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The Sidney Awards

’Tis the season to detach yourself from the news cycle and look for the bigger trends and the deeper human stories. And so every year the Sidney Awards, which I created in honor of the late, great philosopher Sidney Hook, are here to help you take that step back. The Sidneys not only celebrate a sample of each year’s beautifully written long-form journalism, they publicize essays that illuminate some broad issue or say something profound about the human condition. This year we focus on essays from smaller publications.

Stanford is one of the greatest universities on earth. It also apparently used to be more fun. There was an anarchist house, a lake where students hosted bonfires and lascivious costume parties. In “Stanford’s War on Social Life,” in Palladium magazine, Ginevra Davis argues that an army of administrators has systematically shut that down.

She writes: “Since 2013, Stanford’s administration has executed a top-to-bottom destruction of student social life. Driven by a fear of uncontrollable student spontaneity and a desire to enforce equity on campus, a growing administrative bureaucracy has destroyed almost all of Stanford’s distinctive student culture.”

Theme houses and fraternities have been shut down, weird rituals banned. Outdoor House, for students who enjoy hiking and the like, was removed from campus, though it was given permission to reopen this year after shifting its mission to “racial and environmental justice in the outdoors.”

The old culture gave students agency to be creative and have fun. But, Davis observes, “In less than a decade, Stanford’s administration eviscerated 100 years of undergraduate culture and social groups. They ended decades-old traditions. They drove student groups out of their houses. They scraped names off buildings. They went after long-established hubs of student life, like fraternities and cultural theme houses. In place of it all, Stanford erected a homogeneous housing system that sorts new students into perfectly equitable groups named with letters and numbers. All social distinction is gone.”

“I Ain’t Got Nothing but Time,” by David Ramsey in The Oxford American, is nominally an essay about Hank Williams, the country music pioneer. Williams had 35 songs make the Top 10 on the country charts in just six years. When he was asked why his songs are so sad, he said that it’s because he’s a “saddist.” He died of drink and drugs at age 29.

But the essay is about more than one man. It conjures up an entire atmosphere of loss, loneliness and mystery that was the essence of the Williams mystique. It’s best to simply bathe in this essay, not study it. Ramsey observes: “Here is what Hank knew, somehow: The human experience of loneliness is cosmic. It is not narcissistic; it is where the Holy Spirit dwells. The universe, like the West, is mostly empty space.”

Rupa Subramanya opens her essay “Scheduled to Die: The Rise of Canada’s Assisted Suicide Program,” in The Free Press, with a gripping sentence: “On Sept. 7, Margaret Marsilla called Joshua Tepper, the doctor who planned to kill her son.”

Subramanya’s essay is about a mother’s quest to prevent her son from going ahead with a state-assisted suicide. It’s also a tour inside Canada’s rapidly growing euthanasia infrastructure. In 2023, Subramanya reports, Canada is scheduled to expand the pool of eligible suicide seekers to include the mentally ill, and is considering including “mature minors.”

I was struck by how banal and bureaucratic the whole system is. At one point Tepper, the doctor in Marsilla’s case, emailed her son. “Hii,” the doctor wrote, casually. “I am confirming the following timing: Please arrive at 8:30 a.m. I will ask for the nurse at 8:45 a.m. and I will start the procedure at around 9:00 a.m. Procedure will be completed a few minutes after it starts.” The young man asked if he could bring his dog. As long as there is someone there who will be responsible for it afterward, the doctor replied.

Late last year, the director Peter Jackson released an eight-hour series called “Get Back,” based on footage of the hours the Beatles spent in the studio making the album “Let It Be.” In January, Ian Leslie wrote a powerful appreciation of that series in an essay called “The Banality of Genius,” which helps us see the series, and the creative process, with greater depth and insight.

For long stretches of the series, nothing extraordinary is happening — the action is so pedestrian it should be boring, but Leslie finds it strangely entrancing: “As we get into the rhythm of the Beatles’ daily lives, we start to inhabit their world. Since we live through their aimless wandering, we share in the moments of laughter, tenderness and joy that emerge from it with a special intensity.”

The series captures the moment in the Beatles’ career, Leslie notes, when the magic was beginning to wear off. The Beatles were beginning to wonder if they were still any good. He writes: “What makes ‘Get Back’ so dramatic, in its undramatic way, is seeing the Beatles struggle to adjust to waking life. The struggle unfolds in the music they’re making and in how they negotiate their changing relationships to each other. This was a group comprised of talented, willful individuals who shared a powerful resistance to being told what to do. The question should not be why they split up so much as how they stayed together. The answer is that they loved each other, they shared an appetite for work, and they knew they were special as a group. But it was nonetheless hard and getting harder. In ‘Get Back,’ the mythical, world-conquering, four-headed beast is revealed to be four young men, beset by uncertainty, wondering if they really want to be tied together like this forever.”

Ryan Grim’s essay “Elephant in the Zoom,” for The Intercept, was one of the more discussed essays of 2022 (well, at least among the sort of people who dominate my Twitter feed). In it, he describes the vicious infighting that is afflicting many progressive advocacy organizations. He captures a now familiar generational divide: Angry young employees demand that their organization practice internally the values it espouses externally. Dismayed older leaders want the staff to focus on the mission, not perceived slights to themselves. These executive directors see a lot of virtue signaling and normal workplace grievances dressed in the cloak of social justice language.

Grim’s essay is so compelling because he speaks to so many organizational leaders, most of whom, of course, insist on anonymity. One former organizational leader confesses: “My last nine months, I was spending 90 to 95 percent of my time on internal strife. Whereas [before] that would have been 25-30 percent tops.” Another executive director summarizes the situation, “To be honest with you, this is the biggest problem on the left over the last six years.” Then he adds: “This is so big. And it’s like abuse in the family — it’s the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.”

In “The Art of Bidding, or How I Survived Federal Prison,” published by The Marshall Project, Eric Borsuk captures what life is like in prison, but also the redemptive power of finding some purpose to get you through a hard time.

Borsuk was part of a trio of friends who became criminals together. “Over the years, we encouraged each other to reject our Southern conservative upbringings for a more subversive approach to life, which may have had something to do with why we all ended up in federal prison together. One day you’re reading ‘Fight Club’ and debating the finer points of German idealism, and the next you’re robbing a rare books collection for millions of dollars’ worth of artwork and rare manuscripts — a seamless transition.”

Borsuk got seven years. Early on, his cellmate told him he needed a “bid.” A bid is how you spend your time. It’s your controlling project so you do the time, and you don’t sit back and let the time do you. Some men lift weights, some cook, some gamble, some educate themselves.

For a time, Borsuk’s bid was his ever-deepening friendships with his two co-conspirators, who were in the same prison. Then, arbitrarily, the friends were separated. Borsuk writes: “For weeks, I walked around in a daze, unsure of what to do with myself. In essence, my entire prison identity had been based on my relationship with my co-defendants. Now that they were gone, everything felt off. It would be nearly a decade before we’d be able to see or speak to each other again, not until we were all out of prison and off probation. Guys noticed that I was acting strange and kept asking me if I was all right. It was unusual to see one of us alone for very long. Whenever guys would spot one of us without the others, they would always shout out, ‘Where are the other amigos?’ Now, everything felt foreign. I felt vulnerable and exposed, like fresh meat all over again.”

Borsuk’s essay is a haunting journey into the hidden continent of incarceration.

Humans are predators. Horses are animals of prey. And yet these two creatures are capable of moving together with incredible power, subtlety and grace. In “Becoming a Centaur,” in Aeon, Janet Jones walks us through the neuroscience of horse-human cooperation. Horses, it turns out, are astoundingly sensitive to touch. They are used to responding to subtle touches and gestures because in nature they communicate with one another through movements as subtle as a flick of an ear.

At full flow, horse and rider form a deeply interconnected neural network, Jones explains. For example, a horse has a 340-degree range of vision when holding its head still, while humans only have a 90-degree range. On the other hand, humans have superior depth perception and greater ability to focus. By pooling their perceptions, Jones writes, the rider and animal create a “horse-and-human team that can sense far more together than either party can detect alone. In effect, they share effort by assigning labor to the party whose skills are superior at a given task.”

Many people nominate essays for each year’s Sidney Awards, but I’m always beholden to two in particular: Robert Cottrell, who is the founder of The Browser, a phenomenal aggregator site, which links to some of the best writing in the world; and Conor Friedersdorf, whose newsletter “The Best of Journalism” arrives in my inbox every Sunday morning and catches me up on a week’s worth of provocations, columns, essays and posts that I would have otherwise missed.

People are down on the media, often for good reason, but in many ways we’re living in a golden age of nonfiction.

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