Tag Archives: journalism

Good Writing, 12/4/19

4 Dec

In my continued ongoing efforts to collect good thinkpieces and also keep this blog somewhat alive, here’s another collection of interesting reading:

First, in the New Yorker, M.R. O’Connor tells the tale of “dirt road America,” an effort by a man named Sam Correro to map dirt road routes across the country. His project, decades in the making, invites travelers to slow down and drive slowly, to explore the forgotten corners and backcountry secrets of a vast, sprawling country. His meticulous hand-made maps guide curious souls on a very different kind of American road trip.

Sticking with the travel theme, whatever one may think of Roger Cohen’s politics, there’s little doubt he is the finest prose stylist on the New York Times opinion page, and in this recent offering, he gets himself quite lost on a hike in Spain’s Sierra de Guadarrama, I can only hope that, if I am someday lost and losing hope, I too will start meditating on Hemingway’s short stories as I contemplate mortality. Often the greatest way to escape any ruts in the present is to reflect on the wisdom of someone who’s been in that same place.

Perhaps not coincidentally given an impending milestone birthday, I find myself reading a lot about social pressures that lead to delayed family formation and childbirth. Thanks to Ross Douthat at the Times, I went down this rabbit hole this week with three different articles. Douthat himself wrote from his usual conservative Catholic perspective on how the contemporary left, after a period when it was relatively supportive of the idea of strong families as a social good, has begun to rebel against this concept. As a complement and counterpoint, he also shared a 2016 critique from the left by Nancy Fraser, who talks of how neoliberal capitalism undermines family and community social structures. Douthat also recently tweeted this long, sprawling account titled “The Economics of Boomers” by Byrne Hobart. It’s a wonky economist’s perspective on how the economic history of the past 60 years is strongly tied to different phases of baby boomers’ lives, and how the political economy they’ve created defines the life choices of younger generations. Ok, boomer!

Finally, on a lighter note, northern Minnesota author Aaron Brown tells us exactly what an Iron Ranger is. At my core, I’m really not a cultural Ranger at all: I like urban life and have snobby tastes in reading material and food and drink. But I spend a fair amount of time on the Range these days, and I like hockey and beer and the outdoors, so I can usually slide in comfortably. Brown nails it: culture, in the end, forms the basis of these labels.

Until next time…

Time and a Place: Good Writing, 8/7/19

7 Aug

A return to my good journalism series, which I’ll open with a quote from a Wallace Stegner short story, “Beyond the Glass Mountain,” in which the narrator returns to his college campus years later:

The light over the whole hill was pure, pale, of an exaggerated clarity, as if all the good days of his youth had been distilled down into this one day, and the whole coltish ascendant time when he was eighteen, nineteen, twenty, had been handed back to him briefly, intact and precious. That was the time when there had been more hours in the day, and every hour precious enough so that it could be fooled away. By the time a man got into the high thirties the hours became more frantic and less precious, more carefully hoarded and more fully used, but less loved and less enjoyed.

I’m reading Stegner’s complete short stories now, so this blog may suffer something of a Wally barrage in the coming weeks. As for the journalism, I’ll start with the Literary Review, where Helen Pearson reviews a book called Where Does It All Go? It discusses contemporary time usage, and the trend over time toward this sense Stegner identifies. Humans are now busier, more stressed, and more prone to multitask, right?

Wrong. Aside from some gender roles that have shifted somewhat (but are still far from equal), it hasn’t changed much since Stegner wrote 50 years ago. What have changed are the habits of the highly educated, professionally successful, and general status seekers, who do work a lot more, and are more likely to get featured in articles about how people use their time. Pearson also accurately diagnoses the ways in which people in these circles sometimes use busyness as a form of status, a way to convey that they are important and their time is therefore valuable (and yours is probably less so). It is something I have always hated, and am not fond to find it creeping into my own language at times. It also raises some serious questions about what exactly this class of people is achieving other than higher levels of stress.

So, going forward: I’m not busy. I’m just doing what I do.

Speaking of those busy urban elites, Derek Thompson of The Atlantic takes a look at the rebirth of many large American cities and finds one group of people conspicuous in its absence: children. Cities have become playgrounds for urban professionals, and market forces and public policy have made it harder and harder for people with families to build a happy life in said cities. This specialization of life–young urban professionals in some areas, young families moving out to the suburbs, immigrants over here and rich homeowners over there–fits in with broader forces within a self-sorting society that is often aided and abetted by public policy. It also creates serious issues for tax bases, school quality, and humans’ sex lives, and feeds into questions about the welfare state and immigration policy.

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that long-term solutions to American urban issues are going to need to take a serious look at regional planning, property tax apportionment, and a more fundamental re-orientation toward ideas of what exactly communities are for. (Presumably, we put down roots in them and invest in them because we want them to be vehicles for the futures of ourselves and people around us.) Of course, I also think that more people should abandon the rat race and make lives in small cities, whose merits I have plugged, for obvious reasons, in past writings: if the market is so overheated in certain major cities, it is overdue for a correction, and the best way to achieve that may not be a turn to the suburbs, but to another way of thinking entirely. But to the extent that some of our more significant modern maladies have policy solutions, this is one of the most fertile grounds that we need to explore.

To the extent that there are policy solutions, that is. This is perhaps why Ross Douthat’s latest on the Trump phenomenon resonated with me: policy alone, while necessary and helpful, cannot resolve the things ailing our busy lives or our cities or our politics today. That requires the more fundamental framing I mentioned earlier, a more total pursuit of a sensible framework to support policy goals. Without that backdrop, our arguments miss the forest for the trees. We become the blind chasers, we become “busy,” we concede too much to the forces that can just bear lives along and leave us in places we’re not sure we want to be. There are better ways.

Interesting Reading, 5/11/19

11 May

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.

Yes, This Blog Talks About Things Other Than Hockey Sometimes

18 Mar

Hockey coverage completely hijacked this blog over the past couple months. This change stemmed from a combination of obligation to that ever-enjoyable commitment, life developments that limit my willingness to comment on certain topics, and a good old-fashioned case of writer’s block. (More on that in the next post.) For now, though, I’ll get back into the swing of things by bringing back the feature in which I collect interesting articles and share them.

The news topic du jour is the college admissions scandal that has nailed a number of rich people behaving badly in their efforts to get their undeserving children into certain institutions of higher education, including my own alma mater. This is so terrible on so many levels that I almost left it alone; I try to avoid shooting fish in barrels on this blog. It’s a shameful indictment of the parents, the culture that makes them think they need to do this, and, well…instead of trailing on, I’ll let Claire Cain Miller and Jonah Engel Bromwich in the New York Times do it for me. Snowplow parenting is very real, and while I can’t say I knew any non-tennis-playing tennis scholarship kids in my Georgetown days, I’ve certainly seen no shortage of overzealous parents trying to do the heavy lifting for their kids, and not just on the East Coast. It’s a disease, and does no one any good in the long run.

In American Affairs, Jacob Siegel dives into California’s stunning homelessness problem. He explores poverty in Los Angeles in lurid detail, and touches on the factors that drive it, from housing policy to NIMBYism to the role of nonprofits to the decline of mental institutions. The piece also brushes on the perils of a technology-centered economy and a belief that said technology will somehow solve everything. It’s a sobering account of the growing class divides in America’s wealthiest cities, and makes one wonder if the rest of us aren’t that far behind.

A little old now, but excellent: Derek Thompson explores the American culture of “workism” in the Atlantic. Somehow, we’ve developed a cult of work that has made the well-off even more obsessed with results and the bottom line than they were before. The piece spends some time with college-educated millennials, who have been told to chase our passions instead of money or free time, which it turns out is a rather brilliant strategy by our superiors to turn us into workoholics. (I had the good fortune to fall under the spell of several iconoclasts who fought this vision in my Georgetown days, and Duluth, being somewhat out of the way of the march of history, also helped buffer me from it. But even with those influences I’ve felt the push, and given slightly different circumstances I have no doubt I would have been a total victim of this culture of work.) Work can develop meaning and should not be hell, but it is a means, not an end.

Oh, you thought you were going to escape hockey entirely? Nah. The New Yorker has a piece on the ten-year run of Minnesota hockey hair videos created by John King. The videos were a delight every year, though I don’t blame King for bringing it to an end now that his kids are out of high school. The whole thing went a bit overboard in the later years, with kids blatantly pandering to the video instead of just rocking luscious locks. I’m guessing someone, or several someones, will try to pick up the slack, but it’ll be hard to top King’s deadpan delivery and amusing interludes. And if it’s going to end, it might as well be with a Greyhound on top.

Interesting Journalism, 10/18/18

18 Oct

This blog has been a bit quiet lately. I intend to rectify that with the culmination of a large project in the not-so-distant future, but in the meantime, here’s another smattering of interesting news for your enjoyment.

First, to get the political hot take out of the way, here’s Masha Gessen from the New Yorker on why it’s probably not a good idea to run DNA tests on oneself to try to prove a political point. Much as I hate to start discussing 2020 when we’re only weeks away from the 2018 elections, it’s the sort of unforced error that leads one to have serious questions about Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy from the start. Reactions to Warren’s decision are almost uniformly negative, but Gessen does a better job than most at getting at some of the underlying reasons why.

Next, to get meta, here’s Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic criticizing lazy journalism, which in this case involves a review of a recent book called The Coddling of the American Mind. It’s an excellent explanation of why the critique (in this case, a Guardian author fails to do anything to question the underlying premises of the book, and instead ascribes ideologically-driven motives, almost always in vague and indirect ways, to the authors. It may be great, it may be bad, but at least please address the arguments in the actual book.

For amusement with a touch of poignancy, Rod Dreher writes a requiem for Sears, the now-bankrupt store that one had a ubiquitous presence in American life. Sears self-consciously defined middle class American shopping habits, and its death is symbolic of more than just the rise of Walmart or Amazon or leveraged buyouts.

Finally, a piece that is a few years old but got a plug in this week’s newsletter from Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center: an interview between the center’s director, Roger Berkowitz, and journalist Anand Giridhardas. Here, the two discuss Giridhardas’s book The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas, which follows the lives of two men chasing some of American life in the shadow of 9/11. The sociology through Olive Garden practiced by one of the two is fascinating; the book, if it is anything like the interview, is journalism at its best. Incidentally, I’m on a library waitlist for Giridhardas’s latest book, in which some of my collegiate pursuits get a brief mention. Stay tuned for that review.

The Tyranny of Lazy Narratives

30 Aug

Today, I take to my keyboard to make a brief but important gripe. I’m here to lament the way in which local media so often frames narratives, and how that framing can, intentionally or unintentionally, become a force that sets the battle lines within debates without giving the consumers of the media a thorough understanding of a situation. It is a pervasive issue, and hardly limited to local media, though at least at this level I have some hope that something can be done about it.

My prompt for this gripe is the Duluth News Tribune’s coverage of some of the changes in store for Canal Park in Duluth, which emerged from the Imagine Canal Park process. Imagine Canal Park is a Knight Foundation grant-funded effort to engage the public and install some creative new features in the Duluth neighborhood that so many residents abandon to the tourists, particularly in summer months. (In the interest of full disclosure, my boss played a key role in launching Imagine Canal Park, though I will add that my own reaction upon learning of the process was a bit of a sigh and a few questions as to why we can’t put this type of effort into neighborhoods that are more oriented toward Duluth residents. That’s a debate for another time, though.)

The DNT, however,  took the innovations planned for Canal Park and turned them into a story about…traffic congestion. The required sacrifices were made before the altar of the Parking God, which must be appeased anytime anyone anywhere ever suggests any changes that might make someone park 20 feet further away or drive around the block again in search of a spot. The lede could have been the heaps of people the city engaged with in the Imagine Canal Park process. Instead, the story fixates on the concerns of a single “resident.” (A resident of what? Canal Park? Park Point? Duluth? The story never says.) People are upset, and apparently the media must reward upset people with coverage, because grumbling in a Facebook comment apparently now passes for news.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t some valid questions about traffic flow when closures like this occur. Those questions have a place in this story. But to frame it as if an annoyance caused by the change is more significant than the change itself resorts to a tired trope, and frames the debate in ways that bias the casual reader against the cause before it even has a chance to get off the ground. It becomes an implicit force for a status quo that is taken for granted, one that reinforces a lack of creativity and makes acceptance of the current conditions the default against which all efforts for change must overcome. And we wonder why local politics is so often dominated by inertia and a handful of powerful voices.

This particular article set me off because so many of the premises of the complaints are shaky. We know from decades of experience that people adapt to changes in traffic patterns pretty quickly, and learn to go on with their lives. (For similar reasons, added roadway capacity almost never reduces congestion.) Aside from some necessary accommodations for the disabled and elderly, Americans are fat and could stand to walk that extra 20 feet, and likely will not suffer for it. The “people will drive through it anyway” complaint does not exactly jive with the picture atop the article showing large orange barrels and ROAD CLOSED signs that would take some pretty serious cluelessness or alcohol consumption for anyone to drive through. And yet the entire story is framed around the complaints of one commenter with no obvious credentials to comment on the subject. While this is an especially grating example, it’s not hard to imagine any number of topics where the rants of the uninformed or lazy both-sides-must-be-covered-without-assessing-the-merits reporting predominates, and leaves an impoverished discourse in its wake.

Normally, I think the News Tribune does a reasonably good job on things like this. Most of its writers do their homework and give a much more thorough picture than one gets on, say, TV news, where simplified black-and-white narratives are far more pervasive. But that doesn’t excuse the tyranny of lazy narratives when it rears its ugly head, and anyone who writes should resist it at every opportunity.

A Return to Good Journalism, 6/26/18

26 Jun

After an unfortunate detour into rage-blogging inspired by a piece of bad journalism over the weekend, we now return to our normally scheduled array of good journalism I’ve read over the past week.

For a far more illuminating portrait of changing election trends in northeastern Minnesota (beyond Duluth), I turn to Iron Range blogger Aaron Brown. In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s visit to Duluth last week, he penned an article on trade policy and its effects on the rural mining region in northern Minnesota, and why the argument about trade isn’t actually about trade. He followed up with a piece on immigration over the weekend. I always enjoy Brown’s work, but he’s been growing punchier of late, and his on-the-ground reporting from a region that is on the brink politically is vital reading, and I expect it’s illuminating even for someone who knows little about the Iron Range.

Speaking of communities that are in decline, The American Conservative’s New Urbs series has a bit from photographer Vincent David Johnson, who relates his travels in photographing the ruins of rural America. It’s a fascinating dive into towns that are fading from memory. Also, one of the reasons I enjoy TAC is the fact that it is the rare site where one can usually safely violate the cardinal rule of internet comments sections—which is, of course, Never Read the Comments Section—and come away not feeling awful about humanity. Instead, you’ll find that the vast majority of the commenters are intelligent people bringing a wide variety of usually interesting perspectives to the article, and this post delivers on that front.

Sticking again with our theme of small towns facing hard times: from Bloomberg News, about a month ago but still interesting, and related to the above articles: why do people stay in towns that are in decline?

And, to switch gears at the end, here’s a remembrance of longtime Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, who died this past week, from Peter Wehner in the New York Times. I don’t share many of Krauthammer’s view on foreign policy, which was his main focus, but he was an idiosyncratic thinker who never quite fell into clean categories, and a powerful prose stylist. But the picture that emerges here, as a person in possession of great intellectual humility and in endless search of reality. He also handled both personal misfortune and his impending death with laudable grace. I will always celebrate such traits in people, no matter where they landed politically.

While this post is, alas, far less cathartic than my last one, I hope people find something of actual educational value in it.