State of the Union

Our Cover Is Up for an ASME Award

The November/December 2013 issue of The American Conservative is competing in the American Society of Magazine Editors’ Best Cover Contest for News/Politics/Business.

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The cover art by Michael Hogue reveals a movement that has merely put a populist spin on negative principles forged in the 1970s, and a party that has never fully grappled with the creative challenges of governing (having lost five out of the last six national elections). Read Daniel McCarthy’s cover story here.

Check out the other nominees and take a moment to vote by “liking” our cover on Facebook. You should also make sure you’re part of our growing community there. Help spread the word about fresh “ideas over ideology, principles over party.”

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Can the Print Magazine Survive?

Soon after the Kindle craze, some warned of print books’ imminent extinction—but thus far, the codex has shown laudatory tenacity. It seems that, if things continue in their favor, print books are here to stay.

But what of the print magazine? Its content is less permanent, less extensive. Its flimsiness is often coupled with excellence, but who’s to say one must procure excellence in print—especially with so many magazines putting their print features online? Atlantic contributor Peter Osnos noted Tuesday the rather woeful future some envision for print magazines: “…Alas, as everyone with the remotest interest in media developments can attest, the great era of magazines notable for their largesse to staffs, and replete with copious, handsome advertising and strong single-copy newsstand sales, is almost certainly in the past.”

Perhaps magazines can take a cue from print books’ relative success, and mimic their selling points in order to survive this digital trend.  For instance: many print-aficionados refer to the experiential appeal of books. The codex is aesthetically pleasing to the reader. Print fans don’t merely read for the words on the page—they savor the very smell, texture, and sight associated with print books.

Similarly, magazines can meet or even exceed the appeal of online experience through the power of visual and sensory mediums. Magazines have great potential for graphic experience: visual images, graphs, and diagrams help the reader connect more deeply with the text.  While a magazine doesn’t have the interactive powers of the web at its disposal, there are other ways a magazine captivate its readers.

Books give us some ideas: for instance, the simple power of a good cover can hardly be overstated. It’s the first thing we see—the graphic that entices us to take a closer look. Book covers have become progressively more exciting in the past decade. Their use of typography and image are interesting and unique. Magazines can also use this power to greater effect. Too often, it seems, magazines mimic newspapers in their graphic rigidity. But the magazine has potential to become a more flexible and creative medium.

There are two main sorts of books that people buy: flimsy paperbacks bought in airports on a whim, and beautiful hardbacks bought for “keeps.” As one could imagine, the former usually end up at yard sales or secondhand stores—but the latter often morph into a collection. Similarly, people usually buy two sorts of magazines: the cheap, flimsy versions one reads for temporary diversion, and serious-minded publications (like the Economist and New Yorker) that get saved, collected, and even treasured.

How does a print magazine avoid the trash bins and yard sales of readers? It must not only have good, strong, consistent content—it must also have timeless content, superseding mere paltry observations on the fickle political or cultural atmosphere of the day. Also, magazines that serve as curators—of art, food, or culture, for instance—stand the test of time by serving as a reference book to their readers.

A final note: I’m not sure how long magazines can survive while putting their print content online. It seems that, in order to survive as a print and online entity, they must diversify material enough to entice readers to subscribe. While the ethos of the publication must remain consistent, its print content must offer something more—or at least something different.

It is true that, even with good graphics and content, some magazines may fail. They may not prove as hearty as their book cousins. But one hopes that, with some diligence and ingenuity, they will continue to grace our bookshelves and coffee tables.

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The “Death of Writing” & Return of Oral Culture

Amidst reports of the ensuing “death of the novel,” former USA Today reporter Chuck Raasch forewarns of something even more ominous—the death of writing itself:

If you are literate today, it does not mean you can write — not even close to it in many cases. But if you were literate in 1863, even if you could not spell, you often could write descriptively and meaningfully. In the century and a half since, we have evolved from word to image creatures, devaluing the power of the written word and turning ourselves into a species of short gazers, focused on the emotions of the moment rather than the contemplative thoughts about consequences and meaning of our actions. Many everyday writers in the mid-19th century were far more contemplative, far more likely to contextualize the long-term meaning of their actions. They meticulously observed and carefully described because, although photography was the hot new medium during the Civil War, words remained the dominant way of communicating thought, memory, aspiration, hope.

Raasch’s theory is not a new one. Back in the 1980’s, when Internet was still in its primordial days and television was king, Neil Postman wrote Amusing Ourselves to Death. His book cautioned against the developing “Age of Show Business,” fed by television’s sensory, visual medium.

Postman believed three “ages” were prominent throughout information’s history: first, ancient oral cultures encouraged the preservation of information through spoken records and stories. When the printing press and writing became more prominent, oral cultures dissolved into the “Age of Exposition”: a time when written records were perceived as holding the greatest truth. Then as photography and videography developed, media began to change again—for the worse. Postman believed we would lose more than writing ability in the wake of the entertainment era: he warned of a depleting mental and emotional capacity. He believed we would become as obsessed with pleasure as the humans in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Postman’s descriptions of distracted, sensationalistic consumers relate well to Raasch’s “species of short gazers.”

We can only imagine what Postman would have said about the Internet; perhaps Raasch gives us a taste when he describes it as “the Great Din”: “Today, throwing barbs and brickbats into the Great Din of the Internet has become as second nature as breathing … The Great Din requires no forethought, no real calculation of purpose or result, no contemplative brake, no need to seek angles or views beyond those that reaffirm or reassure what we think right now.”

Is this truly the future of media? Will we lose any true, deep, thoughtful communication in its havoc of pixels and pictures?

One interesting counter-opinion comes from former Daily Beast editor Tina Brown. Having recently left the world of journalism for event production, Brown has told reporters that she no longer reads magazines herself—in fact, she thinks “the whole writing fad is so twentieth century” (in the words of New York Magazine). But rather than warning of impending havoc and din, Brown calls people back to oral communication: “I think you can have more satisfaction from live conversations,” she said, adding that we are “going back to oral culture where the written word will be less relevant.”

If we experience the “death of writing,” as Rassch puts it, could we come full-circle and return to the age of oral communication? Will grandfathers sit down with their grandchildren and tell them stories, like our ancestors so long ago? One can only hope; but if such an experience were truly to flower from “The Great Din,” it would be rather surprising.


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Who’s Middle Class?

The Atlantic ran a curious article last week. Under the headline “Why Americans All Believe They Are Middle Class”, Anat Shenker-Osorio argues that Americans are encouraged by politicians, the media, and even colloquial language to believe that they belong to the middle class, when in fact they do not. Shenker-Osorio observes:

The puzzle is why so many who do not fit the category (as median family income reported as just above $50,000 defines it) believe they do. Why does the description “middle-class nation” continue to feel appropriate, desirable, or both?

There’s not much of a puzzle here. According to a Pew poll that Shenker-Osorio cites in the piece, Americans don’t all think they’re middle class. On the contrary, they’re pretty good judges of where they belong in the class structure, at least as defined by the distribution of income.

In 2012, the poll showed 32 percent of American identifying as lower class or lower-middle class, 49 percent of Americans identifying as middle class, 15 percent of Americans identifying a upper-middle class, and 2 percent of Americans identifying as upper class. That correlates reasonably well with the 25 percent of American household with incomes of less than $25,000 a year, the 50 percent who earn between $25,000 and about $90,000 a year, the 20 percent who earn between $90,000 and $180,000, and the 5 percent who earn more than that.

The similarities are particularly striking when it comes to the top tier. The top 2 percent of American households have incomes of more than $450,000. That seems like a plausible cutoff for the 2 percent of Americans who call themselves “upper class”.

Regional variations are extremely important in understanding differences at the margins. Well-paid professionals are clustered in cities like New York and Washington. They tend to call themselves middle class or upper-middle class because taxes and high prices, especially for housing, constrain their standard of living. The reason is not that they’re trying to keep up with the Kardashians. In low-cost areas, on the other hand, it isn’t necessarily crazy to consider oneself middle class on a household income of, say, $30,000.

Moreover, class is about more than income. As the great sociologist Robert Nisbet observed, the concept of class developed to make sense of Victorian Britain. It referred partly to differences of wealth and economic activity: businessmen were middle class no matter how rich they were. But it also indicated different mores, speech, and even physical characteristics. When Britain imposed military conscription during the First World War, it discovered that working class recruits were significantly shorter than soldiers from the upper class.

Charles Murray and others have argued the United States is moving toward a similarly visible class system. But it’s still not easy to tell at glance (or a listen) to which class Americans belong. Most look and sound like they belong somewhere in the middle. That’s the historically consistent and still distinctively American phenomenon that the Pew poll reflects.

So it’s reasonable to see the U.S. as a middle-class society, even though far from all Americans identify as middle class. The question is whether it will remain one. The Pew numbers show the number of Americans who identify as middle class declining from 53 percent in 2008 to 49 percent in 2012. Far from indicating that Americans are victims of false consciousness, that figure suggests that the norms and expectations that defined American social reality in the 20th century are eroding fast.


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The Spiritual Crisis of the Bourgeois Bohemians

The New Yorker‘s George Packer can’t decide what to think about 21st-century America.

On the one hand, Packer likes developments that enhance the lifestyles of the educated upper middle class: “marriage equality, Lipitor, a black President, Google searches, airbags, novelistic TV shows, the opportunity for women to be as singlemindedly driven as their male colleagues, good coffee, safer cities, cleaner air, photographs of the kids on my phone, anti-bullying, Daniel Day Lewis, cheap communications, smoke-free airplanes, wheelchair parking, and I could go on.” On the other hand, he’s sorry that these benefits aren’t more broadly shared. Life is pretty good in brownstone Brooklyn and its spiritual counterparts. But it’s gotten harder and harder in “urban cores like Youngstown, Ohio; rural backwaters like Rockingham County, North Carolina; and the exurban slums outside Tampa…”

So how can this be the best of times for gays, sufferers from cardiovascular disease, African American politicians, TV fans, ambitious women, and so on, but among the worst for the urban poor, agricultural workers, and overleveraged homeowners? Packer can’t quite figure it out:

We usually think of greater inclusiveness as a blow struck for equality. But in our time, the stories of greater social equality and economic inequality are unrelated. The fortunes of middle-class Americans have declined while prospects for many women and minorities have risen. There’s no reason why they couldn’t have improved together—this is what appeared to be happening in the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies. Since then, many women and minorities have done better than in any previous generations, but many others in both groups have seen their lives and communities squeezed by the economic contractions of the past generation.

Although his economic generalizations are accurate, Packer’s remark is historically and politically obtuse. Rather than shedding light on the profound divergence in Americans’ fortunes and expectations over the last few decades, it reflects a spiritual crisis of the BoBo elite, which is unwilling even to contemplate the possibility that its commitments to individual autonomy and expressive consumerism are incompatible with the egalitarianism that it pretends to favor.

Read More…

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Mild Nepotism and the Illusion of Meritocracy

What do I have to do to get a review in The New York Times? More than a few frustrated authors have asked this question, posing it in some cases to their agents and and in others to a tumbler of whisky. There may be no a single answer. But it certainly helps to have famous name and the connections that often go along with it.

Even so, the extent of the coverage recently devoted to Nathaniel Rich has drawn attention. According to The Times‘s Public Editor Margaret Sullivan:

It’s beginning to feel like Nathaniel Rich Month at The Times. The author’s new novel was reviewed in the Arts section on April 10, then again in the Sunday Book Review on April 14. Mr. Rich also wrote an essay for the Sunday Book Review, with many references to that novel, “Odds Against Tomorrow.” In addition, the Editors’ Choice section of the Sunday Book Review listed Mr. Rich’s novel second on its list.

Back in January, Mr. Rich and his brother were also the subjects of a feature story about literary families. (His father is Frank Rich, the former Times columnist; his mother is Gail Winston, an executive editor at HarperCollins; his brother is a comedy writer, a novelist and a regular contributor to The New Yorker.)

This looks like a obvious case of nepotism. Tom Scocca explains, however, that there’s something more subtle and interesting going on. Rich’s book may be good (I haven’t read it). And, as the profile makes clear, he has evidently worked hard at his craft. But that’s not enough to explain Rich’s unusual success:

Relationships and knowledge are what the writing-and-culture business runs on. Some of it is cultural capital—knowing what to do and how to do it. Frank Rich’s children were exposed, at an early age, to the actual specific process of professional writing: deadlines, pitches, writing to length. Jewelers raise jewelers; plumbers raise plumbers. Cal Ripken Sr. and Bobby Bonds brought up their children around professional baseball. Johann Sebastian Bach produced musicians.

But some of it is social capital—who you know, and what they can do for you. People look out for the interests of people they know, even without anyone picking up a phone and telling them to. Disclosure: I was going to write about the profile of the Rich brothers when it first came out, for somewhere other than Gawker, but that place revoked the assignment because it didn’t want to be potentially unkind to Nathaniel Rich.

This isn’t the explicit favoritism of the old-fashioned Establishment, which often reward  pedigree rather than competence. Instead, it’s a very contemporary form of advantage that coexists with the meritocratic principles of the new elite. Under this regime, rewards are available for “achievers” of any background. But it just so happens that the children of people who are already successful know how to achieve the most–and whom to inform of their accomplishments.

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville coined the term “mild despotism” to describe the tutelary state that might replace monarchical tyranny. By the same token, we might describe as “mild nepotism” the informal networks of privilege that have replaced formal aristocracy.

Mild nepotism would not be a big deal if it were confined to publishing. But it’s also a fact of life in finance, academia, and the upper reaches of the legal world. These fields are open, in principle, to all. In practice, however, they are dominated by those who have been outfitted since childhood with the skills and contacts they’ll need to do well in the right schools, find the right jobs, and, when the time comes, to welcome others very much like themselves inside the magic circle.

It must be understood that all this will happen without any intention to play favorites. It’s only that there are so many impressive applications to consider, so many qualified candidates to interview, so many fine books to review. And unfortunately there’s space for just one…

We can acknowledge the reality of mild nepotism without endorsing coercive measures to end it. As Hayek argued, it would require a despotism of truly terrifying proportions to eliminate the cognitive, cultural, and social inequalities that emerge in any free society. But the attention lavished on Nathaniel Rich by The New York Times is an amusing and therefore useful reminder of the way that meritocracy functions as the legitimating myth of the modern ruling class. Do you think The New Yorker would run a piece on that? Can you give me the number of your friend who works there?


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The Bitter Legacy of Mickey Mouse

Developments of enormous consequence sometimes follow the most mundane of motives.

During the mid-1990s, the giant Disney Corporation became concerned that its 1928 copyright on Mickey Mouse was close to expiration.  Deploying heavy lobbying efforts, it persuaded Congress to pass and President Bill Clinton to sign what was officially entitled the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, but more informally known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.”  The result was to extend Mickey’s copyright for another twenty years, and perhaps indefinitely if future corporate lobbying efforts bore similar fruit.

Now I have no particular burning desire to watch Mickey Mouse cartoons without paying for them, and I suspect that those around the world who feel otherwise simply ignore such legal restrictions, just as they watch pirated blockbuster movies only weeks after they are released into the theaters.  So if the Disney executives had merely wanted to protect their rights to old Walt’s lucrative rodent, I wouldn’t have cared in the least.  But since paying Congresspersons to enact such narrowly tailored legislation might have appeared unseemly, they decided to extend all other existing copyrights as well, including the vast number of written works possessing no financial but much intellectual value. Read More…

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Romney as Populist Executive, Hapless Athlete

Everyone has some kind of advice for Romney and Obama tonight. I have some advice too, but it can go beyond tonight.

Romney needs to do well from Scranton to Sioux City among blue collar white voters, the very same subset of voters that turned against Obama in the 2008 primaries and in the 2010 midterms. His 47 percent remarks, his stiffness, Mormon faith, and private equity background make him as much an alien to these voters as any imagined Kenyan socialist.

Romney should talk about his history at Bain and Company and Bain Capital. If you read The Real Romney you find that Romney had his largest successes when he realigned the incentives of executives with those of workers and the longterm health of the company as a whole.

As this magazine has argued, our elites no longer see their interests as aligned with those of the commonwealth of the nation. We need someone to realign them.

Imagine if Romney said, “I agree with president Obama that America prospers most when it prospers together, when investors and workers rise together. But under his administration the six largest banks have only gotten larger and they retain the implicit guarantee of a taxpayer-funded bailout if their executives are reckless again. Wall Street is doing great, but unemployment is stuck above 8 percent. Wages are stagnant. Millions are underwater on their mortgages. One class gets special carveouts, and when they fail, the American people get stuck with the bill. Obama promised to bring us together, instead we’re growing further apart. We don’t need Washington trying to micro-manage every industry, doling out loans, guarantees, and subsidies for political reasons. We need to create a stable set of rules that allows everyone to prosper together.”

Is it an airtight case? No, a debate doesn’t stand for that. Does it lack specific policies? You betcha, but we’re late in the game for that. But it is at least a plausible story about where America is right now and why Romney may be the man for the moment.


Also I know it isn’t hard-hitting scoopy jounrnalism, but check out this little article I wrote for ESPN magazine about the Romney clan and their competitive sports-filled vacations.

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The Influence of Encounter

The endless pace of change in our media landscape regularly plays tricks upon all of us.

Many have seen the amusing web video in which a very young child repeatedly attempts to click or swipe the colorful pages of a magazine, before finally declaring it “broken” to his smiling father, who finally hands him an “unbroken” iPad. Similarly, for over half a century US News and World Report ranked as one of America’s most influential weekly newsmagazines, but teenagers today probably consider it as just being some sort of website guide to colleges. And Newsweek, once even a more powerful and influential publication, with many millions of worldwide subscribers less than a decade ago, was sold in late 2010 ago for a single dollar, and is even now in the process of disappearing into a web-upstart calling itself “The Daily Beast.”

All these recent developments should be kept in mind when we consider the proper place in history of Encounter, a London-based magazine which was published for nearly forty years before finally closing at the beginning of the 1990s, soon after the Fall of the Berlin Wall. I suspect that for 95% of American intellectuals under the age of 40, the name means almost nothing, while for those over the age of 60, it carries enormous weight and significance. The founding co-editors were American journalist Irving Kristol and British poet Stephen Spender, with European intellectual Melvin Lasky later serving as the primary editor for the last thirty-odd years of Encounter’s existence. Read More…

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Teaching Reading for Writing

An article on writing instruction in The Atlantic is among the must-reads of the week. In a nutshell, the piece reports that a lousy high school on Staten Island has found success improving students’ writing by actually teaching writing—that is, the fundamentals of sentence construction, the use of coordinating conjunctions to identify logical connections, and the coherent organization of paragraphs.

As Alan Jacobs observes across the page, this should come as little surprise to people who were educated before the 1960s. But it was a shock to the teachers at New Dorp High School, who initially believed that their students were too dumb to write well. Many now speak enthusiastically of the program. There’s actually fodder here for both sides of the recent strike in Chicago. On the one hand, teachers had to be placed under considerable pressure to implement reforms they distrusted. On the other hand, those reforms were not based on high stakes testing.

As an occasional teacher of expository writing at the college level, I am delighted by the favorable attention paid here to an unglamorous job. Although great writing can’t be taught, competent writing can. And in my experience, most students are eager to learn.

But there’s an obstacle to learning to write that the Atlantic piece doesn’t bring up: few students have much experience as readers of expository texts. English classes generally emphasize fiction and drama (the New Dorp students are reading Death of a Salesman). Social studies classes rely on insipid textbooks. Asking students who have only these models to develop analytic arguments is something like asking rugby players to take up American football. They could be taught the rules. But they’d have trouble mastering a game they’d never seen played.

In addition to rigorous instruction then, students need examples of effective prose. To get them, they should be required to read good narrative history, traditional literary criticism, and, at least in my dreams, great political speeches.

What to assign? I’m curious to know what readers think. If you could require high school students to read just one text, what would it be? Think speeches, essays, or chapters of books. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is probably too much to ask.

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