Category Archives: Commentary

Longreads Best of 2016: Here Are All of Our No. 1 Story Picks from This Year

All through December, we’ll be featuring Longreads’ Best of 2016. To get you ready, here’s a list of every story that was chosen as No. 1 in our weekly Top 5 email.

If you like these, you can sign up to receive our free weekly email every Friday. Read more…

What’s in a Name: 2016 Presidential Campaign Edition

The question of whether or not it’s appropriate to refer to Hillary Clinton as “Hillary” has been unresolved for at least a decade now. It’s offensive, argues Peggy Drexler. It’s fine, says Peter Beinart. It’s complicated, shrugs McClatchy DC.

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Back in 2007, the Chicago Tribune’s public editor wondered whether use of the former first lady’s first name was overly familiar, even provocative: “Mrs. Clinton or Sen. Clinton or former First Lady Hillary Clinton are all proper ways to address or refer to her, but just plain Hillary is almost guaranteed to trigger a reaction.” Editor Jane Fritsch told him via email that she disliked the double-standard: “The simple fact is that Hillary Rodham Clinton is running in a field of men who are never referred to by their first names.” Read more…

Everything in Moderation, Including Moderation

I’ve been drinking more beer in the last three months than I have in the last fifteen years. Meaning, I’ve been drinking beer at all. I gave it up because it made me sluggish, but I’ve fallen back in love with beer’s flavor. Is this an unhealthy development?

In his 2014 Pacific Standard article “The Truth We Won’t Admit: Drinking Is Healthy,” Stanton Peele not only argues that moderate alcohol consumption protects you from cardiovascular disease and helps you live longer, he treats abstinence itself as an undeniable risk factor in heart disease and shortened life spans. “Well-informed Americans,” he says, “think that abstinence is better for them.” The reason: “…Americans’ addiction-phobia, which causes them to interpret any daily drinking as addictive.” A psychologist and addiction specialist by trade, he cites studies that show the positive effects moderate and even “excessive” drinking have on health and longevity. Peele traces this deep-seated cultural issue back to the temperance movement on through modern health care, where the U.S. public health establishment’s standard treatment of alcohol’s cardiovascular benefits is a resounding, systematic silence.

I read this the other night while pouring myself a pint. Maybe I should explore my motives for resuming drinking in case I’m unconsciously reaching for some delicious way to manage the increasing stress in my life. But in terms of volume consumed, there’s no issue. When I drink, I drink one beer. Too much alcohol disrupts my sleep, so I keep it between three and five beers a week. Most people laugh. Five a week? How about five a night! 

According to the Mayo Clinic, my weekly three-to-five fall within the moderate range, which the CDC lists as up to two drinks a day for a man, one for a women, with a drink defined as 12 ounces of beer and 5 ounces of wine. “When it comes to drinking alcohol,” the Mayo says, “the key is doing so only in moderation.” Peele encourages moderate consumption, as does Aaron E. Carroll’s recent The New York Times piece “Drink to Your Health (in Moderation), the Science Says,” which offers stats about how people who don’t drink have a higher death rate than those who drink moderately.

With so many articles giving conflicting information about the pros and cons of contentious foods ─ coffee is good for you, coffee is bad for you; dark chocolate helps your heart, too much fat harms it ─ it’s hard to figure out moderation. 

Moderation lies the core of American dietary thinking. “Everything in moderation,” goes the old line, meaning don’t binge, and don’t abstain, but do take it easy on the bad stuff. Between the two poles of asceticism and indulgence, moderation is about never giving up or fully giving in. It’s a reasonable approach: walk the rational temperate middle road to health. Moderation works well for those of us who want to limit something for physical or ethical reasons, like meat, dairy or dessert, but not abandon it entirely. Life without chocolate is no life at all, but you don’t want to suffer from too much of a good thing, despite what Mae West said. Another example, I’m a weekday vegetarian. I abstain from animal flesh Monday through Friday, and I indulge on Saturday and Sunday. The reason: I object to factory farming on ethical grounds, but I can’t afford to buy only small farm, humanely raised meat. But by abstaining five out of seven days I balance my values with my financial inability to fully live by them, and also accommodate my taste for certain foods, since I do love pork. The result: moderate intake of animal fats and cholesterol; more regular intake of vegetables, legumes and fruits; greatly reduced participation in an unethical farming system; and only moderate guilt about not being able to skirt that system entirely. This approach loosely fits within the Aristotelian idea of the golden mean, and maybe in Confucius’s Doctrine of the Mean.

If I wonder whether I should worry about my sudden return to beer, Peele says it’s because this sort of worried thinking is part of our distinctly American problem. As a nation, we’re ambivalent about alcohol. We see it as poison that’s healthy to avoid, yet we drink it at games and parties and dinner. So we binge, sober up, and wrestle with our urges and guilt, when more of us should be sipping responsibly like so many Europeans. Peele acknowledges that it’s moderate consumption which science has found to have the most health benefits. But in order to reap those benefits, Americans need to get over the idea that daily moderate drinking ─ meaning, a drink or two at night ─ is somehow unhealthy, or a sign of a mounting problem, and the health community needs to stop telling the public that seven drinks a week for women is healthy, but ten is excessive. Peele distinguishes himself from the standard “everything in moderation” ideology in favor of Oscar Wilde’s quip about “Everything in moderation, including moderation because, he says, “the evidence that abstinence from alcohol is a cause of heart disease and early death is irrefutable.” Alcohol’s “benefits are greatest if you drink moderately. But even drinking more than is ‘perfectly’ recommended, without displaying clinical symptoms of problem drinking or alcohol dependence (and these are not subtle), is generally better for you than drinking nothing.”

He isn’t talking about just drinking a few beers. He’s saying drink to live. I love it when science tells me what I want to hear.

***

Additional Reading:

“Drink to Your Health (in Moderation), the Science Says” (Aaron E. Carroll, The New York Times, Dec. 21, 2015)
“The Truth We Won’t Admit: Drinking Is Healthy” (Stanton Peele, Pacific Standard, Aug. 12, 2014)

Fans, Fiction, and Representation: A New Hope

There’s something about Star Wars: The Force Awakens that feels both delightful and urgent, as if it were both a joy to create and a story that must be told at this particular moment in history. People who lined up to see the film when it released last December—and then immediately bought tickets to see it again—are now buying the DVD or Blu-Ray or streaming version so they can watch The Force Awakens for the fifth (or tenth) time at home. They’re also creating fanart, writing their own narratives, and celebrating the idea that the Hero’s Journey has been opened up to a new group of heroes. Read more…

Six James Beard Finalists You Might Have Missed: A Reading List

James Beard

The James Beard Foundation announced the finalists for its 2016 food media awards last week, so it’s a great time to make a cup of tea and cozy up to some excellent food writing. You might have already read some of the nominees featured here throughout 2015 — “The Brief, Extraordinary Life of Cody Spafford,” “Straight-Up Passing,” “Corn Wars,” “The Second Most Famous Thing to Happen to Hiroshima,” “The Chef Who Saved My Life,” and “On Chicken Tenders,” which features some of the most passionate writing about fried snack foods to hit the internet’s tubes — but here are six more you might have missed:

1. “Ham to Ham Combat: A Tale of Two Smithfields” (Emily Wallace, Gravy, December 2015)

Worth it for the title alone, Emily’s piece wends from 350-year-old pro-pig promotional literature to the interstate tensions at the 1985 Ham & Yam Festival — with a pit stop to visit The Oldest Peanut in the World — in service of a single question: is the ham capital of the U.S. in Virginia, or North Carolina?  (And a runner-up question: Why does it matter?)

Read more…

Mallory Ortberg’s Favorite Advice Columns

Last year, I became an advice columnist. This is my only qualification for being an advice columnist, as I am quite literally just some guy. “Noted some guy Mallory Ortberg.” Here are a few of my favorite advice columns:

1. “The Monty Hall Problem” (Marilyn vos Savant, Parade Magazine)

Priceonomics describes this column thusly:

When vos Savant politely responded to a reader’s inquiry on the Monty Hall Problem, a then-relatively-unknown probability puzzle, she never could’ve imagined what would unfold: though her answer was correct, she received over 10,000 letters, many from noted scholars and Ph.Ds, informing her that she was a hare-brained idiot.

What ensued for vos Savant was a nightmarish journey, rife with name-calling, gender-based assumptions, and academic persecution.

Read more…

The Problem With Hollywood’s Portrayal of Pregnant Women

The post-apocalyptic thriller Mad Max: Fury Road has been nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award, numerous Producer Guild of America awards, two Golden Globes, and an Academy Award for Best Picture. It’s been hailed as a stealth feminist masterpiece—and it is! But it also contributes to a larger problem: Nobody knows anymore what a pregnant woman looks like.

The plot of Mad Max centers on the escape attempt of several women who have been sexually abused by the monomaniacal cult-leader Immortan Joe. They are as nubile and scantily clad as the patriarch is decrepit and disgusting. A scene in which they take a break in the desert to drink some water resembles nothing so much as a bikini car wash. Read more…

Talking to Alice Driver About Violence Against Women in Juárez

Ciudad Juárez, Mexico was once known as the global murder capital. It’s no longer the world’s most dangerous city, but violence still haunts the town just over the border from El Paso, Texas. Alice Driver, a filmmaker, writer and photographer whose work focuses on human rights, feminism, and activism, has written extensively about Juárez.  Her searing 2015 book More or Less Dead: Feminicide, Haunting, and the Ethics of Representation in Mexico deals specifically with the disappearance and murder of women in Juárez. The work, which grew out of her dissertation, blends theory with stories and interviews to explore not just the violence against women in Juárez, but also how that violence has been represented in media and culture. As Driver writes:

“To talk about feminicide is to talk about violence against women in all its manifestations, and in Juárez one of the most visible of those is disappearance. When women are murdered, their bodies don’t always appear. Often they disappear, and so the violence becomes unregistered, unrecorded, and seemingly invisible. This book is about the ways in which those bodies, whether identified or nameless, have been represented in literature, film, and art.”

Read more…

In Praise of Public Pitching

I’ve always been fascinated by how narrative journalism gets commissioned, reported, and published–but the most perplexing part of the entire system is the continued power imbalance between writers and publishers.

This imbalance persists in spite of the internet “democratizing” publishing. More digital publishers are embracing feature writing, but the process behind the scenes feels stuck in the past–a time-consuming marathon of unanswered emails and rejection. Read more…

How Sarah Schweitzer Discovered the Story About a Boy Rescued from Near-Fatal Abuse

There are stories that creep up and remind us that there is no substitute in journalism for simply spending time with a subject. It’s a luxury many reporters don’t get, but what these stories reveal about the depth of humanity—the best and worst sides of it—make them so worth it.

The Boston Globe’s Sarah Schweitzer was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for last year’s “Chasing Bayla,” and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see her nominated again for “The Life and Times of Strider Wolf,” in which she and photographer Jessica Rinaldi documented the difficult life of a young boy and his brother, rescued from near-fatal abuse, and sent to live with their grandparents, who face their own troubles. I sent her a few follow-up questions via email: Read more…