stricter environmental policies would want a corporate behemoth to tip the scales of public discourse in their favor, especially since their ideas have proven fairly compelling in much of the world. But perhaps they’d answer that the time for open debate has passed. Read more:

-Tesla, the preposterously overvalued maker of what are supposed to be some decent enough cars, is moving its headquarters from Silicon Valley to Austin, Texas, with founder and CEO Elon Musk noting the difficulty of scaling up a large business in the Bay Area these days. The light Texan tax and regulatory regime, and the large presence of Musk-owned SpaceX in the state, probably has something to do with it too.

-Former president Donald Trump is reportedly telling close aides from his tumultuous final days in the White House not to cooperate with subpoenas from the congressional commission investigating the incidents of Jan. 6. It’s the latest battle in the seemingly endless Trump Wars—though this stuff will get even more important as we near Trump’s decision on whether or not to run for his old job in 2024. Read more:

-An Argentinian court dismissed charges against former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was accused of covering up Iran’s involvement in a 1994 attack on a Buenos Aires Jewish community center that is still the deadliest massacre of Jews since World War II. The Argentinian government’s various secret agreements with Tehran, which effectively suppressed any clear picture of the Islamic Republic’s role in the atrocity, remain a matter of long-standing controversy and might even have been criminal acts themselves.

-Pfizer is requesting that the Food and Drug Administration approve its COVID-19 vaccine for use in children ages 5 to 11. This would allow school districts around the country to condition enrollment on vaccination against the disease, which might then lead to the most bitter and socially disruptive phase of the entire vaccination debate.

-The new Israeli government entered office promising to tackle one of the more subtly corrupting features of the country’s social, economic, and religious life: the ultra-conservative rabbinic authorities’ control of kashrut, which allows a small number of certifiers to operate like an especially retrograde licensing cartel for the country’s food service industry. But months later, kashrut reform has been a “disappointment,” according to Alon Tal, a member of the Knesset from the coalition’s centrist Blue and White Party. Read more:

The Back Pages

Some longer reads for what remains, for reasons of Italian American pride and/or commemoration of indigenous peoples and/or sheer civic habit, a long weekend in much of the country.

-It’s hard to believe New Lines Magazine has only been around for a year. The global affairs publication came into being as if fully formed, instantly becoming a leading source of reporting and argument, especially on the greater Middle East. It’s really the midsize, ambitious online publications that are doing the best work these days, right? New Lines is constantly publishing great stuff, and this harrowing first-person account from a female schoolteacher in Kandahar now hiding from the Taliban was a standout of its anniversary week content, a reminder of what makes the publication’s work so urgent:

- “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?,” asks The New York Times in nakedly virality-seeking fashion. What the hell do those words even mean, and which of them is “bad” even modifying? Is there a hyphen missing somewhere? Look, there’s obviously a lot going on in this story of one writer’s solipsistic altruism (altruistic solipsism?) clashing with another writer’s maybe unethically broad sense of artistic license, and the whole thing is an interesting kind of meta-story about the necessary yet potentially toxic self-obsession that fuels the writing life, along with the modern and yet also timeless phenomenon of investing too much of yourself in what the kids now call “fake friends.” Who is the Bad Art Fake Friend? No, that doesn’t make any sense either. At least the Jewish role in this mess, which involves an organ donation and a fictional short story about the organ donation and a bunch of lawsuits, or something, is nothing more than cameo-sized. We’re nearly left Out Of It, but only nearly:

The procedure went well. By a stroke of luck, Dorland would even get to meet the recipient, an Orthodox Jewish man, and take photos with him and his family. In time, Dorland would start posting outside the private group to all of Facebook, celebrating her one-year “kidneyversary”...

Yeah, okay, that’s enough of that. But if that isn’t enough of that, read more:

-No kidding around, though, about New Yorker ace Ben Taub’s monumental story of a quadruple agent ex-Assad regime intelligence chief who has more or less disappeared in Vienna, a tale about everything from the fraught state of human rights accountability to the democratic world’s morally scandalous mismanagement of the Syria conflict to the ins and outs of Mossad tradecraft. In my view, Taub’s most impressive scoop actually has little to do with the mysterious and amoral-sounding Khaled al-Halabi. Amazingly, Taub seems to have finally figured out what happened to Alois Brunner, the Eichmann aide and unrepentant co-architect of the Holocaust whom Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad sheltered beginning in the 1970s but who hadn’t been seen since the early 2000s. Brunner’s eventual fate is so dark and morally vexing that it effectively unites the great political evils of both the 20th and 21st century in a single, scarcely fathomable figure. You’d think Roberto Bolaño invented it all. But no—somehow this is all real. Read more:

-Of all the 20th-century artistic giants with absolutely no connection to Judaism anywhere in their life or work—there were a few, believe it or not!—none was more Jewish than Yasujirō Ozu. The Japanese director’s pintele Yid shines through in every one of his works, soul-piercing tragi-comedies in which eternal themes of family, tradition, and social obligation are probed from every conceivable angle. The wounded strivers, headstrong children, and beleaguered family men populating classics such as Tokyo Story and Floating Weeds wouldn’t be so out of place in the shtetl or the old Lower East Side or modern-day Teaneck, though as the story of a family and a society devastated by an event too horrible to name, the 1947 film Record of a Tenement Gentlemen resonates for different reasons entirely. New Yorkers can see the film, Ozu’s first after World War II, on Oct. 12 as part of Anthology Film Archives’ Cinema Year Zero program, an offering of movies that address the immediate aftermath of the global conflict. A chance to see Ozu on the big screen should never be squandered, but a lot of his movies can actually be found on YouTube for free, including this one:

Tablet’s afternoon newsletter edited by Jacob Siegel.

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