Category Archives: America

Is It Possible to Prove You’re Not a Bigot?

As a gay person it’s probably illegal for me to say this this week, but poor Niall Ferguson.

A few weeks ago, in a Q&A after a talk at the University of California, Ferguson pivoted off of John Maynard Keynes’ famous line ‘in the long run we are all dead’ to imply that this was double-true for Keynes, since he was gay and didn’t have any kids. So he obviously doesn’t care about future generations! Get it?

This is a bad observation and a bad joke (Keynes himself might have marveled at the sheer productivity of offending the childless, the gay and the Keynesians all in one sentence), and Ferguson issued an apology admitting so:

My colleagues, students, and friends – straight and gay – have every right to be disappointed in me, as I am in myself. To them, and to everyone who heard my remarks at the conference or has read them since, I deeply and unreservedly apologize.

Case closed, right? Ferguson didn’t hide behind ‘I’m sorry for any offense I might have caused’, or any of the other tongue-twisters politicians issue when they get caught publicly saying stuff they privately believe. Ferguson admitted that it was a stupid comment, took responsibility, we’re moving on, right?

Not so fast, replied the internet. It turns out that in 1995, Ferguson published a paper where he argued that Keynes didn’t criticize German economic policy as hard as he could have because he was attracted to the German finance minister. And one of Ferguson’s books says WWI made Keynes unhappy because all the cute boys in London ran off to fight in it. Your move, Ferguson.

To be accused of prejudice is one of the occupational hazards of public life nowadays. There are a remarkable number of people who appear to make a living from pouncing on any utterance that can be construed as evidence of bigotry.

That’s Ferguson in the Harvard Crimson, defending his un-bigotry.

Only last year, though not for the first time, I found myself being accused of racism for venturing to criticize President Obama. This came as a surprise to my wife, who was born in Somalia.

The charge of homophobia is equally easy to refute. If I really were a “gay-basher”, as some headline writers so crassly suggested, why would I have asked Andrew Sullivan, of all people, to be the godfather of one of my sons, or to give one of the readings at my wedding?

It’s easy to laugh at Ferguson’s naiveté. Did he really expect the left-wing offendosphere to go ‘Wait! Ferguson has gay friends? Let’s call this off!’?

But Ferguson’s gaffe, and his apology, pose a real question that I don’t think we left-wingers take seriously enough: What is an acceptable defense for a charge of bigotry?

We all roll our eyes at the ‘but I’ve got plenty of gay friends!’ defense, which sounds patronising and tokeney, and often is. We scroll through Ferguson’s 30-year career, we find two instances of problematic analysis, we tsk and pull out our church fans. What a monster!

But what if we had found some articles Ferguson wrote in his youth where he argued for gay marriage before others did? What if we found an essay he wrote to his first gay friend, expressing empathy and solidarity? What if we found out that he had a gay sister, or parent? Would any of these things be enough?

I’m not trying to defend Ferguson. I’ve read three of his books, one of which was boring and two of which were wrong, and I thought his Newsweek cover story last year deserved the dismantling it got.

But this week we haven’t been debating whether Ferguson’s books suck, or whether his comment was homophobic. We’ve been debating whether he is homophobic, something we have no way of knowing.

Ferguson’s body of work suggests that he has perhaps read too much into Keynes’s homosexuality, that he wants to paint a few too many of Keynes’ actions with that brush. That’s a legitimate critique of his work, and Ferguson could refute that charge with more evidence that Keynes’ homosexuality affected his beliefs on the post-WWI German economy.

But whether his public comments, his writing from 18 years ago, his friendship with Andrew Sullivan, evince that he is or is not a homophobe, that’s something neither he nor we can prove.

Ferguson’s statement that Keynes’s homosexuality made him incapable of caring about future generations was stupid and homophobic. He took a narrow fact and applied it to a broad range of Keynes’ actions. I can’t help but feel that when we use isolated comments to peer into the feelings and intentions of public figures, we’re doing the same thing.

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Filed under America, Gay, Journalism, Serious

And That’s When I Stopped Reading Michael Pollan

I used to think it was impossible to agree with someone’s conclusion, but find their arguments for it repellent. Then I read Michael Pollan.

One problem with the division of labor in our complex economy is how it obscures the lines of connection, and therefore of responsibility, between our everyday acts and their real-world consequences. Specialization makes it easy to forget about the filth of the coal-fired power plant that is lighting this pristine computer screen, or the backbreaking labor it took to pick the strawberries for my cereal, or the misery of the hog that lived and died so I could enjoy my bacon. Specialization neatly hides our implication in all that is done on our behalf by unknown other specialists half a world away.

Before I say why I find this argument, this article, so infuriating, a caveat: I like Michael Pollan. He’s a great campaigner for food that doesn’t make us fat or sick, and the net impact of his work has been positive, especially in the early years when most people didn’t know about how poisoned the US food supply is. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, and I hope he continues writing. 

But that doesn’t mean I’m going to continue reading. This entire article—and from the reviews I’ve read, this entire book—is some sort of ode to cooking, an aria to its sensory, health and spiritual pleasures.

Perhaps what most commends cooking to me is that it offers a powerful corrective to this way of being in the world — a corrective that is still available to all of us. To butcher a pork shoulder is to be forcibly reminded that this is the shoulder of a large mammal, made up of distinct groups of muscles with a purpose quite apart from feeding me. The work itself gives me a keener interest in the story of the hog: where it came from and how it found its way to my kitchen. In my hands its flesh feels a little less like the product of industry than of nature; indeed, less like a product at all. Likewise, to grow the greens I’m serving with this pork, greens that in late spring seem to grow back almost as fast as I can cut them, is a daily reminder of nature’s abundance, the everyday miracle by which photons of light are turned into delicious things to eat.

Some of this sounds borderline convincing. I actually love cooking (though butchering a pig myself, less so), and I get a genuine sense of accomplishment when I serve my friends something I created from scratch. Pollan’s right, that’s a rare thing in this world, especially where most of us have jobs (‘solutions architect’, ‘strategic consultant’) that are boring to describe and impossible to show off.

But that’s really the problem with Pollan’s argument: He’s not making one. The only thing this piece (and, frankly, a lot of Pollan’s work) tells you is  ‘I like cooking.’

I’m sure that’s great for Pollan’s health and pocketbook and carbon footprint, but it’s not clear that his preferences are scalable, or that they offer any solutions for the actual, real health problems facing America.

Yet even to cook a few more nights a week than you already do, or to devote a Sunday to making a few meals for the week, or perhaps to try every now and again to make something you only ever expected to buy — even these modest acts will constitute a kind of a vote. A vote for what, exactly? Well, in a world where so few of us are obliged to cook at all anymore, to choose to do so is to lodge a protest against specialization — against the total rationalization of life. Against the infiltration of commercial interests into every last cranny of our lives. To cook for the pleasure of it, to devote a portion of our leisure to it, is to declare our independence from the corporations seeking to organize our every waking moment into yet another occasion for consumption.

I hate to spray Roundup on Pollan’s parade, but cooking is not withdrawing from corporations, it is simply trading one set of them for another. Tyson Foods, Smithfield, Cargill, these companies control, directly or indirectly, vast swathes of the American landscape. Monsanto makes the pesticides farmers spray on their crops, Ford the trucks delivering them, Safeway the shelves stocking them.

And that’s not in itself a bad thing. Corporations provide the great majority of the things we buy. If Pollan is serious about withdrawing from corporate specialization, why not make his own clothes, his own car, his own toothpaste?

This, ultimately, is why my problem with Pollan goes so far beyond this excerpt. His signature phrase, ‘Vote With Your Fork’, isn’t an argument for a better food system, it’s an argument for two food systems.

A hundred years ago, when Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle’ described the sweatshop conditions of meatpacking workers in Chicago, the cries weren’t for consumers to choose ‘sweatshop-free’ products. Fifty years ago, when the modern highway gave rise to the modern head-on collision, the cries weren’t for consumers to pay extra for a seatbelt. In both cases, the government did its job and raised the minimum standard to stay in business, and in doing so kept consumers safe and healthy, regardless of their choices.

The United States doesn’t need a higher ceiling, it needs a higher floor. Two-thirds of  adults are overweight or obese, a rate that has more than doubled since 1960. Diabetes went from 5.5 million people to 20 million people in just 30 years.

Sending everyone to Whole Foods with an apron and a vegetable peeler isn’t going to fix this. As long as our food system continues to produce cheap, unhealthy, ready-made food, cooking from scratch won’t be a viable alternative.

Instead of telling people to leave the world of corporate food, I’d love to see Pollan help improve it.  When the government gets serious about reducing obesity rates, it will stop subsidizing unhealthy food and start labeling it. It will restrict companies from advertising to kids and selling them junk in their schools. It will tax the obvious bad products like soda, and nudge us to consume less of the slightly-less-bad ones.

Should people cook more? Undoubtedly. But before we tell them to vote with their forks, we should tell them to vote with their votes.

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Filed under America, Food, Personal

I Feel Dirty For Reading This

Check out this final paragraph of a super-gossipy New York Times story about the ‘Today’ show:

Earlier this month, Lauer sought advice from his former co-host Meredith Vieira. On April 3 they met for lunch around noon at Park Avenue Spring, an upscale restaurant on East 63rd Street. They swapped stories about their children and then, according to another diner, talked about work in hushed tones. Vieira urged Lauer to tough it out, promising that the bad press would subside. Dessert arrived at the table by 1 p.m., but they lingered until 1:40, bantering the way they used to on television. Lauer held the door for her as they walked outside, and she embraced him, rubbing his back reassuringly and saying in his ear, “It’ll be O. K.” 

That ‘according to another diner’ is pretty gross.

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Filed under America, Journalism, Serious

Anthony Weiner Wants You To Know He’s Not a Dick

I find it a bit difficult to judge the Anthony Weiner story in the NYTimes on its merits. It’s clearly a professionally produced feature, well-written, easy to read, captivating subjects, check check check. But it’s also clearly a marketing vehicle for Weiner. The story even says

By agreeing to be interviewed, Weiner and Abedin [his wife] would seem to be trying to give voters what they want — and gauge public reaction. […]

Weiner and Abedin have realized, it seems, that the only way out is through. So they have agreed to talk — and talk and talk — for the first time about what happened and why and what it looks like from the inside when your world comes crashing down because of, as Weiner puts it, “one fateful Tweet.”

Weiner is planning a comeback to public life, and ‘get a feature in the NYTimes’ is obviously a bullet point on his to do list. He and his wife must have carefully planned what they were going to say, the story they wanted to tell. The fact that the journalist was aware of this doesn’t change the story’s fundamental purpose.

But what’s even more interesting is the tone of sombre bewilderment everyone in the story uses when discussing what Anthony Weiner actually did.

On Friday night, May 27, a photograph of a man’s torso wearing gray boxer briefs and an obvious erection appeared on Weiner’s official Twitter account. […]

It was a sex scandal without any actual sex — more creepy than anything else. But it was hard for people to get their heads around: an affair is one thing, but sending crotch pictures to a virtual stranger? Mike Capuano, a congressman from Massachusetts and Weiner’s roommate in Washington for many years, spoke for a lot of people when he told me, “He obviously did something incredibly stupid that, honestly, I still don’t understand.” […]

Weiner fielded a lot of calls from friends and colleagues, many of them offering advice. One prominent state politician called to confess that he was a sex addict and urged Weiner to join his support group. […]

Is what he did really so extreme? We live in a world where 16 year olds get tips on sexting from talk show hosts, where ‘manage a trois’ is familiar to more Americans than ‘café au lait’, where ‘cyber’ is a verb. Is it really so hard to believe that sending strangers naked pictures of yourself is a turn-on?

But despite the occasional flash of anger or lingering disbelief, [his wife] told me that she had forgiven him. When I asked how long it took for her to think she might be able to get over what her husband did, she said, “That’s a really good question,” and then took a minute. “At the time, we were very early in our marriage, but it was an old friendship. He was my best friend. In addition to that, I loved him. There was a deep love there, but it was coupled with a tremendous feeling of betrayal.”

It took a lot of work, both mentally and in the way we engage with each other, for me to get to a place where I said: ‘O.K., I’m in. I’m staying in this marriage.’ Here was a man I respected, I loved, was the father of this child inside of me, and he was asking me for a second chance. And I’m not going to say that was an easy or fast decision that I made. It’s been almost two years now. I did spend a lot of time saying and thinking: ‘I. Don’t. Understand.’ And it took a long time to be able to sit on a couch next to Anthony and say, ‘O.K., I understand and I forgive.’ It was the right choice for me. I didn’t make it lightly.”

Committing to someone who’s embarrassed you in public is one thing. But I hope people aren’t throwing away otherwise good marriages over a few text messages and a fetish that is, at most, one standard deviation away from vanilla.

Ultimately, though, the most interesting thing about this story is that it exists at all. It’s 8,300 words of a politician talking not about his policies, his experience, his goals, but his marriage. This is what redemption looks like in America in 2013. Don’t convince me to vote for you, convince me you’re a good husband. Convince me you’re in therapy.

By that criteria, the story works. It takes two faroff people, public figures, and puts them into a familiar story of love tested and renewed. It takes something strange and makes it relatable. That’s what all the best commercials do.

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Filed under America, Journalism

Obesity, Unintended Consequences and Why Being a Politician Would Suck

One issue I don’t think gets enough attention as a political challenge is prioritizing. We like to think of social progress as a series of repairs to be made, but really it’s a series of tradeoffs.

I was listening to a podcast the other day on the debate between obesity advocates and eating disorder advocates. Both groups want kids to be in a healthy weight range, but each attacks from a different end of the spectrum.

In the podcast they mention BMI report cards. Schools have apparently been experimenting with reports for parents that include health info alongside educational info. Johnny has an A in math, a B in science and a C in weight control.

Obesity advocates like BMI report cards because they give parents and students information they can use to address warning signs before they become problems. Eating disorder advocates hate BMI report cards because they give parents and students ammunition for bullying. What if one of those report cards falls out of your backpack and the other kids see it?

If you’re a school principal, you can’t win. You don’t institute the report cards, you get a call from the the obesity folks. You institute them, you get a call from the eating disorder folks.

The podcast frames it like eating disorders and obesity are equally severe problems. In reality, 5 percent of 13-18 year olds will suffer from an eating disorder at some point in their lives (the number currently suffering from one would be much smaller). Meanwhile, 18 percent of children 12-19 are obese.

No politician would ever say ‘Dropping the obesity rate by 5 percent means increasing the rate of eating disorders by 1 percent, and we’re prepared to do that.’ But that may very well be part of the calculus.

This is where everyone goes ‘Can’t we just reduce one without increasing the other?!’

Maybe. But no matter what, there are going to be consequences. Making sports mandatory in elementary schools would probably reduce obesity, but it would also probably result in further marginalization of disabled or otherwise un-sporty kids. Improving school lunches might draw attention to the kids who can’t afford them.

And so on. I’m not arguing that we should say ‘Fuck the anorexics, full speed ahead!’ or anything, just that there’s no such thing as social change that doesn’t have consequences.

Luckily, it sounds from this podcast like BMI report cards aren’t such a great idea anyway. Most parents already know if their kids are overweight, and telling them that in writing doesn’t magically give them the  skills or inclination to do anything about it. But someday, we’re going to find a solution to this. And right afterwards, every principal’s phone is going to start ringing.

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Getting Circumcised at 22

Josh:
oh, so something significant happened today

Mike:
yaaa?

Josh:
but it’s happened, so you need to contain your judgement
i got circumcised

Mike:
youre kidding

Josh:
it’s always bothered me. even when i was in foreskin-rich denmark
made me self-conscious, and made it hard for me to have sex

Mike:
like, logistically or aesthetically?

Josh:
logistically
i had like a lot of foreskin. enough to make a condom like work its way off 

Mike:
but don’t they say getting circumcised reduces feeling?
or something?

Josh:
yeah. they do, and I expect that
but i mean, my inability to get off was not because there wasn’t enough sensation
it was just because the really sensitive tissue was getting covered up

Mike:
ahhh
what did the docs say about pros n cons?

Josh:
i mean, nothing really. he told me about the surgical risks
rare but horrifying
gangrene, accidental amputation of penis, etc
and it’ll be swollen for a while
it wasn’t that painful tho. like, a lot of fucking needles
but i didn’t feel a thing from the actual cutting

Mike:
You cant have sex for awhile I expect

Josh:
no, not for a month or so

Mike:
what do people say who’ve had the procedure?
like online n stuff

Josh:
ppl seem generally satisfied if they wanted it
less so if it was like, an emergency

Mike:
so it’s a good thing!
will your boyfriend notice any difference?

Josh:
I mean, yeah i should think so
he was anti at first
thought if it wasn’t broke, don’t fix it
but he realized it was important to me

Mike:
it sounds like it was objectively broke

Josh:
yeah i guess just not broke like, i didn’t have phimosis
i am concerned i am gonna get super hormonal or something
from not having sex for so long tho

Mike:
can you fandangle yourself in the meantime?
I guess not, right

Josh:
not for at least 2 weeks, maybe longer

Mike:
I wonder if you’ll be like WAY productive
Like, write a novel and learn French and do a million pushups because sex isn’t an option

Josh:
yeah i locked off all my porn
i need to wait till the bandage is off at least
i have to keep that on for 10 days

Mike:
will there be scars?

Josh:
yeah it’s hella wrapped up right now
there may be some scarring, but this dude is the fucking best
which is why it costs $2500 out of pocket

Mike:
woah

Josh:
and i had to travel
but i feel like I don’t want to fuck around with this
this is my dick, i want the best

Mike:
hella prudent, son

Josh:
yeah i could have had it done locally for like $600
but seriously some of those adult circumcisions look REALLY bad
like railroad track scars
uneven skin, etc

Mike:
do you get to choose like how much skin they take off?

Josh:
yeah, i showed my like desired outcome
that was the other big deal about going to a specialist
if you go to a local urologist, they just have the way they do it
and you don’t really get a say
so yeah, i have confidence in this place

Mike:
is it a circumcision-only clinic?

Josh:
no, but they do a lot. a couple hundred a year
urologist. does the usual urology stuff too
vasectomy, prostate stuff
all the male employees except for the doctor were gay
and the one who was like prepping me
was using this iodine stuff that’s like orange?
and he’s like, “this’ll have some dye to it, sorta orange, it’ll match your pretty lil hair”

Mike:
super appropriate

Josh:
i know
but he actually put me at ease
even tho he was kinda hitting on me
like he talked about his boyfriend
and asked how mine felt, etc

Mike:
ok that’s nice
he’s one of Our People

Josh:
he did make the whole thing a lot easier
if inappropriate
he also let me take a pic
of the foreskin after the procedure
and offered to put it on a “to-go” container
i declined

Mike:
ew ew ew ew ew ew
I see that you have stopped typing
You had better not be uploading that photo right now
seriously
DO NOT send me it now or ever

Josh:
it’s really not that gross

Mike:
again: DO NOT upload the photo of the foreskin
I need to die never having seen that

Josh:
it kind of looks like a thin piece of seitan

Mike:
nope, I’ll trust you, never wanna see it

Josh:
but i wanted like some record of it, you know?
not preserved in a jar
but something
that thing served me for 22 years

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Filed under America, Funny, Gay, Personal

Random Thoughts From a Week in New York City

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You thought visiting New York City would make you feel cool, but actually it makes you feel poor and un-busy.

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You thought it would be sooooo different from the rest of America.

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But really it’s the same, just better.

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People talk like movies.

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And the street names and landmarks are recognizable from your favorite CBS crime dramas.

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Jogging through Central Park is a cliche, like everything else you do here.

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Going to museums and making ‘hmmm’ sounds

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does not diminish the fact that you went to MoMA primarily to scout for Facebook cover photos.

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And that Prospect Park was a 585-acre struggle not to shout ‘why are you so fucking twee?!’ at the dogs and their walkers.

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And that, fuck the locals, tall buildings are amazing and you’re going to stop every few steps to capture them.

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You’re acutely aware that everything you can say or do or think in this place is already said, done, thunked.

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So instead of trying anything new, you might as well spend it like a week at home.

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See friends, eat meals,

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take long bike rides as dangerous as they are destinationless, 

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take pictures of pedestrian shit like snowblowers, mouth open like some kind of Appalachian.

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You don’t see everything,

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Or maybe  even anything.

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But you realize as you leave, you were busy after all. And maybe even rich.

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Filed under America, Personal, Pictures, Travel

Why Don’t Newspapers Take Unsolicited Submissions Seriously?

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Originally posted on The Huffington Post

A telling paragraph in Michael Lewis’s review of ‘Why I Left Goldman Sachs’:

The author recounts how he spent most of the six months leading up to last March working at Goldman by day while writing up his deeply felt grievances against Goldman by night. When he finished he had a 1,500-word counterblast but no place to put it: he e-mailed it to the general address for blind submissions to the Times op-ed page. He heard nothing for a month, and so finally dug out the e-mail addresses of four Times editors, and sent his piece to all of them. The next morning the Times got in touch with him.

It’s great that ‘Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs‘ eventually got noticed and published, but I can’t help thinking about all the other pieces submitted to that blind submissions address that weren’t.

A lot of people are sitting on fascinating stories about the places where they work, where they live, what’s happening in their lives. This is what journalists, what journalism, is supposed to be concerned with. But sometimes it seems like newspapers are only interested in great stories when their own reporters get to tell them.

Earlier today I read this New Yorker article about ‘slow journalism’, the kind produced by reporters who are embedded, walking a beat, just hanging out until something happens so fascinating the rest of the world needs to know about it. Newspapers don’t have the money for foreign bureaus anymore, the article laments, so now reporters have to parachute into financial reform, scientific debates, economic indicators, write it up and whoosh on to the next one.

In Beijing, the joke among hacks is that, after the drive in from the airport, you are ready to write a column; after a month, you feel the stirrings of an idea-book; but after a year, you struggle to write anything at all, because you’ve finally discovered just how much you don’t know.

That’s probably true, and probably sad. But I wonder if what it really means is that, in a world where anyone can write a blog post or take a photo or make a documentary, we need reporters less than we need harvesters. 

Thousands of people live in fascinating places, are experts in their fields, work in fucked-up and hilarious institutions. Many of these people can tell you their story, and why it matters, better than a reporter ever could.

I’m sure the New York Times gets all kinds of cranks sending them op-eds from curtained rooms, but I’m sure they also get thousands of  stories that are one editor away from fascinating, thousands of people who can’t tell a new story every week but have one great one they’re struggling to tell.

Newspapers are supposed to teach us what’s true in the world. Sometimes a professional reporter is the best person to do that. Sometimes not. I hope that, as journalism becomes whatever it’s becoming, it finds time not just to tell us stories, but to find them.

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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Chain Restaurants

Originally posted at The Billfold

 

Last weekend in London I had a cute little lunch at a cute little patisserie in Soho, and was feeling all satisfied with myself until I was on the Strand later in the day and saw the same patisserie—same food, same interior, same smell coming out the door.

Oh, I thought, deflated. It’s a chain.

Suddenly I felt scammed. These punks tricked me! They made me think their little bakery was all artisanal and small-scale, when actually it’s some venture-capitaled, focus-grouped, conveyor-belted profit factory. They probably have a corporate headquarters in midtown Manhattan, some Yale econ grad staring at the surveillance cam footage of my purchase, trying to moneyball me into buying more next time.

So my immediate reaction was Well! Never going there again. But now that I’ve thought about it, I’m less sure of my reaction.

First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Of course it’s a chain. Soho is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the world. Thatcher, gentrification, celebrity chefs, they ran mom and pop outta there decades ago. The only businesses that can afford Soho rents do so through high volume, high margins and manufactured cosiness. That “grandma’s cinnamon roll” smell coming out the door is as deliberate as the font above it. What did I expect?

So I should have known. Next up: Who cares? I had a tasty meal at a reasonable price in a pleasant environment. It was precisely what I wanted. What’s the difference if there is a duplicate of my experience happening elsewhere? Or 100 duplicates? Or 1,000?

When I lived in Copenhagen, my favorite bakery was called Lagkagehuset (“layer cake house”), and it had the best bread on the planet. There was only one location in Copenhagen, family owned, and I glowed with self-satisfaction every time I bought a dense loaf of bread or a misshapen (artisanal!) breakfast roll there.

A year after I left Denmark, it was bought by a private equity firm. Now there are nine of them in Copenhagen (industrial!), and last time I visited I walked past one at the airport (monetizers!).

But you know what? The products are exactly the same. Still dense, still misshapen, still crazy-overpriced, still so salty you want to dip them in a cup of water like a hot dog eating contest. The only difference, as far as I can tell, is that now I can buy them in nine places instead of one.

Which brings me to my last point: What am I actually against?

Among my people (urban, lefty, low BMI), places like Starbucks, McDonald’s and Applebee’s have take the role of a kind of punchline, the culinary equivalent of Coldplay. For us, they’re not restaurants or cafes, they’re totems of America’s—and the world’s—relentless, inevitable march toward sameness.

I’m generally sympathetic to this. Starbucks kills independent cafes, McDonald’s cuts down rainforests, Applebee’s wants you to have diabetes.

But in every other aspect of my life, this doesn’t bother me. I wear Nikes, I shop at Safeway, I use rapper-endorsed headphones to drown out the clacking on my MacBook. All of this is just as mass-produced as anything from Starbucks, and yet I willingly (OK, maybe grudgingly) submit.

But chains underpay their workers, my conscience shouts. They get foodstuffs from poor farmers and nonrecyclable lids from petroleum! They donate to ugly political causes!

All that’s probably true, but there’s no reason to think an independent restaurant or café is any better by default. Maybe the guy handmaking the gluten-free scones at that ‘small batch’ bakery makes the same minimum wage as the teenager at McDonald’s. Or maybe he owns the place, and thinks women never should have been given the vote. Just because I have no way of knowing his conditions, impacts or beliefs doesn’t mean they’re not there or that they’re not problematic.

So if I don’t object to chains in principle, and I don’t object to the goods and services of some chains in particular, then all I’m left with is opposition to chains as a class signifier. I reject them not because the food is bad or they’re worse for the planet than other corporations, but because I personally don’t want to be associated with them. Starbucks is for tourists, Applebee’s is for flyovers, McDonald’s is for the poor.

I’m not defending chains, really, I’m not going to start actively seeking them out or anything. I just need to be honest with myself about what I’m avoiding, and why.

My favorite cafe in Berlin is called The Barn. Silky lattes, snobby staff, handwritten prices, brownies dense as Jupiter—it’s perfect. Just before Christmas they opened a second location, closer to my house than their first. If I’m lucky, next year they’ll open a few more.

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Filed under America, Berlin, Food, London, Personal, United Kingdom

White People Suck, 1866 Edition

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So last week I randomly came across Douglas A. Blackmon’s ‘Slavery By Another Name’ in a used bookstore in London for like a buck. I had never heard of it, but the cover told me it won the Pulitzer Prize, so I bought it and I’ve been reading it in NYC this week.

It’s basically the story of what happened in the American South in the hundred years between the abolishment of slavery and the beginning of the modern civil rights movement.

I’m probably a bad American and human for admitting this, but I never really learned what happened after slavery ended. I don’t mean politically or morally but, like, logistically. On Monday you were a slave. On Tuesday you weren’t. This obviously changes in a profound way your fundamental civic dignity and economic opportunity, but there’s just as much it doesn’t.

You still live in the same house, you still have the same family, you still have (or don’t have) the same education and skills. Some of your challenges have lifted, but others have appeared.

Blackmon’s book is the best account (OK, the only account) I’ve read that describes what this transition was like for the former slaves and former enslavers who lived it.

Human slaves had been freed many times before—from the Israelites, to the Romans, to Africans in the vast British Empire as recently as 1834. But no society in human history had attempted to instantly transform a vast and entrenched slave class into immediate full and equal citizenship. The cost of educating freed slaves and their children came to seem unbearably enormous, even to their purported friends.

Their expectations of compensation radically altered the economics of southern agriculture. And even among the most ardent abolitionists, few white Americans in any region were truly prepared to accept black men and women, with their seemingly inexplicable dialects, mannerisms, and supposedly narrow skills, as true social equals.

According to Blackmon, Southern lawmakers, business leaders and elites did everything in their power to slow down the advancement of African Americans. From restricting voting rights to defunding schools to prohibiting labor mobility, the economies and societies of the south removed every material benefit of living in a democracy. Northern whites, viewing this through the frosted window of newspaper coverage, decided that now that blacks were free, illiteracy and poverty were their fault. Why couldn’t they just try harder?

The subtitle of Blackmon’s book is ‘The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War To World War II’, and it mostly deals with the systematic forced labor systems established by the southern states:

By 1900, the South’s judicial system had been wholly reconfigured to make one of its primary purposes the coercion of African Americans to comply with the social customs and labor demands of whites […]

The records demonstrate the capture and imprisonment of thousands of random indigent citizens, almost always under the thinnest chimera of probable cause or judicial process. The total number of workers caught in this net had to have totaled more than 100,000 and perhaps more than twice that figure. Instead of evidence showing black crime waves, the original records of county jails indicated thousands of arrests for inconsequential violations of laws specifically written to intimidate blacks—changing employers without permission, vagrancy, riding freight cars without a ticket, engaging in sexual activity—or loud talk—with white women.

Repeatedly, the timing and scale of surges of arrests appeared more attuned to rises and dips in the need for cheap labor than any demonstrable acts of crime.

Hundreds of forced labor camps came to exist, scattered throughout the South—operated by state and county governments, large corporations, small-time entrepreneurs, and provincial framers. These bulging slave centers became a primary weapon of suppression of black aspirations.

According to Blackmon, every single southern state practiced this form of slavery: Arrest black people on fake charges (‘vagrancy’, ‘inebriation’, etc.), coerce them into pleading guilty, levy a fine and fictitious administrative fees, rent them to a private company, force them to work to pay off their debts.

What’s so chilling about this now is how embedded it was in the politics and economies of Southern cities. The sheriffs actively arrested blacks on trumped-up charges. Judges actively leveed these fake fees and fines. Companies actively sought out ‘convict’ labor. Administrators all the way from mayors to governors passed laws promoting this model of labor supply.

As a black person caught in this cycle—sentenced to hard labor for years, subjected to brutal, sometimes fatal, beatings if you tried to escape—there was no higher authority you could appeal to, no institution or individual who was fighting to free you. Blacks were so systematically disenfranchised, and whites so condescendingly uninterested, no one even launched an investigation into this system for decades.

The message was clear, and shared almost universally among whites: Whatever happens to black men in strictly the result of their own choices. Those choices ultimately were to submit quietly to the emerging new order or be crushed by it.

[This] further underscored how far southern whites could extend their ability to reconcile the obvious and extraordinary abuses of blacks occurring around them with their rhetorical insistence that African Americans were entirely free, content and unmolested. Never before in American history had so large a portion of the populace adopted such explicitly false and calculated propaganda. Many southern whites actually came to believe claims that black schools were equally funded, black train cars were equally appointed, and that black citizens were equally defended by the courts—as preposterous as those claims obviously were.

I had to sort of stop reading at this page and take a little break.

Blackmon’s book makes me wonder what lies we tell ourselves now, what propaganda we swallow today that will make our grandkids cringe. It makes me wish I knew more, agued more, listened more. But mostly, it makes me wish this wasn’t the first book about this I’ve ever read. Next time I grow up, I’m gonna pay more attention.

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Filed under America, Books, Serious