Every year, The Sidney Awards go to the authors of the best magazine essays, and every year the psychic costs grow worse. The Sidneys have become so prestigious and so life-altering that the winners know that everything they produce hereafter will be anti-climactic. Some crack up — F. Scott Fitzgerald style — others simply endure a long, slow slide from the summit back to obscurity.
Nonetheless, the Sidneys must go on, and this year they come in two batches. On Friday, we'll celebrate more polemical essays, but on Tuesday, we honor articles that captured different (and often illogical) slices of American life. Links to these pieces can be found in the online version of this column.
Nick Paumgarten wrote "There and Back Again" in The New Yorker, describing the culture of extreme commuting. He begins with the figures: One in six Americans spends at least 90 minutes a day commuting. The number of Americans who spend more than 180 minutes a day doing it — 3.5 million — has doubled since 1990.
Then Paumgarten tags along with a few extreme commuters in New York and Atlanta. Many move far from their jobs because the urban areas have become too chaotic or because they harbor a dream of rural bliss. They adopt elaborate strategies to occupy the wasted hours.
Paumgarten contemplates the social costs: Every 10 minutes of commuting times results in 10 percent fewer social connections, Robert Putnam tells him. And then there's the irrationality: "The commuting paradox reflects the notion that many people, who are supposedly rational (according to classical economic theory at least), commute even though it makes them miserable."
New York magazine had a very good year. In "Everybody Sucks," Vanessa Grigoriadis describes the "creative underclass." These are young, smart people who work at the bottom of the opinion-forming food chain. They work at places like Gawker.com and spew venom at everybody above.
The Gawker writers are far from the first to play on their readers' status anxiety (by telling them that people who are more famous are actually frauds). But Grigoriadis gets inside the creative underclass. In her description, Gawker is an information-age sweatshop. The bloggers on staff are compelled to produce 12 blog posts a day, and under the old compensation system they were paid the munificent sum of $12 per post. Now it's worse. Owner Nick Denton is going to pay them per page-view. No views, no food.
Matt Labash of The Weekly Standard is consistently one of the best magazine writers in the country. Since amoral blackguards bring out his best, his profile of political dirty tricks artist Roger Stone was bound to be good. Stone cut his teeth with Nixon, loved Roy Cohn, works with Trump, advised Sharpton and has laid a barrage of fire into Eliot Spitzer. One of Stone's maxims is: "Hit from every angle. Open multiple fronts on your enemy. He must be confused, and feel besieged on every side."
But Stone is also a colorful, dashing artist of the underhanded. Labash tried to ply him with alcohol to loosen his tongue. But Stone was one step ahead. He'd already paid the waiter to bring him water disguised as martinis.
Michael Lewis is famous for his nonfiction narratives. His piece "The Evolution of an Investor" in Portfolio describes Blaine Lourd, who began his career as an ordinary stock salesman, as trying to persuade his clients that he and his firm could beat the market. Then he realized nobody could. The entire stock-touting industry doesn't work.
Everybody is (or should be) familiar with the efficient-markets theory, but Lewis describes its power in personal and moral terms, as one man's struggle against self-loathing and greed.
In "The Story of a Snitch," published in The Atlantic, Jeremy Kahn tells the story of John Dowery Jr., a young man from East Baltimore who agreed to testify in court after witnessing a drug killing — and who paid the price. But the larger tale is about the spread of omerta culture. Now even the decent people in some urban areas are so intimidated by thugs and alienated from the authorities that they refuse to testify against the criminals destroying their own neighborhoods.
On a cheerier note, Peter Wehner and Yuval Levin look at the broad social indicators in "Crime, Drugs, Welfare — and Other Good News" in Commentary. They note that despite the cultural pessimists, America is in a period of astonishing social repair. Crime is down; abortion rates are down; drug use is down. They puzzle over the fact that all this has happened while divorce and out-of-wedlock birth rates remain high.
They conclude by reminding us that even in an illogical world, changes in government policy and social mores can repair the social ecology and transform individual behavior.
c.2007 New York Times News Service