November 29, 2021 |

Three writers to be grateful for this season

Three writers to be grateful for this season

With the endless stream of hyper-partisan hack work that millions of readers are subjected to every day, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that there are still thoughtful essayists out there – writers who don’t overwhelm their audiences with the high-decibel sanctimony, clickbait alarmism, or ideological certitude that have become all too common in their industry. But these writers do exist, and their work is a testament to the quiet but persistent power of sanity and common decency in an era of conspiracy-mongering, tribalism, and political acrimony. Here are a few that come to mind: 

George Packer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, and his book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (published in 2013) is among the most penetrating examinations of the foundational causes of the political and cultural upheaval in the United States over the past two decades. Packer takes readers through the neglected parts of the “New America” in the years following the Great Recession, from the Rust Belt to eerily vacant housing estates in Florida. But he intersperses portraits of the main figures in the book – such as Tammy Thomas, who became a community organizer after losing her factory job in Youngstown, Ohio – with essays on people who found obscene success in the New America, like the billionaire investor Peter Thiel and the conservative media proprietor Andrew Breitbart (a man responsible for much of the hack work I mentioned in the opening paragraph). The Unwinding is the story of how the American social contract came undone, which looks more and more like the proximate cause of the civic dissolution we see today. 

In June 2021, Packer published Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, which examines competing narratives about the United States and how these narratives have become increasingly divisive and corrosive. Free America insists that nobody owes anyone else anything; Smart America heaps condescension on the lower orders who don’t have the right degrees, jobs, or opinions; Real America argues that the only authentic citizens are fellow Christians who share a narrow set of traditional values; and Just America is enamored with a zero-sum form of identitarian combat that regards a large swath of the country as irredeemably bigoted. Packer calls upon his fellow citizens to recognize that none of these narratives fully capture what it means to be an American and argues that it’s time to transcend the cultural and political barriers we’ve painstakingly constructed over the past several decades. 

Thomas Chatterton Williams is a contributor to New York Times Magazine, and his memoir Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race is indispensable for anyone who wants to better understand the ambiguities, anxieties, and tensions around race in America – and anywhere else, for that matter. Williams discusses how racial distinctions originally took root, how understandings of race differ drastically around the world and over time, and ultimately how many of the racial categories we view as eternally fixed quickly devolve into arbitrary absurdities upon closer examination. 

The most arresting element of Self-Portrait in Black and White is Williams’s experience as a black father of two children who are, as he puts it, “so blond-haired and fair-skinned that they can blend in with the locals when we travel in Sweden.” In one particularly powerful scene, Williams recalls a friend’s crude joke upon seeing his daughter: Was he even involved in the process, or was it all his wife? (Williams is married to Valentine Faure, a French author and journalist.) Shortly after hearing this wounding and thoughtless remark, Williams looked at his daughter and saw himself vividly reflected in her features. He wondered why it was that others could only see a set of rigid and reductive demographic characteristics, eventually coming to realize that this infatuation with racial identity is a toxic anachronism. 

Self-Portrait in Black and White is full of moments when our assumptions about (and obsessions with) all the ways we differ from one another fall to pieces right before our eyes. It’s difficult to think of a more challenging and timely book. 

Cathy Young writes for many publications, including The Bulwark, Reason, and Arc Digital, and she’s one of the most sober and lucid commentators on the ever-widening, increasingly irrational, and always radioactive “culture wars” (for lack of a better term) which we seem doomed to wage. From her scrupulous rebuttal of the claim made by Nikole Hannah-Jones (in her introductory essay to The 1619 Project) that the United States was founded to maintain slavery to her attempt to develop a consistent and fair definition of freighted terms like “cancel culture,” Young discusses some of the most incendiary issues of our time objectively and in good faith – traits that have become distressingly rare. 

No matter who or what she’s writing about, Young makes a genuine attempt to understand her opponents’ positions and potential counterarguments, and she always addresses the strongest versions of those arguments. Take her recent article about the anti-critical race theory (CRT) campaigner Chris Rufo, for instance. Young recognized that Rufo makes some valid points about the contents of CRT programs, but criticized him for using the theory as an all-purpose political tool for bludgeoning political opponents – in this case, the Biden administration over the withdrawal from Afghanistan (Rufo has an absurd theory that the chaotic exit from the country has something to do with the military’s “wokeness”). Writers today are constantly prodded and cajoled into taking “sides,” and Young consistently refuses to do so. 

Like Williams and Packer, Young is capable of holding two thoughts in her head at the same time – a seemingly modest intellectual and ethical feat that has turned out to be elusive for the vast majority of commentators in an age of ascendant orthodoxy and hysteria.

Credits: Matt Johnson, writer; Thom Milkovich via Unsplash, image

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