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My brother called me from Nouakchott yesterday. We had a long talk. Mauritania’s been doing an outstanding job with the coronavirus, by the way. They took this seriously way before any country in Europe did. When I flew in, on February 11, they were already wearing masks, taking everyone’s temperature on arrival, asking detailed questions of every incoming passenger about where they’d traveled before, and behaving like a country that sees a lethal global pandemic on the horizon. When I flew back to France, on February 24, exactly none of that happened. By early March, Mauritania had test kits and was able to test anyone with symptoms and give them the results of their tests within six hours.
I was amused by the story of the Italian tourists who thought they could evade Mauritania’s strict quarantine on Europeans—which they imposed just after I left—by slipping out of the hotel to which they’d been confined and wandering off into the desert. I could have told them—ain’t gonna work, fellas. Mauritanians know everything that happens in their desert. The téléphone arabe would have lit up instantly with the news that a bunch of Europeans in Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses and designer desert gear were out there yelling at each other at the top of their lungs. “Ma siamo completamente bloccati nella sabbia, Bruno, quindi che cazzo vuoi che faccia?”Besides, there’s only one road from Nouakchott into that desert, and it’s paved with no-nonsense police checkpoints.
They were, of course, promptly apprehended and deported.
Anyway, Mauritania took the coronavirus dead seriously, right from the start. Their strategy for keeping it out of the country is actually very similar to their strategy for keeping jihadis out of the country, and both are a success. So now you’re much more at risk of being killed by a terrorist or the coronavirus in France, and when I speak to my father, I say things like, “Thank God they’re in Mauritania, where they’re safe.”
In the further annals of, “How quickly the worm turns,” 35 Italian tourists in Ethiopia, having overstayed their visas, have petitioned for asylum because their country of origin is not safe—giving rise to mirth among Ethiopians, of course, who have some experience of Italians overstaying their welcome. They’ve taken to referring to them as the “undocumented migrants from Europe.”
But that is not what we talked about. We talked about this newsletter. This is what he told me, and I think he’s probably right.
“Cut it in half. You’re just going on and on. Leo gets bored,” he said.
“Yeah, but he gets bored.”
“I am not going to start writing at a tenth-grade level because—”
“I am not—”
“Listen. It’s too long. It’s just not what I want from a newsletter. When Peter Zeihan’s newsletter shows up, I’m totally happy to see it. I know I’ll be distracted for exactly eight minutes. I want a newsletter to be eight minutes. It should be the same format, same length, same time of day—every morning, I wake up and it’s there. Twelve minutes at most. You could triple your success if you made it shorter. I will not read a 4,000-word newsletter—”
“Claire. This is my literary judgment. The point of a newsletter is that between taking care of the kids and telecommuting, people don’t have time to make sense of all that information out there. They need someone to summarize it and give them the right perspective. It shouldn’t take more time to read a newsletter than the original research paper. That’s why it’s a newsletter, not a newspaper.”
He had a point.
“Here’s what you have to do.” He was on a roll. “You need five sections. Just five. Every day. The same ones.”
“First, you need the daily denunciation. You gotta make people angry. People thrive on being angry. In most cases, you denounce Trump, but you’ve got to vary it—throw meat to the wolves. It shouldn’t be a long denunciation, but that’s how you have to start.”
“A daily denunciation. Okay.” I started taking notes.
“Then, second section, that should be the unusual question of the day. This is where you do your analysis. A paragraph. Like, ‘Why do people hoard toilet paper in a pandemic?’ …. No, I’m serious. That’s a fascinating question. Everything about it is fascinating. I want to understand this—sociologically, economically, psychoanalytically—”
“That will take more than a paragraph—”
“Well, okay, a long paragraph. But no more than that. Seriously, what’s up with Westerners and their toilet paper? Why do they love it so much? Why does it give them such a feeling of security to have a lot of it? Do you think it’s because using toilet paper gives them an outlet for their desire manually to stimulate their anuses?”
“Mischa, I can’t—”
“And stop going off on tangents. You’ve got to be disciplined.”
“Oh, and you need a chart of the day. People love charts. But here you need one, just one, personal anecdote of the day—or, I know! A recipe. People go bonkers for recipes. ‘Here’s an easy recipe you can make in lockdown that your whole family will love. You can make it with just a turnip after the food supply chain breaks down.” Or advice about exercising at home. Tell them, ‘So, this is the lockdown workout I just did.’
“Personal anecdote. Recipe,” I wrote in my notes.
“Then you should focus on one county. This is how it should work: It should be in terms of people’s experiences. Like, ‘Lately, I’ve been really into following Balazs Csekö, who really makes the experience of living in Hungary as it descends into a personal dictatorship come alive for me.’ Don’t do it in the voice-of-God style, just focus on one person. Or one essay. Like that New York Review of Books article about Bolsinaro , did you read that?
“It was excellent. It really made me understand Bolsinarismo. You should link to things like that. Or to a really great Twitter feed people don’t know about.”
“And then you finish by sharing letters from your correspondents. And your reply to them. People really like. And the chart of the day.”
“No photo of the day?”
“No, that’s stupid.”
“Why? I like photos.”
“No, just a chart. A chart.”
“And then you ask for money. At the end. The only limit is your pride.”
“Then you it over to the audience. Always end with a question.”
“Never more than 1,200 words.”
“Okay,” I said glumly.