This batch of Sidney Awards, given for some of the year’s best long-form essays, congregate, coincidentally, around a theme: the excessive individualism of American society and the ways human beings try to create community for good or ill.
The first winner is Sebastian Junger’s “How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield,” from Vanity Fair. Junger starts by stating the American military has the highest post-traumatic stress disorder rate in its history, and probably the world. But then he notes there is no statistical relationship between suicide and combat.
Vets who worked far from the violence are just as likely to commit suicide. Over the decades, combat deaths have dropped while PTSD rates have risen. The Israeli army, which sees a lot of trauma, has a rate as low as 1 percent.
Junger concludes, “The problem doesn’t seem to be trauma on the battlefield so much as re-entry into society.” People in military service are surrounded by close comradeship. When they are thrust back into American society they are often isolated. The problem is with our lack of community back home.
For centuries Americans have been reading the hyper-individualistic purity of Henry David Thoreau’s life on Walden Pond — the way he cut himself off from crass commercialism and lived on a pure spiritual plane.
Writing in The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz points out in “Pond Scum” that Thoreau was a misanthropic, arrogant, self-righteous prig. He was coldhearted in the face of others’ suffering. Highly ascetic, he sustained the shallow American tendency to equate eating habits with moral health.
He tried philanthropic enterprises but found they did “not agree with my constitution.” Schulz accurately notes that Thoreau’s most famous sentence, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” is at once insufferable and absurd.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a series of pieces for The New Yorker, describing how community cultures influence our decision-making in ways we are unaware. His piece “The Engineer’s Lament” describes how engineers think.
He retells an old joke about an engineer, a priest and a doctor who are playing golf, but held up by a slow foursome ahead of them who turn out to be blind firefighters.
“I will say a prayer for them tonight,” the priest says.
“Let me ask my ophthalmologist colleagues if anything can be done for them,” the doctor says.
The engineer says, “Why can’t they play at night?”
Gladwell’s “Thresholds of Violence” describes how school shootings are in some ways like riots, complex dialogues of violence between far-flung killers.
In his “Starting Over,” he notes that many of the people who left New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina for places like Houston did better than those who returned. That’s because one of the ways to stack the deck against your own social mobility is to live in a community with a transgenerational history of poverty. The people who left broke that pattern.
The general conclusion is that people need community to live, but some communities nurture mobility better than others and sometimes it is necessary to leave one community for another. Writing in The National Interest, Henry Olsen has an utterly convincing essay, “A New Homestead Act,” that asserts that for the past several decades American antipoverty policies have retarded this movement and entrenched poverty.
During the Depression the unemployed moved, often to California. But that’s hard to do now. As Olsen writes: “Most welfare-state programs are awarded by states and localities. More crucially, their receipt is often tied to or complicated by continued residence in those places.” Anyone who wanted to move to a city with more opportunity would be putting his or her benefits at risk. Republican efforts to throw everything back to states and localities might make these perverse incentives worse.
So communities can be good or bad. The worst community on Earth is probably ISIS. One of the most important essays this year was Graeme Wood’s “What ISIS Really Wants,” in The Atlantic. Wood demonstrates, among other things, how theologically rigorous ISIS is. Young men flock to this caliphate wannabe precisely because they want to be embraced in the tight legal strictures ISIS commands.
Subtly communities can fall apart. There were many fine pieces this year about sex on campus. One factor is that old community norms governing decent behavior have fallen away and new ones have not yet come into being. Writing “The Meaning of Sex” in The Weekly Standard, the anthropologist Peter Wood describes the damage done when natural and social constructs like virginity, fatherhood, intimacy and romance are done away with or watered down. The result can be a sort of high-class savagery leading to brutal pain and victimization.
This has been a great year for long-form journalism. I’d especially like to thank Robert Cottrell, of the great website the Browser, and Robert Atwan, who runs the Best American Essays series, for directing me to several of this year’s Sidney winners.