Friday, June 10, 2016

The pleasures of investigative journalism

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, fiction, essays, collections, anthologies, magazine writing

Sometimes I read two or more books and journals at a time, and then I don't tear through a book in my usual 3-4 days. This is the case with the latest edition of my new favorite nonfiction anthology, The Best American Magazine Writing 2015, edited by Sid Holt. While reading a volume of CWWN, I also read articles in the two journals I subscribe to, Wired and Scientific American. The 2015 edition of TBAMW was kept on my bedside table, and I confess that, while I usually read to put myself to sleep, sometimes an article kept me up quite a bit longer than I expected!

I am currently halfway through the volume, having read 8 extended articles, with 11 slightly shorter ones to go. A few that I wish to discuss particularly:

  • The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates, first published in The Atlantic. The essay is nearly 50 pages long, and probably occupied about 30 pages in The Atlantic. The author's subject is not just reparations for black slavery, which went on in America for more than 300 years. He focuses on a more modern phenomenon, one that is still occurring at such a rate that OECD cannot afford to adequately enforce existing laws: Redlining in real estate markets in Chicago. Chicago is Coates's prime example, but the practice is rampant in cities of all sizes throughout the country. When I took the "Real Estate Course" a few years ago, they discussed redlining, but the attitude was dismissive, as though "it doesn't happen here". But I know it does. The article's ten sections connect the attitudes of slave owners toward their slaves with the attitudes of bankers and real estate brokers and agents, and others who continue to profit from the so-called "sub-prime mortgage crisis". This article did more than anything else I have read—and I confess I have not read very much—to give me a more favorable attitude toward reparations. I still suspect that any large and sustained effort to actually provide reparations could do more harm than good, perhaps much more. But we do need to answer these questions: To whom are reparations to be paid, and in what form? From whom will the funds come? In the case of reparations targeting Redlining over the past 50-80 years, I'd be in favor of requiring forgiveness of all the mortgages made to African-Americans in the Redlined neighborhoods. But the hard part would be the followup education and training of the new landowners; most would be overwhelmed and at an entire loss, and likely to lose their windfall. The bankers who participated in this—that is, nearly all major banks' officers—have grown obscenely rich from the predatory practices that Coates outlines. They, more than any, must absorb the blow. But other measures will be harder to determine, harder to implement. Broad-brush approaches don't ever work out like you expect. It is not a subject we can safely ignore any more.
  • I Don't Care if You Like It by Rebecca Traister, first published in The New Republic. This is one of three of Ms Traister's articles in TNR that together attained a Finalist award. It is a concise (~10 pp) and excellently written slam of the male attitudes that keep women objectified. It focuses on a signal event in which Amy Poehler put Jimmy Fallon in his place for chiding her with an "I don't like it" statement. What she said was a rather profane version of the article's title; naturally it contained the F-bomb. But how much of the dancing on eggshells that women must do to be accepted is predicated on male acceptance? My wife reads Women's Day, mainly for recipe ideas. But most of the articles are about becoming better and better at pleasing men. No wonder the recent case of the Stanford swimmer raping an unconscious woman garnered only a 6-month sentence. After all, the victim's function is to please men, right? The current news ties this event to "white privilege", but it is really about "male privilege". I read an article by a woman who had tried in vain to get her husband and sons to "help around the house." Finally, she bought a bunch of 2-ounce Dixie cups, a big box of plastic flatware, and a big pile of paper plates, and announced the following. She would make her own meals, eat off the good china with the good silverware, and clean up after herself. The men were on their own, but were not allowed to touch anything besides the paper and plasticware unless they washed it immediately thereafter. She would do only her own laundry. They could not use the pots and pans for cooking unless they washed them immediately after the meal. She would not clean up after them. I'd like to have seen a follow-up article by her a year later. I thank God for two things in my life: a no-nonsense Japanese wife who continues to train her husband, and a compliant nature in that I accept her training. It took a few decades, but our home is comparatively peaceful and we're a happy couple. 
  • Inside the Iron Closet: What it's Like to be Gay in Putin's Russia by Jeff Sharlet, first published in GQ. I am appalled, but I suppose I should have expected it. Russia has always been one of the least-accepting of demi-Western cultures, towards homosexuality, and towards sexual expression in general. Frankly put, being gay or lesbian in Russia right now is very similar to being a runaway slave in Alabama in 1850. Though the lack of a black skin makes it slightly harder to detect a gay Russian, otherwise, it is the same: every hand is against you, police just smile should you dare to report being attacked, and if you have children they are likely to be removed from the home and raised by others with "better moral probity".

Does all that seem like good bedside reading? I'm the sort that relishes good, thought-provoking writing, even when my reason for reading is to lull myself to sleep.

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