Inside the November Issue
Barrett Swanson seeks a cure for toxic masculinity; Doug Henwood on the WASPs; Nell Zink goes birding in Peru; Patrick Symmes on the future of salmon in the Pacific Northwest
The American male is in crisis. Over the last few years, men in the United States have been killing themselves in unprecedented numbers; as of 2017, they made up 79 percent of the nation’s suicides. Last year, the American Psychological Association placed at least some of the blame for this epidemic on “traditional masculinity,” noting that outworn habits such as stoicism and aggression were causing men to refuse therapeutic help and to harm themselves and others. Yet “one is disinclined these days to feel sorry for men,” Barrett Swanson writes in this month’s cover story, “especially considering how adept we’ve become at feeling sorry for ourselves.” By now we are all too familiar with the most noxious ways in which white men in particular have responded to the economic and cultural changes of recent decades, whether by joining the beatdown squads of the Proud Boys or the online ranks of the incels—“those pale, misanthropic creatures who contend that feminism has caused their downfall on the sexual marketplace.” But other groups are also growing fast, ones that claim to provide a kinder, gentler alternative for men who are in pain. Swanson heads to the woods of Ohio for a three-day retreat with Evryman, an all-male organization that promises to “inspire and improve the lives of men, their communities, and humanity at large.” Over a long weekend of tears and shouting, corporate platitudes and startling revelations, Holotropic breathwork and something called the Anger Ceremony, Swanson ultimately decides that his deep skepticism of Evryman is justified. “In failing to address how some of these men are themselves victims of patriarchy,” Swanson writes, “Evryman has erased the potential for men to see their plight as bound up with other communities, particularly those who’ve long suffered in far greater ways.”
Given the state of American masculinity—not to mention the notable squalor of our current ruling class—it’s sometimes tempting to lament the decline of the WASP, that twentieth century figure who wielded his authority confidently and with at least a soupçon of public-mindedness. Doug Henwood, who lives in New York City, offers a sharp corrective to this tendency in his essay about the decline of the old order. Henwood himself has been fascinated, since his days as an Irish-Italian arriviste at Yale, with “those sockless people in Top-Siders, whose ancestors’ names and portraits adorned the walls.” But a clear-eyed view of the Protestant establishment, he argues, reveals a hereditary elite engaged in “the creation and maintenance of a hierarchical world with the United States on top.” Nostalgia for the WASPs, Henwood concludes, is “a seductive fantasy that someday the grown-ups will step in and save us from Trump’s Nihilism Express.” But no one is coming to save us; we’re going to have to save ourselves.
When Hurricane Katrina all but wiped out New Orleans’s public schools, local communities saw a disaster, but national education reformers saw an opportunity. Within a year the state of Louisiana, aided by a handful of large philanthropic organizations, converted a majority of public schools into charters; by last year there wasn’t a single traditional public school remaining in the district. Andrea Gabor explains the portfolio system, on which the New Orleans system is modeled, which treats schools like stocks in a Wall Street portfolio. When it’s all about performance, resources are channeled to the schools with the highest test scores; students with special needs are treated like a drag on the bottom line. Gabor reports on the grave consequences of this sweeping social experiment that idealistic technocrats like Bill and Melinda Gates hope to replicate across the country.
What’s a sudden literary sensation to do with all that unexpected cash? Faced with this unusual problem, novelist Nell Zink consulted mentor, pal, and fellow ornithology hobbyist Jonathan Franzen, who recommended that she head to Peru for some bird watching. Zink’s account of her trip is told in a voice that’s every bit as winning as the one familiar to readers of her acclaimed fiction. She takes in the tropical delights and reflects on her midlife change in fortune, “I’m a lucky girl and, as my friends say, born stoned.”
Over the past several decades, the construction of numerous dams in the Columbia River watershed, along with pollutants and overfishing, have decimated the Pacific Northwest’s once-thriving salmon population. Patrick Symmes embarks on a journey from the salmon-spawning grounds in the mountains of Idaho to the mouth of the Columbia, in order to understand how, despite the expenditure of massive amounts of federal dollars, salmon have failed to rebound. The explanation for this, he finds, is in the industry-friendly “workarounds and techno-quackery,” that are favored over attempts at restoring, or “rewilding,” natural salmon runs.
Also in this issue: Kevin Baker on the war of feelings and words behind the San Francisco school board’s mural controversy, Janine di Giovanni’s health crisis, five miniature stories by Diane Williams, some sexy banter with Vladimir Nabokov, and Christopher Beha on ways to read the Bible.