An Orgy for the Eyes

Flags waving on top of people. PDN

With the world of photography expanding at the speed of light, thanks to digital SLRs and social media, trying to keep up with current trends becomes more challenging and yet more exciting every year. Your grandmother, your neighbor, and your nephew would have it easier than I — a photo editor of 17 years — if they wanted to learn all about photography. But for photo fans, art collectors, image junkies? You might need another source.

Here’s my secret taste-maker: Every year, there’s one magazine I look forward to more than any other:  Photo District News’ 30 (for short, PDN’s 30 ). Don’t ask if I was ever on it: The list was once called ”30-Under-30,” and I took the long route, graduating from college at 31. But in any case — this is the bible of up-and-coming photogs, and it’s voted annually by some of the greats of the creative world. 

Since 1999, PDN’s 30 has been a guide to turn to for new talent and different styles of photography. And we really mean new: Only those who’ve been professional photographers for less than five years can be considered. Those are five years of sweat, cup of noodles and many, many meetings just trying to get your foot in the door. These folks have pushed to make the big things happen. Rising stars from this list in the past have gone on to do big things: from  shooting Jesse Jackson to being displayed at the Whitney. It’s like a Forbes or Foreign Policy hit list of the people you need to know, or ought to — but instead of entrepreneurs, you have artists.

But I’m a photog, which means I want pictures, and I know you do, too. Here’s a little taste of this year’s list, coming out April 2014.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Readying for Prime Time

Ta-Nehisi on street, on right side of frame with hat and glasses looking right

There are a few things you should know when entering a friendly sparring session with Ta-Nehisi Coates. The much-buzzed-about 38-year-old national political and cultural correspondent at the Atlantic has little patience for bullshit. And once he detects it, he pounces, with a focus bordering on obsession. If Bill Clinton is the Secretary of Explaining Stuff, call Ta-Nehisi Coates the straight no-chaser voice of the hip-hop Obama age and beyond.

Coates is a self proclaimed ex-football fanatic who quit his Sunday ritual after it was discovered that the NFL had systematically lied about the debilitating effects of brain injuries. (“I’ll watch it if I’m at a bar,” the former Dallas Cowboy fan admits. “But … it puts you at a moral quandary, given how the NFL treats its laborers.”) And Coates is just as hard-core about his historical fixation on the Civil War as he is discussing the lyrical genius of hip-hop deity Rakim.

Indeed, Coates, who grew up in Baltimore and attended Howard University before dropping out to become a journalist, has always had a lot to say. It’s the reason he was brazen enough to release his 2008 memoir, The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, at an age when most writers are still trying to figure it all out. Whether it’s his passionate views on race or getting his pop culture fix for the day, Coates has built a reputation as one of the most respected voices of his generation. OZY caught up with the married father of one, and, true to form, we let the conversation go big and wide — on everything from the murder of Jordan Davis to why the D.O.C. may just be the most underrated hip-hop MC to ever pick up a mic.

OZY: You have been very passionate about the Jordan Davis case. A lot of the discussion has been over the lack of value of black men. You note that this is just part of America’s long and oftentimes tragic history in regards to African-Americans, and that it’s always been that way.

Ta-Nehisi Coates: It really regrettably is. This is the tough thing for African-Americans to try to reconcile ourselves to our only home, and that is the tradition to treat us as subhuman; to treat our labor, our families and our lives as basically usable by people who are not black. This is just an extension of that. It’s a little bit unrealistic for us to expect a legacy of that sort to be worked out in a courtroom. It don’t work out like that.

Inevitably Davis’ murder has sparked comparisons to Trayvon Martin’s shooting death. What comes to mind when you hear George Zimmerman complain that he has become President Obama’s scapegoat? And how do you view Obama becoming this go-to ultimate bogeyman for everything that seems wrong in the world?

But that is where we are, and it’s totally consistent with our history. The difference with Obama is black people are usually protesting stuff and challenging the system to do things for them. But here is a black dude in Obama that has actual power. That he would become the lightning rod for white populace and white racists and people with every grievance in the world — and I know George Zimmerman isn’t white, but this is not particularly surprising. This is what you expect to happen.

Group of people at night holding up Travon poster

Civil rights leaders and residents of the city of Sanford attend to a town hall meeting to discuss the death of a 17-year-old unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin, who was shot by a neighborhood watch captain on March 20, 2012, in Sanford, Florida. 

Source Getty

But you have an aging rock star turned conservative firebrand like Ted Nugent actually calling the president of the United States a ”subhuman mongrel.” That seems to be on another level, where people feel like they can get away with saying anything about a black person whether he or she is president or not, right?

Yeah, but the question is when was there a time when they couldn’t get away with those things?

Has it been a daunting task for you holding that responsibility of having such an impact voice at the Atlantic as that professional journalist, family man, African-American super dude?

No … work is difficult. But I don’t think too much about that aspect of it because this is what I wanted first of all. I asked for this and I’m lucky to have it and I wouldn’t really have it any other way. It’s very hard to complain about that. The actual work is difficult, but that’s life. If you are going to do anything worth doing it’s probably going to be difficult.

Because of your status you have become a pretty easy target for some folks who view you as the black cultural tour guide; that you are at the Atlantic to walk white folks through the zoo. Is that type of criticism par-for-the-course or do you take offense to being labeled that way?

Well we live in this era, fortunately, where people can publish what they want. That’s generally a good thing. And the expectation that everyone who does that is going to say something nice about you [laughs] … that’s beyond any sort of realistic idea. I try to engage with people who are being really constructive in their criticism. I do my best to do that. In terms of the specificity of the charge the majority of my readers are going to be white. But I try to work really hard to write for my people even if the majority of the people who are going to read it are not going to be my people. And frankly at the end of the day that’s kind of what any sort of white person who is self aware and wants to know something about the world would want. I don’t want my hand held when I’m reading about subjects which I have little information. Because really that’s what we are saying, right? That white people don’t really know that much about black people. And that’s definitely true. But I try not to dumb it down. I try to write like I was back on the yard at Howard. It’s not diversity training. That’s not what I’m doing.

Another topic: the Civil War. How did you become obsessed with this dark chapter in our history, and what was the most important thing you learned from your studies of that period?

A different way that I probably write from other people is I’ll find one subject and just latch on to it as long as I can. So the writing is reflective of my thinking. The thing that got me into the Civil War was that I grew up in a household and community where people were very much aware of African-American history, and yet no one ever really talked about the Civil War. I didn’t understand why that was. I didn’t even know anything about the Civil War. What I found was the heart of America.

In what specific way?

OK, so, like, when you go through this Jordan Davis case, 600,000 people die in the Civil War and it’s gone as high as 800,000 … 2% of the population. It was an absolute catastrophe. And somebody could present you with those type of numbers and casualties, and you say to yourself, “Why would somebody die over that? What would compel people to die in those numbers?” Civil War was one of our first modern wars where you see trenches being dug for the first time. There was now the ability to slaughter people en masse in ways that you couldn’t before. You end up reading the words of the people of that time. You read the documents of succession for the states that were leaving the Union. And you see a state like Mississippi within the first paragraph outlining why it is leaving the Union: Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of African slavery. That none but the African can deal with subtropical temperatures, and that this is the basis of economy.

That spells it out, right?

Right. And then you see the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, stating why they are leaving … that white supremacy and slave labor is not just something we need to do. It’s actually a great idea. And Jefferson had it wrong when he said all men are created equal. Some men are not created equal. Some men must serve us. The way to understand this is in 1840-50, the majority of the exports at that time was cotton. And who was picking the cotton? So what you are seeing is a situation where slavery is not just a bad thing that happened in this country. This is the basis for America. It’s impossible to imagine America without slavery. Abraham Lincoln was killed because John Wilkes Booth was a believer in white supremacy. What force could be strong to not only kill 600,000 people, but to end it with the greatest president’s assassination? What you get to is white supremacy and slavery. And if that was true before 1860, and if it continued to be true after the Civil War where we got a campaign of domestic terrorism in the south, and if it’s true all the way into the 20th century, where you look at the safety net legislation of the New Deal, you see how racism shaped that legislation. And if it was true all the way to the 1960s, then it has to leave some sort of mark on the psychology of a country and the legacy of a country. That just doesn’t go away. The Civil War just exemplifies that. If white supremacy is so strong to compel people to die in those sorts of numbers, we are dealing with a serious force.

Of course, the go-to response to that would be that blacks have gotten the right to vote, have joined the middle class, and would do well to stop looking back at the past.…

But the way around that is clear. We don’t say that July 4 is the past so we should stop celebrating it. No one has a problem staying home for President’s Day, but that’s the past. We celebrate the birth of Christ. And how long ago did Christ die? We only have a problem with the past when we are charged to do something about it. When the past inconveniences us, we have a problem with it. But if we had no past, we could not be a country. We are at this very moment still paying pensions for World War I. We recognize that. If a state had no history, it really couldn’t be a state. It is essential that, in order for a state to function, it continues to do business beyond the lifespan of its citizens.

Let’s sidestep to a lighter subject. Give me five hip-hop albums that would perfectly represent the genre to someone who doesn’t listen to rap?

I think Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City [2012] is foundational even though it’s fairly recent. I think it does things that gangsta rap and even the shit I loved failed to do. Nas’ Illmatic [1994] is foundational to me. Outkast … I probably would pick Aquemeni [1998]. That’s foundational to me. And this is weird, but you know what I play a lot? That first D.O.C. album [No One Can Do It Better, 1989]. I still play it. It’s my favorite Dre production, and the D.O.C. was just so nasty, man. He was coming out of this crew that mostly everybody was like bitch, fuck, nigga. D.O.C. didn’t do that. Ice Cube and MC Ren had skills. But the D.O.C. killed it on some straight MC shit.

The D.O.C. was doing old man rap before it even existed.

Yeah, he was! And the last one would a be a toss-up between It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back [Public Enemy, 1988] and Only Built 4 Cuban Linx [Raekwon the Chef, 1995]. I played that a lot in college, and I still play it a lot now. The MC’ing on there is just ridiculous.

Last Exit to Everywhere

BW image of Hubert Selby with hands on face

Hubert Selby Jr. may not be a household name (and never was), and it’s unlikely that you’ll find him on a list of the greatest 20th century American writers. But if one of the hallmarks of the “Great American Novel,” from Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, is its penetrating vision of the people and nation that formed it, then Selby belongs in the conversation.

Selby’s portraits of a broken society are merely a reflection of the broken body in which he was forced to live.

In the same way that The Great Gatsby offers up an unyielding vision of America’s high-flying elite, Selby’s masterpiece, Last Exit to Brooklyn, is a searing rendition of the dark underbelly of a nation whose have-nots are fighting not just for power but for survival.

In many ways, Selby’s portraits of a broken society are merely a reflection of the broken body in which he was forced to live. Born in Brooklyn in 1928, Selby left school at age 15 to become a merchant sailor. A few years later he was diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis and given a year to live. To his doctors’ great surprise, however, after an experimental drug treatment and operations that removed 11 ribs and half of one lung, Selby outlived his prognosis and in fact lived to see his 75th year.

But Selby endured chronic pain for the rest of his life, often relying on painkillers and heroin to relieve the agony. He may have beat the tuberculosis, but he was bed-ridden, unable to work and frequently hospitalized for the better part of 10 years.

Encouraged by a childhood friend, the writer Gilbert Sorrentino, Selby — who could barely read — decided, “I know the alphabet. Maybe I could be a writer.” Many if not most writers spend decades honing their craft, but Selby’s late start and lack of formal training proved to be an advantage in his portrayals of the bleak and violent world around him. The threat of death is ever-looming in his work — a nightmarish fear that sprang directly from the author’s own existence.

The novel broke like a vial of dope on a Brooklyn pavement, some readers crowding round to soak up the vital dynamism of the prose, others barely able to hide their disgust.

For Selby, writing was a means by which death could be postponed, the very act of putting pen to paper being reason enough to keep on living. He published his first novel, Last Exit to Brooklyn, in 1964 when he was 36, and it is the one for which he is best remembered.

The novel broke like a vial of dope on a Brooklyn pavement, some readers crowding round to soak up the vital dynamism of the prose, others barely able to hide their disgust. Beat poet and spokesman for the disaffected Allen Ginsberg was among the loudest voices of praise, describing the book as “a rusty hellish bombshell that should explode all over America and still be read in a hundred years.”

The novel’s unflinching depiction of drug use, prostitution, gang rape, homosexuality, transvestitism and domestic violence soon caught the attention of the authorities, and it was banned under the Obscene Publications Act until 1968.

After a separate brush with the law, Selby finally kicked his heroin dependency around the same time, and for the rest of his life used neither drugs nor alcohol, even refusing morphine on his deathbed. But in his writing, Selby never shied away from controversial topics, such as heroin addiction in Requiem For a Dream and delusional psychosis in The Room

But more than subject matter it’s Selby’s style that makes him an enduring writer. For example, his mastery of voice allows him to reject formal notions of dialogue, instead blending the characters’ words into the language of the narrative. By clearly differentiating characters not simply by their accents but by their language patterns, it is possible to distinguish the source of speech even in the hazy confusion of his prose.

Here, in the opening to arguably the most famous chapter in Last Exit to Brooklyn, Selby introduces us to the prostitute Tralala and we are drawn into the raw world of his protagonists:

”Tralala was 15 the first time she was laid. There was no real passion. Just diversion. She hungout in the Greeks with the other neighborhood kids. Nothin to do. Sit and talk. Listen to the jukebox. Drink coffee. Bum cigarettes. Everything a drag. She said yes. In the park. 3 or 4 couples finding their own tree and grass. Actually she didn’t say yes. She said nothing.”

Selby chose the underbelly of society as his canvas, and after Last Exit to Brooklyn’s publication in 1964, it was no longer possible to ignore it as part of American life. The novel offers the reader a vision of a world that is both strange and yet familiar, and it deserves to be counted among the Great American Novels of the 20th century owing to its unflinching gaze into the hearts of the forgotten. 

Bruce Dern Had It Four Decades Ago

Bruce lying down on his right side in blue sweater uniform looking past the camera

A full carton containing 24 brand-new Blu-rays of Bruce Dern in the beloved sci-fi film Silent Running might retail for about a thousand dollars — or $250 more than Universal originally offered Steven Bochco to co-write it.

But this prescient, earnest 1972 movie is worth far more than a grand to a growing armada of admirers. It’s about astronaut Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern), who’s been assigned to tend a fleet of insectoid, spaceship-mounted glass domes containing every last tree and shrub that Earth’s pollution hasn’t already killed off. As with all the biomass cruising through outer space, every Silent Running fan who dies just becomes mulch for the many more who sprout up in his wake.

In the early ’70s, Hill Street Blues co-creator Bochco — rightly celebrated as a pioneer of the communal, writer’s-room-style of television writing lately practiced on The Sopranos, Mad Men and their ilk — was a snot-nosed 27-year-old contract writer on the Universal Studios lot. Even the underrated Richie Brockelman, Private Eye, to say nothing of a 1973 TV rewrite of Double Indemnity starring poor Richard Crenna, lay far in Bochco’s future. Edward G. Robinson, who played the wily claims adjuster in the 1944 original, died the year the TV version debuted, quite possibly after watching it.

With little advertising, they cast it adrift in theaters like one of the movie’s own forested arks, and the picture wilted.  

“They told me they needed a shooting script in 10 days,” Bochco says of Silent Running now, between edits on his new show, Murder in the First. “[Director] Doug Trumbull was already transforming an abandoned aircraft carrier in San Pedro for his main set, and they had to get going. So I came up with a story to fit the concept outlined in the pages they gave me and turned in a screenplay in less than 10 days. I was paid WGA-minimum which, at the time as I recall, was 750 dollars a week. They were so pleased, they paid me for two full weeks! Fifteen hundred dollars! Wow!”

Bochco’s credited co-writers, Michael Cimino and Deric Washburn (later director and screenwriter of The Deer Hunter, respectively), may remember these events differently, but no one can dispute what happened next. Universal opened their “bio-domes in space” movie at, of all places, the Cinerama Dome. The reviews came in, most of them excellent, but — reeling like the rest of the industry from the ex nihilo success of Easy Rider — Universal thought pure word of mouth could sell Silent Running. With little advertising, they cast it adrift in theaters like one of the movie’s own forested arks, and the picture wilted.  

Silent Running sent Bochco fleeing back to where he’d come from: “My experience with it is what made me determined to go into television full time, where I knew that eventually I’d earn control over what I wrote. (Hill Street Blues being a very good example.)”

Dern’s turn as Lowell points to one of the regrettably untaken paths in a nevertheless fine career.

Dern’s turn as Lowell points to one of the regrettably untaken paths in a nevertheless fine career. After Silent Running, he went back to playing too many cackling psychos and cuckolded jerks — even if the latter won him his only Oscar nomination before this year for Coming Home.  

The enduring glory of Silent Running is, natch, Dern’s performance. Long before Sandra Bullock strapped on a motion capture suit or Joaquin Phoenix held disembodied conversations with Her’s Siri-like Circe, Dern spends most of Silent Running acting opposite three knee-high mechanical drones (endearingly if invisibly played by a trio of double amputees). Lowell’s lonely sweetness gives the lie to a current Oscar-campaign canard, the one insisting that Nebraska marks Dern’s departure from the supposedly notorious scenery-devouring of his youth. 

Yes, Dern goes even more bug-eyed in one scene (below) than the twinned geodesic domes at his spaceship’s prow. But the real revelation is how quiet he stays between freak-outs. Dern’s soft, intimate, confiding voice, whether soothing a skittish rabbit in the movie’s first moments or teaching the androids how to lose at poker, shepherds Silent Running’s dialogue past its more purple passages. Sometimes his consonants sound almost like raindrops.

Does Lowell sense the impending violence that his three fellow astronauts are courting by destroying his proto-biospheres? He pleads with his crewmates (including a pre-Alias, pre-L.A. Confidential, pre-Substance of Fire Ron Rifkin, not yet bald but already pretty great). The forests, Dern implores, are “not replaceable.” Neither is he.  

 

Former NEA literature director David Kipen writes about the arts from his hometown of Los Angeles, where he founded the nonprofit lending library Libros Schmibros.

Vote for Me: I’m Not Religious Either

Black ballot box with woman's hand dropping vote in

In politics, sometimes it’s what you don’t talk about that matters.

Democrats and Republicans planning their political campaigns for 2014 and 2016 may be focusing on the Hispanic demographics in the United States, but perhaps they should turn their focus on another rising group: the “nones.”

The “nones” is a term used to describe religiously unaffiliated people. This group of people often get turned off when politicians mix religion into their policies, especially when it comes to women’s reproductive rights and same-sex marriage. Take note, Arizona.

One-fifth of the U.S. public is religiously unaffiliated, according to a 2012 Pew Research Study, and that number rises to a third when calculating adults under 30. While nones include atheists and agnostics, 68% of nones do believe in God.

“The nones tend to be younger, and they are not what I would call conventionally religious,” says Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “They are not necessarily Richard Dawkins.” She compares them to many people in Western Europe who believe without belonging to a church or being a member of an organized religion. She says the rise of the nones is “definitely something to watch.”

In the past, the nones have tended to vote Democrat. In the 2008 presidential election, Pew reports three-quarters of the religiously unaffiliated votes went to Barack Obama. They voted as heavily for Obama as white evangelical Protestants did for John McCain.

While they have skewed Democratic, that doesn’t mean the nones share the same political views. They believe that the political conversation should involve traditional political actions having to do with national security, the welfare state, and so on, explains Michael Hout, a professor of sociology at New York University. “They are not monotone views,” he says. “Some are fiscally conservative and socially liberal, some are fiscally and socially liberal.”

Black ballot box with woman's hand dropping vote in

Vote for Me: I’m Not Religious Either

Source Getty

But if politicians want to appeal to the nones without alienating the more traditionally religious Americans, how do they do that? They use the magic word: values.Hout, along with Claude Fisher, released a study in 2002 about the increase in nones and its relation to a rejection of the Religious right. The found that many of the nones don’t reject religion; they reject organizations. For many, “church has come to stand … not for elements of creed, but elements of politics on who can get married and what happens when they’re pregnant,” says Hout. “They’ve been moving away from both Republicans and churches over their distaste for these issues.”

“The key unifying element between religious and secular outreach is the word values,” says Chris Hale, a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. Hale helped lead Catholic outreach for President Obama’s 2012 campaign. “It definitely was in the understanding of the Democratic Party in 2012 that nones would play a big role in the election; however, there wasn’t really an infrastructure set up to respond to that.” 

What Hale is referring to isn’t today’s equivalent of the 1980s term “family values,” which came to be closely affiliated with social conservatives; rather, it has a broader meaning. ”In the past two presidential elections, the Democratic Party has been successful in continually expanding the notion of values politics,” he says, and the question of values will expand to every major issue affecting the life of the nation. ”For example, how a politician chooses to address income inequality now must be considered a values question, not just an economic question.”

Hale predicts that the word will grow in influence as a way to approach both the nones and voters of all faith traditions in 2014 and 2016 elections. He stresses that voters want to bring values into politics, religious or not, but whenever religion is used as a weapon of division, young people turn away from both faith and politics. Hale says there is very little to differentiate between general youth outreach and targeted outreach to the young and secular. Because of this, he personally finds it “very unlikely” that a presidential candidate will hire someone specifically for outreach to nones.

It’s important to keep in mind that, as a whole, Americans are still more religious than those from other Western nations. But things are changing: Millennials today are more likely to be unaffiliated than their parents and grandparents, when they were the same age. If the rise of the nones continues, perhaps millennial voters will eventually force divisive religious topics out of the political conversation.

Is it tomorrow yet?

The Lesson of Mao’s Successors

Soldiers lined up facing left of camera outdoors during the day

Power abhors a vacuum. Which is why succeeding a tyrant — from Caesar to Kim Jong Il — has always been a messy business, and doubly so when the dictator in charge has become synonymous with those he dictates. And few turnovers have been as messy as the one surrounding Mao Zedong in China.

Chairman Mao’s death at 82 in 1976, after three decades of rule, put the ruling Communist Party in quite a quandary. You would think that succession would have been a foregone conclusion. Suffering from ALS and assorted respiratory, heart and kidney ailments, Mao had not been seen in public for five years. But amazingly, at the time of Mao’s death, no officially designated successor existed, though many brave souls had already played the part of heir apparent. How on earth did a country of almost 1 billion find itself without a clear leader? Let’s just say fate had intervened, repeatedly. Consider the ascendance and often painful falls from favor of the men who might have stepped into Mao’s place. 

Liu Shaoqi (1898 - 1969), President of the People's Republic of China, attends a rally in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, to support the Vietnamese people in their struggle against US forces, 23rd July 1966.

Liu Shaoqi (1898 – 1969), President of the People’s Republic of China, attends a rally in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, to support the Vietnamese people in their struggle against US forces, 23rd July 1966.

Source Getty Images

Successor No. 1: Liu Shaoqi

Flash back to 1962: It is four years into Mao’s five-year plan called the Great Leap Forward, including a consolidation of small farms that sparked widespread famine and the deaths of 30 million Chinese peasants. Mao’s first successor, an avowed Soviet-style communist and silver-haired statesman named Liu Shaoqi, turned abruptly on his mentor at the Communist Party conference that year, becoming the first senior official to recognize that the Great Leap Forward was inaptly named to say the least.

The defense minister at the time, Lin Biao, a diminutive army general who suffered from manic depression and hypochondria, ardently defended Mao, but the die had been cast. As Liu and General Secretary Deng Xiaoping, a Long March survivor who would later open China to foreign investment, set about rescuing the economy and importing grain to combat the famine, Mao and General Lin planned their political comeback, which was nothing less than a cultural revolution. In fact, it was the Cultural Revolution.

BEIJING, CHINA: Chinese top communist leader and a Marshal of the Red Army Lin Biao (1907-71) reads in 1971 in Beijing a copy of Mao Zedong's 'Little Red Book'. January 1971.

Lin Biao

Source Getty Images

Successor No. 2: Lin Biao

The Cultural Revolution was the opportunity Mao needed to build a cult of personality under the banner of a quasi revolution, as he purged discontents and rivals from the party and ruling class. During this time, General Lin became Mao’s heir apparent and greatest defender, while Liu, labeled a traitor, disappeared in 1968 before being beaten, being denied medicine and ultimately dying under house arrest. But just three years later, a rift developed between Mao and his general, and Lin and his family were killed when their plane crashed in Mongolia as they attempted to flee China for the Soviet Union (after a botched coup attempt, according to official Chinese history).

Zhou Enlai

Hua Guofeng

Source Zhou Enlai

Successor No. 3: Zhou Enlai

With Lin dead, attention turned to the suave Zhou Enlai, Mao’s confidant and chief diplomat who headed negotiations with foreign leaders like Henry Kissinger. But Zhou, 77, succumbed to cancer several months before Mao’s death. So, if you’re keeping score at home, that’s three heirs apparent down, followed by the chairman himself. No wonder it took 16 hours for the party to land on the next victim.

Successor No. 4: Hua Guofeng

With eight days of memorial services scheduled to begin on September 11, 1976, the Communist Party met to determine who would replace a man who had commanded diehard allegiance from so many Chinese. The victor was party chairman Hua Guofeng, 65, a moderate who advocated a return to Soviet-style central planning and who, according to party lore, had been anointed by Mao on his deathbed. Just four weeks after Mao’s death, Hua would arrest his major political rivals, nicknamed the Gang of Four, including Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing. But Hua was outmaneuvered a few years later by a rejuvenated Deng Xiaoping, 74, who wanted to introduce market-based policies into the Chinese economy. Deng went on to preside over China for the next decade, a period that included the protests in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. 

Chinese Prime Minister Hua Guofeng on a visit to Romania. August 16, 1978

Source © Henri Bureau/Corbis

So, what’s the takeaway from the post-Mao transition of power? With eight days of memorial services scheduled to begin on September 11, 1976, the Communist Party met to determine who would replace a man who had commanded diehard allegiance from so many Chinese. The victor was party chairman Hua Guofeng, 65, a moderate who advocated a return to Soviet-style central planning and who, according to party lore, had been anointed by Mao on his deathbed. Just four weeks after Mao’s death, Hua would arrest his major political rivals, nicknamed the Gang of Four, including Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing. But Hua was outmaneuvered a few years later by a rejuvenated Deng Xiaoping, 74, who wanted to introduce market-based policies into the Chinese economy. Deng went on to preside over China for the next decade, a period that included the protests in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. 

That successions, whether in China, Cuba, Iran or maybe even your own country, invite instability — especially when the exiting leader hasn’t made a post-mortem plan? Or maybe it’s a cautionary tale not to bet on today’s front-runner, because he or she may be a smoldering ash heap in the hills of Mongolia tomorrow. Sic transit successor.

 

The Audacity of Acquisitions

David and Carlos walking on sidewalk towards camera

Check in for part three, when Drummond reveals what’s surprised him most about Google’s success and speaks frankly about the state of race relations in America.In part two of his OZY interview, Google’s top lawyer, David Drummond, explains the thought process behind paying big to buy up companies most of the public has never heard of and that even Google employees might find questionable. It may seem counterintuitive, but he says that approaching these acquisitions like an investment banker would forecast failure in the technology industry. 

David Drummond is an investor, adviser and contributor to OZY.

The BioPunk Revolution

Science laboratory with tubes on darkish

Molecular biologist Ellen Jorgensen was working at a biotech company in 2009 when she opened her local newspaper’s “News of the Weird” section to a story about people who were trying to use fluorescent proteins to make yogurt glow green — all from the comfort of a makeshift lab in their closet. Typically, lab access is restricted to biotech employees, university students and faculty members. But these renegades had beaten the system.

Jorgensen admired their gusto. In contrast, years of working in the biotech industry had “beaten the enthusiasm and creativity” out of her. But were there other citizen scientists? An Internet search turned up a DIYbio Google group, where she posted a message inviting people to meet. Three people showed up, which grew to five. For about two years, they conducted experiments in a group member’s Brooklyn living room — but realized that a long-term project needed a dedicated lab space.

DIYbio seeks to make biology less the privilege of biotech and academia and more an enterprise accessible to anyone.

Their search led them to a 750-square-foot space atop the weathered Metropolitan Exchange Building in Brooklyn. They converted old restaurant countertops into lab benches, and Jorgensen’s company donated equipment. Fast-forward five years, and Genspace is a bustling community lab whose members range from high school students to a distillery owner curious about the microbes that make his alcohol. Anyone over 18 can join for a $100 monthly membership fee.

Laboratory setting

Genspace

But Genspace is only one of about 40 DIY biology (DIYbio) hackerspaces around the world, open to entrepreneurs, artists, students and pretty much anyone curious about biology. Their mission? To democratize biology, making it less the privilege of biotech and academia and more an enterprise accessible to anyone who wants to get their hands wet. After training new members in basic lab safety, hackerspaces provide access to equipment and reagents, training in scientific concepts and techniques, and most of all, a supportive community.

Interest in DIYbio has only flourished since Genspace launched the first-ever biology hackerspace. According to DIYbio.org, there are currently 20 DIY groups in North America, 16 in Europe, two in Asia, and two in Australia and New Zealand.

Some skeptics note that membership and class fees might not sustain these spaces in the long run. And since there’s no government agency dedicated to regulating their activity, DIY biologists could potentially create deadly pathogens from scratch. Others compare DIYbio to “guerrilla theater,” pursuing frivolous, technically simple projects that offer little benefit to society.

Without regulation, DIY biologists could potentially create deadly pathogens from scratch.

DIYbio has its roots in the Maker Movement, which started with techies building their own computers and other electronics. “Now it’s bleeding into all sorts of things,” including biology, thanks largely to the recent affordability of DNA technology, Jorgensen said. But it’s also due to the growth of competitions like iGEM, which supplies student and entrepreneur teams with biological parts to design their own systems and operate them in cells. “The accessibility to people in the field outside of traditional biology has the unintended consequence of opening it to amateurs, as well,” Jorgensen said.

Although DIY biologists initially set up shop in closets and garages, equipment is expensive, and most reagent suppliers won’t ship to a home address. As a result, some argue that full-fledged lab spaces are crucial for the movement.

Laboratory setting

Genspace

Some purists still argue that “true” rebellion means opening labs in unconventional spaces. But Jorgensen takes a different view: “My rebellion is publishing,” she said. Since publishing research takes many years, only time will reveal the nascent movement’s scientific impact. Some experts predict that any contribution will probably occur as a citizen science effort, like Genspace’s project to enlist community members to sample bacteria from Brooklyn’s polluted Gowanus Canal. These bacteria might have the ability to eat pollutants, which could be exploited to clean other soiled waterways. DIYbio might even lead to biomedical breakthroughs. In 2012, for example, Dutch DIY biologists invented a mobile malaria testing kit that they claim can identify different malaria strains more accurately than existing diagnostic tests.

Besides lowering the barrier to innovation, DIYbio is making it easier than ever for high school students to work on their own molecular biology projects in real-life labs, which aren’t available at most schools. At Genspace, volunteer faculty members mentor students teams for iGEM and other competitions.

But the ultimate goal is for everyone to be scientifically literate. Genspace also attracts bio-artists who plate bacteria in swirling patterns and even custodians and investment bankers who just want a hands-on experience. “We’re in danger as a country of falling behind in STEM,” Jorgensen said. “The more people who are involved, the better.”

Genspace attracts bio-artists, custodians and investment bankers who just want a hands-on experience. 

Such enthusiasm is crucial, but so is funding. Membership fees, workshops and fundraising might not offer a long-term solution. Government funds could help, but experts point out that the DIYbio projects that draw the most attention are frivolous — such as the creation of a glow-in-the-dark plant — which might dissuade legitimate funders.

There are also safety concerns. Jim Collins, a biomedical engineering professor at Boston University, thinks that DIYbio isn’t appropriately regulated and probably won’t yield anything valuable. “At best, [DIY biologists] will make a mess; at worse, they will get sick or make someone sick,” he told Nature. A Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars survey, however, found that most experiments are harmless and basic in scope.

Academics regarded biotech with similar disdain when it emerged in the 1980s, noted Gaymon Bennett, a senior researcher at the Center for Biological Futures at the Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center. In universities, students typically gain expertise from a faculty mentor. “Even if right now, DIYbio looks like boys with toys and not very serious, does this signal a shift where expertise begins to be fostered in different types of spaces?” Bennett said. 

Jorgensen is watching the DIYbio movement unfold before her eyes. “There’s certainly potential for having community labs in every major city,” she said. No one can say for sure, but in true DIY spirit, she embraces the unknown. “I have no idea what’s going to happen. That’s the fun of it.” 

Pussy Rioting

3 Pussy riot members lined up behind each other looking into the camera with colorful masks on

Witness: Pussy Riot’s Sochi-side beating, their almost continual arrests since then, and the eventual YouTubing of said beatings and near-arrests, all served up on an endless loop for those who love to embrace and exercise a certain kind of impotent outrage.Not only is the revolution being televised, but it’s being replayed ad exhaustion all over social networks.

While it’s certain the fluorescent ski masked members of Pussy Riot envision themselves as sort of the modern equivalent of the tank guy from Tiananmen Square or Natalia Gorbanévskaya, my take is contrarian and comes courtesy of a Berlin Zoo spokesperson who said, subsequent to someone being mauled inside a polar bear enclosure: “The woman has proved herself to be careless by jumping into the enclosure. Logic tells us that polar bears will do this type of thing in this situation.”

Do tell? Oh, we will. Point and counterpoint.