David Brooks on the Sidney Awards

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jbuck919
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David Brooks on the Sidney Awards

Post by jbuck919 » Tue Dec 25, 2012 9:52 am

The New York Times

December 24, 2012
The 2012 Sidney Awards I
By DAVID BROOKS

At the start of the 1980s, about 5 percent of Harvard students were Asian-American. But the number of qualified Asian-American applicants rose so that by 1993 roughly 20 percent of Harvard students had Asian heritage.

But, according to Ron Unz, a funny thing then happened. The number of qualified Asian-Americans continued to rise, but the number of Asian-Americans admitted to Harvard fell so that the student body was about 16 percent Asian. Between 1995 and 2011, Harvard’s Asian-American population has varied by less than a percentage point around that 16.5 percent average. Not only that, the percentage of Asian-Americans at other Ivy League schools has also settled at a remarkably stable 16 percent, year after year.

This smells like a quota system, or at least that was the implication left by Unz’s searing, sprawling, frustrating and highly debatable piece, “The Myth of the American Meritocracy,” in The American Conservative. It wins the first of the 2012 Sidney Awards, which go to the best magazine essays of the year.

You’re going to want to argue with Unz’s article all the way along, especially for its narrow, math-test-driven view of merit. But it’s potentially ground-shifting. Unz’s other big point is that Jews are vastly overrepresented at elite universities and that Jewish achievement has collapsed. In the 1970s, for example, 40 percent of top scorers in the Math Olympiad had Jewish names. Now 2.5 percent do. The fanatical generations of immigrant strivers have been replaced by a more comfortable generation of preprofessionals, he implies.

On Aug. 13, 1986, Michael Morton returned from work to discover his wife murdered in their bed. He had no motive and no history of violence. He passed two lie detector tests. The couple’s 3-year-old son witnessed the murder and gave a relative a detailed description, explicitly saying that his father was not involved.

Yet prosecutors decided Morton was the killer. He was convicted, and he spent nearly the next quarter-century in prison. If you start reading “The Innocent Man,” a two-part series on this case that Pamela Colloff wrote for The Texas Monthly, you will be propelled along by indignation at the arrogance and stupidity of the entire law enforcement system. You’ll be thankful again for the Innocence Project, which uses DNA evidence to clear the wrongfully convicted.

I may be accused of favoritism, but there were two outstanding essays this year on Bruce Springsteen. The first was David Remnick’s profile in The New Yorker, “We Are Alive,” in which Springsteen wrestles with the gaps between his own life and his working-class material. The second was Jeffrey Goldberg’s rollicking piece in The Atlantic on the Springsteen-mania of Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey.

Christie, Goldberg writes, “is a very large man who dances at Springsteen concerts in front of many thousands of people without giving a damn what they think.” The nominal subject is Christie’s then unrequited love for Springsteen (Springsteen has since spoken with him), but the real subject of the piece is political polarization, what people share beneath the political divides.

Mitt Romney’s religion generated a tide of commentary. One of the more humane and nuanced pieces was “Confessions of an Ex-Mormon,” written by Walter Kirn for The New Republic. When he was a teenager, Kirn’s father was having a breakdown, his mother was threatening to leave and everything was falling apart. Suddenly a chance encounter brought them in touch with Mormonism.

Missionaries came to the Kirn home night after night for six weeks. They brought the Kirns into the church and stabilized their lives. Kirn never became a committed member of the faith, but beautifully describes his brushes with it, concluding with a summary of the sheer power of its social support: “Nothing mysterious. Nothing cultish. Just a handshake.”

People used to die quickly, but now more do so slowly. There are more than five million Americans with dementia. By 2050, 15 million Americans will be demented at an annual cost somewhere north of $1 trillion. In “A Life Worth Ending,” in New York Magazine, Michael Wolff describes the case of his own mother, the once great talker and wit, who has lost many of her faculties. He writes, “When my mother’s diaper is changed she makes noises of harrowing despair — for a time, before she lost all language, you could if you concentrated make out what she was saying, repeated over and over again: ‘It’s a violation. It’s a violation. It’s a violation.’ ”

On a more upbeat note, Raffi Khatchadourian told the amazing story of how Dallas Wiens lost his face in a construction accident, and then how a community of doctors and others rebuilt it. The article, “Transfiguration,” in The New Yorker describes the spiritual transformation of Wiens as much as the science of his physical one.

More Sidneys are on the way, next column.
Last edited by jbuck919 on Fri Dec 28, 2012 1:34 pm, edited 1 time in total.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
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jbuck919
Military Band Specialist
Posts: 26858
Joined: Wed Jan 28, 2004 10:15 pm
Location: Stony Creek, New York

Re: David Brooks on the Sidney Awards

Post by jbuck919 » Fri Dec 28, 2012 1:34 pm

And here is part 2:


The New York Times

December 27, 2012
The 2012 Sidney Awards, Part II
By DAVID BROOKS

Sixty years ago, scientists believed that schizophrenia was caused by emotional conflict with the patient’s parents. A cold mother would deliver conflicting messages of hope and rejection and drive her child into madness.

Then scientists rejected that cruel model and concluded that schizophrenia was a brain disease. But the drugs that treated schizophrenia as a biological disorder did not work well. Now, as Tanya Marie Luhrmann notes in an essay, “Beyond the Brain” in The Wilson Quarterly, that model has failed, too.

Schizophrenia is seen as the result of a complex interaction of unrelated causes: myriad genes, a mother’s illness during pregnancy, childhood stress, cultural factors and many other things. Researchers have been driven to this conclusion, in part because this mental illness shows up differently, at different rates, in different cultures.

Patients in India, for example, do much better than patients in the West. Indian society regards mental illness differently. Indian doctors, for example, tell patients they are perfectly well, but should take certain pills to rebuild their strength. This deception seems to work.

Luhrmann’s article wins a Sidney Award as one of the best essays of the year. The award was designed to encourage people to step back at this time of the year and look at the big picture. Walter Russell Mead’s “The Once and Future Liberalism” in The American Interest certainly encourages that.

Mead argues that our current political argument is a conflict between two versions of liberalism, the small state Manchester liberalism of the 1890s (the current doctrine of the Republican Party) and the big organization managerial state liberalism of the 1950s (the current doctrine of the Democratic Party).

Both are obsolete. He spends much of his essay describing how the latest version of liberalism, which was great in its day, is breaking down. It rested on economic and demographic foundations that no longer exist.

Mead says it’s time to gratefully say farewell to both. He doesn’t offer a replacement, but persuasively asks you to think anew.

The exclamation point was not a standard feature on typewriters until the 1970s. Nobody wore blue or pink or yellow ribbons to show their emotional attachments to various causes until 1979. No state specifically allowed victim statements at sentencing hearings as late as 1978.

But all that has changed. Today we are awash in exclamation points and affiliation symbols and sentiment more generally. This transformation has been nicely analyzed by Pamela Haag in “Death by Treacle” in The American Scholar.

Haag writes, “Maybe this century’s culture is a culture of feeling in which the ideal citizen-feeler has the qualities of soulful transparency, audacious disclosure, and candor, and who knows the skills of whispered confession. ...” The interesting thing, she notes, is that all this sentiment is not actually bringing people closer together.

There is a parasitic wasp that lays its eggs in the belly of an orb spider. The larva releases chemicals that alter the spider’s brain so that it weaves webs in the shape of larva cocoons, instead of normal spider web patterns. The spider even weaves a specific geometric pattern to camouflage the cocoon.

This is not the only parasite that releases chemicals to change its host’s thinking. The scientist Jaroslav Flegr believes parasites transmitted by cat feces have altered his brain. Kathleen McAuliffe tells his story in “How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy” in The Atlantic. Men infected in this way tend to wear more rumpled clothes and have fewer friends. Infected women wear nicer clothes and have more friends.

There are many more essays worthy of Sidney Awards that I want to bring to your attention, so let me just briefly list a few:

“The Thought Police” by Paul Berman in The New Republic, on how radical Islamist thugs used intimidation to defeat Arab liberals in their struggle for the future of the Middle East.

“The Caging of America” by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. One gets the sense that the inhumanity of our prisons will be regarded with disbelief by future generations. This essay surveys the scene.

“The Writing Revolution” by Peg Tyre in The Atlantic. About a school on Staten Island that improved its academic outputs by teaching its underprivileged students the nuts and bolts of writing.

“Broken BRICs” by Ruchir Sharma in Foreign Affairs. Everyone assumes that the rising economies of Asia and elsewhere (BRICs, Brazil, Russia, India, and China) will own the future. Sharma challenges this thesis. Emerging economies are fading. In 2011, Sharma notes, “the difference in per capita incomes between the rich and the developing nations was back to where it was in the 1950s.”

“The Education of Dasmine Cathey” by Brad Wolverton in The Chronicle of Higher Education. This humane article takes us into the world of one midlevel college football player, who, among other things, tried to teach himself to read.

Here are some honorable mentions, too: “Atonement,” by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker, about an Iraq war veteran who seeks out the family he harmed; “The Meme Generation,” by Matt Labash in The Weekly Standard, about the impact of the Web’s viral-content culture on America; “In Nothing We Trust,” by Ron Fournier and Sophie Quinton in National Journal, about how Americans are losing faith in the institutions that made this country great; “Happyism,” by Deirdre N. McCloskey in The New Republic, about the creepy new economics of pleasure; and, lastly, “Not Fade Away,” by Robert Kagan in The New Republic, about the myth of the American decline.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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