Archive for February, 2010

Exceptionalism, Cont'd

February 28, 2010

In a post on President Obama and American exceptionalism, Victor Davis Hanson explains why he thinks our nation is different from all the others:

Perhaps it would be better, when speaking of an early rural society, to talk of an absence of peasantry: We had no concept of a large underclass of only quasi-free people attached to barons as serfs; instead, yeomen agrarians were the Jeffersonian ideal, a nation of independent farmers rather than peasants.

Odd that a historian should forget about American slavery!

In the same post, he writes:

A gun-owning society, unlike Europe — On the theory that an armed citizenry would fight any federal effort to overturn individual liberties: That tradition later made our citizenry more comfortable with firearms, with obvious advantages for our military.

As a military historian, Professor Hanson would benefit from familiarizing himself with Switzerland. Its citizenry is armed, with obvious advantages of its military:

The country has a population of six million, but there are estimated to be at least two million publicly-owned firearms, including about 600,000 automatic rifles and 500,000 pistols.

This is in a very large part due to Switzerland’s unique system of national defence, developed over the centuries.

Instead of a standing, full-time army, the country requires every man to undergo some form of military training for a few days or weeks a year throughout most of their lives.

John McPhee’s book on this subject is exceptional.

On American Exceptionalism and Barack Obama

February 28, 2010

Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru are intelligent writers whose work is normally a credit to National Review, but they’ve gone far astray in their recent essay “An Exceptional Debate: The Obama administration’s assault on American identity.” In arguing that President Obama “has all but denied the idea that America is an exceptional nation,” they offer the following evidence:

Asked whether he believed in American exceptionalism during a European trip last spring, Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exception­alism.” (Is it just a coincidence that he reached for examples of former hegemons?)

In this respect the president reflects the mainstream sentiment of American liberals. We do not question the sincerity of his, or their, desire to better the lot of his countrymen. But modern liberal intellectuals have had a notoriously difficult time coming up with a decent account of patriotism even when they have felt it.

But it is misleading to offer that Obama quote as evidence that he rejects American exceptionalism when his unabridged answer is the following (emphasis added):

I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.

And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional.

Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we’ve got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.

And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.

In other words, President Obama doesn’t “all but deny” that America is an exceptional nation in that question and answer session — he does just the opposite, affirming that our core values, governing framework, and democrat practices are all exceptional, so much so that we have an “extraordinary role in leading the world”! Essayists reach for the strongest examples they can find when crafting an argument. In making the argument that the current president rejects American exceptionalism, Messieurs Lowry and Ponnuru offer as examples a quote that contradicts their thesis, the fact that President Obama declines to defend the Bay of Pigs, a failed invasion of a foreign country that strengthened its tyrannical leader, and the assertion that “on those occasions when Obama places himself in the con­text of American history, he identifies himself with the post-Wil­sonian tradition — with, that is, the gradual replacement of the Founders’ design. He seeks to accelerate it.”

On this last point, President Obama’s rhetoric so frequently contradicts their characterization that it is impossible to list every example. One need only look at the speech he gave at his inauguration to see the authors’ point was disproved on Obama’s first day in office. The text includes these passages:

+ America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents. So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

+ The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

+ Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.

+ In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: “Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive … that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.

In other words, that single speech contains multiple invocations of the Founding fathers, their designs, and bold statements about how the Obama Administration must preside over their continuance — “so it must be.”

Moreover, ever since Barack Obama’s introduction to a national audience at the 2004 DNC, when he invoked The Declaration of Independence and E Pluribus Unum, he has very deliberately and repeatedly placed himself in the context of American history by arguing that his story is possible only in a nation with the Founding beliefs of America. Where did this idea come from that he identifies only with a post-Wilsonian tradition when he is constantly alluding to the promise of the Declaration, and how the realization of its truths transformed his personal history in the most profound way? It is utterly false, and proving as much is as easy as reading any number of his speeches.

Near the conclusion of their piece, Messieurs Lowry and Ponnuru write:

The popular revolt against Obama’s policies is a sign that Americans are not prepared to go gentle into that good night. Other factors are of course in play — most important, the weak economy — but the public is saying “No” to a rush to social democracy.

Although the conservatives, libertarians, and independents who oppose Obama’s health-care initiative may not put it in quite these terms, they sense that his project will not just increase insurance premiums but undermine what they cherish about America. Those Americans who want to keep our detention facility at Guantanamo Bay think it necessary to protect our security — but they also worry, more profoundly, that our leaders are too apologetic to serve our interests. Americans may want change, even fundamental change, but most of them would rather change our institutions than our national character.

On health care I’d much prefer free market reforms of the sort discussed here. Should the misguided Democratic bill pass into law, however, I shall not mourn the loss of what I cherish about America, seeing as how what I cherish isn’t an amalgam of Medicare, impossibly complicated state regulatory frameworks, a prescription drug benefit, and tax incentives for employer provided health plans. As for the prison at Guantanamo Bay, did I miss the moment when its operation, which commenced earlier this decade, became part of our enduring national character?

All things considered, the essay in question is unpersuasive.

The War on Terrorism and The Founders

February 24, 2010

The most often quoted parts of George Washington’s farewell address are his admonition to avoid permanent entanglements in foreign affairs and his concerns about the worst features of political parties. On re-reading the speech, however, I’m most struck by this passage:

It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no distant period, a great Nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a People always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence … In the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages, which might be lost by a steady adherence to it.

As I reflect on the behavior of the United States since the September 11 terrorist attacks, I am heartened by the countless examples of benevolence practiced by the best among our armed forces. Anyone on active duty in Iraq or Afghanistan can tell you a story about a comrade who risked his life to save an innocent civilian, and so many folks risk their lives everyday in military efforts that they genuinely believe to be beneficial to average Afghans and Iraqis, whether or not their judgment is accurate. But is it possible to argue that our foreign policy as a whole is guided by exalted justice and benevolence? On the contrary, it’s fair to say the prevailing American attitude in the War on Terrorism is that we face a particularly vicious enemy, and fighting it requires us to do unsavory things like launch drone strikes that kill civilians, use harsh interrogation tactics on suspected terrorists, and hold folks whose innocence the government itself acknowledges for months or years on end.

There are people who honestly believe that this approach is a necessary evil in the modern world — that it is naive to think otherwise. Arguments to that effect are ones I’ll always consider with an open mind, though as yet I’m antagonistic toward them. What galls is when the folks making these arguments simultaneously invoke George Washington, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, as though the tactics of the War on Terrorism are vindicated by the Founders and the ideas for which they stood.

In this piece at Newsweek, I argue at greater length that whatever one thinks of movement conservatism’s approach to the War on Terrorism, it is inconsistent with our Founding ideas in several significant ways.

People Often Mean Something Different Than What They Say

February 23, 2010

In a welcome return to blogging, Jay Rosen turns his attention to the recent New York Times article on the Tea Party phenomenon, lauding reporter David Barstow’s fine work, but critiquing one paragraph.

The excerpt at issue:

It is a sprawling rebellion, but running through it is a narrative of impending tyranny. This narrative permeates Tea Party Web sites, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and YouTube videos. It is a prominent theme of their favored media outlets and commentators, and it connects the disparate issues that preoccupy many Tea Party supporters — from the concern that the community organization Acorn is stealing elections to the belief that Mr. Obama is trying to control the Internet and restrict gun ownership.

Here is Professor Rosen reacting to that passage:

David Barstow is a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter for the New York Times. He ought to know whether the United States is on the verge of losing its democracy and succumbing to an authoritarian or despotic form of government. If tyranny was pending in the U.S. that would seem to be a story… Seriously: Why is this phrase, impending tyranny, just sitting there, as if Barstow had no way of knowing whether it was crazed and manipulated or verifiable and reasonable?

Professor Rosen adds:

In a word, the Times editors and Barstow know this narrative is nuts, but something stops them from saying so — despite the fact that they must have spent over $100,000 on this one story. And whatever that thing is, it’s not the reluctance to voice an opinion in the news columns, but a reluctance to report a fact in the news columns, the fact that the “narrative of impending tyranny” is ungrounded in any observable reality, even though the sense of grievance within the Tea Party movement is truly felt and politically consequential.

On reading Professor Rosen’s post, I thought immediately about The GOP Speaks, a Web project where I asked Republican leaders at the local level to share their beliefs about current controversies. Before the replies stopped coming back (for reasons I still can’t entirely figure out), I received 27 replies to my questionnaire. In response to my second question — “What is the most worrisome part of Barack Obama’s presidency?” — I received replies including the following:

+ “Without question the country has elected a Marxist that hates capitalism and liberty.”

+ “It appears the president is preparing to become dictator.”

+ “The unbridled horse race to Fabian socialism on the one hand, and the fact that there are avowed and unapologetic Communists in the White House being paid by US Taxpayers who are advising the president on domestic policy issues.”

+ “His swift moves towards socialism. He is moving so fast that we may not be able to counter much of what he has done.”

As it happens, I disagree rather profoundly with President Obama’s approach to domestic policy, and on foreign policy I am increasingly dismayed by his assertion of extraordinary, imprudent powers like the ability to assassinate United States citizens without judicial oversight, or his administration’s contention that the federal government doesn’t need a warrant to track the movements of any American so long as it’s done via their cell phone carrier. Put another way, I myself think that on several important issues President Obama is moving us marginally closer to tyranny, as so many recent presidents have done.

Even so, I find it preposterous that anyone believes the United States is on the cusp of impending tyranny itself, or that President Obama is uniquely bad on this metric, or methodically preparing to seize dictatorial power, or that his actions as president are somehow so radical as to be irreversible. Indeed I couldn’t believe that my more animated GOP correspondents believed these things to be true either, even when they seemed to state as much. So I followed up with some of them, pressing them about what exactly they believed, and did additional reporting among other conservative citizens as well, hoping to understand the gap separating the rhetoric they use from whatever their actual beliefs turn out to be.

I found a few things of interest. Foremost is that extreme words like tyranny are almost always useless if the goal is figuring out what on earth someone actually thinks. Five people might tell you that their biggest worry about Barack Obama is his tendencies toward tyranny. Buzz words like this tend to spread. On further questioning, you’ll find one guy means he’s upset that the president might seek a tax hike, while another is literally worried that he’s building secret prisons to house American patriots. The former invocation of tyranny is by far more common, and it doesn’t strike the people who use it as imprecise because they marinate in a political culture of hyper-adversarial cable news, Barnes and Noble bestsellers with hyperbolic titles, and talk radio hosts who cast the political battles between American conservatives and liberals as an epic battle between liberty and tyranny. As the volume of political rhetoric gets turned up, folks eventually lose perspective, and having listened to their very loud stereo for hours, it doesn’t occur to them that on talking to folks outside the room they seem to be shouting. Pin these folks down on their actual beliefs, concerns or objections, however, and often as not they are basically reasonable people whose opinions are no more or less grounded in fact than anyone else.

In the comments to Professor Rosen’s post, Paul Davis writes:

I don’t need a reporter doing Barstow’s job to tell me that the views of the tea party “movement” are nuts, but I do very very much want to get to a deeper understanding of how the people who believe what it espouses can hold the worldview that they do. This is critically important since its reasonably clear that their worldview feels internally consistent to them, just as mine does to me. Barstow doesn’t need to write “Yet this notion of impending tyranny is completely unjustified by the facts of contemporary America” – what he does need to write is a clear account of the things that lead others to believe that it is completely justified by whatever they know about the world.

I’d go a step father: Mr. Barstow, who wrote an excellent story as is, could’ve improved upon it by telling us not just why Tea Party advocates believe we’re on the road to tyranny, but what exactly they mean when they say tyranny. In some cases, their answers will betray a factual misunderstanding of the world, at which point it’ll be appropriate to respond as Professor Rosen would like. Other times, however, they’ll explain that by impending tyranny they believe, for example, that the combination of America’s growing debt and its imploding financial sector mean that Wall Street elites and creditors in China are going to wield ever increasing control over the material well being of American citizens. In other words, fear of “impending tyranny” is sometimes going to be less easily dismissed than Professor Rosen imagines.

I do think Professor Rosen’s observations about the desire of journalists to be innocent in reporting on controversial subjects is often accurate, and that it frequently causes them to refrain from offering relevant information to readers who’d benefit from it. All I can conclude at present is that extra reporting on what exactly participants in political debates believe mitigates the problem. The higher the level of abstraction, the harder it is to judge whether something is a matter of fact, interpretation, or opinion. Would you rather disprove that Barack Obama aims to be a tyrant or that he’s coming to take your guns?

The Best of Journalism (2009)

February 17, 2010

Throughout 2009, I kept a running list of the best journalism I encountered. Although I endeavored to remain as impartial as possible, note that I’ve been an employee of The Atlantic, that I’d eagerly write for numerous publications that received awards, that I have too many friends/acquaintances/professional contacts in journalism to disclose them all, and that the number of pieces I miss every year far exceeds the number I’m able to read.

In other words, this isn’t an infallible account of journalism’s best, but I aim to make it the best roundup that any one person can offer, one of these years I intend to do better than the committees who pick the Pulitzer Prizes and National Magazine Awards (the pressure’s on, especially since you guys charge entry fees), and if nothing else my effort encompasses writing that is well worth your time.

If you find this a valuable resource or if you want to help support future incarnations, do so through the donate button on the right margin here (it’s another project I recently worked on).

The 2008 awards are here, and you can get exceptional journalism throughout the year by following JournoCurator on Twitter.

As is proper, the categories below were chosen after the winning pieces were selected, and serve only as an organizational tool. And now, without further delay…


The Washington Post

Fatal Distraction By Gene Weingarten

“Forgetting a child in the back seat of a hot, parked car is a horrifying, inexcusable mistake. But is it a crime?”

Rolling Stone

The Boy Who Heard Too Much by David Kushner

“He was a 14-year-old blind kid, angry and alone. Then he discovered that he possessed a strange and fearsome superpower — one that put him in the cross hairs of the FBI.”

The Washington Monthly

Pie in the Sky by Mariah Blake

“What happened when a billionaire pizza mogul tried to build an elite Catholic law school.”

Chicago Magazine

A Mugging on Lake Street By John Conroy

“A veteran investigative reporter looks into his own beating and finds himself confronting harsh and lingering questions of race.”


How I Convinced a Death Row Murderer Not to Die by Michael Finkel

“He was the one person on earth I wanted to die, and instead I’ve helped to save his goddamn life.”

LA Weekly

Box of Broken Dreams
by Mark Groubert

“A young photographer’s belongings are abandoned on a Hollywood street, leaving our writer to piece together the fragments of his life.”

This American Life

Mistakes Were Made — Act One: You’re As Cold As Ice

“It’s the late 1960s, and in the new technology of cryonics, a California TV repairman named Bob sees an opportunity to help people cheat death. But freezing dead people so scientists can reanimate them in the future is a lot harder than it sounds. Harder still was admitting to the family members of people Bob had frozen that he’d screwed up. Badly.”


Re-United, Act II: If By Chance We Meet Again

“Ralph and Sandra Fisher, who run a show-animal business in Texas, had a beloved Brahman bull named Chance. Chance was the gentlest bull they’d ever seen—more like a pet dog than a bull. When he finally died, Ralph and Sandra were devastated. Around that same time, scientists at Texas A & M University were looking for animal subjects for a cloning project. They already had some tissue from Chance because they’d treated him for an illness. So Ralph and Sandra offered up Chance’s DNA for the experiment. Second Chance was born. And he was, eerily, just like Chance. Except he wasn’t. Which they found out the hard way.”


The Weekly Standard

A Rake’s Progress: Marion Barry bares (almost) all. by Matt Labash

The definitive profile.

The Virginia Quarterly Review

Double Vision: The Art of Trevor and Ryan Oakes by Lawrence Weschler

There isn’t a person alive who can best Mr. Weschler at writing about art accessibly without sacrificing substance.

The American Prospect

Constant Comment by Kerry Howley

“How Kathleen Parker became America’s most read woman columnist.”


The New York Times

Held by the Taliban by David Rohde

The most riveting piece of the year.


The Letter of Last Resort — The Decision About Nuclear Apocalypse Lying in a Safe at the Bottom of the Sea by Ron Rosenbaum

The writer uses a fascinating, little known fact to explore the terrible paradox of nuclear deterrence.

The Virginia Quarterly Review

Empires of the Mind: SERE, Guantánamo, and the Legacies of Torture by David J. Morris

This first person account ends with the kicker of the year.

The New Atlantis

AIDS Relief and Moral Myopia by Travis Kavulla

The writer does his best to tackle the thorny subject of attitudes toward AIDS in parts of Africa that are particularly hard hit, explaining to a Western audience why our assumptions about fighting the disease may not track reality.

The New Yorker

Gangland by Jon Lee Anderson (subscription required)

Inside the favellas of Rio.

World Hum

You’re American? I Should Kill You!’ by Cory Eldridge

“To most of his roommates at his United Arab Emirates apartment, Cory Eldridge was an exotic American. To one of them, the Iraqi who’d been held at Abu Ghraib prison, he was ‘President Bush.'”


The New Yorker

Trial By Fire by David Grann

Nearly proves that an innocent man was executed in Texas.

The Independent

The Dark Side of Dubai
by Johann Hari

“Dubai was meant to be a Middle-Eastern Shangri-La, a glittering monument to Arab enterprise and western capitalism. But as hard times arrive in the city state that rose from the desert sands, an uglier story is emerging.”

The New York Times Magazine

Strained by Katrina, a Hospital Faced Deadly Choices by Sheri Fink

Arguably the most impressive reporting job this year.

The New Yorker

Brain Gain by Margaret Talbot

The underground world of “neuroenhancing” drugs.

This American Life


All three acts.


How Often Do Women Falsely Cry Rape? By Emily Bazelon and Rachael Larimore

A well-executed effort to treat this charged question as empirically as possible.



An Epidemic of Fear by Amy Wallace

“How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All.”

The New Yorker

The Cost Conundrum by Atul Gawande

“What a Texas town can teach us about health care.”

The Atlantic

How American Health Care Killed My Father by David Goldhill

“After the needless death of his father, the author, a business executive, began a personal exploration of a health-care industry that for years has delivered poor service and irregular quality at astonishingly high cost. It is a system, he argues, that is not worth preserving in anything like its current form. And the health-care reform now being contemplated will not fix it. Here’s a radical solution to an agonizing problem.”

This American Life

Fine Print: Act Three — Restrictions May Apply

On the least-defensible insurance industry practice.


The radio show’s exceptional two-part broadcast explaining the American health care system here and here.



Game Drain by Jeanne Marie Laskas

What the NFL doesn’t want you to know.

The Weekly Standard

The Cocktail Renaissance by Robert Messenger

The piece I most enjoyed reading this year.

The New York Times Magazine

The No Stat All Star by Michael Lewis

The writer’s sports prose is as fun to read as anything by Malcolm Gladwell, its arguments are as counter-intuitive, and its conclusions on basketball are more persuasive (in other words, NBA coaches would be better served trading for Shane Battier than instituting a full court press).


The New York Press

Flat N All That by Matt Taibbi

The writer’s polemical rants are hit and miss. This one puts Tom Friedman so far up a creek he’ll need three shovels and a steering wheel to spelunk himself out.


Obsidian Wings

Why Do They Stay
? by Hilzoy

Shortly before retiring from the blogosphere, the dearly missed blogger explained why battered women don’t leave their abusers.

The American Scene

A New Way to Think About Life by Reihan Salam

“The Cosmic Timekeeper is on your side.”

The New Yorker

William Safire (1929 – 2009) Mother Hen by Hendrik Hertzberg

A lesson in how to write an obit for someone with whom you profoundly disagreed.

The Washington Examiner

The lonely passing of Senator Kennedy by J.P. Freire

Empathy as a rarely used but useful tool in editorial writing.

The Washington Post

Murphy’s Law by Gene Weingarten

The writer excels on every topic he tackles. Dogs are no exception.

This American Life

Pro Se: Act I, Psycho Dabble

“Contributor Jon Ronson tells the story of a man who has spent more than a decade trying to convince doctors that he’s not mentally ill. But the more he argues his case, the less they believe him.”


The New Republic

An unknown story from the magazine whose URL I saved, but that I cannot now access due to their long-running, maddening archival clusterfuck. Can you help me out, criminally underpaid TNR interns?

Update: A contact at The New Republic informs me that the piece in question can be found here.


The Washington Monthly

College for $99 a Month by Kevin Carey

“The next generation of online education could be great for students—and catastrophic for universities.”

This American Life

Going Big — Prologue and Act One: Harlem Renaissance

“Paul Tough reports on the Harlem Children’s Zone, and its CEO and president, Geoffrey Canada. Among the project’s many facets is Baby College, an 8-week program where young parents and parents-to-be learn how to help their children get the education they need to be successful.”

Human Resources — Act One: Rubber Room.

“The true story of little-known rooms in the New York City Board of Education building. Teachers are told to report there instead of their classrooms. No reason is usually given. When they arrive, they find they’ve been put on some kind of probationary status, and they must report every day until the matter is cleared up.”

The New Yorker

The Rubber Room by Steven Brill

The battle over New York City’s worst teachers.


World Hum

Where No Travel Writer Has Gone Before by Rolf Potts

The writer “joins Trekkies aboard a ‘Star Trek’ theme cruise to Bermuda.”

Christopher Hitchens and the Battle of Beirut by Michael Totten

A famous writer, a swastika, and a street brawl that could’ve turned deadly.

The Atlantic Online

Keep scrolling down through Graeme Wood’s astonishing blog “Prepared for the Worst,” penned by the man who may be 2009’s most well-traveled writer.


The Wall Street Journal

No Grapes, No Nuts, No Market Share by Barry Newman

“All the world’s Grape Nuts come from a dirty-white, six-story concrete building with steam rising out of the roof here in the San Joaquin Valley. The valley grows lots of grapes and lots of nuts, so the factory’s location would make sense, if Grape Nuts contained any local ingredients. Which it doesn’t.”

Vanity Fair

Wall Street on the Tundra by Michael Lewis

“Iceland’s de facto bankruptcy—its currency (the krona) is kaput, its debt is 850 percent of G.D.P., its people are hoarding food and cash and blowing up their new Range Rovers for the insurance—resulted from a stunning collective madness.”


Why Craigslist is Such a Mess by Gary Wolf

The worst site that we all use by choice.

Vanity Fair

The Man Who Crashed the World by Michael Lewis

Is there anyone on earth who can write a story as enjoyable about AIG? (This story is complemented by an episode of This American Life that is also excellent.)

This American Life

Scenes From A Recession.

All three acts — and no, this isn’t the same episode linked above.


The American Spectator

The New Humanism by Roger Scruton

Why it’s worse than the old humanism.


My Newborn is Like a Narcotic by Katie Roiphe

Ignore the subtitle and enjoy a blissful piece.


Anatomy of a Child Pornographer by Nancy Rommelmann

“What happens when adults catch teenagers “sexting” photos of each other? The death of common sense.”

Vanity Fair

A Crime of Shadows by Mark Bowden

“After months of prowling Internet chat rooms, posing as the mother of two young daughters, Detective Michele Deery thought she had a live one: ‘parafling,’ a married, middle-aged man who claimed he wanted to have sex with her kids. But was he just playing a twisted game of seduction? Both the policewoman and her target give the author their versions of the truth, in a case that challenges the conventional wisdom about online sexual predators, and blurs the lines among crime, ‘intent,’ and enticement.”

The New York Times Magazine

Married (Happily) With Issues by Elizabeth Weil

The writer grapples with America’s marriage counseling trend by revealing the intimate details of what happened when she and her husband set out to improve their union, and wound up testing it.

New York Magazine

The Sex Diaries: A Critical (But Highly Sympathetic) Reading of New Yorkers’ Sexual Habits and Anxieties by Wesley Yang

The New York Times Magazine

Google’s Earth by Nicholas Baker

The American Scholar

The Decline of the English Department by William M. Chase

The New York Times Magazine

Love in 2-D by Lisa Katayama

The weirdest trend story of the year.


The Atlantic

What Makes Us Happy
? by Joshua Wolf Shenk

“Is there a formula—some mix of love, work, and psychological adaptation—for a good life?” says the subhead. “For 72 years, researchers at Harvard have been examining this question, following 268 men who entered college in the late 1930s through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age. Here, for the first time, a journalist gains access to the archive of one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history. Its contents, as much literature as science, offer profound insight into the human condition—and into the brilliant, complex mind of the study’s longtime director.”


Writer Evan Ratliff Tried to Vanish. Here’s What Happened
. by Even Ratfliff


The Big Picture

The Sartorialist


Box Turtle Bulletin

Coverage of the Ugandan anti-homosexuality legislation


This American Life

The Friendly Man — Act II, The Friendly Man

Scott Carrier “takes a job inside his profession, as a producer for a national commercial radio program,” and catalogs the pressure he faces to turn in the kinds of stories Americans want to hear.

The Daily Show

Despite going after the right with more acuity and zeal than the left, Jon Stewart and his team of writers have no peers when it comes to exposing the absurdity of cable “news” networks.


Jack Shafer wins the year’s most consistently good media critic award.

One Forty Plus

The Anatomy of a Smear: How The Reigning King of Special Effects Got Caught in One
by John Mayer

Yes, that John Mayer. Weird, I know.


The Ballad of Abu Ghraib by Philip Gourevitch

UPDATE: In posting this, I mistakenly neglected to add one piece, a three part profile of Glenn Beck written by Alexander Zaitchick. It appeared in Salon. Congrats to the author, and my apologies for the oversight.

Why Dick Cheney Doesn't Belong at an Organization That Honors the Founders

February 14, 2010

As publisher of The Claremont Review of Books, the California-based Claremont Institute hosts some of the smartest conservative writers in the world, it’s been a staunch advocate for necessary reforms in my home state, and it’s provided invaluable support to thinkers like Harry Jaffa, whose Crisis of the House Divided remains one of the most challenging, thought-provoking scholarly works I’ve ever read.

Despite my affection for the organization — early in my career, I wrote for its publication Local Liberty, did freelance work editing a number of my fellow contributors, penned a white paper on the subject of municipal redevelopment, and enjoyed pleasant interactions with its kind staff and many of its fellows — I must take exception to its decision to honor a speaker I’d rather it shunned:

The Claremont Institute is proud to welcome Dick Cheney as keynote speaker at a dinner in celebration of our 30th Anniversary. It will be held on Saturday evening, March 27, 2010, at the Millennium Biltmore in Los Angeles, California. Vice President Cheney is to be awarded the Claremont Institute’s Statesmanship Award.

It is disheartening that Dick Cheney is a fund-raising draw for organizations within the conservative movement, and especially upsetting that he’ll be honored by The Claremont Institute, whose particular, quite worthwhile mission is “to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. These principles are expressed most eloquently in the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that ‘all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.'”

Even if one thinks that Dick Cheney responded understandably or even correctly to the attacks of September 11, 2001, the measures that he advocated were incompatible with the principles of the American Founding. The men who created our system of government took great pains to institute checks and balances so that no one branch could threaten liberty, whereas Dick Cheney’s core argument is that safeguarding liberty requires an executive branch that possesses some unchecked powers necessary to fighting the Global War on Terrorism. It is possible for intelligent people to disagree about whether the Founders’ vision or Dick Cheney’s vision is correct or best suited to our times, but it is an intellectual error of the highest order to imagine that the two visions are synonymous or even compatible.

That the Claremont Institute believes the Founders expressed their principles most eloquently in the Declaration of Independence only compounds the error. Does Dick Cheney believe that “all men” are endowed by their Creator with “certain inalienable rights”? If so, how does one explain Mr. Cheney’s support for a depriving terrorist suspects of liberty even when he possessed wildly insufficient evidence that they were actually guilty? The United States government paid bounty hunters in Pakistan to round up terrorists, and threw the men rounded up into prison on the word of the bounty hunters. Mr. Cheney’s position with respect to these detainees was that they possessed no right to due process, that the United States government could subject them to waterboarding and stress positions, that the judiciary had no right to review their detention — and in hindsight, knowing that some of these men were wrongly imprisoned, it is notable that their innocence was determined and their liberty restored via processes that Mr. Cheney opposed.

It beggars belief that years later, serious people are implicitly asserting that Dick Cheney is a standard bearer for the proposition that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. Again, I grant that many smart people earnestly defend the actions of Mr. Cheney during his tenure, but if the Claremont Institute honors Mr. Cheney for these actions, it is either a grave error or an implicit argument that the organization’s mission is no longer relevant in a post-9/11 world. I happen to think that safeguarding the principles of the Founding remains as vital an enterprise as ever, and quixotic as my admonition may be, I call on the folks at The Claremont Institute to revoke their speaking invitation.

Principled, Reasonable Leaders

February 12, 2010

E.D. Kain is correct:

I think moderates make the same mistake that the purists do in imagining that their own brand of conservatism is the right way forward. I would argue that neither the moderate or conservative approach is right or wrong, but rather that there are sincere, genuine and reasonable people representing both camps. These people are the ones that moderate and conservative members of the Republican party should support, despite some political differences.

Furthermore, these distinctions become fairly muddy as we look at the plethora of policy positions that actual Republicans hold. Take former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, for instance. As governor he cut several hundred state jobs, tightened the state’s fiscal belt, and vetoed 750 bills – more than all other 49 state governors combined. He was against both the TARP and the stimulus. And unlike Sanford and others in the GOP who claimed to be against the stimulus before accepting very large chunks of federal cash, I think Johnson would have refused the federal dollars if he were still in office. In this respect, Johnson might be considered very far to the right. But at the same time, Johnson opposes the war on drugs, and believes that the billions we spend locking up non-violent marijuana smokers each year is an expensive waste of time. Johnson has a legitimate shot at the 2012 Republican nomination for president if he chooses to run – but is he a moderate or a full-blooded conservative? Or is he a libertarian in Republican clothing? Does any of it really matter, so long as he is a principled, reasonable man with sound ideas about how to fix some of this country’s problems?

On False Charges of Anti-Semitism

February 11, 2010

I’m heartened to see so many bloggers defending Andrew Sullivan against the insinuation that he is anti-Semitic. It is an impressive feat to levy a charge so wrongheaded that Daniel Larison, David Frum, Matthew Yglesias, James Joyner, Brad DeLong, Alex Pareene, and Robert Stacy McCain all agree with one another in finding it ridiculous. Is there any other instance of those folks all writing on the same side of a single issue? Mr. Sullivan adds a definitive refutation here.

Awful as it is to see anyone wrongly accused of bigotry, perhaps it is best that this meme finally got raised in a prominent enough venue to be thoroughly aired and utterly refuted. Where it began I cannot say, but I’ve watched it appear in less esteemed venues than The New Republic repeatedly in recent months. Did the posts I saw inform Leon Wieseltier’s piece? I have no idea. Suffice it to say that how Mr. Wieseltier formed his opinions about Mr. Sullivan is a subject far too complicated for me to understand. What I can say with certainty is that too many blogs cynically use the charge of anti-Semitism in the most dishonest, disgusting ways imaginable.

Over the years, I’ve done my best to call out racism and race-baiting. These mutually reinforcing evils are as destructive to civil society as anything I know, and although racism remains the bigger problem among the two, that doesn’t diminish the odiousness of folks like Al Sharpton, Kerry Dunn, Mike Nifong, and Rush Limbaugh, to name check four people whose different kinds of race-baiting I’ve written against over the years. As this episode ends, it is fitting to examine but one example of how this kind of meme spreads upward in the blogosphere. It starts with a blog post like this one, an attack that makes Mr. Wieseltier’s piece seem well-reasoned. Its title: “Andrew Sullivan: Anti-Semite, Anti-Israel, Anti-Jew.”

Full disclosure: I know about this obscure blogger only because sometime later, he wrote a post titled “Why Does Conor Friedersdorf Support An Anti-Semite,” which popped up on my Google Alert.

Its reasoning:

Andrew Sullivan is his mentor and his mentor has gone after Jews and Israel many times, as I note here.

Real Conservatives support Israel and Jews, why is Conor silent on this?

I guess silence means he agrees with Sullivan.

Okay, big deal, this is a transparently absurd post at a truly fringe blog, right? But do you know who is markedly more popular, and garners regular links from mainstream blogs like Instapundit? Dan Riehl, who dislikes both Mr. Sullivan and me, an animosity that caused him to link the post from the truly fringe blog. Here is what Mr. Riehl titled his post, dated November 18, 2009: “Friedersdorf Digs Sullivan’s Crazy Anti-Semitism.”

Valley of the Shadows has been on this angle.

I detest such vile displays. It’s a good thing it isn’t allowed on Talk Radio where they police such things for appropriateness. Why do these young post-menstrual, or whatever they are, faux conservatives support hate speech? Are they anti-Semites at heart?

Friedersdorf … hmm, is that a German name?

Gosh, I hope that isn’t it.

That pissed me off at the time, for obvious reasons, and I said so privately in e-mail exchanges with a few other bloggers. What causes me to recount all this now, when I didn’t “feed the troll” at the time, is Mr. Riehl’s latest post on Andrew Sullivan, which concerns the current controversy: “Andrew Sullivan Is Not an Anti-Semite.” An argument for that proposition follows.

What I find remarkable is that by his own account Dan Riehl doesn’t believe that Andrew Sullivan is an anti-Semite, let alone that I “dig” Mr. Sullivan’s “crazy anti-Semitism,” but on November 18, 2009, Mr. Riehl nevertheless breezily asserted that Mr. Sullivan engages in “crazy anti-Semitism” that I support. What a stark dearth of integrity. Is there any more cynical kind of race-baiting?

Again, I make no claims about what led Mr. Wieseltier to write his piece, or whether he argued in earnest. What do I think? That earnestly but wrongly arguing someone is a racist is relatively rare — and that far more commonly, false accusations of racism are made maliciously by folks who engage in character assassination so frivolously and reflexively that they can’t even remember them well enough to avoid contradicting themselves a couple of months later.

This is important because most bloggers aren’t like Andrew Sullivan or even me — that is to say, they don’t have established reputations, large bodies of work to draw on in defending themselves, and a lot of people with relatively big platforms willing to take notice if ever they’re wronged in a particularly egregious way. Usually someone targeted by a post like that from an established writer like Mr. Riehl can only look forward to a few angry pieces of hate e-mail from his audience, an indignant reply on a low traffic blog that hardly anyone ever sees, and a Google page that suddenly includes a frivolous charge of anti-Semitism that will be seen by their next three dates and the employer to whom they just submitted a resume.

I actually think race-baiters intend merely to score short term rhetorical points by trading on the power accusations of racism retain, as opposed to deliberately damaging someone’s reputation in a lasting way, but that is hardly an excuse for the direct harm they do to their targets, and the pernicious effect that have on the blogosphere generally, as intelligent folks start to avoid certain arguments — or even refrain from blogging at all — so that they can avoid immature, petulant bullies for whom public discourse is a cage match. If every blogger knows as many folks as I do who shy away from writing for this reason, the cost that these people impose on us is staggering if invisible.

Sarah Palin's Biggest Booster Strikes Again

February 8, 2010

Once again Matthew Continetti is using his considerable writerly talent to laud Sarah Palin, the Alaska politician who resigned her governorship to focus on cable news appearances and paid speaking gigs. Daniel Larison ably explains why Mr. Continetti’s commentary on the foreign policy elements in her speech are an embarrassment to a man of his intelligence.

I’ll therefore focus my commentary elsewhere, and in doing so, I must admit that he gets this exactly right:

Sarah Palin’s speech to the Tea Party convention in Nashville showcased all of the former Alaska governor’s strengths. She was confident, funny, down-to-earth, at times emotional–and she took a scalpel to the Obama administration and congressional Democrats.

Read that passage carefully, and you’ll see that Mr. Continetti acknowledges, whether slyly or inadvertently, that Ms. Palin’s strengths are limited to confidence, humor, down-to-earthiness, and an ability to attack the opposition party. Conspicuously missing from her list of strengths are intelligence, prudence, foreign policy experience, self-awareness, impressive achievements, patience, perseverance, integrity, intellectual honesty, and rhetorical precision.

Normally intelligent writers refrain from touting politicians who lack these qualities, but not Mr. Continetti, who continues to marshal his considerable talent in Ms. Palin’s service. The second paragraph in his piece is a small example of how far he is willing to go as her sycophant:

The timing of the speech was also significant. Palin used the talk, broadcast live on Fox News Channel and C-SPAN, to respond to the president’s State of the Union address from last week. Palin’s mention that today is Ronald Reagan’s birthday positioned her squarely among his heiresses.

So talented is Mr. Continetti that I almost read right past that without pausing, but wait a minute — can politicians now position themselves as heir or heiress to Ronald Reagan, the political figure most beloved of conservatives, merely by mentioning his birthday? Perhaps Ms. Palin can also give speeches on the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln, F.A. Hayek and Winston Churchill, positioning herself as their heiresses too. “The media are playing into Palin’s hands,” Mr. Continetti writes. “They’ve used her celebrity as an excuse to cover her relentlessly even though she holds no office–and yet the attention helps her communicate to her supporters and reach out to audiences who may be giving her a second thought.” It is truly jaw-dropping to see Mr. Continetti of all people slag the media for covering the former governor relentlessly despite the fact that she holds no office.

Actual Death Panels in the Obama Administration

February 8, 2010

In my latest piece at The Daily Beast, I excoriate the Obama Administration for its contention that it possesses the power to kill American citizens if they are determined by unknown persons in the executive branch to be imminent threats to the United States or its interests. The whole piece can be found here, and it includes links to pieces by Dana Priest, Eli Lake, and Glenn Greenwald, three talented journalists to whom I’m indebted on this story.

Frankly, I am flabbergasted that the practice is as uncontroversial as it seems to be. Over the weekend, I Tweeted back and forth on the subject with Jon Henke, a razor sharp libertarian whose thinking and writing I am always eager to consume. He argued that this is an inherently difficult subject because there are a lot of “problems, subjective judgments and gray areas” at play. I agree to a point. Obviously I don’t think that an American citizen squaring off against the United States Marines on a battlefield need be arrested. So does a heavily armed terrorist cell holed up in a Baghdad apartment occupy a war zone? What if they’re holed up in a Hamburg apartment? An apartment in Charleston, South Carolina?

But I cannot believe that blurring lines makes it constitutionally permissible to assassinate citizens who aren’t on a battlefield, or sitting armed in an apartment that serves as the equivalent.

As Mr. Greenwald puts it:

The people on this “hit list” are likely to be killed while at home, sleeping in their bed, driving in a car with friends or family, or engaged in a whole array of other activities. More critically still, the Obama administration — like the Bush administration before it — defines the “battlefield” as the entire world. So the President claims the power to order U.S. citizens killed anywhere in the world, while engaged even in the most benign activities carried out far away from any actual battlefield, based solely on his say-so and with no judicial oversight or other checks. That’s quite a power for an American President to claim for himself.

In my piece in The Daily Beast, I argue the following: “That this power helps us to eliminate a few dangerous men in the short term hardly justifies the imprudent folly of indulging an unchecked power so extreme it can only end in corruption.” I stand by this position. How many Americans can there possibly be who are a) terrorists who pose an imminent threat; b) impervious to being captured alive; c) capable of being killed.

But even if you believe that our situation is so dire that American citizens must be killed without having been charged, tried and convicted of anything, shouldn’t you at the very least want this extraordinary, unprecedented power checked by someone in another branch of government? What is the counterargument against that added safety? If these killings are actually free from abuses, surely the president possesses ample evidence that the person targeted actually is a terrorist who poses a grave threat. Is it too much to ask that a three judge panel agrees? And that Congress reviews all killings periodically? Shouldn’t the folks at The Claremont Institute, who champion the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, be arguing that those men would’ve made sure to build checks against such a significant power into other branches of the government?

The balance of my piece is here. As always, I’m eager to hear critiques, and especially curious to hear the argument against oversight from those who insist that this is a necessary practice. Takeaway lesson: no one who rises to the presidency can be trusted to limit himself to powers afforded his office by the Constitution properly understood.