A return of the sporadic feature in which I highlight interesting articles I’ve read this weekend:
First, I was floored by a piece by an anonymous DC-area mother in the Washingtonian that detailed her 13-year-old’s descent into the world of the alt-right. The author is a witness fragility of a childhood in an online environment, a victim of so many of the worst aspects of contemporary life. First, call-out culture and a bunch of sorry bureaucrats wreck her son, and his depression finds an outlet in chats with people he’s never met and tumbles down into an algorithm-reinforced echo chamber. The son drags his mother through a horror story that culminates with an alt-right rally on the National Mall, a sequence that reminded me of George Packer’s biting summation of the absurdity of the Covington Catholic incident, and by extension the entire national mood, earlier this year. But the author’s ability to recognize that absurdity, and draw out her son’s nascent recognition of it as well, starts to show us the way out. How many adolescent lives, and in turn entire lives, go off the rails because no one takes a kid seriously, whether out of clueless condescension or well-meaning protectiveness?
I’m also a sucker for articles that validate my wariness of a childhood spent glued to electronic devices and communities that do not meet in person. I’m young enough that an early online world was available for me to fall into as a teenager, though I took the much more benign path of living countless hours in online forums discussing a baseball team. It was harmless and was even the source of my college admissions essay, though if I had the chance to do it all over again, I would get out a lot more. (I would not label my online hockey commentary the same way: that has produced many genuine real-world connections and brought me into a genuine real-world community; one, probably not coincidentally, where the high school kids involved seem to do a better job than many of not living out their lives online.) This is only the latest that makes me believe that the online world, while with many benefits, has left us with a new form of malaise that we are only beginning to understand.
Speaking of George Packer, he’s out with a new book, one that will shoot to the top of my summer reading list. Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century is a sprawling portrait of Holbrooke, one of the most iconic diplomats of his era before his untimely death in 2010. “[I]f you could read only one book to comprehend America’s foreign policy and its quixotic forays into quicksands over the past 50 years, this would be it,” writes Walter Isaacson in a New York Times review. From Vietnam to the Balkans to Iraq and Afghanistan, Holbrooke was a larger-than-life figure who tried to re-write world history, and Packer’s take on his ambition and hubris make this a book that combines sweeping history and an incisive character study. When my favorite social commentator writes an authoritative work on my own road not taken, how can I not be absorbed?
As for the road I did take, here’s Addison Del Mastro in The American Conservative riffing on a new book on Midwestern industrial decline, Tim Carney’s Alienated America. Carney laments the demise of civil society in Middle America; while sympathetic to their value in creating strong communities, Del Mastro doesn’t think a few new churches will fix anything. He instead points to the social contract that built these place: one or several dominant companies endowed pretty much everything in the company towns, and when the companies contracted or died, the towns did with them. They arose in an era of corporate benevolence and hard-won labor peace, but that consensus is now long dead, crushed by the rise of global competition and corporate thinking. At the end of the day, places need “to transcend the economic conditions that gave rise to them,” lest they become places left behind by history.
The world is more complex than it may look from Del Mastro’s perch in Washington. My own city is part company town, but also part pretty lakeside retreat and part later suburban outgrowth, and has diversified reasonably well, both through the “eds and meds” new gloss that Del Mastro mentions rather dismissively and as a regional center that still enjoys the benefits of a working port. That isn’t enough to keep a substantial chunk of a city out of poverty, but it has been enough to generate some sense of collective hope about the future, which, as he notes, can make a real difference. So what, then, constitutes death for a city? If the old industry dies but it bounces back thoroughly, as with Pittsburgh, is that still a death? Maybe we should stop trying to anthropomorphize something that by its very nature includes tens if not hundreds of thousands people all in various stages of living, dying, thriving, and struggling.
What is true, however, is that the road back for most of these old industrial cities and towns, if there is one, will look very different from the corporate dominance and benevolence of the 1950s and 1960s. Those days had their glories and also their downsides, but we are now several generations removed from them, and while there’s value in preserving some history, that part of the past is not prelude to the future. Nor, perhaps, should it be. But, more on that later.