What a Week It Has Been

Most of the time changes happens slowly. It’s only by looking back at a long stretch of time and reflecting that we recognize substantial differences in our reality. However, there are some weeks, like these past two, when so much seems to happen all at once.

After an outrageous and distinctly American act of terrorism, huge momentum has emerged to remove symbols of treachery and hatred from prominent places in the South. The highest court in the land affirmed President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, ensuring millions continued access to affordable healthcare. And, as the best sequel since Godfather Part II, the same court legalized gay marriage nationwide.

Much of what this means for our country and the legacy of President Obama remains to be understood. But, if anything, it should put to rest forever any ideas that his presidency has been a minor one. Quite the opposite is the case. For too long, too many have been quick to think that the president has failed to deliver. He promised change they say, but too much remains the same. This, quite simply, ignores objective reality. It’s one thing to disagree with what he’s done; it’s lunacy to suggest that he hasn’t done much. That has never been more obvious in any week during his presidency as this one.

Yet for all his tangible actions while in office, his greatest achievement is and always will be the fact of his election. He is, and always will be, the first black president this nation has ever known. That fact is inescapable and never more apparent than it was on Friday when he delivered the eulogy for the slain Reverend Clementa Pinckney. He spoke as only he could. In his oration, he articulated the astonishing and gut-wrenching flaws of our country, baked into it from the founding. But his words did far more than that. They went above and beyond the filler text politicians and leaders too often mumble to pay lip-service to the “conversation about race.” They were real. They were personal. They spoke to his own experience, to the experience of his audience. They lamented the dead. He made us remember what we too often forget and ignore or never even learned. He helped us decipher a small section of the American story, with tales of the past and present. As one of our greatest once wrote, “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

Our president has failed in countless ways, but Friday he was there for all of us, carrying the light onward. Leading us with grace and song.

More reactions from James FallowsDavid Remnick, and Greg Howard.

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Putin’s Russia

Two pieces on Russia for this afternoon that demand to be read in full. The first is a long, terrific, and terrifying story brought to us by David Remnick of the New Yorker. It centers on Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia. It charts his first appearances in the pro-democracy protests surrounding the breakup of the Soviet Union, and brings us to today, where he is a Stanford professor, recently returned from his time as a diplomat. The piece is breathtaking in its scope and attention to detail. Plus the variety of sources here is startling. Remnick has deep contacts in the Russian oligarchy and a good sense of history there. The second is this short commentary on the current state of the country from McFaul himself.

The most troubling fact of this whole situation is not Russia’s capabilities, but that there leadership seems unhinged. They’ve crafted an elegant propaganda machine they all seemed to have bought into, heedless of the consequences. They see Russia as the world’s Conservative (capital-C) bulwark, standing against the decadent, soulless Western civilizations. This is not their predicament, but rather their destiny. Money quotes from Remnick that come to us via two Russian intellectuals:

[Aleksandr] Prokhanov is pleased to conclude that Russia is entering a prolonged war with the West—a cold war, possibly worse. “There is always danger of worse,” he said, “even worse than nuclear war—and that is soulless surrender.”

And:

The world, for [Aleksandr] Dugin, is divided between conservative land powers (Russia) and libertine maritime powers (the U.S. and the U.K.)—Eternal Rome and Eternal Carthage. The maritime powers seek to impose their will, and their decadent materialism, on the rest of the world. This struggle is at the heart of history. For Dugin, Russia must rise from its prolonged post-Soviet depression and reassert itself, this time as the center of a Eurasian empire, against the dark forces of America. And this means war. Dugin rejects the racism of the Nazis, but embraces their sense of hierarchy, their romance of death. “We need a new party,” he has written. “A party of death. A party of the total vertical. God’s party, the Russian analogue to the Hezbollah, which would act according to wholly different rules and contemplate completely different pictures.”

There is a sense of reckoning to be felt here, like we got off easy at the end of the Cold War and this is the real backlash. There are many reasons to be scared, but we shouldn’t be hysterical. As McFaul reminds us, Putin is on his own now (Russia’s posturing only becomes meaningful if China gets involved, but that is highly unlikely). The U.S. is in a far stronger position and enjoys stable relations with both its neighbors and many more countries. Effective deterrence and diplomatic relations kept the mass-murdering tyrant Stalin at bay, and they will do just fine here.

A Ladder to the Stars

Malcolm Gladwell has a piece in the latest New Yorker. Like most of what he does, it’s more flash than substance and sacrifices most verifiable/technical details in favor of a good narrative. But, also like most of the stuff he does, the narrative is an interesting one and makes a certain amount of sense. As long as we leave the science to someone else.

The subject is social mobility and organized crime. It’s a review of the new book “On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City” by Alice Goffman. Gladwell uses a 40-year-old non-fiction book “A Family Business: Kinship and Social Control in Organized Crime” to provide context and counter-narrative. “A Family Business” is the real-life story of The Godfather, with a different ending. Both chronicle a family of Italian immigrants in New York City and their rise to power. Starting small, they start successful businesses and use their large families to pool their strength. Their empires grow through cleverness, trust, and fear, the latter abetted with crime and intimidation. One is true and the other is not. It is at the end however, that the stories diverge. In The Godfather the characters are never able to cast aside their criminal roots. They are never able to join the ranks of legitimate society. The old guards always hold them at arm’s length and the past can never be put in the past. That is the fiction. The truth, told to us in “A Family Business,” is that, once achieving a certain status, successful mobsters were able to direct their descendants down the legitimate corridors of our republic. Academia, business, politics – all were fair game and all were accessible to them. Many of these descendants make up our current prestigious and high-standing families. The new old money if you will.

In contrast, Goffman’s work tells a similar story, albeit one with different subjects and different outcomes. It is the story of black urbanites. Like the big-city immigrants before them, they to sought the trappings of legitimacy. The typical doors were closed to them so they resolved to create new ones. Also like immigrant families they used crime, in their world it was drugs. But, like the best of the immigrants, crime was not an end, but a means. It was a path to legitimacy (Stringer Bell from The Wire). A crooked ladder to the American dream. They held true an idea best articulated by the Japanese saying (that comes to us now from a scene in Mad Men) “A man is whatever room he is in.” The game was to get into the room. And in a rigged game they had to break the rules. However, in the last third of the 20th century our society declared war on its criminals. Many things that were once viewed with a blind or corrupt eye became targets. The so-called crooked ladder of upward mobility was pulled out from under them.

Fascinating narrative no? It’s one of those that sounds so good it’s hard to believe it’s not true. Of course it happened, but a lot of other things happened too.

New Media Update

Two stories I’ve read in the past few days give interesting indications of where new media may be headed. One of them, by Tom Schreier and published a few days ago on Deadspin.com, is a first-person account of a young writer’s struggles to get ahead at Bleacher Report, the crowd-written online sports site. The other is a Lizzie Widdicombe New Yorker piece from almost a year ago about the women’s website Bustle.com, whose founder was Bryan Goldberg, also a Bleacher Report founder. The site hires a lot of young women and churns out content, a quick look at their website demonstrates that you have to scroll down for quite a while to get to anything produced more than 24 hours ago.

The model of both sites is similar in that they both enlist young, green reporters to write about what they like. With Bleacher Report it’s their favorite sports teams and with Bustle it’s current world events, fashion, pop culture, and pretty much whatever interests the writers on a particular day. The idea is that people want to read writers who sound like them and lots of regular people will want to write about things that they care about. From a reader’s standpoint it’s a quick-and-easy way to stay in the loop and both sites have provided good opportunities for people to take their passions to the next level. From a business standpoint it’s easy to organize and execute because it’s low cost. And, with sophisticated techniques to up the page-views to increase ad revenue, profitable. However, close readings of each of these two pieces inspire concern. Take this quote from the New Yorker story:

A well-researched exposé, such as the one Sports Illustrated recently ran about N.C.A.A. violations by the Oklahoma State football team, may take many months of work from a highly paid reporter and editor. But, in the end, Morrissey said, “it yields the same revenue as a ‘25 Sexiest Female Athletes Who Can Kick Your Ass’ post, which costs, like, two hundred dollars.”

And this one from Deadspin:

In my three years at Bleacher Report, I covered the San Jose Sharks while studying in the Bay Area, and the Twins, Wild, Timberwolves, and Vikings upon returning home to Minnesota. I wrote over 500 articles, generated nearly three million page views, and received $200 for my services.

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A Little Bit of Joe

The newest New Yorker is out, and so far as I can tell, the best feature is a long, but good old fashioned political profile. Vice President Joe Biden is its subject. This is pure speculation on my part, but he may be the most visible member of the current administration who enjoys at least a small amount of respect from most people. He’s had a long, wonderful, flawed career and is a throwback politician in many of the best ways. I hadn’t read any Evan Osnos before today and this seems to be his first major political work, but from what I can tell here he’s worth following. Enjoy this offering!

Privacy

For good reading today check out Joshua Rothman’s reflection on Virginia Woolf and privacy at the New Yorker. The opening:

These days, when we use the word “privacy,” it usually has a political meaning. We’re concerned with other people and how they might affect us. We think about how they could use information about us for their own ends, or interfere with decisions that are rightfully ours. We’re mindful of the lines that divide public life from private life. We have what you might call a citizen’s sense of privacy.

The rest details, eloquently with beautiful intersperses of Mrs. Dalloway quotes/analysis, that deep part of us we may or may not be able to share and make others understand. Is this a conscious decision/failed intimacy/unrequited romance? Or is it part of what it is to be a human being? What is privacy? Is it innate or established (if not by us then the culture, social atmosphere, events around us)? Read it!

For more on being alone, browse these Jonathan Franzen essays or watch Louis C.K. on Conan. Also, examine this amazing recent study of how much people hate being alone.

A Little Nuance Into the Brothers Koch

American Conservative‘s Justin Raimondo has an excellent review of a new Daniel Schulman bio on the Koch Brothers, otherwise known as the Game of Thrones plutocrats out to take over the country. Of course that’s partly true. The brothers’ net worth is over $100 billion and they have poured millions (perhaps billions eventually) into financing libertarian politics in this country. One of them even stood as Vice Presidential candidate in the 1980 election.

However, against this New Yorker article and the constant emails an Obama voter is destined to receive from political action committees (there’s even an anti-Citizens United group named after them), this injects some nuance. These people have become enormously successful for reasons, and though we might wish that enormously successful people would have different values, it’s undeniable that some of the values we distaste are contributors to their enormous success. Realizing this forces us beyond righteous condemnation of individuals toward a more thoughtful analysis of the societal forces that created them.

They also failed spectacularly. They threw pretty much everything they had at Obama in 2012 and he won reelection pretty handily for an incumbent in a not-so-great economy. Rumors of oligarchy, or least an oligarchy under their control, were greatly exaggerated.