Every year, I read thousands of articles, essays and profiles (Reeder, which replaced Pocket for me, tells me more than 2,000). It’s always hard to qualitatively summarize “the state of the union”, but this year felt more repetitive, what with endless reporting on the War on Ukraine and the U.S. midterm elections sapping the bandwidth of already mentally-strained reporters and writers.
Alas, I wish I could say that it is a golden age of writing, but this year — while there were dozens of very solid pieces — I really felt our collective writing output failed to match the vertiginous moment that we are approaching as a world community. I’m biased as an editor, but the editing of articles (to say nothing of Hollywood’s flabby blockbusters these days) leaves much to be desired, with so many words finally arriving at middling conclusions and narratives.
It’s really a question of economics: the media world has just been wrecked in the post-Covid world. Crippling layoffs abound. Coupled with the more limited contacts between journalists and sources in our work-from-home era, and I am starting to see a general decline of that unique insight that comes from observing a subject and a story as closely as possible.
Negativity aside, this is the best of what I read in 2022 in terms of articles (also check out my best books of 2022!)
First Place: How Miami became the most important city in America by Joel Stein
2022 was a year of shocks and disappointments, but it was also a year of bullshit craziness, bookended by the supposed rise of Miami as a tech hub and the crash of Twitter led by none other than that wisest of tech elder, Elon Musk. In regards to Miami, how do you cover the sheer ridiculous parody of what a city pulsing with the bubbly ripples of global crypto capital feels like? Well, you call for Joel Stein.
I’ve loved Stein on and off for decades, with his deep perception matched with an absolute panache of sarcastic wit that can cut to the heart of a contradiction faster than any logical analysis. In this profile of a city zooming up before cratering, Stein finds all manner of strange bedfellows, linking the personalities he discovers into a lattice far stronger than the limestone that will one day sink Miami into the oceans it emerged from.
There’s no way to summarize this urban profile other than to say: no piece so vividly summarizes a slice of time and an economic moment quite like this one. Laugh out loud, and then realize that the nightclubs in Miami have already stopped the bubbly just a few months after this piece was written.
Second Place: The Oblomovization of the Western World by Pascal Bruckner
Bruckner is a leading cultural right-wing academic in France, and in his latest work for Liberties (a journal that I have been enjoying tremendously since its launch), he launches a fusillade on the general lethargy of the West, or what he dubs its “Oblomovization” from Ivan Goncharov’s parody novel Oblomov, for a man who can barely get out of bed and is overwhelmed with the work he hasn’t done.
As the West has emerged from the pandemic, it has become clear that the general push “to do nothing” (i.e. stay inside, don’t meet people, don’t go to school or work, etc.) has aggregated to a nihilistic jadedness about the future of the economy, personal growth, and general social attitudes. Depression is at an all-time high, suicide is spiking, and inflation briefly hit double digits year over year.
Bruckner laments the state of affairs, both that it exists, and that governments continue to place rules on citizen behaviors that make it ever harder to enjoy even the most basic accoutrements of civilized, urban living:
The new nationalist or collapsologist narrative always ends with an indoor serenade. All that’s left is to timidly conduct the somber inventory of what we are now forbidden from doing in the name of climate or protecting our borders, which are erected now as ramparts, spike strips, walls. Freedom has become a burden from which only enclosure can deliver us.
Third Place: Hard to See by Leo Kim
As we talk about societal malaise, there is a similar malaise when it comes to literature, where the desire to focus on “trauma” has become a guiding light for many modern works. Individualized memoir has replaced universal fiction as the model du jour, to a point that even The New Yorker has lamented the state of affairs in an analysis it headlined “The Case Against the Trauma Plot” (which itself is an excellent piece by Parul Sehgal).
Kim here takes a step back by inspecting what exactly we mean by trauma, where it comes from, and who can talk about which traumas.
If trauma seems ubiquitous online, that’s because it has become the authentic experience par excellence — uniquely able to jar our scroll, hold our gaze, compel us to keep watching. This casual misuse, and the burnout it creates, shouldn’t distract from the fact that “trauma,” fraught as the concept has become, refers to a real mode of experience that demands seriousness and consideration. That requires unpacking the ways it has become synonymous with “the real.”
In a world lacking in authenticity, trauma is a way to reclaim the mantle of reality from the varied forms of fiction and untruth that flow across our media today. Yet, it also causes something of an arms race, of whose trauma is more bodily and intense than anyone else’s. It’s ultimately a flattening of fiction, both in its range and in its ambition, and ultimately limiting its potential for propelling readers to new levels of enlightenment.
Fourth Place: Why Are We in Ukraine? by Christopher Caldwell
Christopher Caldwell is a long-time right-wing cultural critic of Europe, and in this essay, he turns his attention to the War on Ukraine. There’s strange bedfellows here — the global right has seemingly lined itself up behind Putin (taking a cue from Hungary’s Viktor Orbán) at the expense of the nationalist desires of the Ukrainians themselves, who presumably would normally capture their sympathy. It’s a political realignment we are still reckoning with.
Caldwell is critical of America’s involvement in the war, a position I find antithetical to my own. But if you’re going to read one essay on why the U.S. should be more cautious than it has been in backing Ukraine at the expense of Russia, this is the one to read.
“A guarantor of economic order, the United States has come to mistake itself for a promulgator of international law, able to consign any country, at any time, to the status of an international pariah.” America’s desire to cut off Russia from global finance and trade won’t work, and will ultimately only show that America has lost its own economic standing in the process. The cost of saving Ukraine may well be the appearance of economic invulnerability the U.S. has enjoyed for much of the past few decades.
The war is still underway, and Caldwell’s account seems increasingly out of sync with the most recent results on the ground. However, the long-term effects of the war and the actions of all countries has yet to crystalize. The worries here may be for nought — or they could have been a harbinger we all should have listened to.
Fifth Place: So You Want to Be a TikTok Star by John Seabrook
TikTok is not novel, and neither are analyses of social media stars. What Seabrook has done here is to take a look at the music industry with a wide lens to show how the entire sociology of an industry has changed in just a few years. Talent scouts who once might have walked through local venues trying to bump into undiscovered artists now watch endless TikTok videos in hopes of a serendipitous connection. Budding stars design their music for TikTok’s exacting algorithm, feeling for snatches of notes that can galvanize virality. Real stars have already been discovered and showered with millions.
It’s an entirely new economic rendering of musical and cultural production, and its advent took just a few years from ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly in 2018 to its rebranding to TikTok and its insane growth ever since.
What became clear to me after reading this piece was just how much talent development has changed. There is no longer The Beatles playing thousands of hours to near-empty bars trying to make it big. Now, it’s kids in bedrooms playing in front of their smartphone cameras, hoping to make a hit of something — anything — for the world at large. A complete transformation of the human experience, and one whose effects are just getting started.
Sixth Place: All History Is Revisionist History by James M. Banner Jr.
This essay caused a massive ruckus earlier this year, in only the way that modern academia can blow up at reasonable points of view. Banner, co-founder of the National History Center of the American Historical Association, writes about the on-going challenges of defining “what is history?” In this essay for Humanities, the house organ of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Banner notes:
It’s not surprising that they ask in bewilderment: If the past can’t change, then how can the history about it do so? They’re offended to learn that at least some of what they were taught early in life as “history” is no longer fully accepted by historians and is instead taught in different ways. Like all humans, families, peoples, and nations—like many historians, too—they want to believe what they learned when young, especially since it long served as an adhesive of their identity.
In short: alternative histories exist as we begin to understand the past with different lights. Perhaps most importantly, even for those who live through history, there is no guarantee that we even understand the decisions we take in a specific historical era. A president knows the orders they literally gave, but often not why their advisors gave the advice they offered, or the web of influences that framed the decision in the first place. In fact, the decision-maker may be the last to understand the forces that worked on their decision.
It’s an uncomfortable reminder that history is by no means static, but instead, is always shifting with our times. It’s only debate that allows us to peel the right insights out of the mess of contradictory facts and theories — debates that are becoming increasingly fraught.
A range of other great pieces that I read this year, in an unranked, semi-random order.
- The China story behind Apple’s $3 trillion valuation with Doug Guthrie by Chris Marquis — an extraordinarily insightful look at how Apple has approach China the past decade with the man who led it.
- Confessions of a Bitcoin Widow: How a Dream Life Turned into a Nightmare by Jennifer Robertson, Stephen Kimber — a lurid, honest, and shocking tale of crypto fraud written by the wife of the fraudster. What we leave behind, and it’s not just piles of encrypted assets.
- The L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputy-Gang Crisis by Dana Goodyear — an absolutely enraging and shocking account of the violence and corruption in the LAPD.
- Trapped in Silicon Valley’s Hidden Caste System by Bruce Daisley — a perceptive look at the complications of social stratification, in this case, among the Indian community in Silicon Valley.
- The Secrets Ed Koch Carried by Matt Flegenheimer and Rosa Goldensohn — the “final” look at NYC mayor Ed Koch and his barely concealed homosexuality, and what his avoidance meant for the city at the height of the AIDS crisis.
- Destination Unknown: Sociology Gone Wrong by William Davies — more excellent analysis from one of my favorite writers, this time on the politics of sociology, a discipline that should be at the center of modern conversations, and instead, has relegated itself almost to irrelevance.
- An Anti-Abortion Activist’s Quest to End the Rape Exception by Eren Orbey — a balanced and empathetic account of one anti-abortion activist who was conceived during a rape, and what line society should take on moral issues.
- “We failed”: Gay Republicans who fought for acceptance in Texas GOP see little progress by Eric Neugeboren — a nice retrospective set of interviews with the gay conservatives who tried to move Texas on a different course.
- The Despotism of Isaias Afewerki by Alex de Waal — a challenging look at one of the world’s most violent and long-lasting dictators, in this case, the strongman of Eritrea. A great compliment to Did a Nobel Peace Laureate Stoke a Civil War? by Jon Lee Anderson.
- How a Chinese American Gangster Transformed Money Laundering for Drug Cartels by Sebastian Rotella and Kirsten Berg — an absolutely fascinating tale of how brokers can connect the financial dots from rich Chinese families, American drug users, and Latin American cartels.
- A Year with Angela Merkel: “You’re Done with Power Politics” by Alexander Osang — a great if lengthy profile of the iron madame of democracy and European liberalism, Angela Merkel.
- I Don’t Want to Be an Internet Person by Ginerva Davis — a meditation on what identity means in a totalizing digital world.
- A Teacher in China Learns the Limits of Free Expression by Peter Hessler — a long-time China resident considers where his students have been and where they have gone, encompassing memory, hopes, dreams and loss in a country forever on the move.