Evan Osnos

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Are we hypochondriacs or are we really very sick?

Many among the Silicon Valley super-rich and deep-pocketed folks are increasingly convinced U.S. society may collapse and are working accordingly on plans to allow them to ride out the storm. Escaping an American nightmare isn’t just for Peter Thiel anymore, as some of his peers are purchasing wooded acreage, stocking up on gold coins and learning survival skills. Prepping 2.0 is for the money makers more than the Jim Bakkers.

What could be spooking them so? We now have more guns than people, traditional institutions are under siege, wealth inequality is spiraling out of control, political polarization has reached its zenith, climate change is worsening, a seeming sociopath is in the White House and tens of millions of citizens are looking for someone, anyone, to blame. Doesn’t sound like a menu for a Sunday picnic.

In an excellent New Yorker piece, Evan Osnos reports on the financial elite readying themselves for the big withdrawal. One retired financial-industry lobbyist tells him: “Anyone who’s in this community knows people who are worried that America is heading toward something like the Russian Revolution.”

An excerpt:

Last spring, as the Presidential campaign exposed increasingly toxic divisions in America, Antonio García Martínez, a forty-year-old former Facebook product manager living in San Francisco, bought five wooded acres on an island in the Pacific Northwest and brought in generators, solar panels, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. “When society loses a healthy founding myth, it descends into chaos,” he told me. The author of Chaos Monkeys, an acerbic Silicon Valley memoir, García Martínez wanted a refuge that would be far from cities but not entirely isolated. “All these dudes think that one guy alone could somehow withstand the roving mob,” he said. “No, you’re going to need to form a local militia. You just need so many things to actually ride out the apocalypse.” Once he started telling peers in the Bay Area about his “little island project,” they came “out of the woodwork” to describe their own preparations, he said. “I think people who are particularly attuned to the levers by which society actually works understand that we are skating on really thin cultural ice right now.”

In private Facebook groups, wealthy survivalists swap tips on gas masks, bunkers, and locations safe from the effects of climate change. One member, the head of an investment firm, told me, “I keep a helicopter gassed up all the time, and I have an underground bunker with an air-filtration system.” He said that his preparations probably put him at the “extreme” end among his peers. But he added, “A lot of my friends do the guns and the motorcycles and the gold coins. That’s not too rare anymore.”•


The old legends were no help to us.

One of my favorite journalists at the New Yorker–anywhere, really–is Evan Osnos, who does wonderful work whether reporting on China or politics or whatever. His latest piece, “Making a Killing,” published in the wake of the horrific Orlando massacre, investigates the gun industry in America, now a “concealed-carry” country and home to an unofficial militia of millions with often-minimal firearms training.

He writes of this surprisingly recent phenomenon: “In 2015 fatalities from mass shootings amounted to just two per cent of all gun deaths. Most of the time, when Americans shoot one another, it is impulsive, up close, and apolitical.” Despite a marked decline in crime and hunting in recent decades, manufacturers have for a quarter century sold fear in order to peddle their lethal wares. It’s largely been wildly successful.

Osnos also conducted a companion Ask Me Anything at Reddit (a few exchanges are embedded below) in which he shares his belief that the nature of the debate is in flux, perhaps veering more toward stricter regulations. One aspect of the topic not discussed in either piece is the near-term future of 3D printers, which will probably be able to turn out an endless supply of perfectly workable handguns at some point over the next decade. When you have printers printing out other printers and so on, it’ll be difficult to get a grip on guns regardless of laws.


More than half of handgun deaths are suicides. A significant percent of the remainder are perpetrated by and against those willfully engaged in illegal gang and drug activity (not your stereotypical NRA member). And nearly all are due to handguns rather than rifles. Why is gun control focused on the low-hanging fruit of NRA and “assault weapons”?

Evan Osnos:

You’re absolutely right about the preponderance of gun deaths coming from handguns, not long guns. Often, this gets lost in the moments after a mass shooting that involves a long gun (usually semiauto, obviously). But I wouldn’t characterize the NRA as “low-hanging fruit.” They have been the most successful advocates for gun rights in the last century. The organization is essential to any discussion of guns, and they would agree with that (though not with criticism of them, of course).


I listened to a brief portion of your interview on Fresh Air and you said (paraphrasing) that the moment you introduce a gun to your house, you double the chances of a homicide. Is this not the fallacy of correlation and not causation? The moment I introduce a lawnmower to my house, I significantly increase my chances of accidents involving lawnmowers. If I have a swimming pool installed, I significantly increase the chance of drowning. You paint the picture of an uninformed gun owner by and far, responsible gun owners understand and take steps to minimize the risks of gun ownership.

Evan Osnos:

I hope you’ll have a chance to listen to the whole thing. The guns vs. swimming pool analogy has been dealt with pretty well elsewhere, so I won’t rehash other than to say that it’s difficult, but not impossible, to use a swimming pool to kill a spouse in a domestic dispute — or to use a swimming pool to kill your neighbor, or, if you’re unwell, to massacre people in a movie theatre. I’m not trying to be facetious; it’s an important point: Bringing a gun into the house raises your risks of homicide and that’s precisely the point. It’s not just the risk of homicide to a home invader, obviously.


In your reporting, what was the biggest myth about guns that you discovered?

Evan Osnos:

There are myths on both sides: Many gun-control advocates imagine gun-owners = NRA. They’re not the same. As I write in my piece many gun-owners are turned off by the fear-mongering, the insults to their intelligence. At the same time, I met a lot of gun owners who are convinced that urban elites want to confiscate their guns. The truth is that urban elites, if you want to call them that, could care less what others have stashed in their safes — they just don’t people getting shot all the time. There is so much room for people to meet in the middle on this, but it requires putting aside some myths we are convinced are true.


I’m in the process of reading your article, so I apologize if you covered this at length already, but in the research you’ve done, what would you say is the most impactful move that could be taken to immediately curb, to any extent, gun violence?

On a non-gun related point, what is your favorite piece that has been published by the New Yorker this year?

Evan Osnos:

Anybody — especially people who favor free markets — should conclude that the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act was a big mistake. Imagine if Exxon was protected from liability after the Valdez? That’s not how markets should work. It will probably be revised or repealed to make sure that companies are doing safe work — as with any industry.

Also, on TNY pieces, Patrick Keefe has been on a tear. Read and diagram and study anything he writes.


What was the most difficult aspect of investigating the NRA at that depth?

Evan Osnos:

I appreciated the fact that the NRA welcomes journalists to the annual meeting etc. It’s a fair way of ensuring people understand the organization. But the leadership, and the businesses that support the NRA, are oddly secluded. Wayne LaPierre gives very few interviews, and gunmaker CEOs almost never talk. It’s too bad because they could make a case for themselves.


I’ve read about how, for the NRA, part of selling self-defense is marketing towards women. As you were reporting, did you encounter many “success stories” involving women who used their guns?

Evan Osnos:

The NRA is making a big push on marketing to women — and it’s been doing this consistently for two decades. But it’s been an uphill climb. The General Social Survey shows that gun ownership among women has barely budged. This data drives the industry crazy, because they say they are seeing more women customers. So what gives? Multiple gun dealers told me they think that women are coming in more often as part of a group or a family. But it’s hard to get them to buy in the long term. So the core gun owner remains: white, male, aging.


I am uneducated in the gun industry and try not follow politics but here’s a question. Do you think that with big Associations like the NRA there is even a chance to get any sort of reform? It seems like we are in a battle that cannot be won, they simply have too much money and too much influence on politics for any real change to happen IMO.

Evan Osnos:

Actually, strangely perhaps, I have a different view: Studying guns reveals just how NON-static American political history is. Nothing stays the same for long. The strength of our system is, in fact, the resilience and flexibility of it. It’s the gay-marriage principle. History happens slowly, then all at once. I’m increasingly convinced we’re on course for a rapid shift of opinion on guns.•



At this point, the best Donald Trump can hope for is that his campaign goes down ingloriously in flames. The fire may not be metaphorical, however.

Remarkably unprepared–unwilling, even–to lead, the troll can only dream of the appearance of the Republican nomination being “stolen” from him should he not secure a majority of delegates. His thuggish Presidential bid, a crude and racist joke that got out of hand, may yet ball itself into a big fist that’s unleashed at the GOP convention, the misdemeanors of the trail escalating into felonies.

Among the uniformly irresponsible members of the rogues’ gallery who serve as the hideous hotelier’s braintrust, the gutter-level political hack Roger Stone has already turned prepper for an End of Days scenario in Cleveland, unveiling the threats, only further reducing Trump to the appearance of John Gotti with a Southern strategy.

In a New Yorker piece by Evan Osnos, one of my favorite contemporary nonfiction writers, the journalist reminds that when it comes to this ugly campaign season, Trump didn’t build it alone. It took a village. But how was the mob activated? An excerpt:

It’s easy to mock Trump for his thin-skinned fixation on the size of his audiences, but that misses a deeper point: you can’t have a riot without a mob. Even before he was a candidate, Trump displayed a rare gift for cultivating the dark power of a crowd. In his role as the primary advocate of the “birther” fiction, he proved himself to be a maestro of the mob mentality, capable of conducting his fans through crescendos of rage and self-pity and suspicion. Speaking to the Times editorial board, in January, he said, “You know, if it gets a little boring, if I see people starting to sort of, maybe, thinking about leaving, I can sort of tell the audience, I just say, ‘We will build the wall!,’ and they go nuts.”

The symbiotic exchange between a leader and his mob can thrive on what social psychologists call “emotional contagion,” a hot-blooded feedback loop that the science writer Maggie Koerth-Baker describes as “our tendency to unconsciously mimic the outward expression of other people’s emotions (smiles, furrowed brows, leaning forward, etc.) until, inevitably, we begin to feel what they’re feeling.”

When we are exposed to the right energy, even those of us who are not inclined to cross the boundaries from politics to force will do things that we would ordinarily consider reprehensible. Stephen David Reicher, a sociologist and psychologist at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, who has studied soccer mobs and race riots, told Wired last month, “People don’t lose control, but they begin to act with collective values.” Recently, he has turned his attention to studying Trump’s crowds. “It’s not your individual fate that becomes important but the fate of the group.”

And therein lies the key to Trump’s ability to introduce menace into the convention: he does not need to call upon his supporters to do anything but protect their newfound sense of identity and purpose.•

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Celebrity Sightings In New York City - August 23, 2015

The early success of the disgracefully bigoted Donald Trump Presidential campaign is the result of two forces: 1) Some white Americans sensing (correctly) that their unfair privilege is fading, and 2) Politics, tax codes, shifting global fortunes and new technologies combining to devastate the middle class in recent decades.

Someone must be held accountable, but it’s not a sure bet that the right people will be. Currently, one who’s most benefited from the rigged system, Trump himself, is leading in the Republican polls, a full-of-shit performer posing as a mad-as-hell reformer. He certainly has no economic expertise, but he does have a surfeit of anger. For now, that’s enough.

As always, it’s far easier to blame them than us. Not too long ago, Trump co-opted the Birther movement, an effort to label our first African-American President as them. In retrospect, it was the transition period from the soft, coded language of Gingrich and Rove to the overt and odious. That’s the new abnormal.

Those Americans cheered by a petulant, foot-stomping adult baby reminds me of a piece of marginalia George Saunders scribbled as he reconsidered CivilWarLand in Bad Decline: “Some issues: Life amid limitations; paucity. Various tonalities of defense. Pain; humiliation inflicted on hapless workers – some of us turn on one another.”

Evan Osnos, who wrote Age of Ambition, one of my favorite books of 2014, takes measure of Trump’s stump speeches and their eager listeners, in a New Yorker piece. The American Pharaoh line is the best sentence I’ve read in 2015. An excerpt:

What accounts for Donald Trump’s political moment? How did a real campaign emerge from a proposition so ludicrous that an episode of The Simpsons once used a Trump Presidency as the conceit for a dystopian future? The candidate himself is an unrewarding source of answers. Plumbing Trump’s psyche is as productive as asking American Pharoah, the winner of the Triple Crown, why he runs. The point is what happens when he does.

In New Hampshire, where voters pride themselves on being unimpressed, Fred Rice, a Republican state representative, arrived at a Trump rally in the beach town of Hampton on an August evening, and found people waiting patiently in a two-hour line that stretched a quarter of a mile down the street. “Never seen that at a political event before,” he said. Other Republicans offer “canned bullshit,” Rice went on. “People have got so terribly annoyed and disenchanted and disenfranchised, really, by candidates who get up there, and all their stump speeches promise everything to everyone.” By the night’s end, Rice was sold. “I heard echoes of Ronald Reagan,” he told me, adding, “If I had to vote today, I would vote for Trump.”

To inhabit Trump’s landscape for a while, to chase his jet or stay behind with his fans in a half-dozen states, is to encounter a confederacy of the frustrated—less a constituency than a loose alliance of Americans who say they are betrayed by politicians, victimized by a changing world, and enticed by Trump’s insurgency. Dave Anderson, a New Hampshire Republican who retired from United Parcel Service, told me, “People say, ‘Well, it’d be nice to have another Bush.’ No, it wouldn’t be nice. We had two. They did their duty. That’s fine, but we don’t want this Bush following what his brother did. And he’s not coming across as very strong at all. He’s not saying what Trump is saying. He’s not saying what the issues are.”•

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I’ve read some titles from the Financial Times “Summer Books 2015” list, including Yuval Noah Harari’s SapiensEvan Osnos’ Age of Ambition and Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots, all of which are wonderful–in fact, Harari’s title is the best book I’ve read this year, period. Here are several more suggestions from FT which sound great:

Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel) is an apocalyptic novel about a world in which almost everyone has died in a flu pandemic, and clans roam the earth killing at random. It could hardly sound less promising. And yet Emily St John Mandel’s fourth novel is different partly because she skips over the apocalypse itself — all the action takes place just before or 20 years afterwards — and because it is less about the survival of the human race than the survival of Shakespeare. The book has been on literary shortlists and won prizes and been much praised for its big themes: culture, memory, loss. Yet it works just as well at a less lofty level, as a beautifully written, compulsive read.

A Kim Jong-Il Production (Paul Fischer) The story of how the late North Korean dictator kidnapped South Korean cinema’s golden couple, the director Shin Sang-ok and his actress wife Choi Eun-hee, and put them to work building a film industry in the North. At once a gripping personal narrative and an insight into the cruelty and madness of North Korea.

The Vital Question: Why is Life the Way It Is? (Nick Lane) Biochemist Lane offers a scintillating synthesis of a new theory of life, emphasising the interplay between energy and evolution. He shows how simple microbes, which monopolised Earth for the first 2bn years, took the momentous step towards becoming the “eukaryotic” cells that then evolved into animals, plants, fungi and protozoa.•

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China remaining under authoritarian rule may be great for the environment. Seems odd, right? One of the government’s chief fears is that pollution caused by the nation’s hasty mass urbanization might lead to rebellion, so we’ll likely see large-scale green innovation until the situation is markedly improved. In the case of this one country, the world’s most populous, oppression may have an unintended positive consequence. Strange planet, isn’t it?

It’s still surprising that capitalism’s rise in China hasn’t been attended by a growth of democracy. From John Osburg’s Foreign Affairs review of the new book on the topic by Evan Osnos:

“Meanwhile, although growth has created a middle class of sorts and even an upper crust of very wealthy Chinese, neither group has followed the anticipated script. For the most part, the new middle class seems too preoccupied with the intense pressures of owning a home and raising a child in a hypercompetitive society to get involved in politics. As for the new rich, they have hardly pushed for a fairer and more representative government to protect their new prosperity. Instead, most of them have been co-opted by the Communist Party — or have simply emigrated to countries with more reliable legal systems. 

Perhaps most telling, today young Chinese across the socioeconomic spectrum exhibit almost none of the political fervor that led thousands of students to take to the streets in 1989. China’s educational system has fed the country’s youth a steady diet of patriot-ism to ward off rebellious thoughts. But such measures appear almost redundant, since many young Chinese seem more interested in buying iPhones and Louis Vuitton products than in fighting for democratic change. 

On the surface, then, the prediction that Chinese economic and political reform would go hand in hand seems not to have panned out. In truth, however, the story is more complicated. As Evan Osnos suggests in Age of Ambition, the optimistic view of China’s evolution wasn’t entirely wrong; it merely relied on a conception of politics too narrow to capture a number of subtle but profound shifts that have changed China in ways that are not always immediately visible. In his riveting profiles of entrepreneurs, journalists, artists, dissidents, and strivers, Osnos discovers the emergence in Chinese society of something even more fundamental than a desire for political representation: a search for dignity.”


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China is speeding into the future–or at least catching up to the present–by using methods of industrialization which created great wealth in the West but have compromised our ecology. Evan Osnos of the New Yorker has an excellent interview on the topic with Craig Simons, a journalist who spent most of the aughts reporting from China on that nation’s unbridled growth. An excerpt:

Evan Osnos: 

The Times reported this month that Chinese protesters succeeded in delaying the I.P.O. of a company that specializes in extracting bile from captive bears for the production of folk remedies. What kinds of campaigns have impact, and what kinds don’t?

Craig Simons: 

N.G.O.s have had a limited ability to influence the decisions of average Chinese consumers. A group of advertisements by WildAid (including one where Yao Ming swears off shark-fin soup) have been successful and are important. But their benefits are offset by millions of Chinese just now becoming rich enough to buy exotic ingredients and medicines. The campaigns may ultimately prove more important by putting pressure on Beijing. The international community, for example, has successfully lobbied against Beijing legalizing the sale of bones from farmed tigers, a move many scientists argue would doom the world’s remaining wild tigers. In short, a government ban is more efficient than trying to get 1.3 billion people to change deep-rooted beliefs and traditions, but both are key in the long term.

Evan Osnos: 

You went to the four corners of the world for this. What was the moment that lingers most?

Craig Simons:

Strangely enough, the most vivid moment came when I was researching in Washington, D.C. I came across a request by environmental groups that Arkansas ban the collection of wild turtles, many of which were being shipped to China, as food. Their driving argument was that if officials didn’t stop the hunt, several species would be wiped out. The petition contained a few surprising figures: licensed collectors removed more than half a million turtles from Arkansas between 2004 and 2006; more than two hundred and fifty thousand ‘wild caught adult turtles’ were exported to Asia from a single airport over a span of four years. But it was the proximity that struck me. I’d expected to link Chinese demand to tiger poaching in India, logging in Papua New Guinea, and (renewed) mining in Colorado. But I’d never thought that decisions by Chinese diners could threaten Arkansas’s terrapins.”

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