Behold, the Millennial Nuns

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Huffington Post Highline, July 11, 2019

More and more young women are being called to the religious life, after 50 years of decline. What on earth is going on?

I went to a science magnet high school, graduating in 2001, but in my late 20s, I began to notice that some of my classmates were turning toward the Catholic faith. It surprised me: My high school was ostentatiously secular. We had a steel statue on the front lawn depicting the triumph of mathematical logic. Our senior class president wore a giant calculator costume to football games. When my government class held a mock debate over abortion, only two students out of 18 volunteered to argue the “pro-life” case.

And near the end of the 2000s, a half-dozen old friends I’d remembered as logical skeptics and trend-forward internet connoisseurs had become deeply religious. Some of them had been raised loosely Catholic, some had not. They blogged. They wrote Facebook posts about their conversions and shared memes about contraception-free family planning. They seemed to want to celebrate their lives.

One Catholic classmate chronicled her experience starting an organic farm with her husband and seven children, twinning advocacy for lefty, soyboy things like non-GMO baby yoghurt with tributes to the late Justice Antonin Scalia and pictures of homemade pizzas with tomato-sauce patterns meant to look like Jesus’s wounds on the cross. Read more …

Elizabeth Holmes Defrauded Investors. Why Are We Obsessed With Her Appearance?

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, March 26, 2019

These two things can be true at the same time: that Elizabeth Holmes, founder of the failed medical-testing company Theranos and dark protagonist of the new HBO documentary “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley,” probably lied to investors and the public, seems like a terrible person and deserves a long prison sentence. And that the coverage of her — which commanded, in recent days, pieces and segments in the New Yorker, most of the major newspapers , Vanity Fair, BuzzFeed, CNN, ABC’s “Nightline,” “The View” and dozens of other outlets — has been unbelievably, jaw-droppingly sexist.

I’m not a person who writes often about sexism or even sees it much. But I can’t get over the emphasis on Holmes’s body language and appearance. “It’s hard to say which physical attributes of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes stand out most: her turtlenecks; her ginormous, unblinking eyes; her perma-red lips,” Vanity Fair wrote. Vox said that Holmes has “questionable personal style.” Yahoo quoted an image consultant who proposed that “it’s almost like she’s trying to assert her dominance through this intense, alpha makeup.”

There is a tension between what many of us say we want (truly equal treatment of women in the media, the workplace and public life) and what we seem almost irresistibly attracted to (lurid deconstructions of a public woman’s looks — and, by extension, her psychological pathologies). Read more …

Street Smart

By Eve Fairbanks, Foreign Policy, January 2, 2019

“You need to see my friend’s gun,” Mophethe Thebe said in a gas station parking lot in Soweto, the famous swath of townships southwest of Johannesburg. He promised this was a good way to understand the meaning of a South African word coined more than a half-century ago: ekasi. Today, the word—sometimes rendered as kasi—serves as the name for bars and restaurants, finds its way into hip-hop lyrics, and makes up the moniker for one of Johannesburg’s top radio stations. But ekasi’s ubiquity isn’t simply cultural; its fluid definition mirrors political debates about South Africa’s future.

Technically, ekasi is just the Zulu term for “township,” a segregated neighborhood where black people were forced to live under apartheid. But it also functions the way the word “soul” or “home-cooked” does in front of “food” in American vernacular. The word suggests authentic, real, and the heart of black South Africa.

At its heart are paradoxes. Read more …

Well-Off Millennials Are All Julia Salazar. I Wish We Weren't.

By Eve Fairbanks, BuzzFeed, September 14, 2018

When I applied to college in 2001, my mother suggested we look into my father’s Native American heritage — a vague family tale — to see if I could register for a tribe to gain an advantage. I didn’t. The family legend was so distant the very idea felt embarrassing. But, in my early twenties, I did let the people around me know that I went to a public high school, that I came from a middle-class family, that my mother dropped out of school, and that I helped pay for my college education. My “public school,” though, was a Magnet consistently ranked among the top 10 public schools in the country. My father was a college professor who made double the US median income. My mother finished her BA in night school. And by “helped,” I meant I made $200 a week to defray my parents’ expenses for my meals.

Maybe this is part of why Julia Salazar’s much-reported embellishments of her own background didn’t torpedo her campaign for State Senate in Brooklyn. Read more …

Trust Me, Mr. President, White South Africans Are Doing Fine

By Eve Fairbanks, Politico, August 29, 2018

I live in South Africa, and days after President Donald Trump’s tweet last week about the dangers, including “large-scale killing,” faced by white South Africans, I got an email from a friend back home in America. It was a forward written by someone else, and it began: “Here's a bit of unfortunate news that has serious implications for world order.” The writer alleged that all South Africans knew that when Mandela died—he passed away in 2013—“the nation will fall apart,” and “now that appears to be happening.” The writer spoke of 400,000 whites “living in tent camps” because “jobs are largely given to blacks”; of secret black “hit squads” invading white farms; and of “whites preparing for war with huge vans which contain trays of vegetable gardens illuminated by ‘growlights.’” “International news organizations,” he said—liberal ones—“didn't want to report” these truths because they would “ruin the ‘miracle’ of independence.”

My friend was concerned. He urgently wanted to speak to me. Not only, I got the sense, out of concern for me—a white person living in this purported media black hole—but because the secrets the writer laid out in the message seemed somehow, for him, critical to know, some kind of essential learning for a critical thinker, for an adult, like the truth that Santa Claus isn’t real.

I didn’t know what to say because it was all so far from the truth that it beggared belief. Some lies are so fantastical they cannot be countered without vaguely soiling the arguer. They make her say or do ridiculous things, like snapping cellphone photos of her breakfast (a faintly embarrassing spread of espresso, a brownie, Nutella and a pecan tartlet) to demonstrate that white people in South Africa are not, in fact, being subjected to forcible “genocidal famine,” or to post a question on the Facebook page for her new Johannesburg neighborhood inquiring straightforwardly whether the white folk there were now “preparing for war” with mobile vegetable gardens. I did that, and it made my neighbors laugh at me. Read more …

We Believed We Could Remake Ourselves Any Way We Liked

By Eve Fairbanks, The Guardian Long Reads, July 5, 2018

I have been at that door so many times. The one you walk through into his apartment, or let him through into yours, and something shifts. It’s as quick as the click when the optometrist slides a new lens into the eye-test machine: a clear, almost weightless little sliver of a thing, but with the power to make the world resolve into clarity – or blur out, leaving you nauseous and unbalanced.

Once, it was the door to the celebrated journalist’s apartment that I stumbled through, aged 21. I’d taken a train to New York to meet him for career advice and, unexpectedly, he had suggested we meet at a bar, then bought me several martinis. But then again, I drank them. Whose fault was the sex that ensued? And then there was the door to an AirBnB I rented in Uruguay in 2014, with a pushy local journalist I had just met trailing behind me. As I fumbled with my keys, I remember thinking: how did I get here? Read more …

The Royals' Problematic Obsession with Africa

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By Eve Fairbanks, InStyle, May 18, 2018

Soon after they marry on May 19, Prince Harry and his Hollywood bride, Meghan Markle, will jet off to the African country of Namibia—a desert nation of scarlet sand dunes and ice-white beaches—for their honeymoon.

They follow Harry’s older brother, William, who in 2011 whisked his new bride, Kate, to the coconut-strewn African island republic of the Seychelles for their honeymoon, after he surprised her six months earlier with a sapphire engagement ring in a log hut beneath Mount Kenya. And both men embrace the tradition of their grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, who in 1952 found out that she would become Great Britain’s ruler while vacationing in another hut built into the forest around Mount Kenya. Her private safari warden scribbled the amazing tale in the lodge’s guestbook, memorializing it as the day the globe finally learned that fairytales really do come true: “For the first time in the history of the world,” he wrote, “a young girl climbed into a tree one day a princess [and] climbed down from the tree next day a Queen.”

The royals—normally known for curtsies, palace guards in stiff bearskin hats, and banquets whose china takes eight men three weeks to polish—have another, somewhat less-discussed tradition: a long, unusual relationship with what the explorer Henry Stanley called the “Dark Continent.” Read more ...

The Hollow Rage of Tom Brokaw

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, May 3, 2018

I wonder if we’re tiring of #MeToo. I wonder if we’ll just reach a limit to how many of our idols we can bear to see lose their crowns. And I wonder if we’re still clinging to the hope that those who perpetrated abuse are somehow fundamentally bad people, instead of facing the more deeply disorienting possibility that our very ideals about what constitutes accomplishment—our reverence for power and confidence and, yes, aggression and entitlement—might promote or inculcate abusive behavior in nearly anybody. We still want to believe in the possibility of a “golden boy,” a man who still has it all: infinite power and infinite goodness.

I wonder all this because of the sexual harassment controversy surrounding Tom Brokaw, the former anchor at NBC who has since become the network’s eminence grise. Read more ...

Dry, the Beloved Country

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Huffington Post Highline, April 18, 2018

When I moved to South Africa nine years ago, one of the first things some locals told me was to be careful using GPS. The country had rules of navigation, they told me, but ones more complicated and intuitive than a computer could manage. You could drive through this neighborhood, but not at night. You could drive through that one, but roll up your windows, especially if you are white. It was often white South Africans who talked about the GPS, but many black South Africans agreed. It was sad, everybody would say; sad that the once-segregated country seemed not to have fully gotten over its past. But that was the way it was. Those were the rules. Some had come to think of them, painfully, as a fact of nature, of the human race.

I thought of these rules when I flew into Cape Town, South Africa’s second-largest city, in March. Over the last three years, Cape Town has been suffering an extraordinary, once-in-300-years drought—helped along, most analysts surmise, by climate change. The shift in the city’s physical appearance is astonishing. Read more ...

The Scapegoating of Winnie Mandela

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, April 5, 2018

A few months after I moved to South Africa in 2009, I expressed the wish to meet Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife, to a friend of mine. This friend was a political activist who’d been present at many epochal moments of the struggle against apartheid in the 1980s and the remaking of the nation in the 1990s. Eager to get me acquainted with the country’s history, he normally answered nearly every message I wrote to him within the hour. Except for my request about Winnie. Several notes and text messages about Winnie got no reply, until finally he called me back. In a pained voice, he asked, “Aren’t you sure you wouldn’t rather meet Graca”—Nelson Mandela’s third, less controversial wife? 

When Winnie died this week, one South African friend of mine wrote of her “tremendous love and admiration” for Madikizela-Mandela on Facebook. “Thank you Winnie Mandela for what you sacrificed for all of us,” the country’s leading educator, a university professor, wrote. South Africa’s most famous radio host declared her “the gold standard of rage as moral uprightness.” “Rest as you lived, fiercely in power,” a fourth friend, an academic, said. The plaudits were as loving overseas. The Women’s March released a statement, and Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker tweeted praise.

The outpouring of emotion at Madikizela-Mandela’s death startled me, because it ran in contrast to the mix of emotions expressed towards her while she was alive. Read more ...

Passover Reminds Us That Time Is Not the Enemy

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, March 30, 2018

As a Jew, I always found something funny about Passover. Why, for a holiday about celebrating freedom, are there so many restrictions? We have to eat unpleasant things; we have to drink this many glasses of wine and no more; we have to eat a horrible crackerbread all week, no pasta, no peanut butter, no bread.

But it occurs to me that Passover is all about time. It’s about the way we have to have faith in time, and live time, and trust the way it turns things over: It turns water to blood, and then back again; it turns darkness to light, restriction to freedom, suffering to joy. Time is a chemist. Time is, perhaps, even an alchemist, with powers we human beings have never been able to harness for ourselves.

In our modern world, it seems we don’t really believe in time. Read more ...

The Flirting Trap

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By Eve Fairbanks, The New Republic, February 8, 2018

In 2007, when I was 24, two years after I moved to Washington, D.C., to cover politics for The New Republic, I joined an email listserv for journalists and policy wonks. One day, a stranger replied to a note I had posted on private equity tax reform. In my response to him, I quoted a line from the Beach Boys’ song “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”

“To understand ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice,’ you have to read Jameson’s Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” he emailed, with a tongue-in-cheek nerdiness that was common on the listserv. “It will change your life.”

Rebecca Solnit has written that the men she met in the 1980s “seemed to feel that they had to be more successful than whoever they were attracted to,” and that “a lot of girls learn to hide their intelligence.” By the time I grew up in the 1990s, though, my ambitions and intelligence went unhidden. At school, I was encouraged to study physics, math, and politics; I was cast as Abraham Lincoln and King Lear in school plays, and nobody blinked an eye.

Over the course of the next day, I exchanged nearly a dozen messages with the—married, I would learn—man on the listserv. Let’s call him “T.” Read more ...

How to Be More Human? Try Less

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, January 1, 2018

Over Christmas, a couple of friends and I took a trip to a farm called Riverstill. The farm is near the South Africa-Botswana border, a 500-mile dust trail patrolled by scorpions, a few cattle and giant ants the size of a person’s pinkie fingernail. On Christmas morning, I sat on the riverbank to think. After a few minutes, I noticed the patch of dust to the right of my thigh, which had been bare, had suddenly sprouted an anthill.

I’ve always been fascinated by ants: not by their discipline but by their product. Ants are artists. They could just throw the dirt they evacuate from their nests out of the hole, like gophers do, but they don’t. Some are potters: Harvester ants make beautiful, near-symmetrical concentric circles from the mud, like the ribbed vases sold in high-end ceramic studios. Others are sculptors, wrapping moist dirt particles around the tiniest of sticks to create oblong pellets. And still others are architects, molding bits of detritus into convex shapes so rainwater can run off. Ants remind me of a few people I know who are unwilling to see anything in their worlds go unused or unloved. They make elaborate statues out of restaurant straws or fold every piece of junk mail into origami before throwing it away. At the Riverstill farm, the giant ants by the river made a heap of arresting little balls, perfectly round as tapioca pearls.

Humans tend to think our bragging point, as a species, is that we create. We solve problems, we make art. Read more ...

We'll Be Paying for Mark Halperin's Sins for Years to Come

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By Eve Fairbanks, BuzzFeed, November 22, 2017

In mid-2005 I packed two duffel bags and took a train to Washington, where I hoped, as a young reporter, to better understand the city, and our politics and our country. As much as it was anyone’s, Washington was my city. I grew up there.

But when I arrived, I became aware there was a new don of Washington, one whose rules I would have to master. His name was Mark Halperin. He ran a chummy daily political newsletter, The Note, from his perch as political director of ABC News.

Three weeks ago, numerous women stepped forward to accuse him of extraordinary acts of assault: One said he masturbated in front of them at work; another said he slammed her against a restaurant window before attempting to kiss her (“I bear responsibility for my outrageous conduct,” Halperin said in an apology posted soon after). He lost his job, a book deal, and a movie contract. Case closed, it would seem: another predator, thankfully, out of a workplace.

But I’m not here to talk about that. I want to talk about the deeper, subtler, more insidious effect Mark Halperin had on our politics — one which we’ll be paying for for years to come.

The Note purported to reveal Washington’s secrets. In fact, its purpose was the exact opposite: to make the city, and US politics, appear impossible to understand. Read more ...

Can Your Best Friends Be Books?

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By Eve Fairbanks, Lithub, August 29, 2017

Recently, reading a Mary Oliver essay collection, I stumbled across a piece called “My Friend Walt Whitman.” In it, she admits she had merely a few friends as a child in 1950s Ohio, and they were all dead. They were her favorite books.

Defiantly, she insists that, while inanimate, they were true friends. “Powerful and amazing,” “avuncular,” “full of metaphysical curiosity,” and “oracular tenderness.” Like the comic strip Calvin’s stuffed animal Hobbes, they accompanied her on adventures into the wilderness, their heavy weight in her backpack the reassuring equivalent of a human child’s hand in her own, encouraging her to go a little bit further. She was not alone.

They were not only companions, but mirrors. Or more than mirrors—they were seer stones. Read more ...

Individual Racists Aren't the Reason Racism Persists

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, May 15, 2017

The other day, I had an experience that shook me. Out of my own stupidity, I broke a panel of my partner’s garage door. I called the company that had installed the door: The whole door had to be replaced, they declared, to the tune of $1,000.

But South Africa, where I live, has an extensive network of informal handymen. These handymen differ from America’s; they’re often not even legal businessmen but get jobs by word of mouth; lone operators who know things and travel around with a backpack of tools, building bedframes, installing plumbing, repairing drywall.

My landlord suggested a garage-door handyman named Barry. I called: He could come the next day. The garage-door company is run by Israelis, so when I heard Barry I somehow registered his accent as Israeli, concluding Israelis have a lock on the garage-door business in South Africa.

I was late to meet Barry the morning he arrived, and he was waiting outside the door when I pulled the car up. I’d been anxious that this repair go well, and before I could think, my heart registered a dip, a feeling of slight worry and disappointment: Barry was not white but black. Read more ...

The Last White Africans

Image: Jodi Bieber

Image: Jodi Bieber

By Eve Fairbanks, Foreign Policy, January 16, 2017

It was an image out of a bygone era: 150 young white people jammed onto a narrow pathway on the campus of the University of Pretoria (UP), one of South Africa’s premier universities, facing off angrily against hundreds of black students. Tensions had been broiling for months, since at least October 2015. A group of black student activists had organized a series of demonstrations — first against the university’s fee structure, then against its use of outsourced workers, and finally against curricula in Afrikaans, the language of Afrikaners, the white minority who ruled South Africa for four brutal decades in the second half of the 20th century.

That morning in February 2016, black students had entered classrooms to protest instruction in Afrikaans. As they moved across campus and sang anti-Afrikaans songs, white kids who opposed them formed a human chain in the bottleneck of the grassy walkway. According to Jaco Grobbelaar and Henrico Barnard, two white participants, they shouted at the demonstrators, vowing to run blacks off “their” campus.

As the South African summer sun beat down, tempers flared. At least two students exchanged punches. “There were fists flying,” Grobbelaar recalls. Eventually, security guards dispersed the crowd.

The white students had been rallied in part by a group called AfriForum, South Africa’s most established advocacy organization fighting on behalf of white people — specifically Afrikaners. Read more ... 

How Losing Can Bring an Emotional Windfall

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By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, August 24, 2016

When I was young, I especially loved the “consolation prize”: the small toy or piece of candy given to the loser in a game. At my sixth birthday party, my mother ran a freeze-dancing competition to old-school French pop spun on vinyl. The smooth movers got little dolls, but the bad dancers got whimsical lollipops we bought at the special confectioner’s all the way out in the next county, huge fruit-flavored saucers decorated with lions’ and tigers’ heads done in icing.

The consolation prize always felt more wondrous than the trophy from a real win. You had failed, and yet the world treated you with pleasure anyway. They say it is sweet to receive what we deserve, but it seemed sweeter to me to get what I hadn’t, apparently, deserved; I kept these lollipops in my nightstand for years, a sugary reminder of grace.

Are the greatest joys of our lives the prizes we seek or the consolations? Read more ...

Painful Moments Make the Sharpest Memories. Is That a Good Thing?

By Eve Fairbanks, The Washington Post, July 26, 2016

In recent years, for work on a book, I’ve sat with two South African men, one black and one white, for dozens of hours as they pieced through memories of their earlier lives. One, C., had spent his young life never imagining white minority rule could ever collapse in the African country. The other, E., spent his childhood fantasizing about what would happen when it did.

Our memories of our lives are funny things. Ask people to remember their houses from childhood, their birthday parties, their happy recollections, and the details are vague. The moments we remember most powerfully are those of shock. Though E., the black man, spent his youth wondering what would happen if and when black people liberated themselves from their long oppression, he struggled to recall April 27, 1994, the day it did. He’d been 17, nearly old enough to vote. What had he done? What had his father and mother done that day?

But the morning his beloved elder brother, Sam, died? He remembered exactly how it had rained, the soft, soaking rain his people called medupi, also a beloved name for women. And then it had cleared, and the leaves of the giant fig tree from which Sam had fallen had dripped and lifted, and a certain type of bird had sung in the branches. Read more ...