Sunday, December 28, 2014

Sidney, Schmidney... Good Writin' is Just That

When this blogger first encountered BoBo Boy's annual listing of Sidney Award winners from that year (2010), the blogger owed a mea culpa to David Brooks (BoBo Boy, for his neologism — BoBos — bourgeois bohemians). This badly mistaken blogger thought that BoBo Boy was referring to one of the Boy's leftist-turned-neocon heroes: Sidney Hook. Actually, the Sidney Awards are named in honor of labor-leader Sidney Hillman. Too many Sidneys make for a highly confused blogging smartass. Now, with the sniveling out of the way, see links to some of the best writing in 2014. If this is a (fair & balanced) wish for good reading at the end of 2014, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
The Sidney Awards, Part I
By David Brooks

Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing

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Our annual celebration of the best magazine essays of the year begins with a Sidney Award for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blockbuster, “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic. “America begins in black plunder and white democracy,” Coates writes. He then describes the many ways African-Americans have been handicapped, from residential practices to just plain thievery.

The essay has incredible propulsive force. Coates then unleashes his proposal: “Reparations — by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences — is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckon us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is — the work of fallible humans.”

Reparations would help shrink the wealth gap, but, he concludes, “What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices — more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe. What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”

The debate over sexual assault on campus — how much it happens, how to punish it, how to prevent it — is in its early phases. There’s plenty of jumping to conclusions, lots of vitriol, but very little clarity on the numbers or what to do. Emily Yoffe’s controversial blockbuster in Slate, “The College Rape Overcorrection,” is a brave and useful volley in that debate. Yoffe starts with the story of Drew Sterrett, who was an engineering student at the University of Michigan in 2012. One night a woman known as CB invited herself into his bed, the two had sex, while his roommate tried and failed to sleep amid the din of their lovemaking in the bunk bed above.

Months later Sterrett was asked to make himself available for a Skype interview with university officials, though he was not told why. During the questioning, he realized that CB must have said something disturbing about their night together. His days at school were over.

It’s hard to know what happened that night, but the process by which the evidence was weighed and Sterrett was judged seems plainly unfair. One gets the impression from reading the article and other essays that, nationwide, there are many brutal rapes that go unpunished, there are some innocent men thrown off campus without due process and the whole system is structured badly in some large way.

The country suffered a great loss this year with the destruction of The New Republic at the hands of its callow and incompetent owner, Chris Hughes. Before it was obliterated a few weeks ago, it churned out the usual stream of outstanding essays.

Michael Hobbes’s piece, “Stop Trying to Save the World,” is a good example of the old magazine’s ability to look at reality with a warm heart but a clear head. Hobbes describes why improving other people’s lives is so difficult: because behaviors that seem maladjusted to us often have their own logic behind them.

For example, one well-intentioned program tried to get teenage girls to quit street gangs. It worked. They quit. But, within a year, every girl in the program was pregnant. The gang activity gave them a sense of identity. Without that identity and purpose, they needed another one. This isn’t a counsel of despair; it’s a counsel of humility.

Adam Johnson’s essay “Scavengers” in Granta captures the inexpressible bizarreness of North Korea. Part of the essay is about a man named Rikidozan. The North Koreans believe he was a ferocious Korean professional wrestler who so demolished his Japanese opponents that the Japanese murdered him. In fact, he was a pro wrestler who performed in the United States in the 1950s, purchased nightclubs and hotels and was killed by a Japanese mobster in 1963.

Johnson also runs into a Japanese man at a hotel bar who had traveled to North Korea because he surrealistically believed that North Korean women “are the only pure women left.” He hangs around the bar but has never even had a conversation with a North Korean woman because the regime won’t allow it.

For more uplifting reading, consider Diana Schaub’s “Lincoln at Gettysburg” from National Affairs. It is a close reading of the Gettysburg Address. Did you know the address is only 272 words and because of repetitions contains only 130 distinct words? Moreover, the address exists in its own universal sphere. There is no mention of America, nor North or South, nor even a single proper noun, except the word God.

Schaub parses every phrase, showing where Lincoln got it, and the philosophical depths and strategic thinking contained in each sentence. For example, Lincoln’s use of the word “conceived” evolved over the years, as his worldview deepened. The address was not just a masterpiece, it was the careful summation of a lifetime of reflection. Ω

[David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times and has become a prominent voice of politics in the United States. Brooks graduated from the University of Chicago in 1983 with a degree in history. He served as a reporter and later op-ed editor for The Wall Street Journal, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard from its inception, a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Atlantic Monthly, and a commentator on NPR and "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." Brooks has written a book of cultural commentary titled Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (2000). Brooks also writes articles and makes television appearances as a commentator on various trends in pop culture, such as internet dating. He has been largely responsible for coining the terms "bobo," "red state," and "blue state." His newest book is entitled The Social Animal (2011).]

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