Opinion | The Sidney Awards


As Caldwell sums it up: “America’s discovery of world dominance might turn out in the 21st century to be what Spain’s discovery of gold had been in the 16th — a source of destabilization and decline disguised as a windfall.”

Some of this year’s Sidney Award winners are kind of cerebral, but John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay “Man Called Fran,” from Harper’s, is pure candy. Once you start reading it, you will not be able to stop. It starts when the author was bothered by a vague, unpleasant smell spreading through part of his house. He called plumber after plumber, but nobody could figure it out. Then one plumber said that while his firm had “good plumbers,” sometimes you need a crew with “crackhead power.” He added, “A crackhead will just throw himself at a wall, even if it’s totally pointless.” Sullivan found two plumbers with this kind of power, one named Fran, and what happened next is remarkable, touching and deep.

The New Atlantis is a fantastic magazine that helps us understand the burdens and blessings of modern science and technology — the social effects of everything from Covid to artificial intelligence and lab-grown meat. In “Rational Magic,” Tara Isabella Burton profiles a group of tech-adjacent thinkers who have become disillusioned with the alienating emptiness of the world Silicon Valley is creating: its dry rationalism, its emphasis on the technological over the humanistic. Many such people, she writes, are searching for some sort of spirituality. She follows them into the world of occultism, mushrooms and ecstatic dance classes. Burton is picking up on a broader trend I’ve also been noticing recently. New forms of religion and spirituality are popping up where you least expect them — among the techies, among those on the hard, progressive left.

The Hedgehog Review is another favorite magazine of mine. Each issue offers deep and substantive takes on our culture. In “The Great Malformation,” Talbot Brewer observes that parenthood comes with “an ironclad obligation to raise one’s children as best one can.” But these days, parents have surrendered child rearing to the platforms that dominate the attention industry — TikTok, Facebook, Instagram and so on: “The work of cultural transmission is increasingly being conducted in such a way as to maximize the earnings of those who oversee it.”

He continues: “We would be astonished to discover a human community that did not attempt to pass along to its children a form of life that had won the affirmation of its elders. We would be utterly flabbergasted to discover a community that went to great lengths to pass along a form of life that its elders regarded as seriously deficient or mistaken. Yet we have slipped unawares into precisely this bizarre arrangement.” In most societies, the economy takes place in a historically rooted cultural setting. But in our world, he argues, the corporations own and determine the culture, shaping our preferences and forming, or not forming, our conception of the good.



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