Rauch, Runciman, Rowe: Three Rs for Today's Reading

Don't try to read these between tweets and chat messages -- but do try to read them soon.

Here are three pieces of writing very much worth reading -- not necessarily right at the moment, between emails and hassles, but when you have time to digest each of them.

MayIssue2013.png1. Jonathan Rauch, "How Not to Die," in the hot-off-the-press issue (subscribe!) of our magazine. Quite a few articles in this issue illustrate the kind of journalism that has long been The Atlantic's distinctive strength. This is what we sometimes refer to as "breaking ideas," as opposed just to "breaking news," and by that we mean an article whose author does a lot of traveling, reporting, and interviewing; takes care to present the material in a narrative structure rather than as a straight-out essay; and does all this toward the end of presenting a new concept or way of seeing the world. The cover story, by Charles Mann, obviously is a full-length demonstration of the "breaking ideas" approach, and I will say more about that later. But Jonathan Rauch's piece also deserves careful attention.

Its essential point is that if people could see and fully imagine what the end of life is like, when it occurs under today's hyper-medicalized circumstances, they would make very different choices about their loved ones and themselves than they do when just confronted with over-familiar facts like "most of medical spending is in the last few months of life," etc. As he explains, Jonathan Rauch came to grips with this reality in watching his father's demise. The same experience with my own father had a similar effect on me. (In our family's case, my father was spared the worst extremes only because one of my sisters had the strength and wisdom to make a last-minute, split-second call against the momentum of high-tech-but-dehumanizing medical-industrial intervention.) Please don't miss this article. 

2. David Runciman, writing about Ira Katznelson's history of the New Deal, Fear Itself, in the London Review of Books (subscribe! -- and in any case you will need to do a free registration to read the article). Runciman, who is a political scientist and writer based at Cambridge University, uses the review to lay out the long background of regional and racial politics in the United States that affects the news even to this day. For instance: Today's legislative paralysis is largely due to the willingness of smaller-state senators to band together as a blocking minority. The party lineup was different in the 1930s (the "Solid South" was Democratic then) but the phenomenon was very similar (emphasis added):
The second weapon Southern senators had at their disposal was their longevity. Control of Senate committees went by seniority and because the South was a one-party state, Southerners were invariably the ones who had been there longest. In the 1920s, when the Democratic Party was being battered by Republicans in national elections, the South was immune. During this period, 67 per cent of all Democrats in the Senate and 72 per cent in the House came from the South. When a new raft of Northern and Western Democrats were returned on FDR's coat tails in the 1930s, the same Southerners were still around. So it didn't matter whether the Democrats were down or up, the South still ended up on top. When the party was down, Southern representatives were the only ones standing; when the party was up, Southern representatives were the ones with all the experience. There was no way for a Democratic president to legislate without letting the South get its fingerprints all over his bills.
And, about the results of that era -- and especially of FDR's decision that he could not/would not challenge the racial order in the South:
Katznelson's argument is that the distinctive character of the postwar American state was determined by the compromises that riddled the New Deal from its outset until its demise under Eisenhower. The result was a 'Janus-faced' politics: outwardly assertive, interventionist, crusading, moralising, always looking to take the fight to the enemy; inwardly constrained, laissez-faire, decentralised, protective of private interests, reluctant to uphold the public good. Katznelson sees this dual state - mixing nearly unconstrained public capacity with nearly unconstrained private power - as both enduring and pathological.
Thumbnail image for JonRowe.jpg3. Jonathan Rowe, in his posthumous book Our Common Wealth (buy!). As I mentioned two years ago at the time of his sudden and unexpected death, Jon Rowe was a wonderful and original-minded writer who found a way to express concerns and ideas that made instant sense -- once he had pointed them out. His main contribution to The Atlantic was a 1995 cover story, with Ted Halstead and Clifford Cobb, on why GDP growth was a crude-at-best, destructive-at-worst way for a society to measure its overall progress and well-being.

At the time of his death Jonathan Rower was working on a set of ideas that now have taken form in a book edited (from his papers) by his friend Peter Barnes. Its power is, again, to give voice and form to a concept many people sense but that doesn't clearly make its way into political, journalistic, or academic discussion. That is the value of all the things to which we can't attach an immediate profit-and-loss value but that clearly matter to individuals, families, and entire societies in distinguishing satisfaction and happiness from malaise. Which is also a point Jonathan Rauch and David Runciman are addressing.

Please find the time to read these three works.