I read a number of great articles in 2012, but here are five that I still think about–even months later.
David Graeber, “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit.” The Baffler, No. 19. Probably my favorite article of the year. Haven’t you ever wondered why very few of the technological advances we were promised have actually arrived? Graeber’s analysis is smart, convincing, and pleasantly digressive. And then there’s this:
There was a time when academia was society’s refuge for the eccentric, brilliant, and impractical. No longer. It is now the domain of professional self-marketers. As a result, in one of the most bizarre fits of social self-destructiveness in history, we seem to have decided we have no place for our eccentric, brilliant, and impractical citizens. Most languish in their mothers’ basements, at best making the occasional, acute intervention on the Internet.
I’ve considered adding this paragraph to the bottom of my curriculum vitae.
Terry Castle, “Don’t Pick Up: Why Kids Need to Separate from Their Parents.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 6, 2012. Another wide-ranging essay, this time by the brilliant literary critic Terry Castle. Castle’s shock at her Stanford students’ closeness to their parents leads her to a fascinating argument about the novel:
Thus the first of two big lit-crit hypotheses I’ll advance here: More than love, sex, courtship, and marriage; more than inheritance, ambition, rivalry, or disgrace; more than hatred, betrayal, revenge, or death, orphanhood—the absence of the parent, the frightening yet galvanizing solitude of the child—may be the defining fixation of the novel as a genre, what one might call its primordial motive or matrix, the conditioning psychic reality out of which the form itself develops.
And, perhaps more importantly, are the lives of our students signaling a change in conditions of our world?
Are we in the midst of some countertransformation? A rolling back of the Enlightenment parent-child story? Are we returning to an older model of belief—to a more authoritarian and “elder centric” world? The deferential-child model has dominated most of human history, after all. Maybe the extraordinary Enlightenment break with the age-old commandment—honor thy father and thy mother—was temporary, an aberration, a blip on the screen.
Patrick Hruby, “Game Over.” Sports On Earth, August 29, 2012.
Charles P. Pierce, “American Ghouls.” Grantland, April 30, 2012.
This year, I (and only about five other people, apparently) got over the NFL. The gleeful crushing of labor unions, the shakedowns of municipal tax coffers, the Billionaire Boys Club: it all looks so ugly. But most importantly, this is the first year that I recognized how purposefully the NFL has ignored brain injury and how continuing to watch makes me complicit in that deliberate negligence. For the first time in my life, watching a football game looks to me like a choice with negative ethical consequences. These articles had a lot to do with that perception.
Slowly, over time, I’ve found myself worrying more and enjoying football less; recently, I’ve come to feel that seeing people ruin themselves for entertainment’s sake — so my Saturdays and Sundays are a little more fun — isn’t just sordid. It’s ghoulish.
There will be people who maintain that NFL players signed on to be cogs in a machine when they signed their initial contracts. There is a libertarian argument that will be made about allowing people to take their own risks with their own bodies. There will be some boohooing about the involvement of “politics” in our entertainment. Standing against these concerns is the simple fact that we all owe each other a debt as members of a political and social commonwealth not to profit from the pain and suffering of each other, no matter who inflicts it or how accidental or deliberate that might be. It is time to regard our individual complicity in the circumstances that we allow to produce what happened to someone like Ray Easterling with a far more jaundiced eye than we ever have. You can enjoy football if you wish. I do. But I can’t enjoy it blindly any more. I can’t enjoy it with a clear conscience.
Zadie Smith, “The North West London Blues.” NYR Blog, June 2, 2012. A defense of a local library becomes a meditation on the importance of the state. This is a conversation we need to have in America.
I retain a particular naivety concerning the British state, which must seem comical to many people, particularly younger people. I can only really account for it by reaching back again, briefly, into the past. It’s a short story about debt—because I owe the state, quite a lot. Some people owe everything they have to the bank accounts of their parents. I owe the state. Put simply, the state educated me, fixed my leg when it was broken, and gave me a grant that enabled me to go to university. It fixed my teeth (a bit) and found housing for my veteran father in his dotage. When my youngest brother was run over by a truck it saved his life and in particular his crushed right hand, a procedure that took half a year, and which would, on the open market—so a doctor told me at the time—have cost a million pounds. Those were the big things, but there were also plenty of little ones: my subsidized sports centre and my doctor’s office, my school music lessons paid for with pennies, my university fees. My NHS glasses aged 9. My NHS baby aged 33. And my local library. To steal another writer’s title: England made me. It has never been hard for me to pay my taxes because I understand it to be the repaying of a large, in fact, an almost incalculable, debt.