News & Updates

Coronation Day: Macy’s Meets Oasis

LONDON, May 6 – It’s a rainy spring morning. And around the cobbled streets of Marylebone, I haven’t found a single person who seems invested, much less excited, about the UK’s first coronation in seventy years. The stores catering to the mega-rich seem to be conspicuously ignoring it, as if afraid of cheapening their allure. Pub crawlers and cab drivers want to talk about The Donald more than The King.

In many ways, it’s a consequence of the monarchy’s decision to scale back the event in light of the economic malaise everyone feels. Inflation is rampant — food prices up 33%; heating bills through the roof — and you see an alarming number of stores with bullet holes in their front windows, not top mention shattered glass.

Patrician culture is still alive and well in the UK. But its stewards are feeling the pinch. The website for tickets to Kensington Palace asks if you want to add a ten percent donation to your $25 admission. At the restored home of a revered Victorian-era painter, you’re asked to contribute to a fund to purchase one of his works from Christie’s.

The BBC is doing its best to gin up enthusiasm. Experts with “sources in the palace” keep popping up on The Beeb to parrot the Royal Talking Points: Camilla’s newfound favorability and how relaxed Charles’ seems to be. But it all seems a bit strained, especially when the occasional dissenting voice creeps in to talk about patrician billionaires siphoning public dollars for their own narcissistic spectacle.

Watching the coronation is a little like watching the Macy’s Day Parade, if it was hosted by the Church of England. No one is lip syncing Frozen. But still feels over the top in a geriatric, cruise ship kind of way. Just 31% of those younger than 35 say they intend to watch the event, as an increasing number of young Britons express their indifference to or dislike for an institution they say has no relevance in their lives.

Fortunately, the feud between Harry and William is providing a little edge. William has been out there, steady and stoic in public, pouring pints in a pub and working the rope lines. But Harry upended his family, again, by talking a commercial flight from L.A. to London. They’re the Liam and Noel Galligher of Buckingham Palace — with William playing Noel’s solo part at MTV Unplugged.

There are big screens broadcasting the event all over town. But we’re going small, watching on TV before we go to Madam Tussaud’s to see more waxy royals. It’s an event being here. But one best enjoyed in private, so one one sees you actually enjoying yourself.

The Botanist Is A Plant Podcast

Looking for a good 18th Century spy story? The wonderful folks at BYU’s Constant Wonder podcast (@cw_byu) gave me a half-hour to weave together the story of the legendary French naturalist Andre Michaux, who would have beaten Lewis & Clark to the Pacific if not for some amazing political intrigue involving Thomas Jefferson and a who’s who of quarrelsome Founding Fathers.

The podcast is adapted from my story in the new issue of Smithsonian Magazine.

Listen to “The botanist is a plant” here.

Cardinals Have No Teeth — and other things you learn birdwatching online

I have to change my browser preferences so Google News isn’t the first thing that pops up when I open Safari. 

But what to fill it with? This morning, I chose the Audubon Society’s “Get to know These 15 Common Birds.” And after a day of having no idea about what’s going on in Washington, I can tell you this…

* The Rock Pigeon, better known as the city pigeon, mates for life. In courtship, the male puffs out its chest, and struts in circles around the female. This is often mistaken for being threatening. Really, pigeons are quite sentimental.

* The Northern Cardinal is the most popular state bird. It’s also the subject of a common misconception, especially among sports teams (see University of Louisville), that it has teeth. Please write this down: Cardinals do not have teeth.

* The crow family is confusing. Between the American Crow, Fish Crow and Northwestern Crow, no one has any idea what they’re seeing. And this doesn’t even account for the Hawaiian Crow or Tamaulipas Crow. I’ve read this column on telling them apart ten times today, and will no doubt read it countless more.

* My new favorite bird is the European Starling. Or, more precisely, my new favorite birder is Eugene Schieffelin, who in 1890 is said to have introduced it to our shores because he thought that America should have every bird mentioned in Shakespeare.

* If I was a bird… I’d be an American Coot. “Coots are tough, adaptable. Although they are related to the secretive rails, they swim in the open like ducks and walk about on shore, making themselves at home on golf courses and city park ponds. Usually in flocks, they are aggressive and noisy, making a wide variety of calls by day or night. They have strong legs and big feet with lobed toes, and coots fighting over territorial boundaries will rear up and attack each other with their feet. In taking flight they must patter across the water, flapping their wings furiously, before becoming airborne.”

Tomorrow’s website is going to be Stargazing Basics from

Take that Google News!

New: Why Can’t We All Be Friends?

The Mother Jones Podcast

What the Hell Is “Truth and Reconciliation,” Anyway‪?‬

House impeachment manager Jamie Raskin delivered a speech during Donald Trump’s impeachment trial in which he made a direct appeal to reality: “Democracy needs a ground to stand upon,” he said. “And that ground is the truth.”

There’s a lot of demand for reckoning in America right now. Cities around the country are debating and in some cases instituting some forms of reparations for Black residents. Last June, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) introduced a bill to establish a “United States Commission on Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation,” which has gained 169 co-sponsors. In December, even anchor Chuck Todd asked his guests on “Meet the Press” about the political prospects for a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

The calls for a rigorous public accounting of Trump-era misdeeds reached a crescendo in the aftermath of the violent attack on the Capitol in January: the impeachment proceedings against the former president became, all of a sudden, the de facto court for establishing the reality of the 2020 election results, even as Republican lawmakers voted to acquit.

It raised the fundamental question: How do we establish the truth, amid a war on truth itself?

On today’s episode of the Mother Jones Podcast, journalists Shaun Assael and Peter Keating share their deep reporting into the history of the “truth and reconciliation” movement, here and abroad, and what we can learn from its promises and pitfalls—presenting a realistic view of their effectiveness as building blocks for reality, rather than magic bullets. “There can be no reconciliation before justice,” Keating says.

A Bull Story

In 1998, Penthouse Magazine sent me to Las Vegas to interview Bodacious, the meanest rodeo bull that ever lived. He’d been retired for three years, and I arrived to find him in a Home Depot parking lot, looking surly while his manager, Big Bob Tallman, sold photos for ten bucks. What could go wrong? Nothing that a weekend of drinking with Big Bob couldn’t fix. I still have the belt buckle that he gave me!

When Your Beat Cop Talks About Wanting A Race War

I awoke this week to find that three policemen in my adopted home of Wilmington, NC, had taken perverse glee in fantasizing about a new “civil war” in which African Americans would be “slaughtered.” A 23-year veteran was recorded as saying a woman he’d arrested “needed a bullet in the head.” Another was heard fantasizing about an insurrection where “we are just going to go out and start slaughtering them ***s.”

My first visit to Wilmington came in 2016, while I was reporting another story about race. It was based in a town called Bladenboro, about sixty miles away, where an African American high school student had been found hanged from a swing set in a mobile home park. Police called it a suicide; most who knew the area’s racial history couldn’t help suspect it was a lynching. It ended up being a complex story about poverty, drugs and boredom in small-town America. The FBI “found no evidence to suggest that [the] death was a homicide.” Everyone moved on.

I moved to Wilmington soon after that. It’s a fast growing city of 120,000 people on the Cape Fear River with a historic district that has the cobblestoned feel of Charleston. It’s home to tech incubators, a film industry, and plenty of tourism. As of this week, it also has a brand new African American police chief who spent his first day in office dismissing the three officers who were caught on tape inveighing for a race war.

For all its azalea-covered charm, Wilmington has a James Lee Burke undercurrent to it. A month ago, an armed band of white vigilantes, led by a uniformed sheriff’s deputy who was looking for his sister, stormed into the home of an African American teen-ager who was celebrating high school graduation. After an uproar from mostly white neighbors, a lawyer for the deputy explained that he was acting on erroneous information — as if that justified a warrantless entry.

There are plenty of proud progressives here who park their Priuses on the cobblestoned streets and hope to change Wilmington’s image. But it’s hard every time we get thrown into the news and the media brings up our “troubled past.” It’s a reference to an 1898 insurrection where white supremacists killed an untold number of African Americans while disbanding a democratically elected bi-racial government.

Folks here are weary of the reference. But current events keep making it stubbornly relevant. I’m not just talking about Wilmington’s Lie, the recently-released book about the coup that was reviewed in the New York Times and the New Yorker. I’m talking about what my wife’s friend asked when she visited not long ago with her multi-racial daughter: “Where are all the black people?” The answer, as a black physician said during a talk about the coup, is endlessly sad: “We leave because we know this is no place to raise our kids.”

A month ago, I might have protested that doesn’t describe today. But the cold truth of police caught on tape talking about killing BLM protesters shows otherwise. And, of course, there are the two Confederate monuments that have spent more than a century welcoming — or warding off — visitors to our downtown.

Writing recently in Politico Magazine, John F. Harris tried explaining the dissonance of progressives who’ve accepted such statues in places like Richmond, where Monument Avenue marked a zenith in Confederate fetishism. He concluded that they “believed the racist past evoked by the statues no longer mattered much because it had been defeated by racial progress, by modernity, by the Winning Cause.”

I thought that was true, too, until a few months ago, when I was filming a short video next to a Wilmington monument honoring George Davis, the attorney general of the Confederacy. A man in a pick-up rolled by and yelled out his window, “You ain’t stirring up trouble, are you?”

I was in front of the statue again this past Wednesday. This time, it was sheathed in police tape and a protester was standing vigil with a sign that read,“Fuck your heritage and hate.” Drivers passing by honked and shouted their approval. Nine hours later, at 3 a.m., city crews removed it.

North Carolina is one of six states that have monument protection laws. (There used to be seven, but Virginia’s newly elected Democratic majority recently overturned that state’s law — in what may be a bellwether for the coming election.) And these laws have been a particular thorn in the side of progress. After student protesters toppled a statue the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, members of university’s Board of Governors quietly went to the Sons of Confederate Veterans — a fierce political force on this issue — and encouraged it to lobby North Carolina’s legislature for a stronger protection law.

The SVC’s effort foundered. Still, UNC was so scared of raising the ire of conservative donors that it struck a secret deal with the SVC to take the monument off its hands in exchange for $2.5 million. The university called it a relocation fee. Others called it hush money.

The whole thing became public when an SVC leader wrote a letter to his members, crowing about the deal. And even though a judge ultimately voided the arrangement, the spectacle shows the lingering power of what might be called the Heritage Front. It’s only going to get worse if President Trump follows through on his promises of retribution for those who try to take monuments down on their own.

In many ways, Wilmington is a microcosm of what cities throughout the South are facing: The collision of the BLM movement with a carefully orchestrated legislative bulwark. I’ve been living through the changes here. Protests where students have been tear gassed. Neighborhoods divided. Neighbors divided.

Wilmington may yet become the place that the progressives moving here, students learning here, and people of good conscience who live here want to see. But if it takes catching police officers inveighing for a race war to do it, we’re still a long way from progress.