The Odd Epoch Times
Good morning. In The Atlantic, Simon van Zuylen-Wood writes about The Epoch Times—one of the most popular national papers you may have never heard of. I’m guessing the folks at The Atlantic view this as a takedown. It’s not. The Epoch Times is a very strange publication. It does good and terrible work. Religious zealots start publications. So do secular ones. That’s what freedom of the press looks like. Still, parts of the piece are revealing:
The Epoch Times was founded in 2000 by John Tang, an Atlanta-based follower of the Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong, whose members you might have seen doing meditative exercises in parks, and whose living messiah is Li Hongzhi, a cherubic-faced man generally shown wearing dark suits. The movement, which claims to have millions of adherents, encourages believers to abandon lust, greed, alcohol, and other worldly ‘attachments.’ Some of the more unusual characteristics of its outlook include a distrust of medical doctors and a belief in malevolent, Earth-roaming aliens who created impious technology (such as video games). In 1999, the Chinese government concluded that Falun Gong was growing too popular. Beijing labeled the movement a cult and suppressed it. But Falun Gong flourished abroad among the Chinese diaspora, and its teachings took on a fervent anti-Communist bent.
The Epoch Times has sought to maintain a certain distance from Falun Gong, and its right-wing politics come across, at first glance, as no more cultish than those of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s old Washington Times. For a decade and a half, the paper’s affiliation, like its politics, hardly mattered. Even as it established outposts around the world—now in 36 countries—The Epoch Times occupied a position of near irrelevance . . . The paper had begun supporting Donald Trump, and in 2019 The Epoch Times had launched itself into the higher echelons of conservative media: By the end of that year, according to Facebook, the newspaper, together with a network ‘linked’ to the Epoch Media Group (which publishes The Epoch Times), had spent some $11 million in advertising on the platform. Republican A-listers appeared on its YouTube shows, right-wing pundits in its print pages. Its web traffic spiked. The Epoch Times can currently claim the most popular Apple newspaper app in the country (The New York Times is No. 2).
The newspaper was distinguishable from more inflammatory outlets by its staid prose and original reporting, and by offering features such as recipes (‘Meet Your New Favorite Pizza Topping: Salad’) and a Goop-ish lifestyle section. The affiliated television network, New Tang Dynasty (NTD), with 30 million Facebook followers, has the sterile look of a satellite-news channel you might find on TV in a European hotel. Watching, I’d sometimes zone out to a human-interest story about synthetic hamburgers, or to the weather report. But there was no predicting when the content would get weird.
In other news: Stefan Thomas has $220 million in Bitcoin. He also lost his password to his digital wallet and may be locked out of his wallet forever: “Stefan Thomas, a German-born programmer living in San Francisco, has two guesses left to figure out a password that is worth, as of this week, about $220 million. The password will let him unlock a small hard drive, known as an IronKey, which contains the private keys to a digital wallet that holds 7,002 Bitcoin. While the price of Bitcoin dropped sharply on Monday, it is still up more than 50 percent from just a month ago, when it passed its previous all-time high of around $20,000. The problem is that Mr. Thomas years ago lost the paper where he wrote down the password for his IronKey, which gives users 10 guesses before it seizes up and encrypts its contents forever. He has since tried eight of his most commonly used password formulations — to no avail. ‘I would just lay in bed and think about it,’ Mr. Thomas said. ‘Then I would go to the computer with some new strategy, and it wouldn’t work, and I would be desperate again.’”
Why did Osip Mandelstam write a satirical poem about Stalin that ruined his Soviet literary career? For freedom: “While prospects for publishing his new Dante piece dwindled, Mandelstam and his wife Nadezhda lucked into a private two-room apartment, a surprise for someone obviously out of favor. A poem from that moment — ‘The apartment is quiet as paper’ — reflects Mandelstam’s frustration with a literary apparatus that traded perks for hackwork, his sense of culpability for enjoying such a perk while others starved (with concomitant fear that he might be a hack), and his growing need to do something about it all. In short order, he had done something: written a vicious satire in verse about Stalin and his inner circle, and on at least 17 separate occasions recited it to a terrified listener, at least one of whom reported the event to the police. Thus Mandelstam set in motion the final stages of his repression — but not out of a tendency toward dissidence. Boris Pasternak, an auditor of the fateful poem, called it a suicide; indeed Mandelstam’s act seems like one of self-destruction, but also creative necessity. In 1929, after five years of poetic muteness, he’d written the furious Fourth Prose, in which he declared himself finished with literature, and immediately began composing again. The Stalin epigram seems to have served a similar purgative purpose. In the months following the epigram, there came a spate of new poetry, including the 11 ‘Octaves,’ all featured in the new edition of Ilya Bernstein’s Mandelstam translations, Poems. These are playful, erudite, tender, and weighted with mortality. They seem interstitial to Borges, prism-distillations of Proust. The artist is masterfully, edgily in the service of his instrument: in terms of world literature, he is leading a pack that has not yet come to be.”
John Berryman’s confounding Catholicism: “Berryman is a fascinating — and confounding — study in poetic faith and doubt. His lifelong Catholicism has not quite been a secret, but his confessional, often hyperbolic poems, as well as his struggles and ultimate suicide, have muddied our perception of his faith. Berryman, like other cradle-Catholic writers such as James Joyce, was both sentimental and sardonic about his religion. In one of his final interviews, he affirmed his identity as a Catholic but declined to identify as a Christian in an institutional sense. Such a sentiment is less absurd than it seems. Once a Catholic — to turn the baptismal theology into a slogan — always a Catholic. While the full sense of Berryman’s religious belief might rightly remain a mystery, the publication of his selected letters suggests that a new look at the poet’s faith is not merely warranted but essential to understanding his art.”
The real Sherman: “If William Tecumseh Sherman is known for one thing, it is the scorching of Atlanta in November 1864 as he and his army set off on their March to the Sea. Like so much else that is associated with Sherman, the popular image of ruined Atlanta is an exaggeration. (About 70 percent of the city’s housing stock remained standing, which is not what the famous sequence in Gone With the Wind suggests.) But Sherman saw the spectacle as an apocalypse and wrote in his memoirs of turning as his soldiers marched away to see ‘Atlanta, smoldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in the air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city.’ No wonder Southerners would reserve in their hearts a special place of hatred for Sherman. Even as he marched, Confederate president Jefferson Davis accused Sherman not only of an “infamous disregard of the established rules of war, but of the common dictates of humanity.” Seventy years later, Sherman’s march across Georgia was compared by the Southern Agrarians to ‘the inroads of a Genghis Khan or an Attila.’ The thought of Sherman smirking while Atlanta burned made it easy for the partisans of the Lost Cause to paint him as a monster. But it also allowed the first wave of twentieth-century Sherman biographers, burdened with the memory of World War I, to assume that Sherman was a dark genius who had foreseen the hellish inferno of ‘total war.’”
Michael Schaub recommends Kevin Barry’s short story collection That Old Country Music: “Kevin Barry has never shied away from the dark side. In books like City of Bohane and Night Boat to Tangier, the Irish author has turned his eye to gangsters, drug smugglers and other assorted criminals, both petty and felonious. But he’s never descended into hard-boiled cliché — while some of his characters boast a kind of tough-guy swagger, he’s just as interested in the softer specimens of humanity, and you always get the feeling that there’s a touch of the romantic hiding just beneath the surface of his fiction. Never has that been clearer than in That Old Country Music, his newest short story collection. Barry casts a wide net, writing about a varied cast of people — some hardened by life, some still vulnerable — living in western Ireland. There’s not a bad story in the bunch, and it’s as accomplished a book as Barry has ever written.”
The American Society of Magazine Editors may rescind an award it gave to the New Yorker for Elif Batuman’s 2018 essay “Japan’s Rent-a-Family Industry.”
Grant Wacker reviews John G. Turner’s “erudite” and balanced account of American pilgrims: “First, he highlights the role of irony, ambiguity, complexity, and unintended consequences in the Pilgrim experience. In Turner’s telling, noble aspirations and ignoble behavior continually mix to form shadows where there is light (and light where there is darkness). Second, Turner features lesser-known actors in the conventional narrative. We learn of male and female sachems who struggled to defend their homes against European encroachment, settlers who condemned other settlers’ rapacity for land and wealth, magistrates who suffered reprisals for their principled stands for something like democracy, and Christian missionaries (both European and Native) who labored at great personal cost and for few rewards.”
Rod Dreher responds to that New Yorker article on Confederacy of Dunces: “I know people who can’t stand ACOD, and know it from near the beginning. It has to do with the fact that Ignatius Reilly is a grotesque. He is slovenly, arrogant, gross, flatulent, rude — just an awful person. There are some folks in this world who cannot stand the thought of reading a book about such a character. He makes them nervous. The whole world Toole brings vividly to life makes some people nervous. I’m not exactly sure why — I think it has to do with the fact that it’s hard to put the characters into neat boxes; this is something that people who aren’t from the South often find hard to figure out about the South.”
A 45,000-year-old painting of a pig in Indonesia may be the earliest known example of figuration in art: “Four years ago, scientists came upon the purplish pig adorning the walls of a cave hidden in a highland valley on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. They now estimate that it was painted a staggering 45,500 years ago. If that date is correct, the find in Leang Tedongnge cave could represent the earliest known example of figurative art,”
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