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In Prospect

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from the magazine

In Prospect

Winter 2021
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November’s close election ended the eventful presidency of Donald Trump. It was four years marked by Trump’s outsize, chaotic personality, some real accomplishments in office—and an unrelenting, at times unhinged, resistance from Democrats and their allies in the culture. In “Slouching Toward Post-Journalism,” Martin Gurri anatomizes the Trump-era mutation of the prestige media, led by the New York Times, into a left-wing war machine, abandoning any pretense to objective reporting, whether on Trump, American history, or major policy debates. As Gurri shows, ideological, generational, and financial trends are driving this transformation, which goes far beyond the liberal media bias of the past and openly embraces advocacy. This issue’s “Soundings” focus on the election’s consequences and what Joe Biden’s presidency may mean for law enforcement, education, the economy, voting reform, and the fight to finish off Covid-19.

One development likely to intensify under a Biden administration is the politicized teaching of science in public schools, especially on the environment. Shepard Barbash’s “Science Betrayed” explains how teachers have come to believe that their role isn’t to teach the facts about nature but to seek a better, greener world through aggressive behavioral and government action. It’s a utopian mind-set that ignores natural complexity, silences critics, and now pervades classroom instructional materials.

A major theme of the last two presidential elections has been the fate of the American manufacturing sector and the struggling industrial cities of the Rust Belt. In “Can American Cities Manufacture Again?,” Judge Glock explores the reasons industrial jobs have declined in our increasingly services-oriented economy. Some of the change has been beneficial, but things got much worse than they needed to for the shrinking industrial sector, Glock contends, and we can do more to help it thrive going forward—not through government industrial policy, which seldom succeeds, but by cutting property taxes, enacting more flexible labor laws, and rolling back burdensome regulations.

Shifting to the urban scene, Christopher Rufo reports on “The Invisible Asylum”: the de facto system that cities have created to deal with the untreated mentally ill, who wander the streets homeless, hallucinating, and frequently drugged out. Many wind up incarcerated in jails unequipped to deal with them. Rufo brings his documentarian eye to Olympia, Washington, as it struggles with the problem—a microcosm of a national tragedy.

In “Don’t Close Rikers—Fix It,” Nicole Gelinas witheringly assesses Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to shutter the eight-decade-old Rikers Island complex, where New York City incarcerates most of its inmates, and replace it with four high-rise jails spread across four city boroughs. The project not only will cost billions of dollars that a pandemic-hammered city doesn’t have, Gelinas argues; it is also wildly unfeasible and has generated intense opposition in the neighborhoods where the new structures would go. A less costly, simpler plan would be to improve conditions on Rikers Island itself.

Pascal Bruckner meditates on “The New Aging”—an unprecedented life stage that improved medicine and greater wealth has opened up between middle age and old age in developed societies. This extension—for many, a time of rebeginning and vitality—“transforms everything,” Bruckner maintains: “relations among generations, social-welfare finances, the cost of elder care, and our attitudes about work and romantic love.” The change is not all for the good, but it’s one that we need to come to terms with. Bruckner’s essay evokes the skeptical humanism of Michel de Montaigne, whose sixteenth-century reflections provide solace in our ideological age, explains Theodore Dalrymple.

Our Urbanities section has a musical theme. Ian Penman looks at the life of Levon Helm and the legendary rock group that he helped found, The Band—whose recordings and performances launched the musical genre of Americana. Ted Gioia, meantime, surveys the vast body of ethereal jazz and classical recordings produced by Manfred Eicher for his Germany-based label ECM—“The Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence,” as the company’s motto has it.

—Brian C. Anderson

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