Over the last two weeks we’ve been sharing our favorite articles of the year on Slate. For the full list—including picks in sports, politics, tech and more—check out Longform’s Best of 2012.
The Story of a Suicide
Ian Parker • The New Yorker
A gay freshman at Rutgers, a spying roommate, and the trial that followed.
“It became widely understood that a closeted student at Rutgers had committed suicide after video of him having sex with a man was secretly shot and posted online. In fact, there was no posting, no observed sex, and no closet. But last spring, shortly before Molly Wei made a deal with prosecutors, Ravi was indicted on charges of invasion of privacy (sex crimes), bias intimidation (hate crimes), witness tampering, and evidence tampering. Bias intimidation is a sentence-booster that attaches itself to an underlying crime—usually, a violent one. Here the allegation, linked to snooping, is either that Ravi intended to harass Clementi because he was gay or that Clementi felt he’d been harassed for being gay. Ravi is not charged in connection with Clementi’s death, but he faces a possible sentence of ten years in jail. As he sat in the courtroom, his chin propped awkwardly on his fist, his predicament could be seen either as a state’s admirably muscular response to the abusive treatment of a vulnerable young man or as an attempt to criminalize teen-age odiousness by using statutes aimed at people more easily recognizable as hate-mongers and perverts.”
The decades-long saga of Michael Morton, who was wrongfully convicted of killing his wife.
“With his hands shackled in his lap, Michael looked out the window of the squad car and watched as the rolling farmland east of Georgetown gradually gave way to the piney woods of East Texas. Two Williamson County sheriff’s deputies sat in the front seat, exchanging small talk as they sped down the two-lane roads that led to Huntsville. Michael had, by then, spent a little more than a month in the county jail waiting to be transferred to state custody. During that time, he had gotten to know several county inmates who were well acquainted with the Texas Department of Corrections. They had given him advice he never forgot: keep your mouth shut and your eyes open, and always fight back. In prison, it didn’t matter if you won or lost. In the long run, getting the hell beaten out of you was better than showing that you were too scared to fight.
“When they reached Huntsville, the deputies deposited him at the Diagnostic Unit, the intake facility where he would spend the next several weeks before being assigned to a prison. Once inside, he was ordered to strip naked. His hair was sheared and his mustache was shaved off, leaving a pale white stripe above his upper lip. He was issued boxer shorts and ordered to get in line to pick up his work boots. As he waited, Michael studied the man in front of him, whose back was crisscrossed with scars—stab wounds, he realized, as he counted thirteen of them in all. Michael was herded along with the other inmates into the communal showers and then to the mess hall, where they gulped down food as a prison guard shouted at them to eat faster. At last, when the lights shut off at ten-thirty, Michael lay down in his bunk, a thin mattress atop an unforgiving metal frame. Sporadically during the night, he could hear inmates calling out to one another, imitating different animal sounds—a rooster crowing, a dog baying—that reverberated through the cell block.
Patrick Radden Keefe • New York Times Magazine
How a Mexican drug cartel makes its billions.
“The drug war in Mexico has claimed more than 50,000 lives since 2006. But what tends to get lost amid coverage of this epic bloodletting is just how effective the drug business has become. A close study of the Sinaloa cartel, based on thousands of pages of trial records and dozens of interviews with convicted drug traffickers and current and former officials in Mexico and the United States, reveals an operation that is global (it is active in more than a dozen countries) yet also very nimble and, above all, staggeringly complex. Sinaloa didn’t merely survive the recession — it has thrived in recent years. And after prevailing in some recent mass-casualty clashes, it now controls more territory along the border than ever.
“ ‘Chapo always talks about the drug business, wherever he is,’ one erstwhile confidant told a jury several years ago, describing a driven, even obsessive entrepreneur with a proclivity for micromanagement. From the remote mountain redoubt where he is believed to be hiding, surrounded at all times by a battery of gunmen, Chapo oversees a logistical network that is as sophisticated, in some ways, as that of Amazon or U.P.S.—doubly sophisticated, when you think about it, because traffickers must move both their product and their profits in secret, and constantly maneuver to avoid death or arrest. As a mirror image of a legal commodities business, the Sinaloa cartel brings to mind that old line about Ginger Rogers doing all the same moves as Fred Astaire, only backward and in heels. In its longevity, profitability and scope, it might be the most successful criminal enterprise in history.”
Fear of a Black President
Ta-Nehisi Coates • Atlantic
The false promise and double standard of integration in the Obama era.
“The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government. In warring against that paradox, African Americans have historically been restricted to the realm of protest and agitation. But when President Barack Obama pledged to “get to the bottom of exactly what happened,” he was not protesting or agitating. He was not appealing to federal power—he was employing it. The power was black—and, in certain quarters, was received as such.
“No amount of rhetorical moderation could change this. It did not matter that the president addressed himself to ‘every parent in America.’ His insistence that ‘everybody [pull] together’ was irrelevant. It meant nothing that he declined to cast aspersions on the investigating authorities, or to speculate on events. Even the fact that Obama expressed his own connection to Martin in the quietest way imaginable—’If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon’—would not mollify his opposition. It is, after all, one thing to hear ‘I am Trayvon Martin‘ from the usual placard-waving rabble-rousers. Hearing it from the commander of the greatest military machine in human history is another.”
The Chickens and the Bulls
William McGowan • Slate
The rise and incredible fall of a vicious extortion ring that preyed on prominent gay men in the 1960s.
“In the year following the Western Union arrest, the NYPD and the FBI, working in parallel (and sometimes at odds), would uncover and break a massive gay extortion ring whose viciousness and criminal flair was without precedent. Impersonating corrupt vice-squad detectives, members of this ring, known in police parlance as bulls, had used young, often underage men known as chickens to successfully blackmail closeted pillars of the establishment, among them a navy admiral, two generals, a U.S. congressman, a prominent surgeon, an Ivy League professor, a prep school headmaster, and several well-known actors, singers, and television personalities. The ring had operated for almost a decade, had victimized thousands, and had taken in at least $2 million. When he announced in 1966 that the ring had been broken up, Manhattan DA Frank Hogan said the victims had all been shaken down ‘on the threat that their homosexual proclivities would be exposed unless they paid for silence.’
“Though now almost forgotten, the case of ‘the Chickens and the Bulls’ as the NYPD called it (or ‘Operation Homex,’ to the FBI), still stands as the most far-flung, most organized, and most brazen example of homosexual extortion in the nation’s history. And while the Stonewall riot in June 1969 is considered by many to be the pivotal moment in gay civil rights, this case represents an important crux too, marking the first time that the law enforcement establishment actually worked on behalf of victimized gay men, instead of locking them up or shrugging.”
American Vespers: The Ebbing of the Body Politic
Earl Shorris • Harper’s
A writer considers America as he dies.
“Death is the moment when evening passes into night. I know. There is no surprise, and it often comes after a long sickness that is worse than death. When I died, I died of many things: the failing systems; the weakening of age; the exhaustion of the long war against dying. Finally, I succumbed to the lack of ethics in a California hospital, killed by filth and neglect.
“I have wished for many years to be a physician to my beloved country. The means to care for it is clear. I was revived by love and ethics. And I am not unique: no man, no woman is a metaphor; that is the place of gods. I do not know who will take America in their arms to revive her.
“No nation is forever.”
Jill Lepore • The New Yorker
The insanity of U.S. gun law.
“In 2002, Keene’s son David Michael Keene was driving on the George Washington Memorial Parkway when, in a road-rage incident, he fired a handgun at another motorist. He was sentenced to ten years in prison for ‘using, brandishing, and discharging a firearm in a crime of violence.’ I asked Keene if this private tragedy had left him uncertain about what the N.R.A. had wrought. He said no: ‘You break the law, you pay the price.’
I asked Keene if any public atrocity had given him pause. He explained that it is the N.R.A.’s policy never to comment on a shooting.
I asked him how he would answer critics who charge that no single organization has done more to weaken Americans’ faith in government, or in one another, than the N.R.A.
“ ‘We live in a society now that’s Balkanized,’ Keene said. ‘But that has nothing to do with guns.’ ”
Cigarettes and Alcohol: Andy Capp
Paul Slade • PlanetSlade
An appreciation, defense, and study of Reg Smythe, the “greatest British newspaper strip cartoonist of the 20th Century."
“For me, then, the real comparison is between Andy Capp and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts.
“Peanuts ended with Schulz’s death in 2000, by which time he’d produced close to 18,000 Peanuts strips over a fifty-year span, but has continued in reruns ever since. (9)
“Schulz, like Smythe, wrote and drew every line of his strip personally, and continued doing so for over four decades without ever letting the standard drop. Both men struck out in bravely original directions with their chosen strips, Schulz by reflecting 1950s America’s growing obsession with psycho-analysis, and Smythe by offering a brutal kitchen-sink realism many years before British film or television plucked up the courage to do so.
“Peanuts beats Andy on any measure you care to take, whether that be creator’s tenure, syndication reach, total readership, merchandising income, international sales or adaptions in other media. But the truly remarkable thing is that Smythe holds his place in that league at all. Even without the cuddly firepower of Snoopy, Woodstock and the rest to exploit in the mass market, he took Andy to the very top of this hugely-competitive tree, and maintained his place there alongside Schulz for over 40 years. Achieving that level of success with a foreign strip in the vast American market makes him even more remarkable.
“And so–I repeat–why don’t we treat him that way?”
An Empire Built Abroad
Charles Duhigg, Keith Bradsher • New York Times
How the U.S. lost out on iPhone work.
“Not long ago, Apple boasted that its products were made in America. Today, few are. Almost all of the 70 million iPhones, 30 million iPads and 59 million other products Apple sold last year were manufactured overseas.
“ ‘Why can’t that work come home? Mr. Obama asked.
“Mr. Jobs’s reply was unambiguous. ‘Those jobs aren’t coming back,’ he said, according to another dinner guest.”
The Truck Stop Killer
Vanessa Veselka • GQ
As a 15-year-old runaway hitchhiker, a trucker nearly killed the writer. Twenty seven years later, she investigates whether her attacker was truck stop serial killer Robert Ben Rhoades, who often kept his victims chained in the back of his truck for weeks before killing and dumping them.
“That ride turned out to be fine. We drove up to Ohio drinking Diet Coke and listening to Bruce Springsteen. The trucker bought me lunch and didn't even try to have sex with me, which made him a prince in my world. Several days later, though, heading south on I-95 through the Carolinas, I got picked up by another trucker who was not fine. I don't remember much about him except that he was taller and leaner than most truckers and didn't wear jeans or T-shirts. He wore a cotton button-down with the sleeves rolled neatly up over his biceps and had the cleanest cab I ever saw. He must have seemed okay or I wouldn't have gotten in the truck with him. Once out on the road, though, he changed. He stopped responding to my questions. His bearing shifted. He grew taller in his seat, and his face muscles relaxed into something both arrogant and blank. Then he started talking about the dead girl in the Dumpster and asked me if I'd ever heard of the Laughing Death Society. ‘We laugh at death,’ he told me.
“A few minutes later, he pulled the truck onto the shoulder of the road by some woods, took out a hunting knife, and told me to get into the back of the cab. I began talking, saying the same things over and over. I said I knew he didn't want to do it. I said it was his choice. I said he could do it in a few minutes. I said it was his choice. I said I wouldn't go to the cops if nothing happened to me, but it was his choice—until he looked at me and I went still. There was going to be no more talking. I knew in my body that it was over. Then he said one word: Run. Without looking back, I ran into the woods and hid. I stayed there until I saw the truck pull onto the interstate. It was getting dark. I was still in shock, so I walked back out to the same road and started hitching south. I never went to the police and didn't tell anyone for years.”
For more of the year’s best writing, check out Longform’s Best of 2012.