10 March 2010

Look Long Enough and Learn

I had a such a strange experience today.

Riding on the train up to Boston for a meeting, I read a week-old issue of the New York Times Magazine that had two political articles I was very much interested in exploring.

One was Frank Bruni's story about Scott Brown.

The other was Nicholas Dawidoff's piece about Alabama state legislator James Fields (along with Gillian Laub's brilliant photographs)

I found Dawidoff's piece more engaging, evidence of a deeper dig into the issues driving this profound question of the role that race is playing in American politics today and the symbolism of the Obama Administration and how it plays itself out in a predominantly white and historically racist part of the United States, unafraid to both express its past and come to terms with it as well. As political writing and solid journalism, I was left feeling moved by Dawidoff's article. Deeply worried about abiding divisions in our nation while also oddly hopeful that despite deep rivers of hatred, there is movement toward a kind of new accommodation with who Americans are and what America can be.

I have to admit to not feeling the same about Bruni's piece on Scott Brown. It was too adoring; too predictably coy and flirty about the handsome hunk Brown and the lightning quick "inspiration" of his sudden rise to fame and fortune in the United States Senate.

James Fields' story was filled with pathos and tragedy and compromise and struggle and redemption; Scott Brown was a kind of classic Golden Boy scenario that felt saccharine, flat, and, ultimately, was representative of our attention-challenged nation and its annoying need for a quick fix (the more handsome and sexy and charismatic, the better.)

Do I have a point?

I dunno. Dawidoff's story and Laub's pictures had Jewish pathos. Bruni's was all glitter.

And I worry that we are too easily blinded by glitter at the peril of the substance of what it takes to understand one another at a time of heightened tensions and divisions.

That's my point.

Perhaps it illustrates just how broken Washington is that the lack of substance makes the cover of a magazine but the real substance is buried in the pages and sweating out racial redemption, one house at a time, in a small corner of Alabama, that eludes our understanding, unless, Moses-like, we have the patience and virtue to look long enough, and learn.

On the other hand, kudos to the magazine editors for putting two such different pieces of reporting in the same issue. The contrast itself was rich and if that was the point, well, then, well-done.


M. said...

"Perhaps it illustrates just how broken Washington is that the lack of substance makes the cover of a magazine but the real substance is buried in the pages"

It's not just Washington. I think you're a step too far down the road here.

The 'dominant culture' has separated substance and news. Washington, and the magazine, is just responding to that fact-on-the-ground.

Do you remember going grocery shopping with your mom, as a kid? When you went through the check-out line, what magazines were displayed there? Time? Life? US News, even? Now, all that's there are rags displaying "news" stories that, frankly, are none of our business most of the time.

I agree with you that the general populace should get substance, but they don't hunger for it; it would have to be force-fed to them.

Andy Bachman said...

Yasher Koach on the cultural observation at the check-out line. Though I'll add that in Wisconsin, you could always get the Packers Media Guide but your point is well-taken.