At the end of every year, I pause from the rush of events to offer the Sidney Awards, which I created in honor of the late, great philosopher Sidney Hook. The Sidneys go to some of the year’s best long-form journalism — the essays that touch the deeper human realities. During this shapeless year, waiting endlessly for this pandemic to be over, I’ve found myself drawn to stories of fascinating individuals.
One of them is Robert McIlvaine Sr. He is a character in Jennifer Senior’s brilliant essay “What Bobby McIlvaine Left Behind” in The Atlantic. His son, Bobby McIlvaine, died on 9/11, at 26, just outside the twin towers. The essay is about the way grief hits his parents, his girlfriend and others.
Nothing about grief is predictable. Bob Sr. comes to believe his son was killed by elements within the U.S. government who set off bombs in the towers to cover up an investigation. In his theory, shadowy forces requisitioned gold from the Japanese during World War II and then used it to bankrupt the Soviet Union. The F.B.I. investigation into this was happening on the 23rd floor of one of the towers, so the buildings had to be destroyed. The planes hitting the towers were for show.
In other words, the tragedy took Bob Sr., an unremarkable, soft-spoken suburban man, and turned him into an obsessive who for 20 years refuses to move on and who talks relentlessly of his theory, becoming a truther celebrity. “The only thing I do is 9/11 stuff,” he told Senior. “My whole basis of everything revolves around the day.”
His wife has her own journey of grief. Bobby’s girlfriend, who lived with Bobby’s parents after 9/11 but no longer speaks to them, has another. All the people in this essay have their own desperate survival strategy, and they behave in ways that are astoundingly surprising.
In “A Series of Rooms Occupied by Ghislaine Maxwell,” in Granta, Chris Dennis traces the life of Jeffrey Epstein’s enabler. The power of the essay comes from how Dennis’s own experiences illuminate the Epstein horror show. He’s served time in a facility like the one where Maxwell is now imprisoned. He was the victim of sexual abuse, having had multiple sexual relationships with adults by the time he was 14.
He writes that he saw his “sexualization by strange adults as a kind of love.” He adds: “I was sought out by deviant adults who pretended they wanted to care for me, while also assuring me that I was mature, that I was like them, even when I was not. This lie about maturity is something young people crave, that place between autonomy and validation.”
Sara Gruen is a writer best known for her novel “Water for Elephants.” In 2015 she received a fan letter from Charles Murdoch, who was serving life in prison for murder. Abbott Kahler describes what happened next in an essay called “A Best-Selling Author Became Obsessed With Freeing a Man From Prison. It Nearly Ruined Her Life,” for The Marshall Project.
Gruen became consumed with Murdoch’s case and hellbent on proving his innocence. She pored over every detail of his life and spent over a quarter of a million dollars hiring lawyers to overturn the conviction. Her personality began to deteriorate. Kahler, watching Gruen cast aside her writing for the case, grew alarmed: “As Sara’s friend of nearly 20 years, I worried that she might die — or that if she lived, it would be as an incomplete, foreign version of herself, one incapable of coherent conversation, let alone writing books.”
I think I was drawn to these essays because we’re living through traumatic times, and I wanted to understand the bizarre effects stress can have on the psyche. To get at some of the factors causing that stress, I relied on “Everything Is Broken,” by Alana Newhouse in Tablet. Shortly after Newhouse gave birth to her son, she sensed that something was profoundly wrong with him. Doctors assured her he was healthy, and it took her years to figure out that she had been right all along. She consulted the brain specialist Norman Doidge, who told her that while there are good people in medicine, the whole system is profoundly broken. Medical error is one of the leading causes of death in America.
Then Doidge turned to Newhouse and her husband, who is also a journalist, and asked her a question: “How come so much of the journalism I read seems like garbage?” She and her husband looked at each other and had a simultaneous realization: “If the medical industry was comprehensively broken, as Norman said, and the media was irrevocably broken, as we knew it was … was everything in America broken? Was education broken? Housing? Farming? Cities? Was religion broken? Everything is broken.” The essay then asks how this came to be.
Speaking of broken, Chris Hayes’s essay “On the Internet, We’re Always Famous,” in The New Yorker, has really lingered in my mind. Hayes points out that one big thing about the internet is not who gets to speak but what we can hear. “A not particularly industrious 14-year-old can learn more about a person in a shorter amount of time than a team of K.G.B. agents could have done 60 years ago,” Hayes writes. Never before, he continues, “have so many people been under the gaze of so many strangers.”
A kind of fame is now ubiquitous, and the line between private life and public life, which took centuries to build, is being erased at record speed. Millions of people are thus in the business of trying to impress strangers. The problem is that we can’t get genuine care from the strangers who surveil us online; we can only get attention. We become attention addicts, in, as Hayes puts it, “pursuit through fame of a thing that fame cannot provide”— genuine human connection.
OK. Enough grimness. Let’s find some hope. We’ve all read a zillion pieces on political polarization, but April Lawson’s essay “Building Trust Across the Political Divide,” in Comment, is like none other. The secret is that Lawson has actually been working in the field of political bridge-building, and she deftly dissects why so many of those well-intentioned efforts go wrong.
Most bridge-building efforts are funded by and staffed by people on the Blue (left) side of the political spectrum, and many of these people are unaware of how their unconscious assumptions come across to Reds. For example, many Blues assume that the way to bring people together is to have conversations that stress our common humanity, that celebrate tolerance, empathy and diversity.
Reds hear: You’re going to empathize with my feelings, but you’re not going to engage with my substantive points. You value ethnic, racial and gender diversity, but you won’t value viewpoint diversity, especially when it is outside your moral framework. You want to converse, but you come into the room assuming that if I could be taught what is true, I’d be educated into Blueness.
Lawson argues that the ethic of tolerance, “which goes in the guise of a neutral standard, denudes public argument of its profound spiritual dimensions and thereby guts the richness of pluralism.”
The solution is not sameness and tolerance, it’s argument and debate. People respect each other when they argue their differences well. Lawson’s program, at the organization Braver Angels, has hosted over 200 Red-Blue debates, mostly on college campuses. One key rule is that everybody must address the person running the debate, not each other. This turns down the heat and puts the focus on the substance.
Lawson has put her long experience with Reds to good use and persuaded me that better conflict is the answer, not no conflict. (I should add a heap of disclosures to this Sidney: Lawson was formerly my colleague at The Times who used to help me, among other things, put together the Sidneys. The editor of Comment, where the essay appeared, is my wife.)
Let’s end with a quirky journey of faith. Paul Kingsnorth was a normal urban cosmopolitan who had fairly common prejudices against Christianity — that it was repressive rubbish believed by those who were not particularly clever. He went through a militant atheist phase, and worked for years as an environmental activist. His spiritual journey took him through Buddhism and into the forests with the Wiccans.
None of it answered the void he felt inside or the spiritual and cultural crises he saw around him. Eventually the thing he once detested broke through. As he writes in his essay “The Cross and the Machine” in First Things:
“I saw that if we were to follow the teachings we were given at such great cost — the radical humility, the blessings upon the meek, the love of neighbor and enemy, the woe unto those who are rich, the last who will be first — above all, if we were to stumble toward the Creator with love and awe, then creation itself would not now be groaning under our weight. I saw that the teachings of Christ were the most radical in history, and that no empire could be built by those who truly lived them.”
If you like these pieces, there are two fantastic aggregator sites that bring terrific essays to my email inbox every week. The first is The Browser, founded by Robert Cottrell, which links to quirky, profound, philosophical, literary and just plain fascinating pieces of writing. The second is Recommended Reading by Conor Friedersdorf, which lands every Sunday morning with links to essays that range from the latest advances in science to the deeper problems in our public sphere. I’m grateful to Robert and Conor for helping me find Sidney nominees and for generally raising the quality of the stuff that goes in our brains.
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