The call came one night while I was sitting in a parking lot in Cancún, trying not cry over the spare tire that had mysteriously gone missing from my rented baby blue Atos. The E-Z Rent-a-Car agent, a skinny teenager who seemed genuinely sorry, said the replacement would cost $200. I knew the magazine I was on assignment for could never afford such a fee, meaning I would barely break even on the story--yet again.
But just then my cell phone rang. It was a private-investigator friend from Mexico City calling about a "research" job in the jungle. I would have to go to Ecuador to work with a group that does espionage for Fortune 500 companies. Was I interested? "I'm sure you could use the money," he said, bluntly.
I arrived after dark at the hotel, located on a quiet street in a modern, glassed-in building. I hadn't heard from Sam, my Kroll contact, in days. But not knowing where or when I would meet him only heightened the intrigue. Who were these shadowy people and what was this job that couldn't be discussed over the phone?
I needn't have worried. As soon as I walked in, the receptionist slid a note over the front desk with a number for Sam. A bellboy who took me to my room to rest for a few minutes gave me a purple flower and offered me a glass of red wine. By then I was imagining Sam as the Hollywood amalgam of a spy--dashing, dangerous, rugged yet refined, as effortless in a board meeting as in a bar fight. But when the elevator doors opened into the lobby, the man I saw just looked like a guy from L.A. in a black shirt and jeans.
Which is more or less what Sam was. A formerly broke freelance writer, he had risen through the alternative-weekly ranks reporting on race and hip-hop. That night, we drank tequila, smoked cigarettes, and went salsa dancing, and Sam confessed that before moving to Kroll full-time, he had worked as a researcher for Larry Flint on a pre-election campaign to take down George W. Bush. "After that, I couldn't work in journalism anymore," he said. The thought didn't seem to pain him, I noticed. Sam was going gray, looked to be in his mid-40s, and carried himself with the ease that comes with professional achievement. He had obviously grown used to the comforts of Kroll's upper management. And the message seemed to be that these were comforts I could grow used to as well.
In Lago Agrio, Ecuador, he told me, one of the biggest environmental lawsuits in history is being fought out in a jungle court. A group of citizens represented by American trial attorneys and an NGO called the Amazon Defense Coalition are suing Texaco on the grounds that the company polluted routinely and wantonly during the 20-odd years it operated there.
In Crude, a documentary about the case that Sam played for me, footage shows residents living in shacks that surround sludge pools, bathing in filthy streams, and seeking relief at clinics for terrible skin rashes. While the documentary comes across as a pretty slanted and shoddy piece of filmmaking, it was impossible not to feel depressed watching it on my shiny MacBook Pro in the comfort of a ritzy hotel. According to Karen Hines, a representative for the plaintiffs, Texaco dumped 330 million gallons of oil--far more than the BP spill--around Lago Agrio, poisoning their water supply and sickening them with cancers and other diseases.
In Texaco's defense, however, Sam explained that it's not entirely obvious who should be responsible for the damage. Texaco built and operated the wells at the center of the dispute back in the early 1970s. But the state-run oil company, PetroEcuador, has owned a 62.5 percent share in the wells since 1977. For that reason, when it came to cleaning up the sludge, the government assigned just 133 of the 321 sites to Texaco; PetroEcuador took responsibility for rest. Texaco spent $40 million in its cleanup efforts, and when the work was done, analysts from a Quito university came to collect oil and water samples. By 1998, all of Texaco's sites had been approved, and the Ecuadorian government signed a full release.
Until fairly recently, it seemed that Chevron would prevail. But starting in 2006, a series of dramatic changes took place. First Rafael Correa, the leftist economist, won the presidency. (He has reportedly called the pollution "a crime against humanity," and in an interview with Democracy Now! Said, " Our oil company [PetroEcuador] has also done a lot of damage in the rainforest, but it is very clear that the problem comes from the Chevron-Texaco period.") Months later, William Langewiesche wrote a sympathetic profile of the lead local plaintiffs' attorney for Vanity Fair. Before you could say "cause célèbre," photos of Daryl Hannah with Lago Agrio oil dripping from a splayed hand were circulating everywhere.
The case truly began slipping away from Chevron when the Ecuadorian court assigned a single independent expert to assess the environmental damages. The expert settled on a $27.3 billion figure that Chevron alone would be held responsible for covering. A judgment could come as early as the first quarter of 2011, and at this stage, many believe Chevron will lose.
With one Google search, anyone could see that I was, in fact, a journalist. If I went to Lago Agrio as myself and pretended to write a story, no one would suspect that the starry-eyed young American poking around was actually shilling for Chevron.
My assigment, should I choose to accept it, involved a health study that took place around 2007, when a Spanish human-rights activist named Carlos Beristain went to Lago Agrio. After interviewing 1,000 residents, Beristain concluded that the community suffered abnormally high cancer rates, and his study became a key part of the court-appointed expert's report. But Chevron thought something was fishy: Beristain had failed to disclose the names of all his assistants or of the people interviewed. To Chevron, the names were key to proving that the interviews were real, not merely the concoction of a hotshot activist trying to make complex issues simple--and, perhaps, enhance his own fame. But the court refused to compel the release of the names, strengthening Chevron's suspicions that the survey had been rigged. Was it possible that the plaintiffs had colluded with Beristain to handpick the interviewees? Kroll wanted me to find out.
Part of me wanted to say yes. I was thrilled by the idea of a six-week paid adventure in the jungle, and I was curious about the case. Had the health study been fixed? Were the plaintiffs colluding with Beristain? Was Chevron desperate and paranoid, merely trying to smear its opponents? Despite my curiosity, I knew I had to say no. If I'm ever going to answer those questions, it will have to be in my role as a journalist, not as a corporate spy.
The Coddling of the American MindSomething strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
The Defense of Hillary Clinton's Email Server That She Dare Not UtterAfter noting untrue statements that Hillary Clinton made about her use of a private email server and the presence of classified material on that server, Peter Suderman concludes that when the presidential hopeful is called to account for actions undertaken as a public official, “she responds with misleading statements, distortions, convenient excuses, and a general sense of irritation and entitlement—anything, in other words, but the clear and unambiguous truth.” He goes on to charge that she engaged in “risky, unauthorized, and decidedly non-transparent behavior.”
That’s mostly fair. Her State Department had an atrocious record of transparency that made a mockery of freedom of information laws, and she certainly wasn’t authorized to maintain a server in her home that contained classified information.
There's More to Life Than Being Happy"It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness."
In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished -- but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man's Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life. When he was a high school student, one of his science teachers declared to the class, "Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation." Frankl jumped out of his chair and responded, "Sir, if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?"
A Moment of Grace From Jimmy CarterThe 1970s were overall a terrible and traumatic time, and Jimmy Carter was both their product and their victim. He was their product in that it took an unprecedented national convulsion—turmoil and eventually defeat in Vietnam, the forced resignation of a president—to give a little-known one-term governor of Georgia, and peanut farmer, a chance at national office. He was their victim in that the woes of the late 1970s—gasoline shortages and price spikes, worldwide hyper-inflation that drove the prime interest rate to 21 percent, the dawn of Islamist turmoil in the Middle East, leading to the revolution in Iran—all happened on his watch and dragged him down. Even so, as he points out and as most historians attest, if he had sent one more helicopter on the doomed rescue mission for American hostages in Tehran, he would probably have been re-elected in 1980, and Ronald Reagan might have missed his chance.
The Unlikely Reanimation of H.P. LovecraftAmerican history is filled with writers whose genius was underappreciated—or altogether ignored—in their lifetime. Most of Emily Dickinson’s poems weren’t discovered and published until after her death. F. Scott Fitzgerald “died believing himself a failure.” Zora Neale Hurston was buried in an unmarked grave. John Kennedy Toole won the Pulitzer Prize 12 years after committing suicide.
But no tale of posthumous success is quite as spectacular as that of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the “cosmic horror” writer who died in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1937 at the age of 46. The circumstances of Lovecraft’s final years were as bleak as anyone’s. He ate expired canned food and wrote to a friend, “I was never closer to the bread-line.” He never saw his stories collectively published in book form, and, before succumbing to intestinal cancer, he wrote, “I have no illusions concerning the precarious status of my tales, and do not expect to become a serious competitor of my favorite weird authors.” Among the last words the author uttered were, “Sometimes the pain is unbearable.” His obituary in the Providence Evening Bulletin was “full of errors large and small,” according to his biographer.
Don’t Pay That Medical BillWhen Susan Rosalsky was hired as an English instructor at SUNY Orange last year, she was elated. After several years of unemployment, she and her husband, Michael Trost, had been eating through their savings and 401Ks. Better yet, the job came with good health insurance through New York’s Empire Plan and United Healthcare. Rosalsky signed herself, Trost, and their daughter up for the plan.
“I thought we were out of [hot] water,” she said.
And they were—until this past March. One morning the couple was out walking their dog when Trost began feeling short of breath. “Just take me to the ER,” Rosalsky recalls him saying.
Trost and Rosalsky live in Dingmans Ferry, on the easternmost edge of Pennsylvania. There was an emergency room in the nearby town of Milford, but Rosalsky didn’t think they were in-network there. Another option was a nearby urgent-care center, but it was across the border in New Jersey, where Rosalsky wasn’t sure she was covered. She opted for Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, New York—the state where the couple’s insurance plan was based. When they arrived, the couple says they were told their insurance would indeed be accepted.
What ISIS Really WantsWhat is the Islamic State?Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Toward a New Understanding of ModestyActress, designer, and former White Power Ranger Jessica Rey has a mission: to get as many women as possible in one-piece swimsuits. Owner of the "vintage-inspired swimsuit line" Rey Swimwear, Rey appeared in L.A. this April at the annual Q Conference, a gathering for Christians to discuss "ideas for the common good." In her nine-minute talk, "The Evolution of the Swimsuit," she traced the trajectory from the days when women traveled down to the beach in a "bathing machine," to today, when 36 square inches of Lycra barely incite a blink.
Rey believes that the now-ubiquitous bikini hurts women. She cited a 2009 study conducted by Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske that asked 21 undergraduate heterosexual men to look at photos of fully clothed women, then look at photos of bikini-clad women. Fiske noted that the bikini images activated the men's brain regions associated with tools, or "things you manipulate with your hands." While some commenters noted that the images in the Princeton study were headless (thus already depersonalized), to Rey the study proved that the effects of the bikini are dire in a hypersexualized culture: "Wearing a bikini...shut[s] down a man's ability to see her as a person." In order to preserve their personhood, Rey said, women should dress more modestly. "Modesty isn't about covering up our bodies because they're bad. Modesty isn't about hiding ourselves. It's about revealing our dignity." First step? Buy a Rey Swimwear--tagline, "who says it has to be itsy-bitsy?"--swimsuit.
A Trump-Inspired Hate Crime in BostonThe impact of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant broadsides appears to have veered dangerously far off the presidential campaign trail.
Police in Boston say that one of two brothers who allegedly beat a homeless Hispanic man cited Trump’s message on immigration as a motivation for their attack. “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported,” Scott Leader, 38, told officers, according to a police report cited by The Boston Globe.
Leader and his brother, Steve, were arrested and charged with multiple assault charges after police said they urinated on and then assaulted a 58-year-old homeless man they found sleeping outside a T-station as they walked home from a Red Sox game. They allegedly beat him with a metal pole, breaking his nose and causing other injuries. According to the Globe, Scott Leader told police it was OK to assault the man because he was Hispanic and homeless. Both men, who have extensive criminal records, pleaded not guilty and said the homeless man started the confrontation.
The Delusions of the Canadian MindThe Australians call it “the colonial cringe,” and it may explain why the most influential newspaper in Canada is The New York Times. The New York Times is likely more influential in Canada than it is in New York. So when The New York Times published last weekend a long and harsh attack on the personality and record of a Canadian prime minister, that fact alone ranked as news in Canada, all the more so since it came in the opening days of a federal election (Canadians vote on October 19).
The long and harsh attack by the Canadian novelist and political commentator Stephen Marche, titled “The Closing of the Canadian Mind,” claims the following: “The nine and half years of [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper’s tenure have seen the slow-motion erosion of [Canada’s] reputation for open, responsible government. His stance has been a know-nothing conservatism, applied broadly and effectively. He has consistently limited the capacity of the public to understand what its government is doing, cloaking himself and his Conservative Party in an entitled secrecy, and the country in ignorance.”
The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch TodayA rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.
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