Do Americans sympathize with the poor?

This is a copy of my newsletter that I send out every other Tuesday.
Three questions #35
Eclectic cultural artifacts and the questions they raise
A newsletter of culture and economics
Americans sympathize with the poor, so why is it assumed we don’t?
Some ideas are too large to contend with. One seems to be that Americans hate the poor. The attacks on Medicare/Medicaid, the Clinton-era diminutions of welfare, the attempts to privatize social security. The problem with this story is that Americans resolutely support programs that help the poor, it just seems like politicians don’t. Meagan Day reviews Spencer Piston’s Class Attitudes in America, a book that makes this case. Piston is a political scientist, who examined extensive polling data, only to find that most Americans are willing to give money to the poor, and to tax the rich.
In Adam Davidson’s TED talk, he explores this same idea, and why it gives him hope for the future.
What makes a story funny?

“How To Tell a Story” by Mark Twain

Humor is notoriously hard to comment on. (For good reason: good humor works on a subtextual and unconscious level, which means that it’s too complicated to explain. Like the bottom of the ocean, the workings of the unconscious are largely unexamined. We embrace and ingest comedy, but still hold it suspect. It’s why comedy doesn’t win Oscars.) In this short article, Twain tries to parse the difference between a funny story and a humorous one. Twain finds the latter to be estimable and uniquely American. Instead of winding up for the punchline, the humorous story is told dead-pan, and is often funnier because the narrator seems to be unaware of how funny it is.

How does a connoisseur develop their taste? Accidentally? By force of will? And after all this development, this exploration of nuance, is something betrayed by writing it down?

Playing Doc’s Games-II” by William Finnegan

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan

In the mid-1980s, William Finnegan, an avid surfer since childhood, lived in San Francisco. There, in a city where most residents think there is no surf culture, Finnegan fell in with a surfing zealot. This fanatic, Dr. Mark Renneker, is the subject of Finnegan’s 1992 profile in The New Yorker. Renneker is a complicated figure because of his religious and crazed devotion to surfing in a city with unforgiving (often quite cold) surf. In many ways, this profile covers Finnegan’s development of a connoisseurship, a complicated love of waves. The irony is that he comes to write about surfing for the first time at the same moment that he was finally becoming serious about something else (journalism). The complexity of this work is grounded in how terrifying and brutal surfing can be, how often surfers will inspect the surf and decide stay to ashore, fearing that it exceeds their limits, but day after day, returning to the sea, like a gambler to a casino, hoping to find that one great wave.

Upon hearing that Finnegan was giving a talk at Hunter College, I looked him up and found the previously mentioned profile. It was this talk that inspired me to read Barbarian Days, a book that I was previously not interested in. At the talk, I asked him a question about the New Yorker profile. I wondered if writing about surfing, something he claimed to have never written about, betrayed anything about this hobby. (This is cliché question, to wonder if putting something down in words betrays the essential and assumed unknowability of lived experience, but he suggested as much in the profile, so I felt compelled to ask.) Was anything lost in the process of recording the experience? Did surfing change after writing so earnestly about it? (He often refers to waves as “lumpy,” indicating, to me at least, that surfing a wave is texturally something I can barely approach imagining.) Something had changed, he said: it was the time in his life when he became a full-time writer. While writing the book, he imagined the part of his life in which he gets to San Francisco (where it would overlap with “Playing Doc’s Games”) that the tone would change. That it would be a postlapsarian shift. But his agent knew better, and the tone remained even throughout the book. The content of the 1992 profile was re-engineered. What was betrayed, he said, was the subject of his surfing life in San Francisco, Dr. Mark Renneker. He hated the profile.

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Five pieces of advice for aspiring journalists

I recently came across a few online articles that offered great advice for aspiring journalists. I’ll share five of them with you here:

Lots and lots of great stuff here. The best is the last piece of advice from Gay Telese:

“Shortly after I became a reporter at The New York Times, at 24, in the autumn of 1956, a venerated old-timer on the staff named Peter Kihss told me one day: ‘Young man, stay off the telephone. Show up in person. No matter how inconvenient it may be, always meet face-to-face with the person or people you’re interviewing. Stay off the phone. Show up. Look people in the eye. Observe everything first-hand. Be there!’ That advice was received more than 60 years ago, and I’ve followed it ever since.

I’m now 85. I am still a working reporter; and although most of my reportorial work these days appears in the form of books or magazine articles, it is always observed first-hand and is storytelling in form, with lots of descriptive scenes and dialogue whenever possible. I sometimes refer to my method as the ‘Art of Hanging Out.’ Once, in order to write a profile about a Chinese female soccer player, I flew to Beijing and spent five weeks researching her story while traveling with her team. On another occasion, I followed a Russian opera singer on tour from Moscow to Buenos Aires to Barcelona and finally to her performance on stage at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. When I was a young reporter, the telephone was the ‘new technology.’ Now, as I watch the new generation of journalists focusing all day on their laptops, and on their smartphones, pursuing stories diligently with their eyes and heads bent downward, I’m tempted to recall the words of the late Peter Kihss. ‘Stay off the phone. Look up. Observe things first hand. Be there!’”

One of Klein’s best tips: take opportunity over prestige. Work when you can instead of waiting for the perfect pitch to be picked up by the perfect publication.

I liked this advice here:

“Become an expert in something, or even two things, and you should be able to find a niche, even if it’s a small one. “Spec reps” [specialist reporters] are harder to replace than generalists, and a specialist can get better with age and experience.

Good journalism is when readers feel or even say to themselves: ‘I’m glad I read that.’ The most brilliant story is wasted if nobody gets past the first paragraph. Or, worse, thinks you’ve wasted their time.”

Mark Kobayashi-Hillary

Expertise is recession proof.

It might not be necessary to go to J-School, from famous author (and journalist) Michael Lewis.

Investigative journalist Pat Smith on the sociological realities of being a journalist in the world:

This is not the career for people wanting to be popular. If you want to be popular, open an ice cream store. This is about being fair and accurate and making our communities better.

Reminds me of Janet Malcolm’s opening line of The Journalist and The Murderer: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”