Category Archives: Commentary

Longreads Best of 2017: All of Our No. 1 Story Picks

All through December, we’ll be featuring Longreads’ Best of 2017. 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 weekly email every Friday. Read more…

How Did HGTV ‘Stars’ Become Celebrities?

Chip and Joanna Gaines (Photo by Mireya Acierto/FilmMagic)

Home and Garden Television, better known as HGTV, has forged a reputation as a television ratings giant in the past couple of years, more than two decades after the channel launched in 1994. Late last year, Kate Wagner noted the timeliness of the channel’s launch, given its niche — real estate as reality television programming: it surfaced amid the Clinton administration’s push for “huge mortgage reforms in order to stimulate growth in the home-building sector and provide more housing for lower-income Americans.” As home sales spiked, HGTV offered a glimpse into “the national home-buying and home-selling fervor,” Wagner wrote.

And interest in the channel’s offerings has not waned. Last year, an academic design journal devoted an entire issue to “Learning from HGTV.” An academic paper in American Quarterly in 2012 noted that HGTV briefly “became the object of public scorn” in the wake of the collapse of the housing market, as Americans found the programming “complicit” for its tendency to depict homes as “investments.” But it survived, and even thrived, as the players in its shows land celebrity magazine cover after cover.

Brooks Barnes, in his monthly “Scene Stealers” column for the New York Times Style section this weekend, noted that Tarek and Christina El Moussa, the couple in one of its hit shows, Flip or Flop, were featured on the cover of In Touch Weekly at least 14 times, with more than 90 articles on them.

“Puzzled, I asked a few Hollywood publicists if they could explain why the celebrity news media cared so much about the El Moussas. The head of publicity for one big studio responded, ‘Is that a fragrance?’” Barnes wrote.

Barnes sees the El Moussas as “fascinating — not as newsmakers, but as a window into the evolving celebrity news business.” A former US Weekly and Hollywood Reporter editor tells him the evolution is due to “the effects of a culturally divided America.”

Barnes explains President Donald Trump is divisive; tabloid magazines catch heat for putting him or his relations on their covers. The Kardashians’ ratings “have plummeted,” and “most movie stars have little tabloid tread left on them,” he adds, noting that Jennifer Aniston is still not pregnant. Plus, there’s the hunger for clicks in our age of digital news: “If there is no news, just glom onto something tiny. In Touch recently did an entire article about a basic Instagram post by Mr. El Moussa. (See it here!’),” Barnes wrote.

Over on The Ringer, Amanda Dobbins wrote late last year, in a piece titled “The End of Celebrity As We Know It,” that more than three million people regularly watch Flip or Flop, “which is more than the number of people who saw Will Smith’s most recent movie or bought Lady Gaga’s album.” She interviewed Lindsey Weber of the podcast Who Weekly, which regular discusses HGTV stars: “Anyone can do anything on the internet now. So now we have all these people that just exist because we have a democratic platform where anyone can do something that makes them notable,” Weber told her. Dobbins concluded, “If you are looking for a career change right now, you could do worse than midlevel celebrity; the market has never been more open.”

But is the rise of HGTV celebrities a window into, or a reprieve from, a “culturally divided America”? Read more…

Trump’s Twitter Usage May Be His Downfall

His lawyers have told him to stop. His staff has told him to stop.

But President Donald Trump appears to be “Brokeback Mountain”-style in love with Twitter.

In the aftermath of this weekend’s terrorist attacks in London, Trump took to Twitter to promote his attempt to block travel into the U.S. by citizens of certain Muslim-majority countries. The American Civil Liberties Union and other lawyers have sued over the initiative and it is being blocked by judges, while official White House spokespersons have argued against calling the initiative a “travel ban.” Read more…

My Electric Bike is Not ‘Cheating.’ And It Could Replace Cars for Millions of People

Boy learning to ride a bicycle
Learning to Ride a Bike via Wikimedia

“Hey, no fair! You’re cheating!”

The guy was wrapped head to toe in black Lycra. He had clip-in cleats and a racing helmet. I was wearing a skirt and blue suede shoes. He was annoyed because I’d passed him. He was riding hard, I could see his effort and as I pulled out on the left, I could hear him breathing.

This stretch of road doesn’t look like much, but it’s an uphill grade. When I’m heading into town, I hit it from a right turn or a full stop, both of which kill my momentum. It’s nowhere near the gut emptying climb before you reach my house, but it’s not a coast, either. Road bike guy had probably come from the park at sea level; he’d likely been climbing for a mile already. Read more…

The Lost Art of Getting Lost

Rope bridge, Ladakh, 1981

I have two pieces of major travel cred, neither particularly deserved. One is that I’ve been to all seven continents—in a turn of events I still don’t believe actually happened, a client sent me to Antarctica—and the other is that after traveling by train and hitchhiking, I walked over the Himalayas from Leh, in Ladakh, to Manali, in Himachal Pradesh. When people ask me how I came to make that trip, my answer is absurdly naive. I could not, at the time, cross the Khyber Pass as I had wanted, so I did this instead. My motivation was based in complete idiocy; I was very young, and lucky me, I lived to tell the tale.

This was in 1982, and because it was pre-internet, I had no idea I was part of the wandering population exploring what had been called the Hippie Trail: the overland route traveled by free spirits in the 60s and 70s that “wound through Europe via Yugoslavia and Greece (with a possible island side-trip) to Istanbul…a typical path went to Ankara, then through Iran to Tehran, to Kabul in Afghanistan, through the Khyber Pass to Peshawar and Lahore in Pakistan, and then on to Kashmir, Delhi and Goa in India.”

Today, you can fall into a k-hole of photos from that era—I have a wooden box full of them myself—buses and trains full of backpackers armed with little more than a guide book and a few choice phrases. One could met a handful of Westerners, hang out for a few days, trade information, and go along your way.

My current nostalgia is not for the travels themselves, but for a time when this kind of travel was possible, when one could imagine the porousness of borders, disappearing and reappearing weeks later in a post office phone booth in New Delhi or Cairo trying to call home to let your family know you were fine, and also, still alive.

My absurd travel résumé is why I always have time for the similar sentiments from other voices of this rootless era, and to understand their grief for its loss. Every era is a golden age of travel to those traveling in it. In the Financial Times, Charlie English delivers a eulogy for a geographic freedom that is now in short supply.

Everything was fine, of course: as foreign correspondents say, it always is until something happens. Without exception, the people I met were glad to see me, since I represented the outside world, which, Timbuktiens felt, had forgotten them. The famous little caravan town has always loved visitors, and until recently they were a considerable source of income. The highlight of the tourist season in the 2000s was the Festival in the Desert, a showcase of Malian and international music organised by Manny Ansar. Eight or nine hundred foreigners would come, Ansar told me, and spend money all over town: “They paid for travel, they paid in the restaurants, they paid for souvenirs, they rented camels, tents.” But the violence in the desert put a stop to that, and by the time of my visit Timbuktu was filled with unemployed tour guides, empty hotels, and its famous manuscript libraries were shut.

Read the story (paywalled)

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.

Juneau_Democratic_Caucus_2_(26054842955)

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
James Beard, photo by Paul Child.

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…