Three Things to Read this Election Season

I’ve been a terrible custodian of my blog these past few months. To break the silence, and to mark my re-commitment to regular updates, I’d like to share three fantastic essays I’ve been thinking about in recent months. None explicitly addresses the 2012 election campaign — a simultaneously sad and electrifying spectacle that has me hopelessly transfixed — but each speaks in its own way to the America moment, to all the cracks we’ve failed, and will likely keep failing, to fill.

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George Packer, Coming Apart (New Yorker, September 12, 2011)

I missed this essay when it was first published, ten years after the September 11 attacks. More than anything else I’ve read in the past months, Packer’s piece conveys just how thoroughly we’ve squandered the opportunity afforded us that terrible day. Instead of confronting the mounting failures of our major institutions, our political leadership and our cultural establishment have left our democracy to decay. Casting our embrace of  post-9/11 militarism as escapist cover for our growing weaknesses, Packer offers a sober critical frame through which to view the 2012 election.

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Benjamin Kunkel, Forgive Us Our Debts (London Review of Books, May 10, 2012)

In this essay, Kunkel — another self-exiled American here in Buenos Aires — reviews two recent books on debt for the LRB: Paper Promises: Money Debt and the New World Order, by financial journalist Philip Coggan, and Debt: The First 5000 Years, by anarchist anthropologist David Graeber. Though Coggan gets his due, it’s Graber’s book that dominates Kunkel’s essay. (For his sheer ambition, both intellectual and temporal, I don’t see how Graeber couldn’t.) The piece is a tightly crafted and original introduction to a book you *really* should read, and a topic I wish we’d all spend a bit more time thinking about.

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Paul Tough, What Does Obama Really Believe In? (New York Times Magazine, August 15, 2012)

Tough’s well-reported piece takes us to Roseland, the struggling Chicago neighborhood where Obama got his start as a community organizer. A portrait more of deep poverty than of a politician, Tough’s essay is a stark reminder that new approaches to building opportunity for poor children and families have all but disappeared from the political conversation — in fact, the children themselves have, too. Such omissions, Tough shows, have real human consequences.