Frank Rich

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Here are 25 pieces of journalism from this year, alphabetized by author name, which made me consider something new or reconsider old beliefs or just delighted me.

  • Exodus” (Ross Andersen, Aeon) A brilliant longform piece that lifts off with Elon Musk’s mission to Mars and veers in deep and mysterious directions.
  • Barack Obama, Ferguson, and the Evidence of Things Unsaid” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic) Nobody speaks truth to race in America quite like Coates, and the outrage of Ferguson was the impetus for this spot-on piece about the deeply institutionalized prejudice of government, national and local, in the U.S.
  • The Golden Age of Journalism?” (Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch) The landscape has never been more brutal for news nor more promising. The author luxuriates in the richness destabilization has wrought.
  • Amazon Must Be Stopped” (Franklin Foer, The New Republic) Before things went completely haywire at the company, Foer returned some sanity to the publication in the post-Peretz period. This lucid article argues that Amazon isn’t becoming a monopoly but already qualifies as one.
  • America in Decay” (Francis Fukuyama, Foreign Affairs) Strong argument that the U.S. public sector is so dysfunctional because of a betrayal of meritocracy in favor of special interests and lobbyists. The writer’s idea of what constitutes a merit-based system seems flawed, but he offers many powerful ideas.
  • What’s the Matter With Russia?” (Keith Gessen, Foreign Affairs) An insightful meditation about Putin’s people, who opt to to live in a fairy tale despite knowing such a thing can never have a happy ending.
  • The Dying Russians(Masha Gessen, New York Review of Books) Analysis of Russia’s high mortality rate suggests that the root cause is not alcohol, guns or politics, but simply hopelessness.  
  • Soak the Rich” (David Graeber, Thomas Piketty) Great in-depth exchange between two thinkers who believe capitalism has run amok, but only one of whom thinks it’s run its course.
  • The First Smile(Michael Graziano, Aeon) The Princeton psychology and neuroscience professor attempts to explain why facial expressions appear to be natural and universal.
  • The Creepy New Wave of the Internet” (Sue Halpern, New York Review of Books) The author meditates on the Internet of Things, which may make the world much better and much worse, quantifying us like never before.
  • Super-Intelligent Humans Are Coming” (Stephen Hsu, Nautilus) A brisk walk through the process of genetic modification, which would lead to heretofore unknown brain power.
  • All Dressed Up For Mars and Nowhere to Go” (Elmo Keep, Matter) A sprawling look at the seeming futility of the MarsOne project ultimately gets at a more profound pointlessness–pursuing escape in a dying universe.
  • The Myth of AI” (Jaron Lanier, Edge) Among other things, this entry draws a neat comparison between the religionist’s End of Days and the technologist’s Singularity, the Four Horseman supposedly arriving in driverless cars.
  • The Disruption Machine” (Jill Lepore, The New Yorker) The “D” word, its chief promulgator, Clayton M. Christensen, and its circuitous narratives, receive some disruption of their own.
  • The Longevity Gap(Linda Marsa, Aeon) A severely dystopian thought experiment: Will the parallels of widening income disparity and innovations in medicine lead to two very different lifespans for the haves and have-nots?
  • The Genetics Epidemic” (Jamie F. Metzl, Foreign Affairs) Genetic modification studied from an uncommon angle, that of national-security concerns.
  • My Captivity(Theo Padnos, The New York Times Magazine) A harrowing autobiographical account of an American journalist’s hostage ordeal in the belly of the beast in Syria.
  • We Are a Camera” (Nick Paumgarten, The New Yorker) In a time of cheap, ubiquitous cameras, the image, merely an imitation, is ascendant, and any event unrecorded seemingly has less currency. The writer examines the strangeness of life in the GoPro flow.
  • A Goddamn Death Dedication” (Alex Pappademas, Grantland) A knowing postmortem about Casey Kasem, America’s deejay when the world was hi-fi but before it became sci-fi.
  • In Conversation: Chris Rock” (Frank Rich, New York) The exchange about “black progress” is an example of what comedy does at its best: It points out an obvious truth that so many have missed.
  • The Mammoth Cometh” (Nathaniel Rich, The New York Times Magazine) A piece which points out that de-extinct animals won’t be exactly like their forebears, nor will augmented humans of the future be just like us. It’s progress, probably.
  • Hello, My Name Is Stephen Glass, and I’m Sorry(Hanna Rosin, The New Republic) Before the implosion of the publication, the writer wondered what it would mean to forgive her former coworker, an inveterate fabulist and liar, and what it would mean if she could not forgive.
  • Gilbert Gottfried: New York Punk” (Jay Ruttenberg, The Lowbrow Reader) Written by the only person on the list whom I know personally, but no cronyism is necessary for the inclusion of this excellent analysis of the polarizing comic, who’s likely more comfortable when at his most alienating.

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Justice only works if the people implementing it are just, the impulse to protect the most vulnerable among us useful only if there’s a sense of history and proportion. Some who see themselves as noble, who self-identify as put-upon, are not protecting people but merely a sense of privilege.

Two reactions to Ferguson follow, the first from Manny Fernandez and Alan Blinder of the New York Times about an armed militia that’s descended on the embattled town to protect the “weakest” and the second an exchange from an interview conducted by Frank Rich of New York with Chris Rock, who somehow keeps getting more brilliant and perceptive.

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FERGUSON, Mo. — When Sam Andrews awoke on Tuesday morning, he found his wife watching a television interview with a woman whose bakery had been vandalized during the violent unrest here on Monday.

“She said, ‘You’ve got to go help her,’ ” Mr. Andrews said in an interview on Saturday morning.

And so Mr. Andrews, a former Defense Department contractor who is now a weapons engineer in the St. Louis area, set to work. Under the auspices of a national group called the Oath Keepers, Mr. Andrews accelerated plans to recruit and organize private security details for businesses in Ferguson, which are receiving the services for free. The volunteers, who are sometimes described as a citizen militia — but do not call themselves that — have taken up armed positions on rooftops here on recent nights.

“It’s really a broad group of citizens, and I’m sure their motivations are all different,” said Mr. Andrews, who is in his 50s. “In many of them, there’s probably a sense of patriotism. But I think in most of them, there’s probably something that they probably don’t even recognize: that we have a moral obligation to protect the weakest among us. When we see these violent people, these arsonists and anarchists, attacking, it just pokes at you in a deep place.”

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Frank Rich:

What would you do in Ferguson that a standard reporter wouldn’t?

Chris Rock:

I’d do a special on race, but I’d have no black people.

Frank Rich:

Well, that would be much more revealing.

Chris Rock:

Yes, that would be an event. Here’s the thing. When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.

Frank Rich:

Right. It’s ridiculous.

Chris Rock:

So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, “Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.” It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner. Nothing. It just doesn’t. The question is, you know, my kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.•

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Understanding today or tomorrow is an almost impossible task, the present being anything but a sitting duck and the future a black swan. Even those who have a better-than-average idea of where things stand and where they’re heading can misread the details, all but neutralizing their knowledge. From “Nothing You Think Matters Today Will Matter the Same Way Tomorrow,” Frank Rich’s New York magazine look at the last 50 years of American history and what it tells us about prognostication:

“It was a time when many in my boomer generation fell in love with the idea that change was something you could believe in—a particularly liberal notion that has taken hold in other generations, too, whether in the age of Roosevelt or Obama. Even as we recognize that the calendar makes for a crude and arbitrary marker, we like to think that history visibly marches on, on a schedule we can codify.

The more I dove back into the weeds of 1964, the more I realized that this is both wishful thinking and an optical illusion. I came away with a new appreciation of how selective our collective memory is, and of just how glacially history moves, despite the can-do optimism of a modern America besotted with the pursuit of instant gratification. Asked at the time of the 1964 World’s Fair to anticipate 2014, Isaac Asimov got some things right (miniaturized computers, online education, flat-screen television, and what we now know as Skype), but many of his utopian predictions were delusional. His wrong calls included not just his interplanetary fantasies but his vision of underground suburbs that would protect mankind from war, rampaging weather, and the tyranny of the automobile. Asimov also thought birth control would find international acceptance. It was no doubt beyond even his imagination that a half-century hence American lawmakers would introduce ‘personhood’ amendments attempting to all but outlaw contraception.

The screenwriter William Goldman famously summed up Hollywood in three words: ‘Nobody knows anything.’ Would that this aphorism were applicable, as he intended, solely to the make-believe of show business. It often seems that nobody knew anything about anything in 1964. Most everyone was certain that the big political developments of the time, epitomized by LBJ’s victories for civil rights and against Goldwater, would be transformational. Many of the same seers saw the year’s cultural upheavals, starting with the Beatles, as ephemera. More often than not, the reverse has turned out to be true. Are we so much smarter in 2014?”

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In his just-published New York magazine column, “Stop Beating a Dead Fox,” Frank Rich states the obvious in saying that Fox News actually hurts the GOP and the great majority of its viewers are likely taking medication that may cause weakness, insomnia, dizziness, chest pain, peripheral edema, rash, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhea, dyspepsia, flatulence, nausea, urinary tract infection, arthralgia, myalgia, back pain, arthritis, sinusitis, pharyngitis, bronchitis, rhinitis, infection, flu-like syndrome and allergic reaction. But, oh, how he states it. Just one paragraph:

“It was the right call. For all its ratings prowess and fat profits, Fox, like the GOP itself, is under existential threat in a fast-changing 21st-century America. Indeed, Megyn Kelly, the latest blonde star in an Ailes stable that seems to emulate Hitchcock’s leading-lady predilections in looks and inchoate malevolence, was promoted to her prime-time perch last year precisely to bring in a younger, less monochromatic audience. It’s a mission that neither she nor any other on-camera talent can accomplish. All three cable-news networks are hemorrhaging young viewers (as are their network-news counterparts) in an era when television is hardly the news medium of choice for Americans raised online and on smartphones. But Fox News is losing younger viewers at an even faster rate than its competitors. With a median viewer age now at 68 according to Nielsen data through mid-January (compared with 60 for MSNBC and CNN, and 62 to 64 for the broadcast networks), Fox is in essence a retirement community.”

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Why, exactly, do we need heroes? I don’t mean children, but adult Americans who should know better. Sure, others can inspire us, but can that inspiration come only if we’ve whitewashed their negatives, if we’ve turned them into pretty lies? Do we scrub their sins to remove our own? Why not just admit that we’re all pretty flawed? Ronald Reagan wasn’t really a cowboy and neither are you or I. Tear down the statues, all of them.

From Frank Rich’s New York magazine excoriation of Petraeus, Broadwell and our deep need to manufacture heroes from substandard materials:

None of Petraeus’s recent history would matter were it not completely at odds with everything we knew about him prior to Election Day. As you go back through the many profiles that proliferated once he was center stage in Iraq, you hear mainly of his exacting scholarliness, his push-up contests and five-mile runs with his bros in the press corps, and his straight-arrow personal style. Some of the praise heaped on Petraeus was written by the same journalists and pundits who promoted the Iraq misadventure in the first place and saw in the cool intellectual general and his surge a tool for rehabilitating both their own tarnished reputations and the disastrous, gratuitous war that had recklessly diverted American resources from the actual post-9/11 threat in Afghanistan. In truth, Petraeus didn’t redeem the Iraq fiasco. What the surge did accomplish, as a trustworthy soldier-scholar, Andrew Bacevich of Boston University, recently noted, was to allow the United States to ‘extricate itself from Iraq without having to acknowledge abject failure.’ Petraeus’s subsequent tour of duty in Afghanistan, a sudden assignment after the resignation of Stanley McChrystal, and his fourteen-month tenure as CIA director accomplished far less. Finally, we are starting to learn why.

The general’s distracting adventures among the Real Housewives of Tampa on the home front were in the public domain, reported in the local press for anyone who wanted to look. No one in the national media bothered until sex and a catfight between Broadwell and Kelley entered the story. Also hiding in plain sight, and also ignored, was Broadwell’s own curious rise in the same media-think-tank Establishment that was glorifying Petraeus. All In was not actually written by Broadwell but by a Washington Post editor. A faux author, Broadwell was also a faux counterinsurgency expert: Though an Army officer, she had never been posted in a combat zone, and though she had enrolled in a doctoral program at Harvard’s Kennedy School (where she first networked with Petraeus), she had been asked to leave because of substandard course work.

Her book, reworked from her lapsed dissertation, is so saccharine and idolatrous that it can only be tolerated with an insulin injection. Nonetheless, All In attracted a roster of ecstatic blurbs, still visible on the book’s Amazon page, from two Pulitzer Prize winners and boldfaced names at NBC News, CNN, the Brookings Institution, and Foreign Affairs. (The prize entry is from Tom Brokaw, describing Petraeus as ‘one of the most important Americans of our time, in or out of uniform.’) Sure enough, this degree of celebrity networking helped propel Broadwell into a career as a television talking head and public speaker. She paraded her dubious expertise before such august organizations as the Aspen Institute, the Concordia Summit, and the United States Chamber of Commerce—sometimes sharing the program with Bill Clinton, John McCain, and Obama Cabinet members. Like Petraeus’s other efforts to court and stroke the press, his targeted deployment of Broadwell, his most determined and devoted personal publicist, to nearly every corridor of media power helps explain how the myth of his public persona was scrupulously enforced even after his days living large in Tampa. Broadwell was so effective at insinuating herself and her message into rarefied echelons of the military-media-political complex that we should be grateful that her only causes were herself and Petraeus. She would have been a killer foreign mole.”

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"Some on the right were baffled that the ostensible Marxists demonstrating in lower Manhattan would observe a moment of silence and assemble makeshift shrines for a top one-percenter like Jobs." (Image by David Shankbone.)

In his excellent new piece in New York about the looming class war, which has been waged silently and unilaterally for nearly three decades against the middle class, Frank Rich explains why the Occupiers expressed grief over the death of that wealthy capitalist Steve Jobs. An excerpt:

“But while Romney is a class enemy liberals and conservatives can unite against, perhaps nothing has revealed how much the class warriors of the right and left of our time have in common than the national outpouring after Steve Jobs’s death. Indeed, the near-universal over-the-top emotional response—more commensurate with a saintly religious or civic leader, not a sometimes bullying captain of industry—brought Americans of all stripes together as few events have in recent memory.

Some on the right were baffled that the ostensible Marxists demonstrating in lower Manhattan would observe a moment of silence and assemble makeshift shrines for a top one-percenter like Jobs, whose expensive products were engineered for near-­instant obsolescence and produced by Chinese laborers in factories with substandard health-and-safety records. For heaven’s sake, the guy didn’t even join Warren Buffett and Bill Gates in their Giving Pledge. ‘There is perhaps no greater image of irony,’ wrote the conservative blogger Michelle Malkin, ‘than that of anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, anti-materialist extremists of the Occupy Wall Street movement paying tribute to Steve Jobs.’

Yet those demonstrators who celebrated Jobs were not necessarily hypocrites at all—and no more anti-capitalist than the Bonus Army of 1932. If you love your Mac and iPod, you can still despise CDOs and credit-default swaps. Jobs’s genius—in the words of Regis McKenna, a Silicon Valley marketing executive who worked with him early on—was his ability ‘to strip away the excess layers of business, design, and innovation until only the simple, elegant reality remained.’ The supposed genius of modern Wall Street is the exact reverse, piling on excess layers of business and innovation on ever thinner and more exotic creations until simple reality is distorted and obscured. Those in Palin’s ‘real America’ may not be agitated about the economic 99-vs.-one percent inequality brought about by the rise of the financial sector in the past three decades, but, like class warriors of the left, they know that ‘financial instruments’ wreaked havoc on their 401(k)s, homes, and jobs. The bottom line remains that Wall Street’s opaque inventions led directly to TARP, the taxpayers’ bank bailout that achieved the seemingly impossible feat of unifying the left and right in rage against government—much as Jobs’s death achieved the equally surprising coup of unifying left and right in mourning a corporate god.”

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Frank Rich, being treated slightly better than Lindsey Buckingham:

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Sometimes I find myself thinking about the remembrance of Wendy Wasserstein, the playwright who sadly died way too soon, that Frank Rich wrote for the New York Times Magazine in 2006. She was apparently inscrutable to even her close friends, even more than the rest of us are to ours. An excerpt:

The Wendy Wasserstein who was always there for everybody (including me) at every crisis and celebration, the Wendy with that uproarious (yet musical) laugh and funny (yet never bitchy) dialogue for every fraught situation, the Wendy the whole world knew and adored was also an intensely private person who left many mysteries behind. Though she had countless circles of friends, the circles didn’t always overlap: her life was more compartmentalized than she let on. Though she had written a memorable memoir for The New Yorker about her personal and physiological journey to childbirth, the subject of her child’s paternity was strictly off-limits. Though it was apparent that she was ill for several years before her death, she hid the specifics and terminal gravity of her illness (lymphoma) until the endgame gave her away. By then she was out of reach of intimates who might have wanted to have a cognizant goodbye.

After her death, her closest friends were left to compare notes and clues about what had gone unsaid. But we had no answers. Roy Harris, the devoted stage manager for many of Wendy’s plays, including her last, Third, spoke for many of us when he published a tender reminiscence that also acknowledged his anger “that she hadn’t allowed any of her friends to be a part of her final months.”

As Roy wrote, dying was entirely Wendy’s “own business.” She was entitled to her decisions and her secrets. But the fact that she so successfully took so many of those secrets to the grave was a major revelation in itself. How could the most public artist in New York keep so much locked up? I don’t think I was the only friend who felt I had somehow failed to see Wendy whole. And who wondered if I had let her down in some profound way. I grieve as much for the Wendy I didn’t know as the Wendy I did.•

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The word “grandee” was coined in 1598 and means “a man of elevated rank or station.” Not an everyday term, it’s sometimes used to describe a longtime member of a U.S. political party, as it was in a May obituary in the Irish Times for unwavering Republican Jack Kemp. But high-profile writers at The New Yorker and New York Times have to stop using it so often or it may become for hoary media publications what “douche” or “douchebag” (coined in 1963) became for bloggers and TV writers this decade. Read the rest of this entry »

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