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The Death of the American Dream

We confused the American Dream with simple accumulation. We spent vastly beyond our means in an attempt to give off a false impression of achievement, and that wild spending of borrowed money drove the current crash.

<i>Putin’s Labyrinth: Spies, Murder, and the Dark Heart of the New Russia</i>, by Steve LeVine. Random House, June 2008. $26

Devilish Forces

In early October 2007, almost three years to the day after I began my career as a journalist in Russia, a conversation with a former CIA agent brought it to an end. 

Newspaper Pieces Between Hard Covers

However good, most newspaper articles are destined for the same fate as yesterday's lead story—they wrap fish or line garbage cans. Sometimes, however, fate spares them such ignominy and places them between hard covers. This was the case recently when Henry Holt brought out two collections of pieces originally published in The New York Times—one, an investigation of "how race is [currently] lived in America"; the other, a sampling of writers talking about writing. Let me begin with the former, not only because the series was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, but also because race remains a tricky, paralyzing subject. What the editors hatched up was surely an ambitious project, one that promised to be more than the "usual mosaic of dreary census, school, and income statistics, studded with pious quotations from the civil rights era of blessed memory or from academics and clergymen speaking earnestly." The result takes us to a slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina, a restored plantation in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and a platoon in Fort Knox, Kentucky. We meet, among others, a white quarterback who played ball at a historically black college, a white rapper on the college lecture circuit, and two young wheeler-dealers, one white, one black, as they make their way up (and down) the e-business fast track. Above all else, the series wanted to give race in America a human face, or perhaps more correctly, a series of human faces. To accomplish this, the Times assigned reporter(s) to cover 15 especially juicy stories, and then gave them the time necessary to watch as the arc of the respective sagas unfolded.


A Pen of Fire

John Moncure Daniel was ever quick to attack what he saw as wrong. He minced no words during the seven years he spent as a top American diplomat, including a moment which may have deeply affected the history of Italy. Subsequently, Daniel spoke bluntly as the Confederacy's leading editor. When he died in Richmond just before the Confederacy's final defeat in 1865, Daniel's newspaper was the most influential publication in the South. He had long been one of Jefferson Davis's harshest critics; there were those in the South who wished him hanged; he had recently fought, and lost, a duel with the treasurer of the Confederacy. If loss of morale was a reason, or even, as has been argued, the chief reason that the South lost the war, it might be argued that the piercing attacks of that Southern arch-patriot John Daniel actually helped move the South toward that final defeat. Yet historian-editor Virginius Dabney has argued that notwithstanding Daniel's sharp attacks on Davis—a president who certainly had grave faults—Daniel helped to maintain Southern morale when days turned dark.


The Greatest Generation?

War has been described as the most successful of all of our cultural traditions, a dehumanizing reality confirmed by Ernest Hemingway when he once observed that many a good man "will die like a dog for no good reason." As a hand-me-down inheritance over the ages, war has been a congenital habit of virtually every society since the days of Jericho. At any given moment 30 or more conflicts are raging in various parts of the world, most of them localized but nonetheless catastrophic. The Sudan's civil war, for example, has been going on for 18 years and has claimed two million lives.


The Madness of It All: A Rumination on War, Journalism, and Brotherhood

I celebrated Thanksgiving Day 1967 in a sandbagged underground bunker at a Marine outpost called Con Thien on the southern edge of the Vietnamese demilitarized zone. It wasn't much of a celebration. I'm told that in Vietnamese Con Thien means "place of angels," but at the time I was there, it was just a muddy rat-infested collection of bunkers, trenches, and concertina wire only big enough for a Marine battalion with supporting arms. If there were angels in that place, they did not reveal themselves to me.


Newspaper Days

Louis Rubin should have been with us. One year short of Street's magic dozen, 1946—57, he abandoned journalism to earn distinction at Hollins College and then the University of North Carolina as a teacher, critic, author, publisher, and foremost authority on Southern literature. He had qualified for academia between press stints by earning a doctorate at Johns Hopkins University and engaging in literary assignments at the University of Pennsylvania.


The Green Room, Winter 2002

"Here's a marvellous convenient place for our rehearsal." Wars unfortunately have been part and parcel of American history, and two that loom large in our recent past are Vietnam, the only war Americans have ever lost, and World War Two, perhaps o [...]