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BROOKS: The annual Sydney awards

<WC1>The Sidney Awards go to some of the best magazine essays of the year. The one-man jury is biased against political essays, since politics already gets so much coverage. But the jury is biased in favor of pieces that illuminate the ideas and conditions undergirding political events.

For example, there's been a lot of talk this year about trying to reduce corruption in Afghanistan, Iraq and across the Middle East. But in a piece in <WC>t<WC1>he American Interest called "Understanding Corruption," Lawrence Rosen asks: What does corruption mean? For Westerners, it means one set of things: bribery and nepotism, etc. But when Rosen asks people in the Middle East what corruption is, he gets variations on an entirely different meaning: "Corruption is the failure to share any largess you have received with those with whom you have formed ties of dependence."

Our view of corruption makes sense in a nation of laws and impersonal institutions. But, Rosen explains, "Theirs is a world in which the defining feature of a man is that he has formed a web of indebtedness, a network of obligations that prove his capacity to maneuver in a world of relentless uncertainty." So to not give a job to a cousin is corrupt; to not do deals with tribesmen is corrupt. Reducing corruption in Afghanistan is not a question of replacing President Hamid Karzai with a more honest man. It's a deeper process.

In earlier ages, people consulted oracles. We consult studies. We rely on scientific findings to guide health care decisions, policy making and much else. But in an essay called "The Truth Wears Off" in <WC>t<WC1>he New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer reports on something strange.

He describes a class of antipsychotic drugs, whose effectiveness was demonstrated by several large clinical trials. But in a subsequent batch of studies, the therapeutic power of the drugs appeared to wane precipitously.

This is not an isolated case. "But now all sorts of well-established, multiply confirmed findings have started to look increasingly uncertain," Lehrer writes. "It's as if our facts were losing their truth: Claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable."

The world is fluid. Bias and randomness can creep in from all directions. For example, between 1966 and 1995 there were 47 acupuncture studies conducted in Japan, Taiwan and China, and they all found it to be an effective therapy. There were 94 studies in the U<WC>nited States<WC1>, Sweden and Britain, and only 56 percent showed benefits. The lesson is not to throw out studies but to never underestimate the complexity of the world around.

There's been a lot written about Detroit, but Charlie LeDuff's essay "Who Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones" in Mother Jones packs a special power. It starts with a killing of a little girl in a police raid, then pulls back to the idiotic murder of a teenage boy <WC>that <WC1>precipitated the raid — that murder victim may have smirked at his killer for riding a moped.

Then LeDuff touches on the decay all around — a city in which 80 percent of the eighth graders are unable to do basic math, the crime lab was closed because of ineptitude, 500 fires are set every month and 50 percent of the drivers are operating without a license.

LeDuff, a former reporter for <WC>the New York<WC1> Times, travels from broad context to the specific details — from the collapse of the industrial economy to the fact that a local minister was left with the girl<WC>'<WC1>s $4,000 funeral costs, claiming the girl's father ran off with the donations.


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