2010 Sidney Awards (Hat Tip to the Old Man)

Here are David Brooks’ selections for the best magazine essays of the year.  Several of these were interesting, to me anyway, and they come with links, so here they are, just in case they interest you too.

Op-Ed Columnist

The Sidney Awards

By DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times
Published: December 23, 2010

I try not to fall into a rut, but every December I give out Sidney Awards for the best magazine essays of the year, and every year it seems I give one to Michael Lewis. It would be more impressive if I was discovering obscure geniuses, but Lewis keeps churning out the masterpieces.

This year it was a Vanity Fair piece called “Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds.” His large subject is the tsunami of cheap credit that swept over the world and “offered entire societies the chance to reveal aspects of their characters they could not normally afford to indulge.”

His specific subject is Greece, a country that plundered its public institutions while spoiling and atomizing itself. The Greek national railroad earned 100 million euros (about $131.4 million) in revenues each year, but had a wage bill of 400 million euros plus 300 million euros in other expenses. The country reported a budget deficit of 3.7 percent a year, but that was inaccurate. It was really about 14 percent of G.D.P.

Lewis’s genius was to show how the moral breakdown spread into one of the most remote institutions on earth, a 1,000-year-old monastery cut off by water, culture and theology that, nonetheless, managed to put itself at the center of the great plundering.

If you go to a college classroom you’ll likely notice that the women tend to dominate the conversation. In an essay called “The End of Men” in The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin gathers the evidence, showing how women are beginning to dominate the information age.

At one clinic where parents are able to choose the sex of their babies, 75 percent choose girls. Three women earn college degrees for every two earned by men. Of the 15 job categories projected to grow the most in the next decade in the U.S., all but two are predominantly filled by women.

Rosin describes studies showing that corporations that have women in senior management perform better than male-dominated competitors. She visits admissions officers who are hunting for qualified boys. At a support group for men behind on their child support, the leader writes “$85,000” on the board. “That’s her salary,” he barks. Then he writes “$12,000” and shouts: “This is your salary. Who’s the damn man? Who’s the man now?”

In Fortune, Beth Kowitt had an eye-popping piece called “Inside the Secret World of Trader Joe’s.” The funky, gourmet grocery chain is actually owned by the secretive Albrecht family from Germany. Many of the products are made by large corporations — the pita chips are made by a division of PepsiCo and the yogurt is actually made by Danone Stonyfield Farm.

The company has brilliantly seized on the growing sophistication of American food tastes. It offers a much more limited selection than its rivals, thus reducing the anxiety of choice. It has an efficient supply chain (the Tasty Bite Punjab Eggplant that sold for $3.39 at Whole Foods in Manhattan sold for more than a dollar less at the Trader Joe’s in Stamford, Conn.). It fosters community and makes shopping a form of belonging.

You may know James Franco as the actor who played Peter Parker’s best friend in the Spider-Man movies, or the lead character in the mountain-climbing movie, “127 Hours.” While pursuing a full-time acting career, he earned a bachelor’s degree at U.C.L.A. and then enrolled simultaneously in four graduate programs — New York University for film, Columbia for writing, Brooklyn College for writing and Warren Wilson College for poetry. He’s also pursuing a Ph.D. in English at Yale and taking classes at the Rhode Island School of Design. His fiction has been published in Esquire (his first book-length collection was published by Scribner). His first solo art show was at the Clocktower Gallery in New York City.

Sam Anderson superbly captures the everythingness of Franco’s life in a New York Magazine piece called “The James Franco Project.” It is a story of manic labor masking the man’s enigmatic core.

Last year, William Deresiewicz delivered a countercultural lecture at West Point. He told the cadets how to combat the frenetic, achievement-obsessed system in which they were raised. That speech was subsequently published in The American Scholar as “Solitude and Leadership.” It’s about how to be a leader, not an organization man.

Darin Wolfe wrote a piece in American Scientist, called “To See for One’s Self,” about the decline of the autopsy. Autopsies frequently reveal major diagnostic errors and undiscovered illnesses, yet the number of autopsies performed each year is plummeting. Medical training no longer relies on this hands-on exercise. Doctors are afraid of information that might lead to malpractice suits. Medicare won’t pay for them. A form of practical inquiry is being lost.

Everybody’s worried about the future of print journalism, but this has been an outstanding year for magazines. On Tuesday, I’ll offer more suggestions for holiday reading.

The Sidney Awards, Part II

The Sidney Awards go to some of the best magazine essays of the year. The one-man jury is biased against political essays, since politics already gets so much coverage. But the jury is biased in favor of pieces that illuminate the ideas and conditions undergirding political events.

For example, there’s been a lot of talk this year about trying to reduce corruption in Afghanistan, Iraq and across the Middle East. But in a piece in The American Interest called “Understanding Corruption,” Lawrence Rosen asks: What does corruption mean?

For Westerners, it means one set of things: bribery and nepotism, etc. But when Rosen asks people in the Middle East what corruption is, he gets variations on an entirely different meaning: “Corruption is the failure to share any largess you have received with those with whom you have formed ties of dependence.”

Our view of corruption makes sense in a nation of laws and impersonal institutions. But, Rosen explains, “Theirs is a world in which the defining feature of a man is that he has formed a web of indebtedness, a network of obligations that prove his capacity to maneuver in a world of relentless uncertainty.” So to not give a job to a cousin is corrupt; to not do deals with tribesmen is corrupt. Reducing corruption in Afghanistan is not a question of replacing President Hamid Karzai with a more honest man. It’s a deeper process.

In earlier ages, people consulted oracles. We consult studies. We rely on scientific findings to guide health care decisions, policy making and much else. But in an essay called “The Truth Wears Off” in The New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer reports on something strange.

He describes a class of antipsychotic drugs, whose effectiveness was demonstrated by several large clinical trials. But in a subsequent batch of studies, the therapeutic power of the drugs appeared to wane precipitously.

This is not an isolated case. “But now all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain,” Lehrer writes. “It’s as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable.”

The world is fluid. Bias and randomness can creep in from all directions. For example, between 1966 and 1995 there were 47 acupuncture studies conducted in Japan, Taiwan and China, and they all found it to be an effective therapy. There were 94 studies in the U.S., Sweden and Britain, and only 56 percent showed benefits. The lesson is not to throw out studies, but to never underestimate the complexity of the world around.

There’s been a lot written about Detroit, but Charlie LeDuff’s essay “Who Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones” in Mother Jones packs a special power. It starts with a killing of a little girl in a police raid, then pulls back to the idiotic murder of a teenage boy that precipitated the raid — that murder victim may have smirked at his killer for riding a moped.

Then LeDuff touches on the decay all around — a city in which 80 percent of the eighth graders are unable to do basic math, the crime lab was closed because of ineptitude, 500 fires are set every month and 50 percent of the drivers are operating without a license.

LeDuff, a former reporter for The Times, travels from broad context to the specific details — from the collapse of the industrial economy to the fact that a local minister was left with the girl’s $4,000 funeral costs, claiming the girl’s father ran off with the donations.

In an essay in Foreign Affairs called “The Demographic Future,” Nicholas Eberstadt describes the coming global manpower decline. Over the next two decades, for example, there will be a 30 percent decline in the number of Chinese between the ages of 15 and 29 — 100 million fewer workers.

Tyler Cowen wrote a superb, counterintuitive piece on income inequality for The American Interest called “The Inequality That Matters.” It’s filled with interesting observations. For example, the inequality that really bites is local — the guy down the street who can spend three bucks more for a case of beer, not Bill Gates’s billions across the country.

But his main insight is this. Smart people, especially in the financial sector, now have tremendous incentives to take great risks. If the risks fail, they still have millions in the bank. If the risks pay off, they get enormously rich. The result is a society with more inequality and more financial instability. It’s not clear we know how to address this phenomenon.

Finally, two historical essays deserve mention. Adam Gopnik wrote a fresh piece on Winston Churchill for The New Yorker called “Finest Hours.” Anne Applebaum wrote a chilling essay on central Europe in the 20th century called “The Worst of the Madness” in The New York Review of Books. (The online version of this column has links to the essays.)

I’ve been doing these awards for several years now. This was the richest year, with the best essays.

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