The Big Story
London’s High Court came down in favor of the U.S. government today, approving the extradition of Julian Assange to the United States to face charges of espionage. Though Assange’s legal team says it will fight the decision up to Britain’s Supreme Court, it moves the founder of WikiLeaks one step closer to what could be decades of prison time for his role in the publication of government files leaked by former Army analyst Chelsea Manning. The High Court took the U.S. government attorneys at their word that should Assange be found guilty, he would not be forced to serve his sentence in a supermax high-security prison. Should Assange stand trial in a U.S. court, the case will raise significant constitutional questions about what type of freedoms are afforded to members of the press who publish information considered classified by the U.S. government. At stake would be a new precedent that could make the public disclosure of certain government activity and documentation a criminal offense.
Today’s Back Pages: Your Weekend Reads
→ Though not so great year for those on Main Street, the COVID-19 pandemic has been terrific for Wall Street corporate executives. By year’s end, at least 48 executives will each have cashed out $200 million in stock, according to a new Wall Street Journal analysis. Since corporate profits hit all-time highs in 2021, executives have been particularly motivated by the savings of as much as $8 million on each $100 million in stock sold before next year’s new tax legislation takes effect as part of the Build Back Better package now pending in the Senate. Sale purses have been notably hefty for tech titans this year, with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella bagging $374 million and Google gentlemen Larry Page and Sergey Brin filling their personal coffers with about $1.5 billion each.
→When Martin Amis wrote that making lots of money is not that hard, he must have been thinking about the professional chess world. This afternoon, Magnus Carlsen won his fifth world chess championship with ease, after thoroughly trouncing the Russian Ian Nepomniachtchi, who resigned in the 11th game of the best-of-14 series. The win nabs Carlsen a cool $2.2 million and solidifies his status as the undisputed best in the world. The highlight of the series was Carlsen’s victory in the epic 7-hour-and-45-minute sixth game last Friday, the longest in the 135-year history of the world championship. The loss proved to be a psychological blow to Nepomniachtchi, who made a phenomenal blunder in the following game, from which he seemed unable to recover for the rest of the championship. The elementary mistake was hard for some to watch. “You work a whole lifetime for one shot and this is what happens on the biggest scene,” one commentator said during the live coverage. “He’s probably never blundered like this in his whole career. It’s just so sad.”
→Actor Jussie Smollett now awaits sentencing after a Chicago jury found him guilty yesterday on five counts for making false statements to law enforcement about an alleged attack in 2019. Many politicians and celebrities swiftly accepted at face value Smollett’s claims that he was returning from Subway around 2:00 a.m. when he became the victim of a racist and homophobic assault perpetrated by a pair of men in MAGA hats who tied a noose around his neck. Investigators soon discovered the ordeal initially described by Vice President Kamala Harris as “an attempted modern-day lynching” was in fact a hoax orchestrated by Smollett, who paid two associates to carry out the escapade. The overwhelming evidence against Smollett hasn’t prompted any notable retractions from his earlier supporters, including those in the White House.
→Though it was one of his top foreign policy goals, it doesn’t look like President Biden has the leverage to force Iran back into even a watered-down version of the 2015 nuclear deal. With negotiations between several nations’ diplomats stalling out at an ongoing summit in Vienna, the Biden administration is scrambling to apply pressure to halt Iran’s nuclear development, with new sanctions against Iran announced this week. It remains unclear how effective the ratcheted-up economic pressure will be. A new report last week from Institute for Science and International Security found that Iran’s timeline to possessing a nuclear weapon might be as short as a six-month “breakout” period, which effectively negates the possibility of restoring the 12-month minimum that was the core tenet of the 2015 nuclear agreement. Meanwhile, U.S. and Israel military officials were gathering yesterday to evaluate potential military strikes against Iran to take out their nuclear facilities, according to a report by Reuters.
→The CEO of the world’s largest hedge fund is reportedly about to enter into a key Senate race for the 2022 midterm election. Head of Bridgewater Associates, David McCormick, told staffers this week that he would resign if he were to make a bid for the senate seat in Pennsylvania soon to be vacated by Pat Toomey, who won’t seek reelection. The Republican ticket is already crowded with four other candidates, including Carla Sands, former president Trump’s ambassador to Denmark, and Mehmet Oz, the celebrity surgeon.
→The Toronto District School Board voted this week against the board’s integrity commissioner’s recommendation that Jewish trustee Alexandra Lulka be censured. Lulka had been criticized for drawing attention to antisemitic teaching materials that justify “suicide bombings and other forms of terrorism.” The affair raised serious questions about the board’s handling of antisemitism in its district, with Adir Krafman, a past representative of Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, criticizing the school board’s choice of an independent investigator, calling the investigator “clearly biased and ideologically if not politically immersed in the issue.”
→San Francisco is struggling to thwart the high volume of car break-ins that continues to plague the city. November saw a total of more than 3,000 vehicular burglaries, with 876 thefts in just the city’s central district, which averages out to more than 25 cars stolen a day in that area popular with tourists. “It’s out of control,” said Alan Byard, a San Francisco police officer who explained to a local CBS affiliate this week why law enforcement won’t pursue the assailants. “The police can’t chase the cars; it’s considered a misdemeanor.”
→Since 1988, the average American adult male body weight has increased more than 18 pounds. Over nearly that same time period, the number of Americans who say they have 10 or more close friends has decreased by 61%, according to a report this year by the American Enterprise Institute.
→Amazon was hit with a $1.3 billion fine by Italian antitrust regulators yesterday after they found the tech company to have abused its market dominance to unfairly drive its third-party sellers to use its logistics services instead of those offered by other companies. Though Amazon denies any wrongdoing, its monopolistic activity will continue to come under scrutiny on the continent as the European Union moves ahead with a similar investigation of its own into the Seattle tech platform. Meanwhile, the Italian government has also fined a 57-year-old dentist who recently tried to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine with a fake silicone arm. The man was denied a vaccination certificate after a nurse in the northern city of Biella lifted up the man’s shirt and discovered the deception.
The Back Pages
backpages Weekend Reads
To better understand the rise of far-right politician Éric Zemmour in France’s presidential race, read this 2015 New York Review of Books piece from Tablet contributor Mark Lila. Lila provides an analysis of Zemmour himself—“less a journalist or thinker than a medium through whom the political passions of the moment pass and take on form”—and the context for the publication of Zemmour’s divisive book, Le Suicide français, which came on the heels of a spate of gruesome antisemitic attacks and mass killings carried out by radical Islamic terrorists.
This cascade of events is largely why the killings provoked more horror than surprise in France: They “fit” into something already there. An additional reason is that for the three previous months, a highly polemical debate had been taking place about a right-wing book that offered a grandiose, incendiary, apocalyptic vision of the decline of France in which French Muslims play a central part. Though it was only published in October, Éric Zemmour’s Le Suicide français was the second-best-selling book in France last year, and the most argued over. It is one of those political tracts that seems to be printed on litmus paper, its meaning and force changing depending on whose hands are flipping the pages. Already the terms zemmouriste, zemmourien, and even zemmourisation have entered the political lexicon.
This short piece by Ryan Broderick on his Substack, “Garbage Day,” takes up the implication of a new streetwear accessory called hypetags, which can be clipped to high-end sneakers to display a real-time value for the sneaker on a web-based exchange platform. The idea is that while sneakerheads know the likely value of a rare pair of Jordans, the tags can extend the sneaker owner’s niche web-based social status into other real-world domains. As Broderick points out, the hypetags make explicit the ongoing process by which “online culture becomes our default,” with internet marketplaces and other quasi-social leaderboards exhibiting more and more influence over our real-world experience.
Mass demonstrations of what I’ve been calling “parasocial violence” have been breaking out across the country—the Jan. 6 insurrection, Adrian’s Kickback, QAnon supporters camping out in Texas, the GameStop pump, Elon Musk’s dogecoin market crash, the Josh fight, Travis Scott’s Astroworld. Physical spaces are now feeling the tangible effects of viral traffic. What used to be reserved for Instagrammable walls has now become a global phenomenon. Things IRL no longer make sense without some kind of online context. This is a new and dizzying idea. Earlier this year, I had to draw out on a napkin how the blockchain worked so I could explain to my mom what an NFT was and why Tom Brady was selling them.
In this partially paywalled discussion on his Substack, “The Pull Request,” Antonio García Martínez interviews Niall Ferguson about a wide array of topics, including the role of religion in a functional society.
Martínez: I don’t necessarily want to turn this into a whole woke discussion unless you want to, but a lot of wokeness is very redolent of Protestant-style Christianity: this overweening respect for the victim, an obsessive purity culture, etc. … In a Christian society, even a secular liberal one, does liberalism itself require a sense of religion, either of the formal type like Christianity or the civic religion that arguably took foothold in the U.S.? And if so, is it possible to just create it? Because one of Christianity’s problems is that you have this direct faith relationship with Christ, and it’s hard to fake.
Religions like Judaism are more about the practice and community. I recently observed Yom Kippur; my views on God are not worth going into here, but let’s just say they’re not 100%. It doesn’t matter: you can go and enact the same narratives and songs, and it’s irrelevant whether God exists or not. In fact, there are sub-denominations of Judaism which are avowedly agnostic. That’s much harder to do in Christianity. So I’m curious about how we’re stuck in this liberal bind, in that it’s Christian belief at heart … When that’s gone, what do we do with liberalism?
Ferguson: The key insight I had as a historian working on the totalitarian regimes of the mid-20th and late 20th century was that, however possible it may be to live as an atheist, as a family, as an individual, it is a very unsatisfactory operating system for a society. Regimes that proclaim themselves atheist and seek to eradicate Christianity, have been among the worst regimes in history. It’s really important to understand that, to see why the most anti-clerical regimes were also very, very wicked. This is, I think, a very important lesson that I learned. I came to realize, reading Tocqueville as you mentioned, that it would actually be very, very difficult to make a stable and harmonious society without some religious cement, some religious glue to hold it together. Atheism does not provide that; it’s not actually a viable operating system for a stable society.
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Tablet’s afternoon newsletter edited by Jacob Siegel.