Brooks and Cohen

Bobo gives us “The 2015 Sidney Awards, Part 2,” which is the second set of the year’s best essays focuses on community and isolation, from New Orleans to Syria.  In “Germany, Refugee Nation” Mr. Cohen says there’s a new can-do nation. It’s called Germany. Merkel has redeemed the Europe that once closed its frontiers to Jews fleeing Germany.  Here’s Bobo:

This second batch of Sidney Awards, given for some of the year’s best long-form essays, congregate, coincidentally, around a theme: the excessive individualism of American society, and the ways human beings try to create community for good or ill.

The first winner is Sebastian Junger’s piece “How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield,” from Vanity Fair. Junger starts by stating the American military has the highest post-traumatic stress disorder rate in its history, and probably the world. But then he notes there is no statistical relationship between suicide and combat. Vets who worked far from the violence are just as likely to commit suicide. Over the decades, combat deaths have dropped while PTSD rates have risen. The Israeli Army, which sees a lot of trauma, has a rate as low as 1 percent.

Junger concludes, “The problem doesn’t seem to be trauma on the battlefield so much as re-entry into society.” People in military service are surrounded by close comradeship. When they are thrust back into American society they are often isolated. The problem is with our lack of community back home.

For centuries Americans have been reading the hyper-individualistic purity of Henry David Thoreau’s life on Walden Pond — the way he cut himself off from crass commercialism and lived on a pure spiritual plane. Writing in The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz points out in “Pond Scum” that Thoreau was a misanthropic, arrogant, self-righteous prig. He was coldhearted in the face of others’ suffering. Highly ascetic, he sustained the shallow American tendency to equate eating habits with moral health.

He tried philanthropic enterprises but found they did “not agree with my constitution.” Schulz accurately notes that Thoreau’s most famous sentence, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” is at once insufferable and absurd.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a series of pieces for The New Yorker, describing how community cultures influence our decision-making in ways we are unaware. His piece “The Engineer’s Lament” describes how engineers think.

He retells an old joke about an engineer, a priest and a doctor who are playing golf, but held up by a slow foursome ahead of them who turn out to be blind firefighters.

“I will say a prayer for them tonight,” the priest says.

“Let me ask my ophthalmologist colleagues if anything can be done for them,” the doctor says.

The engineer says, “Why can’t they play at night?”

Gladwell’s piece “Thresholds of Violence” describes how school shootings are in some ways like riots, complex dialogues of violence between far-flung killers.



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