The Allure of Messy Reddit Stories

Jerusalem Demsas’s culture and entertainment picks include Children of Time, Vampire Weekend, and chasing down stories people tell—or make up—on Reddit.

Reddit gif
Illustration by The Atlantic

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Good morning, and welcome back to The Daily’s Sunday culture edition, in which one Atlantic writer reveals what’s keeping them entertained.

Today’s special guest is the staff writer Jerusalem Demsas, whose work examines inefficiencies and oversights in policy, housing, and infrastructure. She recently wrote about how environmental laws are being used by birders, an anti-immigration group, and an oil and gas company, not to protect the environment but to defend the status quo, and reported on what she called the “obvious” answer to homelessness for the January/February issue of the magazine. She’s also a winner of the American Society of Magazine Editors’ ASME NEXT Award for Journalists Under 30.

These days, Jerusalem spends her leisure time falling down Reddit rabbit holes, reading the poetry of W. H. Auden, and rocking out to Vampire Weekend. You’ll find her culture and entertainment recommendations below.

But first, here are three Sunday reads from The Atlantic:

The Culture Survey: Jerusalem Demsas

The television show I’m most enjoying right now: Abbott Elementary. I’m someone who can usually only watch TV while doing at least one or two other things at the same time, and this show grabs my full attention. Unbelievably funny. [Related: Abbott Elementary, Minx, and the end of the girlboss myth]

An actor I would watch in anything: Amy Adams. I fell in love with her while watching Arrival, and every time she comes on-screen, anyone near me gets a five- to 10-minute monologue about how the Academy is biased against science fiction. [Related: Is Arrival the best “first contact” film ever made?]

Best novel I’ve recently read, and the best work of nonfiction: Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, is a fantastic science-fiction novel that I recently read. The best thing about science fiction is when someone is able to construct a world that is both familiar—or at least logically consistent with how we see the world—and adds a new depth or dimension to our understanding of it. Tchaikovsky does that brilliantly.

For a nonfiction work, I’d choose Strangers to Ourselves, by Rachel Aviv. Aviv is probably the best example of a nonfiction writer who has a clear perspective and shows it through the stories she tells. Many nonfiction writers fall too far in one direction: Either it’s sort of unclear what they’re getting at and we’re bogged down in characters or narrative that don’t advance our understanding, or there’s too much preaching and in-your-face explanations that leave us wanting a more human dimension. [Related: The diagnosis trap]

An author I will read anything by: Ted Chiang. Kazuo Ishiguro. Jeffrey Eugenides. Melissa Caruso. Gabrielle Zevin. (Okay, sorry, that’s five, but my editors are letting me keep them all in!)

A quiet song that I love, and a loud song that I love: Hozier recently released some new songs that prompted me to go back to one of my favorites off his first EP: “Cherry Wine.” It’s probably my favorite of his. And my go-to karaoke song is “Gloria,” by Laura Branigan, so I have to pick that for my loud song!

A musical artist who means a lot to me: Vampire Weekend is a band that I’ve listened to through many formative moments of my life. Their self-titled album was released as I was finishing middle school, Modern Vampires of the City was released as I was graduating high school, and Father of the Bride was what I listened to as I was struggling to make a career change. Some of my favorites are “Big Blue”; “Jerusalem, New York, Berlin”; “Ya Hey”; “Don’t Lie”; and “Walcott.”

The last museum or gallery show that I loved: I went to Berlin for the first time last year and visited the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial, where a man who had been imprisoned by the Stasi—the state security service of East Germany—as a youth gave us a tour of the former prison. He explained that in 1968, when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia following the Prague Spring, he and his friends papered his community with the following message:

“Citizens - Comrades. Alien tanks in Czechoslovakia only serve the class enemy. Think about the reputation of Socialism in the world. Demand truthful information. Nobody is too stupid to think for himself.”

As a result of this political activity, he was arrested and held in the prison. He walked us through it, weaving his own story with what history has uncovered about the experiences of other prisoners, as we stepped carefully through narrow hallways and cold cells, and peered into a replica of the transport van that brought him to the prison. He recounted a winding journey that took several times longer than a direct route would have, in order to confuse the detainees as to where they actually were (sometimes just minutes from home). Our guide also described the experience of living as neighbors with some of the very people responsible for his unjust incarceration and mistreatment: Many of the implicated officials were never fully held accountable, and some may have continued to live in East Berlin.

Despite what he had been through, the guide ended the tour by saying, “It has not been such a hard life. It has been a good life.” He exhorted us to see democracy as a constant project, lest we end up with any of its alternatives. [Related: The lingering trauma of Stasi surveillance]

A favorite story I’ve read in The Atlantic: I doubt there’s a more important story written in recent memory than Caitlin Dickerson’s “An American Catastrophe.” I spend a lot of time writing about how to reduce roadblocks to government progress. It’s easy to make the case for efficiency in our government when what we’re talking about is building housing, clean-energy infrastructure, and mass transit, or other policies I agree with. It’s more challenging (but probably even more important) to contend with what to do when democracies vote for people willing to pursue extreme and horrific policy agendas. A big part of that is accountability through the press, which is what makes Caitlin’s piece so great. [Related: “We need to take away children.”]

My favorite way of wasting time on my phone: As an avid r/AmITheAsshole reader, I discovered r/BestofRedditorUpdates last year and refuse to disclose how much time I’ve spent on that subreddit chasing down threads and updates to stories people tell (or make up) on Reddit. The best tales are the ones where there is significant ambiguity over what the right thing to do actually is. I find it endlessly fascinating to watch people debate morality in real time, and to force my friends to read the posts and tell me what they think. [Related: Inside r/Relationships, the unbearably human corner of Reddit]

A poem, or line of poetry, that I return to: Musée des Beaux Arts,” by W. H. Auden. The author is reacting in part to the painting Landscape With the Fall of Icarus, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, in which Icarus (from the Greek myth) is drowning. The only part of him you see is his legs flailing above the water right before he dies. The majority of the painting is made up of an indifferent world—ships sailing, workers continuing about their day. The sun shines brightly, and no one knows about the boy’s death.

“Musée des Beaux Arts,” by W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Read past editions of the Culture Survey with Kaitlyn Tiffany, Bhumi Tharoor, Amanda Mull, Megan Garber, Helen Lewis, Jane Yong Kim, Clint Smith, John Hendrickson, Gal Beckerman, Kate Lindsay, Xochitl Gonzalez, Spencer Kornhaber, Jenisha Watts, David French, Shirley Li, David Sims, Lenika Cruz, Jordan Calhoun, Hannah Giorgis, and Sophie Gilbert.

The Week Ahead

1. Marie Antoinette, a new period drama about the teenage Marie Antoinette (premieres tonight at 10 EST on PBS)

2. Poverty, by America, a new book by the sociologist and Pulitzer Prize–winning author Matthew Desmond about the persistence of poverty in the U.S. (on sale Tuesday)

3. John Wick: Chapter 4, in which Keanu Reeves’s stoic assassin faces his scariest foe yet: his own weariness (in theaters Friday)

illustration of bootstraps against an American flag motif
Illustration by Adam Maida

America’s Most Insidious Myth

By Emi Nietfeld

When I was 17, I won $20,000 from the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans. Named after the prolific 19th-century novelist whose rags-to-riches tales have come to represent the idea of “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” the scholarship honors youth who have overcome adversity, which, for me, included my parents’ mental illnesses, time in foster care, and stints of homelessness.

In April 2010, the Distinguished Americans flew me and the other 103 winners to Washington, D.C., for a mandatory convention. We stayed at a nice hotel and spent an entire day learning table manners. We met Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who I remember shook hands with the boys and hugged the girls. Before the event’s big gala, we posed in rented finery, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at the center of our group photo. The political commentator Lou Dobbs praised the awardees’ perseverance in his opening speech. In the words of the Horatio Alger Association, we were “deserving scholars” who illustrated “the limitless possibilities available through the American free-enterprise system.” We were proof that anyone could make it.

Read the full article.

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