Friday, August 30, 2013

Esquire writing on the world we live in - by Granger, Richardson, Marche & Raab

The September issue of Esquire Magazine had a number of great pieces, with many of them around the theme of our world and the government's role in it. Below is quoted much more of the actual text than I usually include when referencing stories I found excellent, but each of the writers noted really hit some big important themes in these pieces.

The opening letter from editor David Granger was titled "American Dread" and made reference to some of the pieces that followed, with the text from Granger that stood out to me the most the following...

"This morning, early, I read the final draft of John H. Richardson's profile of Alex Jones, a man I'd previously known only through the vicious tweets of his many detractors. Jones is the premier vendor of conspiracy theories in the country, to the tune of a million visitors to his sites some days. His ravings about the Boston Marathon bombing being a government plot and the U.S. secretly siding with Al Qaeda are both insane and influential — they, as much as the words of any commentator in the country, help shape the discussions of our national affairs.  

Shortly thereafter, I read Stephen Marche's Thousand Words column, about the state of anxiety in which we live — how our country and its popular culture live under a cloud of the awful things that might happen. 

And just a few minutes ago, I read the ninth installment of Scott Raab's epic series on the rebuilding at Ground Zero. And it reminded me where the paranoia comes from: If 9/11 could happen, then everything is possible. If everything is possible, then we are required to act on our worries to forestall the next possible catastrophe. We've all bought into a variant of the worldview expressed in Dick Cheney's famous calculation: If there is a 1 percent chance that we will be attacked, then we must treat it as a certainty. If there is any chance that the most outlandish rumor could happen — if, say, someone with an Alex Jones–sized megaphone were to equate the infamous government-funded Tuskegee syphilis study from the 1930s with the recent attempt to fluoridate the drinking water of Portland, Oregon — then many assume it's almost certain."


The aforementioned profile by John Richardson was titled "Alex Jones: Father Knows Best, Updated for the Apocalypse" and while I certainly think Jones a loon, I also had two thoughts that made him important, even if not actually correct. There's many people who hang on his every word and crazy as those words might be, they don't come from nothing. I like the current administration and generally buy the arguments made by it, but I also think what if the power held by the executive branch was in the hands of what I'll loosely call "bad guys"?

Along these lines, I found myself thinking of Philip Roth's novel The Plot Against America. It was based on the premise of Charles Lindbergh defeating Franklin Roosevelt for the Presidency in 1940 and the U.S. taking dual paths of isolationism from the war in Europe and discrimination against Jews here at home. Roth's work was fiction, but based on real possibility as there were groups in the U.S. who firmly wanted to let Germany do what they will (a "not our problem" approach) and also wanted to curtail opportunities for Jews.


The Stephen Marche essay referenced was "The Empire of Anxiety" and the parts of it struck me the most were about government anti-terrorism measures as well as the financial costs of them vs. the likelihood of the events they're preventing...

"America's actual drone policies are based explicitly on how worried its agents are. Killing anywhere in the world is legal so long as 'an informed, high-level official of the U.S. has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.' 'Imminent threat' can mean anything, of course. The NSA surveillance program is operating under this same limitless anxiety. All information must be available, because who knows what is being plotted out there, somewhere, anywhere?

In 2012, only ten American civilians died worldwide from international terrorism. Between September 11 and the death of Osama bin Laden, the United States spent $1.28 trillion prosecuting the war on terror. You are 3,468 times as likely to die from a car accident as from an attack, 2,663 times as likely to die from a fall, 356 times as likely to die from drowning. You are 416 times as likely to die from an injury at work as at the hands of a terrorist. For an ultimately negligible increase in public safety, ancient values have been abandoned and huge quantities of blood and treasure have been expended. In a hundred years, historians of this period will be amazed at the ludicrous outpouring of resources to prevent a few thousand murders while all around the world the poor and hungry die. The psychological mechanism is obvious, a classic case of a phobia, creating a specific fear to hide from a general, more all-encompassing sense of dread. Terrorism has the great narrative advantage of having good guys and bad guys involved in dramatic scenes. The real crises are much more boring and present no Zero Dark Thirty–style solutions. The coming storm is no longer a metaphor. Next summer, a hurricane will come and destroy part of New York City. Or, if not next year, the year after. And then there will be an even worse hurricane a few years after that. And what will the world be like when New York City is destroyed? And what are we supposed to do about it? Nobody knows."


Additionally referenced by Granger in his Editor's piece was the Scott Raab feature "A Target in Perpetuity". It's the 9th installment in Raab's 8 year-long (so far) series "The Rebuilding" about the new World Trade Center.

This latest piece covered among other things the political infighting around the World Trade Center site and turf battles between the NYPD and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for who will provide site security. Really great work from Raab that included the text below...

"If eight years spent covering and pondering Ground Zero has taught me anything worth calling wisdom, it boils down to this: Our national response to 9/11 has been disastrous. Think first about how useful 9/11 has been to the politicians who trade in fear and piety, whose power at the federal level of our government has grown vast enough to include torture, indefinite detention, secret surveillance of the citizenry en masse approved by a secret court, and the program of inflicting death by drone despite the collateral damage, human and political. 

I'm not suggesting any conspiracy to bring down the World Trade Center beyond that enacted by Al Qaeda. I'm not talking about any black helicopters or Hollywood fantasy. I'm referring to the damage done to America not by terrorists but by our own response to one horrific attack — which, by the way, was but another version of what people around the world have gone and still go through. Gutting the values and principles that we like to think define us as an exceptional nation — you know, that whole Bill of Rights deal — isn't the response of a country confident in its freedom. It's the cowardice of a nation too fractured by fear to face the truth about the human condition: We're always vulnerable — all of us, together and alone. It takes courage to accept that vulnerability and not let it rule our lives, private and public. That's exactly what the rebuilt World Trade Center demonstrates already, already filled with people courageous enough to embrace life and liberty as a matter of fact, not foofaraw. In short: Americans."

The thing I love about Raab's writing in this piece is that it details things that should be different or done better, but it then for me adds a healthy dollop of what could be called hopefulness around who we are as people.

For me personally, I often find myself in need of that hopefulness when thinking about things that could be different in our world, both those covered in these Esquire pieces and those not. One thing that comes to mind specifically is something that I've written about previously with my April 2013 post "writing on Boston and on guns" and the approach our lawmakers all too often seem to take towards meaningful action.