Author Archives

Automattic, WordPress.com / Founder, Longreads

The Greatest Trick the Government Ever Pulled Was Convincing Us We Aren’t Already on Welfare

Paul Ryan

With the prospect of 24 million Americans losing health care if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, the question of the year is shaping up to be: “Why did so many Trump supporters vote against their own self-interest?”

At Forbes,  self-described former Republican Chris Ladd comes up with a credible answer — and at the center of it lies race, class, and a flawed perception of who gets or deserves “government assistance.” For generations, white middle-class Americans were taught to believe they “earned” everything given to them — and that by having a job, they were entitled to it. Meanwhile behind the scenes, the government used tax credits at the individual and employer level to hand over billions in subsidies for their health care, their housing, their public education, and their infrastructure:

My family’s generous health insurance costs about $20,000 a year, of which we pay only $4,000 in premiums. The rest is subsidized by taxpayers. You read that right. Like virtually everyone else on my block who isn’t old enough for Medicare or employed by the government, my family is covered by private health insurance subsidized by taxpayers at a stupendous public cost. Well over 90% of white households earning over the white median income (about $75,000) carried health insurance even before the Affordable Care Act. White socialism is nice if you can get it.

Companies can deduct the cost of their employees’ health insurance while employees are not required to report that benefit as income. That results in roughly a $400 billion annual transfer of funds from state and federal treasuries to insurers to provide coverage for the Americans least in need of assistance. This is one of the defining features of white socialism, the most generous benefits go to those who are best suited to provide for themselves. Those benefits are not limited to health care.

Read the story

Robert B. Silvers, Editor of The New York Review of Books: 1929-2017

Robert Silvers

I believe in the writer—the writer, above all. That’s how we started off: admiring the writer. We organized the New York Review according to the writers we admired most: Edmund Wilson, Wystan Auden, Fred Dupee, Norman, Bill, Lizzie, Mary among them. Each of them had a confident sense of their own prose, and it meant a great deal to them—the matter of a comma, a semicolon, a word—and it does to our writers today. And so, when it comes to making a change, we should not do it without their permission. If a moment comes at some point where we see something should be improved, we don’t just scribble it in but call them up wherever they are. And that is, I think, crucial.

—Robert Silvers, co-founding editor of The New York Review of Books with Barbara Epstein, speaking with New York magazine’s Mark Danner in 2013, on the publication’s 50th anniversary. Silvers died March 20 after an illness. He was 87 years old.

NYRB announced the news on their Twitter feed today:

Shortly after I started Longreads, I was invited to visit the offices of the NYRB to meet their digital editor Matthew Howard. A man was walking toward the front of the office so I stopped him and asked if he knew where Matthew might be. He politely responded that he did know, then turned and walked back through the office to track him down. Matthew met me with a handshake, laughed, and then asked me, “You realize you just sent Robert Silvers to fetch me, right?”

From a grateful reader, thank you, Robert.

See more stories from The New York Review of Books in the Longreads archive.

Alexandra Petri Is The Only Op-Ed Columnist America Needs Right Now

Hamilton Nolan at Deadspin destroyed the entire New York Times opinion page this week after the paper published a limp musing by Frank Bruni on Trump’s well-done steaks. (“When did we turn into such food snobs here in America, land of the free and home of the Bloomin’ Onion?”) Nolan concludes that more than 80 percent of Times columnists aren’t equipped to properly respond to the sheer brokenness of America. I won’t quibble over who Nolan likes and dislikes, as this is not just a problem with the New York Times. I spend many mornings screaming at my radio while NPR tries to lull me back into business as usual with its warm and soothing commuter-friendly tones. I don’t want All Things Considered, I want Some Things Rejected Outright. Read more…

‘This Land’ Was Our Land: A Eulogy for a Groundbreaking Magazine

I first discovered the Oklahoma-based magazine This Land on Twitter through an extraordinary story by Kiera Feldman about a sexual abuse scandal and cover-up at a Tulsa Christian school. Longreads later named “Grace in Broken Arrow” one of the best stories of 2012.

This Land Press, which was founded in 2010 with a seven-figure investment by publisher Vincent LoVoi and editorial leadership from Michael Mason, announced last week it was halting its print operations. CJR called it “one of the most audacious local news experiments of the past decade.” To me, the magazine represented everything that I ever wanted to help celebrate through Longreads: Outstanding reporting from a specific place, with storytelling that resonates around the world. (I grew up nowhere near Tulsa, but I often saw shades of my own hometown, Fresno, California, in the perspectives that This Land shared.)

Read more…

Dear New Owners: City Magazines Were Already Great

As the president sucks up the oxygen from the media atmosphere, it’s easy to forget how important local journalism is right now. The regional press—the holy trinity of newspapers, alt-weeklies, and city magazines—is where we can find true stories of friends and neighbors impacted by immigration raids, fights over funding public education, and the frontline of relaxed environmental standards that will impact the water we drink and the air we breathe. We need to support their work. Read more…

How ‘Moonlight’ Director Barry Jenkins Put His Personal Experience on the Screen

What about the film has a sense of home for you?

I grew up a block away from the apartment in the film. And then some of the voices, and the way people’s skin is always shiny—we told the makeup guy: no powder, we need sheen. But the main thing is the mom character, played by Naomie Harris. The playwright Tarell McCraney wrote the source material, like 40-45 pages, non-linear. It jumped back and forth in time, like halfway between the screen and the stage. And when I read it I immediately thought: this is a film. I did not know Tarell growing up, but we grew up literally a block from each other. We went to the same elementary school, and both his mom and my mom lived through that horrible crack-cocaine addiction. And there isn’t a scene with her that didn’t happen to either myself or Tarell. It’s talking about things that I’ve always wanted to talk about. And it was freeing because it’s really difficult to do autobiography, to put your own shit up on screen.

Director Barry Jenkins, whose Moonlight won the Academy Award for Best Picture, in an interview with Film Comment. The movie is an adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, and they shared the award for Best Adapted Screenplay Sunday night. After a bizarre mixup, in which La La Land was first announced as the winner, Jenkins said, “Even in my dreams this could not be true. But to hell with dreams, I’m done with it, because this is true.” His reaction on Twitter:

Happy Birthday, Toni Morrison

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned getting permission to write. Who gave it to you?

MORRISON

No one. What I needed permission to do was to succeed at it. I never signed a contract until the book was finished because I didn’t want it to be homework. A contract meant somebody was waiting for it, that I had to do it, and they could ask me about it. They could get up in my face and I don’t like that. By not signing a contract, I do it, and if I want you to see it, I’ll let you see it. It has to do with self-esteem. I am sure for years you have heard writers constructing illusions of freedom, anything in order to have the illusion that it is all mine and only I can do it.

-Toni Morrison, in a 1993 conversation with Elissa Schappell at The Paris Review. Morrison turns 86 on February 18.

Here’s Morrison with Charlie Rose in 2015:

Read the interview

John Oliver on the Media’s Struggle to Confront Disinformation

Did you share the general shudder when Kellyanne Conway introduced the idea of “alternative facts”?

It’s just a framing device, an ear-catching phrase, but it’s nothing new. The content of what she’s wrapping a bow on is something that everyone has been bearing witness to. We’ve had 18 months of feelings over facts. The only thing that’s remotely new about it is the location that it’s coming from.

Is interviewing her essentially pointless?

In general, it’s very dangerous to keep the old campaign architecture around with this presidency, to have an eight-person panel on CNN debating whether or not he said something. “Did he or did he not do this thing we watched him do?” There’s actually serious harm in that discussion. And, yeah. I really don’t see the point of talking to Kellyanne Conway because her language jujitsu is so strong. You know she can look you in the eyes and tell you the opposite of what you just saw happen, and she will be more confident in her answer than you are in your question.

-John Oliver, in a wide-ranging Rolling Stone interview with Brian Hiatt, on how his weekly HBO show Last Week Tonight will need to adapt to the chaos of the Trump Administration. His season four premiere attempted to tackle the question of Trump and reality:  Read more…

The Early Principles That Guided the Makers of LEGO

Legos in space

In his 2013 book, Brick by Brick: How LEGO Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry, David Robertson outlines the early successes and failures of the Denmark-based LEGO Group — from their early experiments with plastic, to their decision in the late 1990s to finally strike licensing deals with movies and characters, starting with Star Wars.

Robertson describes a pivotal moment in the company’s history, when Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, the son of founder Ole Kirk Christiansen, met up with a toy buyer: Read more…

‘Elephant and Piggie’ Author Mo Willems on the Importance of Teaching Kids to Fail

Over the past eight years, when I wasn’t reading Pamela Colloff or Ariel Levy, I was probably reading Mo Willems. The children’s book author made the world giggle with Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and the Elephant and Piggie series, and reduced every parent to tears with Knuffle Bunny Free, the final installment in the Knuffle Bunny series that is making me cry again just thinking about it. Darn you, Mo!

In Rivka Galchen’s wonderful New Yorker profile of Willems, we learn that Knuffle Bunny’s real-life main character Trixie (Willems’s daughter) is now 15, that Willems couldn’t write another Pigeon book (“He’s a monster!”) and that he’s particularly focused on kids learning to embrace the “f” word:

Willems’s books reveal a preoccupation with failure, even an alliance with it. In “Elephants Cannot Dance!,” they can’t; in “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!,” Pigeon, despite all his pleading and cajoling, never does. Willems told me, “At ‘Sesame Street,’ they would give us these workshops about the importance of failure, but then in our skits all the characters had to be great at what they did, everything had to work out. That drove me crazy.” One of his most memorable sketches on “Sesame Street” was about a Muppet, Rosita, who wants to play the guitar; she isn’t very good, even by the end of the episode. Many artists talk about the importance of failure, but Willems seems particularly able to hold on to the conviction of it. He is a distinctly kind, mature, and thoughtful person to spend time with, and there was only one anecdote that he told me twice. It was about a feeling he had recently while walking his dog, a kind of warm humming feeling starting in his abdomen, which, he said, he had never had before. Was it happiness? I asked. He said no. He’d felt happiness before. This was something different. He said he thought that, for the first time ever, he was feeling success.

The feeling would appear to be transient. When I asked him if it felt strange to no longer be writing Elephant and Piggie books—I was still working on a way to break the news to my daughter, who had been using the Other Titles endpaper as a field of dreams—he said, “Well, at least now I have my obituary.” Shortly afterward, he said, unprompted, “I think ‘What are you working on next?’ is the worst question. It’s such a bad question. I hate that question. Everyone asks that question. I want to say, ‘Isn’t this good enough for you?’ ”

Read the story