Every December I read hundreds of long-form essays to select the Sidney Awards, and every year I regret that I spend so much of the other 11 months reading online trivia. Then, every January, I revert to Twitter.
Andrew Sullivan got sucked into the online addiction in a big way, yanked himself away from it and wrote a brilliant essay on the process for New York magazine called “I Used to Be a Human Being.”
Sullivan was the superstar of what I guess we can call the blogging era, consumed with online volleying all day, every day. Everything else – health, friendships – atrophied: “Every minute I was engrossed in a virtual interaction I was not involved in a human encounter. Every second absorbed in some trivia was a second less for any form of reflection, or calm, or spirituality.” He also came to understand that we don’t really control our time online. Our clicks are seduced by technologists superbly able to suck us in.
There is also something emotionally comforting, if cowardly, about life through the screen: “An entire universe of intimate responses is flattened to a single, distant swipe. We hide our vulnerabilities, airbrushing our flaws and quirks; we project our fantasies onto the images before us.”
Sullivan cut the cord, went to a silent retreat center and promptly collapsed. Issues from his traumatic childhood flooded back. “It was as if, having slowly and progressively removed every distraction from my life, I was suddenly faced with what I had been distracting myself from. Resting for a moment against the trunk of a tree, I stopped, and suddenly found myself bent over, convulsed with the newly present pain, sobbing.”
Sullivan’s essay marks an important turning point as more people realize that smartphones have made online life so consuming as to become a monster.
Martha Nussbaum is one of America’s most brilliant philosophers, her work often focusing on the content and nature of emotions. Rachel Aviv’s wonderful New Yorker profile, “The Philosopher of Feelings,” opens with Nussbaum writing a lecture while flying to see her dying mother:
“In the lecture, she described how the Roman philosopher Seneca, at the end of each day, reflected on his misdeeds before saying to himself, ‘This time I pardon you.’ The sentence brought Nussbaum to tears. She worried that her ability to work was an act of subconscious aggression, a sign that she didn’t love her mother enough. I shouldn’t be away lecturing, she thought. I shouldn’t have been a philosopher. Nussbaum sensed that her mother saw her work as cold and detached, a posture of invulnerability. ‘We aren’t very loving creatures, apparently, when we philosophize,' Nussbaum has written.”
The profile is a subtle exploration of a woman who is extreme at both ends of the sense and sensibility spectrum, who is almost fanatically organized and professionally accomplished, but also deeply emotional and open to the things in the world that can leave you shattered.
I have left the election largely out of the awards, named for the philosopher Sidney Hook, since we’ve been so consumed by the madness all year. But I should mention a few deserving political essays:
In “How American Politics Went Insane,” in The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch argues that generations of well-intentioned reformers have destroyed the informal structures of politics, like parties, congressional hierarchies and pork barrel spending, that make government work. The reformers saw insiderish corruption, but these mediating structures held leaders accountable to one another. Without them, we are left in a world of chaos, political dysfunction, atomization and demagoguery.
The economist Tyler Cowen of the Marginal Revolution blog excellently suggested that I include a pro-Trump essay, to give the winning side its due. I’ve picked “The Flight 93 Election,” from The Claremont Review of Books, by the person who writes under the name Publius Decius Mus. The core argument is that modern conservatism has failed at everything except its self-preservation, that a figure like Donald Trump could arise only in deeply corrupt times and that only the radical shift he offers can protect the nation from utter destruction.
Some sort of prognostication prize should go to Ronald Brownstein for “Is Donald Trump Outflanking Hillary Clinton,” also in The Atlantic. One week before the election, Brownstein wondered why the Clinton campaign was spending its energies on states it didn’t need to win, like Florida, while neglecting the “Blue Wall” states it absolutely had to win, like Wisconsin and Michigan.
Finally, to lift our eyes to the heavens, let’s throw in Alan Lightman’s “What Came Before the Big Bang?,” in Harper’s. Lightman describes current thinking about the creation of the universe. He suggests that the universe moves from tidiness to messiness, that the entire universe may have once been like a subatomic particle, that before-and-after, cause-and-effect thinking might be a human construct that prevents us from understanding cosmic events.
Lightman’s account of cosmology explodes our mental frameworks and normal categories, and thus serves as a good preparation for 2017.