The Sidney Awards
Sixty years ago, scientists believed that schizophrenia was caused by emotional conflict with the patient’s parents. A cold mother would deliver conflicting messages of hope and rejection and drive her child into madness.
Then scientists rejected that cruel model and concluded that schizophrenia was a brain disease. But the drugs that treated schizophrenia as a biological disorder did not work well. Now, as Tanya Marie Luhrmann notes in an essay, “Beyond the Brain” in The Wilson Quarterly, that model has failed, too.
Schizophrenia is seen as the result of a complex interaction of unrelated causes: myriad genes, a mother’s illness during pregnancy, childhood stress, cultural factors and many other things. Researchers have been driven to this conclusion, in part because this mental illness shows up differently, at different rates, in different cultures.
Patients in India, for example, do much better than patients in the West. Indian society regards mental illness differently. Indian doctors, for example, tell patients they are perfectly well, but should take certain pills to rebuild their strength. This deception seems to work.
Luhrmann’s article wins a Sidney Award as one of the best essays of the year. The award was designed to encourage people to step back at this time of the year and look at the big picture. Walter Russell Mead’s “The Once and Future Liberalism” in The American Interest certainly encourages that.
Mead argues that our current political argument is a conflict between two versions of liberalism, the small state Manchester liberalism of the 1890s (the current doctrine of the Republican Party) and the big organization managerial state liberalism of the 1950s (the current doctrine of the Democratic Party).
Both are obsolete. He spends much of his essay describing how the latest version of liberalism, which was great in its day, is breaking down. It rested on economic and demographic foundations that no longer exist.
Mead says it’s time to gratefully say farewell to both. He doesn’t offer a replacement, but persuasively asks you to think anew.
The exclamation point was not a standard feature on typewriters until the 1970s. Nobody wore blue or pink or yellow ribbons to show their emotional attachments to various causes until 1979. No state specifically allowed victim statements at sentencing hearings as late as 1978.
But all that has changed. Today we are awash in exclamation points and affiliation symbols and sentiment more generally. This transformation has been nicely analyzed by Pamela Haag in “Death by Treacle” in The American Scholar.
Haag writes, “Maybe this century’s culture is a culture of feeling in which the ideal citizen-feeler has the qualities of soulful transparency, audacious disclosure, and candor, and who knows the skills of whispered confession. ...” The interesting thing, she notes, is that all this sentiment is not actually bringing people closer together.
There is a parasitic wasp that lays its eggs in the belly of an orb spider. The larva releases chemicals that alter the spider’s brain so that it weaves webs in the shape of larva cocoons, instead of normal spider web patterns. The spider even weaves a specific geometric pattern to camouflage the cocoon.
This is not the only parasite that releases chemicals to change its host’s thinking. The scientist Jaroslav Flegr believes parasites transmitted by cat feces have altered his brain. Kathleen McAuliffe tells his story in “How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy” in The Atlantic. Men infected in this way tend to wear more rumpled clothes and have fewer friends. Infected women wear nicer clothes and have more friends.
There are many more essays worthy of Sidney Awards that I want to bring to your attention, so let me just briefly list a few:
“The Thought Police” by Paul Berman in The New Republic, on how radical Islamist thugs used intimidation to defeat Arab liberals in their struggle for the future of the Middle East.
“The Caging of America” by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. One gets the sense that the inhumanity of our prisons will be regarded with disbelief by future generations. This essay surveys the scene.
“The Writing Revolution” by Peg Tyre in The Atlantic. About a school on Staten Island that improved its academic outputs by teaching its underprivileged students the nuts and bolts of writing.
“Broken BRICs” by Ruchir Sharma in Foreign Affairs. Everyone assumes that the rising economies of Asia and elsewhere (BRICs, Brazil, Russia, India, and China) will own the future. Sharma challenges this thesis. Emerging economies are fading. In 2011, Sharma notes, “the difference in per capita incomes between the rich and the developing nations was back to where it was in the 1950s.”
“The Education of Dasmine Cathey” by Brad Wolverton in The Chronicle of Higher Education. This humane article takes us into the world of one midlevel college football player, who, among other things, tried to teach himself to read.
Here are some honorable mentions, too: “Atonement,” by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker, about an Iraq war veteran who seeks out the family he harmed; “The Meme Generation,” by Matt Labash in The Weekly Standard, about the impact of the Web’s viral-content culture on America; “In Nothing We Trust,” by Ron Fournier and Sophie Quinton in National Journal, about how Americans are losing faith in the institutions that made this country great; “Happyism,” by Deirdre N. McCloskey in The New Republic, about the creepy new economics of pleasure; and, lastly, “Not Fade Away,” by Robert Kagan in The New Republic, about the myth of the American decline.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.