Sunday, February 12, 2012

You Gotta Hand it to the New York Times

I mean, say what you like about those guys-- a couple of weeks back, there was that boffo, longform granular account in which Charles Duhigg and David Barboza introduce us to the Steve Jobs China factory (and see also link). Yo, harsh working conditions in China--who knew?  No, that's too snide: sure we knew, but they  spelled it out with a richness of illustrative detail that brought it home to us in a way we won't forget.  And here's the Times blog, with blowback.

Now today, we've got with the pendant story -- Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff  serve up the cognitive dissonance of the folks in tea party country as they confront (or fail to confront) to the fact that it  is they (and not just the undeserving poor)  who are  hurtling down into the safety net.

It doesn't take great reflective power to grasp that  these two stories are parts of the same story, like one of those multivolume novels where each volume tells of the same events from a different point of view.  Or in this case, like listening in at opposite ends of a vortex from which emanates the great sucking sound. 

Of course it is tempting to feel a certain amount of schadenfreude about people who spend all their time howling about taxes while keeping one hand firmly ensconced in the cookie jar. Tempting, but unkind and unfair: humans are complicated and politics is complicated and there really isn't that much all that inconsistent about wanting a well-run lean-and-mean government and wanting to make sure that there's somebody to bail you out when you need it.

One superficial point that caught my eye in the safety-net story is the sheer bleak marginality of it all.  The NYT describes the locale as "cheap housing for commuters" (i.e., to Minneapolis)--which I think means "a place that nobody wants to live but is as close to the city as they can afford."  The Times also says "no poverty," but what do we have?  A tee-shirt retailer (in Minnesota in the winter? John asks).  A tattooist who is worried about losing his arm control.  A meat raffle?  I confess I am so sheltered I don't exactly know what a "meat raffle" is (though sure, I can guess).  But I suspect it is not what our ancestors had in mind when they came to a Land of Opportunity where the Streets are Paved with Gold.

One thing I liked in both stories: the sheer density of detail.  And the safety net story in particular: I surmise that Gebeloff is part of some sort of data-crunching unit at the Times, and from a scan of his CV (sic?), I'd say they are making good use of his time and talent.

I don't want to sound too gushy here.  The Times can give me a conniption fit when it wants to (for a recent, egregious example, go here).  But as long as they do stuff like the China piece and the safety-net piece, they are worth letting in through the velvet cord.

Update: Mrs. Buce reminds me I shouldn't overlook Jim Yardley's superb Christmas week piece on how people survive in a Mumbai slum. Well no, she didn't remind me because somehow I misssed it in the first place, but she's right, it's another bell-ringer.  

Update II: You think you know cognitive dissidence? Go here.

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