Friday, January 02, 2015

Welcome To A Virtual Literaturfestival

BoBo Boy concludes his survey of good writing in 2014 with this essay. This post is a virtual replication of the painting of a mirror that includes a mirror, that includes a mirror... to infinity. This blog — with the exception of this blogger's bombast — contains some of the best writing to be found anywhere. No brag, just fact. If this is a (fair & balanced) virtual literary festival, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
The Sidney Awards, Part 2
By David Brooks

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The most powerful woman in the world may also be the most effective leader in the world. We kick off the second volley of the year’s best magazine essays by giving a Sidney Award to George Packer’s “The Quiet German,” a superb profile of Angela Merkel, which appeared in The New Yorker. (For Part 1 of the Sidney Awards, click here.)

Packer traces the psychological development of this slow, steady, but relentless political operator. As a girl, Packer writes, “Angela was physically clumsy — she later called herself ‘a little movement idiot.’ At the age of five, she could barely walk downhill without falling. ‘What a normal person knows automatically I had to first figure out mentally, followed by exhausting exercise,’ she has said.”

She also grew up in East Germany, under Communist rule, where the truth could not be shouted; it had to be whispered. Once the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was unified, this kind of Ossi might have a certain profile: As one of Packer’s sources tells him, “The whisperer might find it easier to learn in this new life, to wait and see, and not just burst out at once — to think things over before speaking. The whisperer thinks, How can I say this without damaging myself?”

She also had the advantages of a scientific background: “Trained to see the invisible world in terms of particles and waves, Merkel learned to approach problems methodically, drawing comparisons, running scenarios, weighing risks, anticipating reactions, and then, even after making a decision, letting it sit for a while before acting. She once told a story from her childhood of standing on a diving board for the full hour of a swimming lesson until, at the bell, she finally jumped.”

Packer is not only capturing the evolution of a leader; he’s portraying a different type of leader. Not the hero on horseback, or the romantic visionary, but the meticulous, practical plodder.

The Sidney Award judges have a soft spot for essays that develop a bold theory of everything. In Nils Gilman’s “The Twin Insurgency,” which appeared in The American Interest, the associate chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, argues that two political forces are squeezing the middle class. At the top, there is the global plutocracy: rich elites, often in tech and finance who are disengaged from national obligations and common life. At the bottom, there are the deviant entrepreneurs: corrupt oligarchs in the developing world, drug dealers, black-market millionaires.

These two blocks secede from common life. They try to carve out space above and below the reach of the traditional state apparatus. They weaken the welfare states, which have provided stability for the middle class. “What both insurgencies represent,” Gilman writes, “is the replacement of the liberal ideal of uniform authority and rights within national spaces by a kaleidoscopic array of de facto and even de jure microsovereignties.”

You may not agree with it all, but Gilman gets you thinking about the erosion of political authority that we see pretty much everywhere around the globe.

Hanna Rosin gets a Sidney Award for a complex, searing essay she wrote in New York magazine, “By Noon They’d Both Be in Heaven.”

It is about a mom whose daughter often flew into unstoppable rages. Treatments failed. Life at home descended into a nightmare. “I’ve been bruised from head to toe, knocked unconscious, suffered injuries that were visible and others that weren’t.” Kelli Stapleton wrote in a blog post.

Eventually she tried to kill both her daughter and herself, and failed. It looks superficially like the story of a woman overwhelmed. But family tragedies happen to real, idiosyncratic human beings. Stapleton was also a product of the age of reality TV. She had a flair for publicity that would make her, among other things, the subject of a two-part special on Dr. Phil. This is a story about the confluence of unbearable stress with modern media narcissism.

The final Sidney Award of 2014 goes to Yuval Levin’s moral meditation, “Taking the Long Way,” in First Things, a journal of religion and public life. Levin argues that both left and right are committed to flawed visions of liberty. The left is committed to the ideal of the freely choosing individual, while conservatives are committed to an ideal based on secure rights, especially property rights.

“As a consequence, both seem to believe that advancing human progress is a matter of shaping society in a certain way, rather than of shaping the human soul in a certain way. They take the human person largely for granted.”

This is an error. Citizens are formed, not born: “A liberal society depends on the long way of moral formation,” Levin continues. “Real progress very rarely looks like social transformation.” Theories from left and right are inarticulate about this, but the most effective political projects nurture soul-forming institutions, like work, family, faith, learning and community, and require a moral political language. 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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