Alpha Males

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Sarah tells Mike that animal behavior is an imperfect template for human society. Digressions include rabbits, Bob’s Burgers and online dating. Mike makes an awkward observation about locker rooms.  

 

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Kurt Cobain and “Copycat Suicide”

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Special guest Candace Opper tells Mike and Sarah about how the death of a rock star changed the field of suicidology (which is a thing). Digressions include eating disorders, car crashes and the insane grimness of the term “family annihilation.” The cringe-worthiness of Mike’s teenage years reaches new depths. 

Links! 

 

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“The Godfather”

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Sarah tells Mike about how America’s favorite gangster movie is really its favorite killing-the-American-Dream movie. Digressions include the Mona Lisa, Bruce Springsteen and the tyranny of height-ism. The sound quality continues to worsen. 

Links!

 

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10th Episode Spectacular!

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Sarah and Mike take a break from debunking to reflect on the first 10 episodes and tell the secret history of how they met. Digressions include “Portlandia,” Snapchat and the The New York Post. The recording quality, as usual, is wildly inconsistent. 

Links!

Sarah’s Tonya Harding essay: https://www.believermag.com/issues/201401/?read=article_marshall

Mike’s millennials article: http://highline.huffingtonpost.com/articles/en/poor-millennials/ 

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The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

ExxonMike tells Sarah that America’s most devastating oil spill was not, in fact, a DUI. Digressions include “Titanic” (obviously), the Cuyahoga River, Jennifer Lopez and marshmallows. Punitive damages make a triumphant return. Mike, a professional writer, continues to misuse the word “literally.” 

Links!

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Snuff Films

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Sarah tells Mike about how snuff films don’t exist but lots of near-snuff films do. Digressions include “Basic Instinct,” gymnastics and YouTube’s righthand bar. Mike is palpably grossed out for the duration. 

 

 

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The Jonestown Massacre

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Special guest Rachel Monroe tells Mike and Sarah what’s really behind the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid.” Digressions include David Koresh, East Germany and how flower children were the first millennials. Mike inadvertently reveals his prejudice against extroverts. 

For more of Rachel’s work, check out her website. Recently she’s written about #vanlife, a romance scammer, essential oils and the kidnapping of a Navajo girl. Her book on women, true crime and obsession comes out next year.

Links!

 

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The Clinton Impeachment

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Part two of our epic dissection of the Clinton impeachment scandal. This week: The story breaks, the House indicts, the Senate demurs and Mike rants more than usual about the media. Digressions include Mark Fuhrman, “Broadcast News” and gay porn. 

Links!

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Monica Lewinsky

Barbara+interviews+Monica+vTz5reGwvdoxSarah and Mike talk about what America forgot — and never learned — about history’s most famous intern. Digressions include generational resentments, 1990s fashion and off-brand colleges. Also, Mike’s microphone breaks about 25 minutes in, so he sounds like he’s recording in a submarine. Sorry!

Links:

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Anita Hill

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Mike tells Sarah about the complicated legacy of Anita Hill and the not-particularly-complicated facts of her case. Digressions include “Tootsie,” Garrison Keillor and the Donner party. For reasons unknown, Mike seems to believe that one flies “down” from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Washington, D.C. 

Links:

 

 

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Stockholm Syndrome

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Some links!

The 1974 New Yorker story on the Stockholm bank robbery: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1974/11/25/the-bank-drama

“The Hearst Nightmare,” also from 1974:  http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,911211-1,00.html

A well-argued academic paper from 1993, “Understanding Women’s Responses to Domestic Violence: A Redefinition of Battered Woman Syndrome”:  https://scholarlycommons.law.hofstra.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1873&context=hlr

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Matthew Shepard

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Links!

The gross 20/20 “debunking”: https://abcnews.go.com/2020/story?id=277685&page=1

Two debunkings of the debunking: https://www.mediamatters.org/blog/2013/10/02/debunking-stephen-jimenezs-effort-to-de-gay-mat/196229

https://thinkprogress.org/the-book-of-matt-doesn-t-prove-anything-other-than-the-size-of-stephen-jimenez-s-ego-c7ba5d0becee/

We can’t find Andrew Sullivan’s posts about Shepard from 2004, but here’s one from 2013: http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2013/09/16/challenging-the-myth-of-matthew-shepard/

 

 

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Afterschool Specials

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Crack Babies

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Going Postal

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The Satanic Panic

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Millennials are Screwed

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I’ve got another big long article in Highline!

Like everything I write, it began as a nitpick. For years it seemed like every time I opened a browser window, all I saw was the story of how millennials like me refused to grow up. We’re entitled, we’re hipsters, we’re living in basements, we MFA’d when we should have STEM’d. If we could just tear ourselves off of Tumblr for 10 minutes, maybe we’d find a job and quit complaining already.

I always knew this was a caricature, but it was only once I started working on this article that I learned the vast, incredible, profound wrongness of the stereotype we’ve been sold about millennials. Young people are not failing in the U.S. economy. The U.S. economy is failing them.

The hardest part of writing a story like this is knowing where to start. One of the first people I interviewed was Emma*, who I met at a homeless shelter in Seattle last spring. She’s 22 years old, trying to get onto the ladder in tech and sleeping in a church annex while she does an unpaid internship. She’s been bouncing in and out of homelessness for two years now—getting a job, starting to climb the ladder and then falling off. It turns out this is a whole Thing, a sub-field of economics called “poverty dynamics.” More than 60 percent of the U.S. population will spend at least one year in the bottom quintile of the income distribution—a percentage that’s been growing since the 1980s.

It was like this for months: Every time I met someone, they led me to a novel way that young people have it harder than their parents. Katie, a midwife who only gets paid when one of her clients goes into labor and is still paying off her occupational license, put me on the trail of domestic outsourcing. Steve, who moved to Detroit to buy a cheap house and now earns $10 an hour “making smoothies for better-off millennials,” opened up the wonderful world of zoning regulations and falling labor mobility.

Last April, when I started on this story, I had no idea I would be looking up 1970s building codes or federal regulations on pension funds or the arcane details of Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform. But here we are! What I found was, first, that the challenges faced by millennials are larger than I ever expected. Second, these challenges are the result of three huge and deliberate and terrifying paradigm shifts in the way our economy works and how we think about it. They all happened slowly and imperceptibly. But, like the melting of an ice cap (ahem), they are now undeniable.

So this is it, my attempt at understanding and describing and freaking out about all the ways millennials are getting screwed and what we can do about it. It’s long, it’s dark and it’s full of statistics—luckily, there are gorgeous designs to distract you!

UPDATE:
I’ve done a bunch of interviews about the article!

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Stuff we got wrong in the ’90s: Ebonics

One thing that has always baffled me, as a journalist and as a person, is how America decides what to freak out about.

It’s a big country: Weird and wild and ridiculous things happen all the time. But every year we choose 10 or 15 of them, we put them on our front pages and we lose our minds debating them. Sometimes it’s a dead gorilla, sometimes it’s missing white ladies, sometimes it’s a dress code on airplanes. By the time we circle back to the facts behind them, we’re surprised to find that they no longer match the opinions we’ve formed.

The first of these flare-ups I can remember is the “Ebonics” controversy of 1996. I was 14 at the time, just starting to notice things like late-night monologues and the op-ed page of my local paper. Suddenly both of them were filled with the story of this school district that had decided to teach African-American Vernacular English—”Ebonics” is what the linguists called it; “black slang” is what the columnists called it—as a foreign language. Teachers in Oakland, heads in little boxes on CNN told me, would be teaching “we be happy” as a perfectly acceptable alternative to “we are happy.”

The Oakland School Board’s decision was almost perfectly designed to transcend its circumstances and become a metaphor for How We Race Now. Within days, editorial boards across the country denounced the decision. Within weeks it was condemned by the Clinton administration. Within months it was investigated by Congress.

As usual, the first thing to disappear underneath all the outrage was the event that precipitated it. Nearly everything we heard about the Oakland School Board’s decision in 1996 was wrong. And even worse than how we talked about it then is how we remember it now.

Here, finally, is what really happened:

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Keep the Change

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At the height of its power, the Roman Empire stretched from Libya to London, Istanbul to Iberia.

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It was remarkably modern. The Romans collected taxes, they built roads, they negotiated trade deals with the (literal) Slavic hordes.

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The empire’s most critical nervous system was its infrastructure. Mail and goods and information traveled from one end to the other in just two weeks. A network of B&Bs let travelers change horses, rest for the night, eat a hot meal.

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It was a legitimate miracle, a feat of bureaucratic innovation that wouldn’t be matched for a millennium.

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Until, of course, it fell apart.

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The vandals invaded, the military lost, the bureaucracy shattered. Cue dark ages.

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We think of the fall of Rome as an event, a discrete, seeable Thing that happened on a Thursday a thousand years ago.

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In reality, though, it was more like a big long exhale. Yes the barbarians invaded and yes it sucked. But the empire had been faltering for decades beforehand and coasted on its built-up power for decades afterward.

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What happened, slowly and steadily, was that the central authorities lost their ability to project power. Their tentacles of influence—infrastructure, taxes, law enforcement—retracted over decades, leaving power vacuums that filled up with made-up royalty and ad-hoc warlords.

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Province after province, as the shadow of the central authorities lightened, local aristocrats and landowners rose up to replace it. Borders appeared. Mail took longer to deliver. Regions cut themselves off. Trade routes withered. Cities languished.

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It some places it took decades. In others, centuries. To the people living through it, the fall of Rome did not particularly feel like one. It was simply an escalating series of scandals, little mistakes and decisions that rendered centralized power weak, then invisible, then history.

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These are random pictures of Zimbabwe I took over the years.

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It was once the great hope of Africa, a bright spot of prosperity and peace in the (literal) middle of a troubled continent.

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The best universities, the most educated workers, the best infrastructure.

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And then Robert Mugabe, piece by piece, took it apart.

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He confiscated land from industrial farms and gave them to random war generals. He hyper-inflated the economy. He killed rivals and chased off investors and taught his own people to fear him.

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None of this was unexpected or surprising. We did not learn anything new about this man each time he stole an election, disappeared a political rival, inflicted his worst instincts upon his people.

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But each of them mattered.

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There is a human tendency to think that the most important events, the most seismic changes, are differences in kind. Narratives new and unprecedented, developments that erase the past. An earthquake. A fire.

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They make the best stories. Transformations, turns, reversals. Peace to war, prosperity to squalor, progress to backsliding.

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But history does not happen in category changes, lines being drawn and then crossed. History is shifts in emphasis, swapped priorities, the future echoing the past a little louder or slight softer.

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Events from which we learn nothing. Decisions about which we are not surprised, only saddened.

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There’s this thought experiment for human evolution.

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Put yourself on an index card. Then make one for your mother, then her mother, then her mother, and so on.

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Index cards stretching back in time forever. A hundred thousand generations ago you were an ape. A million ago, you were a rat. Ten million ago you were a fish.

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These changes are profound. But pull any two cards out of the stack and you will see no difference between them.

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You’re not so different from your parents and they’re not different from theirs. The ape looks just like his parents, and so does the fish.

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Maybe we’re conditioned to look for differences in kind because we seek stories. Twists, turnarounds, surprises. Differences in degree are less noticeable, harder to find, less tellable in the moment.

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Britain was one of the first outposts of the Roman Empire to go. The farthest corner, a mossy island, a tiny garrison of troops, warring tribes already competing to usurp them.

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For 80 years, Roman currency inflated and dwindled. Without money, the elites couldn’t buy leather or food or pottery. Without income, the peasants making them had no choice but to move back to the countryside.

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As the cities emptied, as tradesmen became backyard farmers, they stole stones from the roman architecture they left behind. Brick by brick, they carried them home along the roads, stacked them in squares around their families. Then they waited for the world to reach them again.

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The most gratifying journalism experience of my life

AfterlifeI know I talk about this all the time here, but I still don’t really feel like a journalist. I have no beat, I’m terrible at pitching, my articles start out half-baked and get published only slightly more so.

A few years ago I wrote to my old high school and asked if I could spend two weeks there. I had no idea, no pitch, no characters, no themes, no anything. “I’m interested in how teens are different now than when I was one,” I told them. And I meant it! That was the complete extent to which I had thought it through.

It’s remarkable they invited me to come anyway. Public institutions are notoriously media-averse—if I was a Real Journalist I would have known this, of course—and schools more than most. For administrators and PR staff, the idea of a random writer roaming the halls, pulling aside students, asking them about bullying and studying and sexting, is some sort of nosebleed, a huge gamble with no reward.

But they let me! And it was great! For two weeks I was there all day every day: Sitting in classes, attending after-school clubs, sharing vending-machine lunches with students, debating the merits of standardized tests with teachers.

And, slowly, an idea formed. I went there to write about the kids, but almost all of my conversations ended up being about the adults. The ways the school was changing, what it used to do, how it couldn’t anymore. Things that seemed small to an outsider—shrinking teacher collaboration, tightening budget rules, evolving evaluation criteria—were decisive for the people charged with implementing them.

So that’s what I wrote about. Or tried to anyway. Here’s the story and three things I learned writing it and a video about how my district tried to desegregate itself and failed:

The most un-journalistic thing about this story, the all-caps flashing disclaimer above all of these links, is that this is my old high school. My institution, my hometown, my former teachers. As a journalist I am supposed to be dispassionate and objective. About this place and these people, I am not.

I don’t know if I will start to feel like a journalist anytime soon. But when it requires me to stop rooting for the people I write about, I’ll stop trying.

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