Late Summer Reading, Cheering and Otherwise, But Worth Checking Out

By James Fallows

My colleague, Alexis Madrigal, has a wonderful daily newsletter called 5 Intriguing Things. If you haven’t signed up for it, you can check out back issues here and sign up to get it delivered daily here.

In the same spirit, and before resuming the High Speed Rail saga, here are five (bonus six!) articles worth mentioning. These are connected only by my having noticed them while reading and traveling and wanting to pass them on. 

1) The Washington Monthly's sensible college rankings. As I've chronicled here before, in one chapter of life I was involved in trying to clean up the "America's Best Colleges" ranking system, as editor of US News & World Report. For background on US News ranking controversies, see an item by John Tierney last year, and one from me five years ago. 

The biggest problem with that ranking system is that it ends up being mainly an input measure. The oldest, richest colleges, which can choose from the widest range of the best-prepared students, naturally come out on top. Over the past few years, The Washington Monthly (where I also once worked) has developed inventive ways to measure output—not the advantages that students begin with, but the difference a school makes to them and to society. Rankings aren't going away, so the only answer to bad rankings is more and better ones.

This week TWM put out its latest update, with a set of associated articles. You can find links to all of them here. I’m delighted that the #1 school on this year's National Universities” list is UC San Diego, where I have spent so much time over the years (including last year as a “Pacific Leadership Fellow”) that I feel like an honorary Triton. Also, that four of the top five are UC branches--and the other is Texas A&M, whose research programs I've written admiringly about.

2) "Terrorism as Theater," by my Atlantic colleague Robert Kaplan, in his role as chief geopolitical strategist for the global intelligence firm Stratfor. Kaplan's article, which you can read hereexplains the hideous logic of ISIS's videotaping its murder of James Foley. A sample:

In producing a docu-drama in its own twisted way, the Islamic State was sending the following messages:
   • We don't play by your rules. There are no limits to what we are willing to do.
   
• America's mistreatment of Muslim prisoners at Guantanamo Bay comes with a "price tag," to quote a recently adopted phrase for retribution killings. After all, we are a state. We have our own enemy combatants as you can see from the video, and our own way of dealing with them.
 
• Just because we observe no limits does not mean we lack sophistication.

Sobering and worth reading in full.

3) "Friends of Israel," by Connie Bruck in The New Yorker, which you can read here. This is a long, dispassionate, names-and-dates-and-quotes explanation of how situations like the following can arise:

American opinion is very sharply divided, among Jews and non-Jews alike, about recent trends in Israeli policy in general and the Gaza operation in particular. Yet the U.S. Congress, which most of the time can't agree on even basic steps for which there is overwhelming public support (like rebuilding bridges and highways), has rushed to pass unanimous (!) resolutions backing Israel's Gaza policy, and to vote near-unanimous increases in funding for "Iron Dome." Bruck gets Senators, Representatives, and staffers to explain how and why this occurred.

• Similarly on Iran, the story explains how, even as an American president and his secretaries of State and Defense stressed the importance of negotiations with Iran, AIPAC got 59 Senators to sign onto a measure that would effectively torpedo the negotiations and commit the U.S. to back Israel if it decided to attack Iran. Bruck quotes Sen. Diane Feinstein's tart remarks in opposing the measure (which the White House fought bitterly, and which did not succeed):  “We cannot let Israel”—or of course any other country—“determine when and where the United States goes to war.”

The story is very much worth reading for its quotes and detail, and also as a marker. Journalists have for decades written routinely about lobbies and their role in our politics. The gun lobby, the big-oil lobby, the trial lawyer lobby, the military-industrial lobby. The anti-Castro Cuban lobby, the tobacco or sugar lobbies, big pharma, the
China Lobby of the Chiang Kai-Shek era, a different kind of China lobby now, and a dozen others you might name. I think it's a positive step toward realistic discourse to have matter-of-fact treatment of this part of the lobbying landscape. But read it and judge for yourself.

Meanwhile, if you'd like to see an argument that Bruck has gone way too far in criticizing AIPAC, see this in Commentary. If you'd like the opposite critique, see this in Mondoweiss.

4) Uber vs. Lyft. I've been a big fan of Uber, but they have a lot of explaining to do if the details in this carefully documented piece by Casey Newton in the Verge are correct. (And at face value they are quite damaging.) Meanwhile, for a version of how the “sharing economy” debates are spilling over even into the realm of small-plane aviation, check out this account in Flying magazine.

5) More on the militarization of the police. If you're looking for a big-picture perspective on the trend that Ferguson, Missouri has brought to everyone's notice, check out this report from the ACLU

6) To end on a brighter note, consider this brief item from HotPads blog about the way some Midwestern industrial cities are trying to reduce their carbon footprint. 

Next up, the return of High-Speed Rail! 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/08/late-summer-reading-cheering-and-otherwise-but-worth-checking-out/379191/