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Catherine Cusick
Catherine Cusick is the audience development editor of Longreads. She was previously a rep at the American Booksellers Association, as well as the social editor for IndieBound, a nationwide local-first movement.

Ten Books to Read in 2018

Books with hidden spines
Geography Photos / UIG via Getty Images

We asked writers, editors, and booksellers to tell us about a few books they felt deserved more recognition last year. Here are their 10 suggestions.


Maris Kreizman
Writer and critic, former Editorial Director of Book of the Month Club

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace (Patty Yumi Cottrell, McSweeney’s)

There’s nothing I love more than an unreliable narrator, and the protagonist of Patty Yumi Cottrell’s debut novel is a doozy. Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is the story of Helen, a school teacher from New York City, who casts herself in the role of lead detective on a very tough and personal case — her adopted brother’s suicide. When Helen returns to her childhood home of Milwaukee to investigate, truths about Helen and her family are slowly revealed, and we begin to realize that Helen may be worthy of scrutiny herself. Sorry to Disrupt the Peace is both a clever and poignant exploration of the distance between how we imagine ourselves to be and who we truly are.

Read more…

A Speech and a Sermon

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (AFP/Getty Images) and Oprah Winfrey (Sthanlee Mirador / Sipa via AP Images)

In November 1967, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. The sermon, titled, “But If Not,” starts with a parable from the Book of Daniel.

Three young men — Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego — refuse to bow before a golden image of King Nebuchadnezzar. “Our God whom we serve,” they tell the king, “is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace.” They believe God will save them, in the end, for disobeying the king’s immoral order to worship him instead.

“But if not,” they reason, “be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.” In other words, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are pretty sure that God will reward them in the afterlife for rejecting this false idol. “But if not” — even if their refusal wouldn’t stamp their one-way ticket out of hell — it wouldn’t matter. They wouldn’t bow before the golden image anyway, because it would be wrong.

Dr. King interprets the story as a biblical portrayal of civil disobedience. The three men honor “a commitment to conscience” before honoring the law of the land because, as Dr. King says, “a moral man can’t obey a law which his conscience tells him is unjust.” The men aren’t refusing conditionally, or positive that they will be saved in exchange. They’re refusing because they know, deep down, that it wouldn’t be right.

What does this mean? It means, in the final analysis, you do right not to avoid hell. If you’re doing right merely to keep from going to something that traditional theology has called hell, then you aren’t doing right. If you do right merely to go to a condition that theologians have called heaven, you aren’t doing right. If you are doing right to avoid pain and to achieve happiness and pleasure, then you aren’t doing right.

Ultimately you must do right because it’s right to do right. And you got to say “But if not.” You must love ultimately because it’s lovely to love. You must be just because it’s right to be just. You must be honest because it’s right to be honest.

Fifty years after Dr. King delivered this sermon, Oprah Winfrey, the first black woman to receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement, delivered another inspired speech that brought viewers to tears and attendees to their feet.

“For too long,” Oprah said, “women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of [brutally powerful] men. But their time is up. Their time is up. Their time is up.”

“In my career, what I’ve always tried my best to do, whether on television or through film, is to say something about how men and women really behave. To say how we experience shame, how we love and how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere, and how we overcome. I’ve interviewed and portrayed people who’ve withstood some of the ugliest things life can throw at you, but the one quality all of them seem to share is an ability to maintain hope for a brighter morning, even during our darkest nights.

“So I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘Me too’ again.”

Time and again, Oprah has proven her commitment to conscience. She used her platform at the Golden Globes to imagine a more just world — one where our collective conscience kicks in more often, protects more women from violence, and leads us more reliably to choices that are right, good, and safe.

Women in the audience rose to their feet. Men in the audience rose to their feet, too. But few of the men spoke up.

Were these the phenomenal men? Where were Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? Were the men whose time is up choosing to listen, just this once? Or was there fear in their silence — an aversion to risk, a conditional bargain, a negotiation of face?

As Martin McDonagh, the writer-director of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri who won for best screenplay, put it to Cara Buckley in the New York Times, “I do feel it’s time for men to shut up and listen.” Oprah made sure to include men in her speech, too — “every man who chooses to listen” — by singling out listeners specifically.

Maybe the men really were listening. Maybe they still are.

But if not:

Time will not run out on men learning how to speak up for what is right, when the microphone makes its way back to them. There are ways to pass the mic even when given an opportunity to take it — as Oprah did, by telling Recy Taylor‘s story.

Recy Taylor is dead now, and so is Dr. King. No one who refused to hear them decades ago was dead at the time, though their spirits may have been. Maybe the men who hurt them are all gone now — those bygone souls that never listened. Maybe their fears and their toxicity and their influence all died with them.

Maybe all of mankind’s cowardly traits are in the past. Maybe their time is up.

But if not:

You may be 38 years old as I happen to be, and one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause — and you refuse to do it because you are afraid; you refuse to do it because you want to live longer; you’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you’re afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity; or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house, and so you refuse to take the stand.

Well you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90! And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right, you died when you refused to stand up for truth, you died when you refused to stand up for justice.

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Further reading, watching, and listening:

Things People Don’t Want Their Kids to Do

An obviously bored boy in a balcony box in 1948
Bert Hardy / Picture Post / Getty Images

At The Atlantic, Helaine Olen interviews philosopher Martha Nussbaum and law professor Saul Levmore about their new book, Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations About Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles, & Regret. Their conversation takes on a number of taboo financial subjects, including some real head-scratchers about wealth like how “we need to remember that not all children have rich parents.”

The burden of managing wealth can apparently inspire some salty debates. You’d think, for example, that most parents would want their kids to volunteer, but if those children historically weren’t welcome in the workplace, Nussbaum says, “their time is really at a premium.” You might like to “imagine that you’re making the world a better place” while you’re alive, Levmore says, but “in a funny way, it’s easier to do that when you’re dead.”

You could give your kid some money before you die, but then you might have to “watch your kid not go to work every day, or watch your kid misuse the money,” or watch your kid audition for opera training:

Nussbaum: Why do I give to the Lyric Opera and not so much to other opera companies? It’s mostly gratitude for the involvement and the performances that I’ve enjoyed over the years.

Levmore: I do the same, but I don’t like it. I wish they’d just raise prices. I would much prefer that they just charge the price to keep it alive and if they couldn’t afford it, then things would close down or there’d be fewer of them. But I’m sure Martha and I disagree about this.

Nussbaum: Well, I disagree because I think the art form is really wonderful and very important and right now prices are already so high that young people are discouraged. So I want, really, to lower the prices.

Levmore: Nothing stops the opera from subsidizing young people if it’s a good investment. I don’t really see why taxpayers as a whole should be supporting the opera.

Nussbaum: They do have programs, not only to include new audiences but to train young singers. But that’s one of the things the philanthropy supports. And maybe that’s not ideal, but…

Levmore: No, I don’t think it’s ideal. You know a lot of these young singers are children of wealthy people.

Nussbaum: Many trained there are not the children of wealthy people. They win a nationwide audition in which five people win out of about 10,000 that initially complete.

Levmore: You should look at the numbers of where these people come from. Most poor people are immigrant families who wouldn’t want their kids training to become opera singers. It’s not a reliable source of income.

Nussbaum: Most people don’t want their kids to do lots of things. But they do it.

Levmore: They do? Not in my family!

Nussbaum: Ha! Well, I mean, look at my daughter: She’s working for animal rights, making a very, very low income.

Levmore: Yeah, she comes from a comfortable family.

Nussbaum: But what I’m saying is that artists and singers are drawn from all walks of life. Typically, they get their start when they’re in some undergraduate program and they learn that they have this wonderful talent. And then they might come from any kind of income class.

Levmore: Well, they’re wealthy enough to go to college.

Nussbaum: But I mean the state universities.

Olen: I want to jump in—you’re never going to agree on this, right? Let’s talk about why people often give more to charity as they get older.

Read the story

Buying Everything You Need at the Dollar Store

Brian Killian / Getty Images for Procter & Gamble

“Dol­lar Gen­eral is ex­pand­ing be­cause rural Amer­ica is strug­gling.”

Sarah Nassauer‘s latest story in the Wall Street Journal, “How Dollar General Became Rural America’s Store of Choice,” profiles the discount chain’s rapid growth in areas where residents have little choice in where they shop locally for basic essentials. For those who live forty miles out from the nearest Wal-Mart, the local Dollar General is often the only game in town for daily necessities, from soups to socks to shower curtains.

As discount chains become lifelines for more and more cash-strapped Americans, stores like Dollar General are proliferating — and profiting — as the market “adjusts” to meet the single-serve needs of rising income inequality.

The local Dollar General store, built on a rural highway and surrounded by farmland, sells no fresh meat, greens or fruit. Yet the 7,400-square-foot steel-sided store has most of what Eddie Watson needs.

The selection echoes a suburban drugstore chain, from shower curtains to breakfast cereal, toilet paper, plastic toys and camouflage-pattern socks. Refrigerators and freezers on one wall hold milk, eggs and frozen pizza.

Many items are sold in mini bottles or small bags, keeping costs lower than a trip to the Wal-Mart Supercenter down the road. The two registers are staffed by one cashier, except during rush hours after school and after work.

“It’s just closer,” said Mr. Watson, a 53-year-old construction worker who filled his cart with cans of chicken soup, crackers, cold cuts and toilet paper.

While many large retailers are closing locations, Dollar General executives said they planned to build thousands more stores, mostly in small communities that have otherwise shown few signs of the U.S. economic recovery.

The more the rural U.S. struggles, company officials said, the more places Dollar General has found to prosper. “The economy is continuing to create more of our core customer,” Chief Executive Todd Vasos said in an interview at the company’s Goodlettsville, Tenn., headquarters.

“We are putting stores today [in areas] that perhaps five years ago were just on the cusp of probably not being our demographic,” he said, “and it has now turned to being our demographic.”

Sales at the store are up 17% so far this year compared with last year, a spokeswoman said.

On a recent weekday, Jackie Buchanan pulled up to the store astride a forest-green Craftsman riding mower, to buy shampoo and lawnmower-carburetor cleaner. “I’m just one mile down the road,” said Mr. Buchanan, 51, who is unemployed.

Robin Swift, 48, arrived to buy after-school snacks rather than drive 10 miles to the Wal-Mart. “It’s a small town,” she said, “and we don’t have another choice.”

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How We Write About the Nazis Next Door

Protestors rally against white supremacy and racism on August 13, 2017 after Heather Heyer, 32, was killed by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

On Saturday, The New York Times published Richard Fausset’s “A Voice of Hate in America’s Heartland,” a profile of “the Nazi sympathizer next door.” Readers were quick to call the piece indefensible:

The Times removed a direct link to purchase a swastika armband that was placed in the article, but otherwise stood by Fausset’s story.

After Twitter exploded, the Times tapped national editor Marc Lacey to respond. (This time last year Liz Spayd would have replied as the Times’ Public Editor, but the paper eliminated her position this summer, replacing it with a more amorphous Reader Center.) “The point of the story was not to normalize anything,” Lacey writes, “but to describe the degree to which hate and extremism have become far more normal in American life than many of us want to think.” Read more…

An Interview with MacArthur ‘Genius’ Viet Thanh Nguyen

Guillaume Souvant / AFP / Getty Images

Catherine Cusick | Longreads | October 2017 | 9 minutes (2,200 words)

Viet Thanh Nguyen had just gotten back from a summer in Paris when he received an unexpected phone call from a Chicago number. He didn’t recognize the caller, so he let it ring. Out of curiosity, he texted back, “Who is this?”

The number replied, “It’s the MacArthur Foundation.”

“Oh,” Nguyen thought. “I should call these people back right away.”

Nguyen managed to stand for the first few seconds of the call, but soon had to sit down. He’d just won $625,000, no strings attached, as an unrestricted investment in his creative potential.

Eighteen months earlier, Nguyen had received another life-altering phone call when he won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his debut novel, The Sympathizer. Since the book’s publication in April 2015, Nguyen’s been no stranger to worldwide recognition: He’s also received a Guggenheim fellowship, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, the First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction, the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and countless others.

According to the MacArthur Selection Committee, “Nguyen’s body of work not only offers insight into the experiences of refugees past and present, but also poses profound questions about how we might more accurately and conscientiously portray victims and adversaries of other wars.” After writing in obscurity for more than a decade to honor his and others’ war stories — and all refugee stories, Nguyen insists, are war stories — he will now have even more resources to help tilt the world in a more peaceful direction.

I spoke with Nguyen the day after the MacArthur Foundation announced him, along with 23 other extraordinary recipients, as a 2017 MacArthur Fellow. Read more…

Immature Architects Built the Attention Economy

SMKR / Barcroft USA / Barcoft Media via Getty Images

A cadre of young technologists at Google, Twitter, and Facebook admit it: they didn’t think making smartphones addictive would make smartphones this addictive. Come to think of it, any negative consequences of the persuasive design they concocted in their twenties never really occurred to them.

Take Loren Brichter, the designer who created pull-to-refresh (the downward abracadabra swipe that prompts new app content to load). Brichter was 24 when he accidentally popularized this ubiquitous 2D gambling gesture. Of course, analogies between pull-to-refresh and slot machines are only clear to him now — in retrospect, through the hindsight bestowed upon him by adulthood.

“Now 32, Brichter says he never intended the design to be addictive,” Paul Lewis reports in the Guardian‘s latest special technology feature. Yet even the tech whiz behind the curtain has since fallen prey to some of his old design tricks. “I have two kids now,” Brichter confesses, “and I regret every minute that I’m not paying attention to them because my smartphone has sucked me in.”

As if these compulsions weren’t hollow enough, push notification technology rendered pull-to-refresh obsolete years ago. Apps can update content automatically, so swiping and pulling and user nudges aren’t just addictive, they’re redundant. According to Brichter, pull-to-refresh “could easily retire,” but now it’s become like the Door Close button in elevators that close automatically: “People just like to push it.”

So they do — over and over and over and over. In cases of addiction, people “just like to” touch their phones more than 2,617 times a day. As the opportunity costs of all that frittered attention really start to add up, Brichter and his peers find themselves fundamentally questioning their legacies:

“I’ve spent many hours and weeks and months and years thinking about whether anything I’ve done has made a net positive impact on society or humanity at all,” [Brichter] says. He has blocked certain websites, turned off push notifications, restricted his use of the Telegram app to message only with his wife and two close friends, and tried to wean himself off Twitter. “I still waste time on it,” he confesses, “just reading stupid news I already know about.” He charges his phone in the kitchen, plugging it in at 7pm and not touching it until the next morning.

“Smartphones are useful tools,” he says. “But they’re addictive. Pull-to-refresh is addictive. Twitter is addictive. These are not good things. When I was working on them, it was not something I was mature enough to think about. I’m not saying I’m mature now, but I’m a little bit more mature, and I regret the downsides.”

Lewis spotlights several designers who’ve come to similar ethical crossroads in their 30s, many of whom have quit posts at household-name technological juggernauts in the hopes of designing our way out of all this squandering.

If the attention economy is just a euphemism for the advertising economy, these techno-ethicists ask, can we intelligently design our way back to safeguarding our actual intentions? Can we take back the time we’ve lost to touchscreen-enabled compulsions, and reallocate that time to bend it to our will again? Or have we forgotten that human will and democracy, as one of Lewis’ “refuseniks” reminds us, are one and the same?

James Williams does not believe talk of dystopia is far-fetched. The ex-Google strategist who built the metrics system for the company’s global search advertising business, he has had a front-row view of an industry he describes as the “largest, most standardised and most centralised form of attentional control in human history”.

Williams, 35, left Google last year, and is on the cusp of completing a PhD at Oxford University exploring the ethics of persuasive design. It is a journey that has led him to question whether democracy can survive the new technological age.

He says his epiphany came a few years ago, when he noticed he was surrounded by technology that was inhibiting him from concentrating on the things he wanted to focus on. “It was that kind of individual, existential realisation: what’s going on?” he says. “Isn’t technology supposed to be doing the complete opposite of this?”

That discomfort was compounded during a moment at work, when he glanced at one of Google’s dashboards, a multicoloured display showing how much of people’s attention the company had commandeered for advertisers. “I realised: this is literally a million people that we’ve sort of nudged or persuaded to do this thing that they weren’t going to otherwise do,” he recalls.

If the attention economy erodes our ability to remember, to reason, to make decisions for ourselves – faculties that are essential to self-governance – what hope is there for democracy itself?

“The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will,” he says. “If politics is an expression of our human will, on individual and collective levels, then the attention economy is directly undermining the assumptions that democracy rests on.” If Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are gradually chipping away at our ability to control our own minds, could there come a point, I ask, at which democracy no longer functions?

“Will we be able to recognise it, if and when it happens?” Williams replies. “And if we can’t, then how do we know it hasn’t happened already?”

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Fine for the Whole Family

Lynne Gilbert / Getty Images

Was I a picky eater as a child? Yes. But now my parents are pickier.

Selecting an appropriate restaurant for a visit from my folks has made for a decade-long challenge. In theory, I should have no shortage of options — New York City is fairly renowned for its culinary variety — but the city itself is short on a few of my parents’ preferences.

Over countless attempts and hundreds of plates, I’ve learned that the right atmosphere requires a delicate ambience of peace and quiet. (We don’t have that here.) There should be ample space. (We don’t have that, either.) Waitstaff should be more talented than necessary, with a cast-iron sense of humor that can withstand my dad’s idea of fun. (It’s the kind of fun that happens after we’ve left: he’ll rib a server with theatrical just-kidding complaints for two hours, then tip big.) It shouldn’t be crowded but it shouldn’t be empty. The bringer of cheese for the pasta should probably just leave the cheese. Dad won’t eat anything spicy. Mom won’t eat anything raw. Mom will always ask if the table is okay, which always sounds like the table isn’t okay, but when I ask her if she thinks the table is okay, she makes this face like, “Bail me out.”

Have we all become people who shouldn’t be taken anywhere? Probably. I’ve gotten used to my perennial failure to find places that thrive at this impossible nexus of enchantments. I doubt there is a food solution that will always make everyone in this particular triangle of our family totally happy. But for a while there, our solution was Olive Garden.

Olive Garden was our go-to when I was in college. There, everyone was happy — or if we weren’t, everyone was fine. My dad would order Shrimp Scampi; I would order Chicken Marsala; my mom would make their Famous House Salad more famous. We’d eat all the breadsticks, request our first refill, then wrap the second batch to go. I’d reheat them one at a time in my dorm room microwave, wrapping each in a paper towel that would soak up five finger-pressed blots of oil I wouldn’t have to clean. That was where I set the bar those days — that’s all it took to make for a singular restaurant experience with my family. Would there be leftovers? Great. Olive Garden was fine, and fine was good.

In “Dear Olive Garden, Never Change,” the latest installment in Eater‘s Death of Chains series on the slow decline of middlebrow chain restaurants, Helen Rosner reminds me that this anodyne fine-for-the-whole-family feel is completely by design. “One of the things I love about the Olive Garden,” Rosner writes, “is its nowhereness. I love that I can walk in the door of an Olive Garden in Michigan City, Indiana, and feel like I’m in the same room I enter when I step into an Olive Garden in Queens or Rhode Island or the middle of Los Angeles. There is only one Olive Garden, but it has a thousand doors.”

After three years at Vox Media as Eater‘s Features Editor turned Executive Editor turned Editor-at-Large, Rosner recently announced her departure from “the best goddamn food publication in the world.” She tweeted mysteriously to watch this space for updates, noting only that she is moving on “to crush some new things.” If they’re anything like her greatest hits thus far — on glorified vending machines, Tina Fey’s sheetcakingchicken tendersTrump’s ketchup-covered crime scenes, and takedowns of chocolatiers who may not always have had beards — her readers will be sure to bring their bottomless appetites to her next endeavor.

I feel an intense affinity for Olive Garden, which — like the lack of olives on its menu — is by design. The restaurant was built for affinity, constructed from the foundations to the faux-finished rafters to create a sense of connection, of vague familiarity, to bring to mind some half-lost memory of old-world simplicity and ease. Even if you’ve never been to the Olive Garden before, you’re supposed to feel like you have. You know the next song that’s going to play. You know how the chairs roll against the carpet. You know where the bathrooms are. Its product is nominally pasta and wine, but what Olive Garden is actually selling is Olive Garden, a room of comfort and familiarity, a place to return to over and over.

In that way, it’s just like any other chain restaurant. For any individual mid-range restaurant, return customers have always been an easy majority of the clientele, and chain-wide, it’s overwhelmingly the case: If you’ve been to one Olive Garden, odds are very high you’ve been to two or more. If the restaurant is doing it right, though, all the Olive Gardens of your life will blur together into one Olive Garden, one host stand, one bar, one catacomb of dining alcoves warmly decorated in Toscana-lite. Each Olive Garden is a little bit different, but their souls are all the same.

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The Price of Tuition-Free College

Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Tuition-free college is a reality in California. The catch is that eligible students can’t always afford rent, food, or books.

“More than half of California college students don’t need to worry about tuition,” Ashley Powers writes in a recent feature for California Sunday Magazine. Thanks to California’s Master Plan for Higher Education, federal- and state-subsidized grants are available to help students from low-income families cover the cost of tuition at state-financed universities and colleges. “The problem,” Powers explains, “is the cost of everything else.”

In “The College Try,” Powers follows Liz Waite and Kersheral Jessup, two Cal State students who’ve each put themselves through six years of college. Both went to community colleges first to save money — Jessup for three years before transferring, Waite for six. Both believed a bachelor’s degree would spare them from homelessness, wage slavery, and following in their parents’ addictive footsteps (meth in Waite’s case, alcohol in Jessup’s). As they navigate bureaucratic mazes, couch-surfing roulette, and soul-killing jobs that don’t even require advanced degrees, the duo weigh their years of sacrifice against an unverifiable suspicion that years of work experience might have yielded better prospects.

At the Dems’ weekly meeting, about a dozen students chitchatted in a semicircle; the speakers before Liz were looking for volunteers to take surveys about election-related stress. When it was Liz’s turn, she bounded to the center.

“Hey, everybody, let’s make this awkward,” she said. “What words would you guys use to describe me? Like, if you look at me, what words come to your mind? Just shout ’em out.”

“Tall.”

She nodded. “Tall…”

“Student.”

“Blond.”

“Student, blond, right,” she said. “Here’s a word that’s probably not coming to your mind. And it’s” — she shot out her arms the way you would to yell, “Surprise!” — “homeless!” Liz looked at the audience: saucer eyes.

No type of school has been more successful at lifting the poor up to the middle class and beyond than midtier public universities like the Cal States. In a ranking published this year of colleges that helped the highest percentage of students claw their way out of poverty, four Cal State campuses made the top 10. Cal State Long Beach clinched the last spot, vaulting 78 percent of its students from the bottom of the economic ladder, where household incomes top out around $25,000 a year. But for all the good Cal State does for its alumni, most students there struggle to get their degrees. Only one in five finishes in four years, and a little more than half graduate in six, their progress slowed, in part, by soaring living costs in one of the nation’s most expensive states.

Two-thirds of the expense of attending a public four-year college stems from costs like rent, food, and books. The vast majority of Cal State students live off campus (the system has enough housing to accommodate only about 10 percent of its undergraduates). Cal State Long Beach estimates that off-campus students who don’t live at home need close to $18,000 a year in addition to the cost of tuition, or nearly the salary of a full-time minimum-wage worker.

Last year, researchers at Cal State estimated that nearly one in nine students is homeless. Even more couldn’t afford food on a regular basis (a problem at UCs, the California community colleges, and campuses from Hawaii to New York). Students without stable housing, in particular, are more likely to enroll part time, struggle in class, and drop out altogether. In California, lawmakers recently floated a proposal to help many UC and Cal State students with their expenses. Projected to cost more than a billion dollars a year, it sputtered.

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When Op-Eds Relitigate Facts

Bret Stephens’s first Op-Ed column for The New York Times.

What year were we taught the difference between facts and opinions in grade school? Was it an election year?

To review: The bar for an opinion is low. The bar for a fact is higher. Statements of fact need to be verifiable, substantiated, and proven. An opinion doesn’t need to meet any standards at all. The bar for what constitutes an opinion — sans corroboration, sans evidence, sans proof — is, indeed, low. The bar for who will listen to it is somewhere else.

A published opinion doesn’t need to meet any particular standard, either, other than an editor deeming an opinion piece worthy of publication. In opinion journalism, the publisher sets the bar. And no publisher’s bar placement comes under more scrutiny than The New York Times’.

At Splinter, David Uberti asks: “Who Is The New York Times‘ Woeful Opinion Section Even For?” If the paper of record is to remain any kind of standard-bearer in our current political moment, what should its opinion section look like? How rigorous should its standards be? Uberti advocates for raising the bar, preferably one or two notches above the denial of facts that have been painstakingly reported on the other side of the Times‘ news-opinion firewall:

In his initial column, in late April, Stephens questioned the predictions about the effects of climate change that the Times has reported on extensively. This slickly branded “climate agnostic” approach stuck a finger in the eye of both the Times’s readership and its newsroom. It risked mimicking the pundit-reporter dynamic seen at CNN, where in-house bloviators are paid to spout opinions that at times directly contradict the network’s own news reporting. Bennet defended the column as part of a “free exchange of ideas,” in what Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple described as a “Boilerplate Kumbaya Response to Public Outrage.”

The op-ed page—opposite of the editorial page—was unveiled by the Times in 1970 to foster a true “conflict of ideas,” as onetime Editorial Page Editor John B. Oakes put it. Points of view clashing with the Times’ institutional perspective or biases would be especially welcome. Names floated as potential contributors ranged from Communists to members of the John Birch Society.

“They really wanted diversity when they came out—they really prized it,” said University of Maine media scholar Michael Socolow, who authored a 2010 paper on the origins of the op-ed page. Its debut contributors included a staff column on the need for super-sonic air travel; a Chinese novelist describing Beijing during the Cultural Revolution; a political scientist and former LBJ aide analyzing U.S. policy in Asia; and a New Republic contributing editor slamming Vice President Spiro Agnew. It was a radical expansion of the Times’s opinion offerings that other newspapers soon emulated, and it hasn’t fundamentally changed since then besides expanded publishing space and formats online.

“In general, we’re looking to challenge our own and our readers’ assumptions, and, we hope, put people who disagree on important questions into conversation with each other in order to sharpen everyone’s thinking,” Bennet wrote to Splinter.

Some recent attempts to do so, however, seemed to trade intellectual rigor or true diversity for the appearance thereof.

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