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The NS Interview: David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker

“The fist-bump cover? Obama’s people were not amused”

“The fist-bump cover? Obama’s people were not amused”

Do you vote?
I do. Most journalists do. Len Downie, who was the editor of the Washington Post, very concertedly did not vote. He was a superb journalist but, to me, that was too decorous by half. I'm a civilian, a citizen.

You once said of Ben Bradlee that an editor should be like a general, inspiring the enlisted.
The editor of a big national newspaper, like Ben Bradlee was at the Washington Post, is the general of hundreds of people. The New Yorker is a smaller, more subtle operation.

Your background is in newspapers. How has that affected the magazine?
The last thing we should be doing is playing a newspaper game! That aspect is very slight.

You've discussed protecting the New Yorker's "core" - long-form journalism.
What makes it successful is the whole of it. Very rarely is there a spike in news-stand sales. For more commercial magazines, like Vanity Fair, the cover can make a huge difference.

What about your Obama fist-bump cover?
That sold a lot of copies because it became . . . what's the opposite of a cause célèbre? The Obama people were unamused, but we're not publishing covers to amuse powerful people.

When you were writing your biography of Obama, how much time did you have with him?
I had an hour the first time, and close to an hour the second time. But the more valuable reporting is the next level down, and the next.

What was your impression of the young Obama?
He was an OK student and a curious kid, but he was having a good time, too. He got a lot more serious when he got to Columbia. But even there, he took a course with Edward Said and hated it - he found it too fancy, too theoretical. Then, at Harvard Law School, his main intellectual influences were the straight-up liberals.

Such as?
Larry Tribe and Martha Minow, the constitutional scholars. The liberal mainstream. He's a man of the centre left.

In your book, you talk about what you call Obama's "multilingualism".
He speaks to different groups using different languages without losing who he is. Right-wing bloggers take this as proof that he's a phoney, but it is the talent of any first-rate rhetorician.

His poll numbers aren't looking great.
If you're the president, all that oil is going to rub off on you.

Isn't there concern about his competence?
Look, I have concerns about him, but I don't see a lack of competence. Nobody knows what the government should do. We're in BP's hands.

What about before the oil spill?
About his competence? I don't think so. About character, sure. Columnists like Maureen Dowd see him as arrogant and self-regarding.

The American left seems frustrated by him.
He believes in conservative means to liberal ends. The health-care programme is a gigantic advance, but it's not universal. So he's just put
32 million Americans on the health-care roll, and it didn't help his poll numbers at all.

Why has the US right wing become so strident?
All but true believers came to see Bush as a failure. To some extent, the mainstream's absence means the Tea Party is the Republican Party.

Is the Tea Party Obama's best hope of getting re-elected?
No. I'd rue the day I said that. If it came to an election between Obama and Sarah Palin, I think Obama would win. But you can't say these things categorically. Events, dear boy . . .

You seem relatively sanguine about the right.
American movements of this kind can be quite powerful, but they don't elect presidents.

Is there a Republican candidate on the horizon?
The name on everyone's lips is Sarah Palin, but I don't see her winning, unless we all go mad. Although there's a precedent for that.

Is there a plan?
If God had a plan, God was a fantastic comedian. There's a scene in The Human Stain by Philip Roth where Nathan Zuckerman is listening to an orchestra rehearse. People are having a good time and all he can think of is that, in 40 years, every single one of them will be dead.

What would you like to forget?
That God is an excellent comedian.

Are we all doomed?
I am. But you're asking about mankind. Nature is cold, wet, hard and unforgiving. Yet people seem to like it, and we're doing our damnedest to destroy it. It scares the hell out of me. We need worldwide self-denial and a technological revolution. It's asking everything, yet everything depends on it. Sorry to bum you out.

Defining Moments

1958 Born in Hackensack, New Jersey
1981 Graduates from Princeton
1982 Joins the Washington Post, eventually becoming the paper's Moscow reporter
1992 Becomes a New Yorker staff writer
1994Lenin's Tomb, about the collapse of the Soviet Union, wins a Pulitzer prize
1998 Succeeds Tina Brown as editor of the New Yorker, a position he continues to hold
2010 The Bridge, his 672-page biography of Barack Obama, is published

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.