The Magazinist

Close reading the May 2009 issue of The American Prospect

Every now and then, CJR’s Magazinist delivers an opinionated look at the journals of opinion.

The main cover line of the May issue of The American Prospect—”The future of RISK: Markets can’t protect us. What will?”—practically screams at the reader, demanding that he read the Prospect to crawl his way out of the economic slump. (Nothing else, apparently, will save him.)

Capitalism and its Discontents

The issue leads with one of those weigh-ins-by-the-experts packages where various professional authorities write a few paragraphs on the topic at hand. This time around, the topic is risk—or, rather, RISK. Contributors include
David Moss of the Harvard Business School, Robert A. Johnson of the United Nations Commission on International Economic Reform, Berkeley political science professor Jacob Hacker , and various journalists who’ve written about economics and social policy. Most entries concentrate on moving away from a mathematical model of risk and facilitating a financial system based on people and their needs.

The five-experts, five-slightly nuanced versions of the same opinion is a tried and true journalistic staple, but it tends not to be a recipe for innovative thought. Unsurprisingly, the Prospect feature airs few controversial opinions. But the points are salient, especially the section by real estate journalist Alyssa Katz about the need for American banks to return to the essentially local nature of the housing marketplace, because, as she points out:

Those who created and traded in the securities trusts were not players with any state in the communities in which these loans were made. They could not be subject to boycotts, or concerns about status as a good corporate citizen, or care about what the local paper or blogger might write, or even harbor fond memories of a neighborhood’s high school football team. Indeed, the mortgage-backed-securities pools themselves existed only as creatures of the law, without a single identifiable face or place of business.

Four books reviewed later in the issue address the nuances of attempting to change and manage capitalism, including Richard Posner’s dramatically titled A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of ‘08 and the Descent into Depression. Robert Kuttner’s review undermines the magazine’s blaring cover line by pointing out that:

Since we are still in an early phase of the crisis and don’t yet know whether it will rival the Great Depression in its depth and duration, all verdicts remain provisional.

Of course, this particular point isn’t directly in conflict with that “What can save America now that everything has gone to shit?” drama promised by the cover line, but Kuttner’s review demonstrates a view suspiciously absent from the rest of the May issue of The Prospect—the latest economic downturn may turn out to be nothing at all. Read It

Ideology on Parade

In an article entitled “The Next War Over the Courts”, lawyers Doug Kendall and Simon Lazarus predict that Obama’s judicial appointments will meet with strong resistance. Despite certain early uncontroversial appointments, congressional Republicans are prepared to fight, and fight hard, against Obama’s choices, something for which the administration may not be prepared:

Early signs indicate that the White House is reluctantly entering this fray with a less-than-fully-backed game plan that could simultaneously undermine the president’s chances to change the direction of the courts and stall his broader agenda.

While it is worth noting that congressional Republicans will impede Obama’s judicial appointments, particularly in light of David Souter’s retirement (which occurred after the May issue of the Prospect came out), the “early signs” are not really indicative of anything. The fact that Obama promised to name candidates “acceptable to all sides” doesn’t indicate that he’s prepared to do battle with Republicans, sure—but it doesn’t mean he isn’t, either. Statements like that are campaign drivel, and very similar to the sort of thing said by Bush throughout his presidency. The piece features a sidebar about the wicked deeds of the erstwhile president with regard to legal matters in general and judicial nominees in particular. Read It

The Foundations

An article about philanthropy “in the Obama era” reports that the federal government is now much more likely to consider working with private charitable foundations. Government will be a partner. Government will learn from charity. The article features far too many quotations from the heads of charitable organizations expressing their eagerness to work with the Obama administration and their perception that Obama will be receptive to their ideas. Non-profit executives are notoriously optimistic creatures, and something like this isn’t exactly essential reading:

‘It’s a new day for many because the people who are populating the government have strong philanthropic ties and non-profit ties, so that’s a different relationship. You can pick up the ‘phone and talk to someone,’ [Atlantic Philanthropies president and chief executive Gara] LaMarche says. ‘There is access that was unthinkable in the Bush Administration.’

Well I guess that’s nice for Atlantic Philanthropies, but having a relationship with charities is hardly an invention of the Obama administration. Actually, the Bush government, in its eagerness to privatize everything, was highly receptive to charitable involvement, too. It’s just that Bush liked different charities. While the author presents some statistical evidence to back it up the virtually evergreen “it’s a new day in Washington” argument, proof of Obama’s love for charities seems somewhat weak. Charitable organizations, especially those that receive federal funds, are always eager to express how well they can work with an administration. That’s what the heads of charities do, almost by definition: solicit money and try to gain influence with powerful people.

The article features a picture of Geoffrey Canada touring a Harlem Children’s Zone building alongside the governor of New York and Prince Charles, whose wife is identified as “Duchess Camilla,” an unconventional style that would surely confuse Her Royal Highness. Skip It

Women’s Studies

Elsewhere in do-goodery, another article examines female circumcision in an attempt to address whether or not local traditions ought to ever trump human rights concerns. Unsurprisingly, the author urges women activists to respect and value local traditions. The article features a sort of mini-profile about a woman who did just that in her own village, saying that the woman “offers a model for President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton as they try to expand women’s rights around the globe.” This is questionable; the woman’s experience consisted of gaining access to a village in Kenya and then educating individual people. This offers a somewhat limited lesson for American foreign policy. Skip It

This feminist-activists-oughta-love-and-respect-traditional-culture argument is, however, challenged by a compelling piece that appears in the back pages, in which feminist blogger Jessica Valenti praises Laura Kipnis’s Against Love:

Kipnis’ framing of adultery as a radical act—”the sit-down strike of the love-takes-work-ethic”—really stuck with me. Not because I was down on monogamy (though the book certainly makes you rethink how much you want a pick-up-the-kids, take-out-the-trash kind of relationship) but because it made me think of feminism as the adultery of social norms.
Duly noted, though I’d argue that, with attitudes like that, preventing female circumcision ought not to be your next project. A front-of-book piece about the free speech arguments made by the lobbyists for the U.S. porn industry might also be read somewhat uncomfortably in the Masai villages of southern Kenya. (Admittedly this scenario is fairly unlikely.) Read It

Duly Noted

The issue also runs a short, captivating review of Richard Nisbett’s new book on the IQ wars, Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count, which explains how intelligence isn’t really hereditary, but because children’s intelligence looks like it’s closely connected to that of their parents, we often make the mistake of thinking that it is. “Biological geneticists have found that genes trigger environmental influence,” the reviewer explains, “what’s more, environmental differences determine gene expression.” Read It

In the column-length dialogue section in the front pages of the issue deputy editor Ann Friedman and writing fellow Adam Serwer (disclosure: I know Serwer) discuss the business and science of bananas. Friedman: “… If I had to pick one industrially farmed food to go extinct, it would be the banana. They smell gross. They taste gross. They have a gross texture.” Skip It

On page four, the magazine excerpts a Campaign Desk piece of mine criticizing Prospect staffer Dana Goldstein’s April 2009 article on teacher’s unions and education reform. Goldstein responds to me and Andrew “Eduwonk” Rotherham. Naturally, you should Read It.

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Daniel Luzer is web editor of the Washington Monthly.