Spring cleaning 2022

Illustrations by Dola Sun
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Even as our long pandemic lingers like an endless winter, many of us are treating the shifting seasons as an opportunity to act on the things we can actually change. For some of us that might mean donating a suit we haven’t worn since we began working from home or finally dusting behind the television. But others have more ambitious spring cleaning plans. This year, we asked nine writers to consider what all of us should toss. — Jacob Brogan

Trump administration memoirs

By Elizabeth Spiers

As of May 2022, we’ve been subjected to enough inside-the-Trump-administration memoirs to last us an eternity. Could there possibly be any lingering questions about the 45th president’s temperament, level of competence, political beliefs or preferences regarding the preparation of steak? If so, for everyone’s sake, they should be left unanswered, so we can all move on.

At this point, nearly every Cabinet member, staffer and intern has published a book testifying that Trump’s impulsiveness, ignorance of how government works, willingness to use the office for personal gain, seemingly compulsive lying and gratuitous manufacture of chaos were bad for the country. We’re lucky that we’re all still standing, these books repetitively (and obviously) observe. Yet every single one of these memoirs — see: Esper, Barr, Bolton, Grisham — also goes to great lengths to explain that its author did their absolute best to mitigate the damage, lest readers think they were personally responsible for enabling the chaos of the Trump administration. Of course, by all external accounts, the authors were in fact personally responsible for enabling the chaos of the Trump administration.

It’s painfully clear that this genre of self-hagiography is intended as a prophylactic against future criticism. By the time the next presidential election cycle rolls around, the authors hope their reputations will have been scrubbed of association with Trump. (Trickier for some than others; Jared Kushner is currently working on a memoir, and it’s hard to distance yourself from your father-in-law.)

Who is the target audience for these self-serving books, anyway — except perhaps other Trump staffers, whose misery could use some company? Does anyone else really want to relive the years from 2016 to 2020? The number of book buyers who read for masochistic pleasure is surely very small, and even if that’s your thing, there’s vastly more interesting material to plumb out there. You can buy “Medieval Punishments: An Illustrated History of Torture online for $12.19. Or sample any novel by Sean Penn.

No more Trump memoirs, please. Published and forthcoming alike, put them where they belong: in the remainder bin of history.

Elizabeth Spiers is a progressive digital strategist and writer.

Cryptocurrency

By Ben McKenzie and Jacob Silverman

During periods of extreme market volatility like the one we are experiencing, the old Warren Buffett adage comes to mind: Only when the tide goes out do you see who’s swimming naked. For people who have “invested” in cryptocurrency, an education on these dynamics may be underway.

Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme collapsed not because of law enforcement derring-do or its inherent contradictions, but because of the financial crisis. It was only when the subprime contagion sank the broader markets that Madoff’s investors sought to take their profits off the table. Only then did they learn that the business model was a fraud. Billions were lost, and much of the “profits” were never recovered because they were never there to begin with. It was a lie.

What’s different with the cryptocurrency bubble is the scale and blatant nature of the scheme. Madoff famously kept his fraud tight: to invest with him, you needed to know the right people to enter the circle of trust. And he claimed to have a secret trading method that could generate consistently above-market returns. As a former head of Nasdaq and one of the inventors of payment for order flow (in which brokers sell information about their customers’ trades to hedge funds and other financial institutions), Madoff had the credibility to pull off this audacious fraud for decades.

But for crypto, the deceit is everywhere, and not particularly sophisticated. Spreading virally through the Internet and social media, crypto offers something that’s always been popular: a get-rich-quick scheme. No need to really understand any of the supposedly innovative technology behind it (blockchain is 30 years old, but never mind that). Anyone can become an investor in what is sure to be the future of money, as long as they are willing to part with the current version of it. As the saying goes, all it takes is a dollar and a dream.

The problem with get-rich-quick schemes is that they are based on lies, and people invariably lose the money they put into them. With many crypto investors (who bought in when prices were higher) now in the red, the question is just how bad the damage will be — and just how many are swimming naked.

Ben McKenzie is an actor, writer and director. Jacob Silverman is a freelance journalist. Their book about cryptocurrency, “Easy Money,” will be published in 2023.

Biopics

By Mary Jo Murphy

Before the Oscars slap that dropped jaws in living rooms across America, the buzz was about the excellent chance that someone playing a character based on a real person was about to win the Academy Award for best actor. Will Smith, who portrayed tennis dad Richard Williams in “King Richard,” did indeed collect the Oscar, but two of the other four nominees also performed in biopics, and the leading actors in such films have won Oscars 13 times in the last 20 years. Among this year’s leading actresses, three of the five nominated played real people, and Jessica Chastain won for her role as the televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker — the 11th time in the 2000s that a biopic actress had taken the top prize.

Enough.

It’s not that biopics are an affront to cinema and movie lovers; their crowded history goes back to the beginning of film, and for every few hundred Princess Dianas there’s a “Lawrence of Arabia.” It’s not even their tendency to mimicry, to hagiography, to really creepy prosthetics.

But the times call for something fresh.

Reality has been in crisis in recent years. Up is stuck in down. The solution is not more movies that sanitize it or sentimentalize it or stretch it — most often creating neither history nor art but something in between. Eudora Welty once wrote that art is the voice of the individual doing its best to speak truth, “and the art that speaks it most unmistakably, most directly, most variously, most fully, is fiction.” Bring fiction back to the movies. The kind that makes reality real again. That at least seeks to speak truth and not merely assemble facts that refract truth through a fun-house mirror.

The buzzed-about biopic this season is Baz Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” which had its debut at Cannes on Wednesday and will arrive in theaters June 24. Lisa Marie Presley wrote on Twitter that the actor Austin Butler “channeled and embodied my father’s heart & soul beautifully.” Spoken like a loving daughter, who was 9 when her father died. Luhrmann has made some great films, but will his depiction of the most impersonated man in history tell us anything new? Or will it stretch reality beyond the obligatory biographical contours, constricting truth to a few facts as it balloons into the kind of truth-neutral Hollywood telling that defines the biopic genre?

Mary Jo Murphy is an assistant editor for Outlook.

Stoicism

By Tara Isabella Burton

Modern American culture has a way of transforming nearly every philosophical and spiritual tradition (see: Zen Buddhism, yoga) into an anodyne pop-culture analogue. But contemporary iterations of Stoicism — a Hellenistic school of thought that deeply influenced ancient Rome — may win the prize for reducing complex ideas to shallow, if marketable, sound bites.

Founded in 3rd-century-BC Athens by Zeno of Citium, and later practiced by such luminaries of the Greco-Roman world as Seneca and the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism focuses on the cultivation of personal goodness through command of the self — stressing, in particular, the ways we can control our emotional responses to the world around us. At its best, Stoicism challenges us to tame our selfish passions and trains us to accept injustice, failure and death.

Contemporary pop-Stoicism, however, treats this idea of self-control as — in the words of Ryan Holiday, author of the Stoic-influenced “The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumph” — a useful “life hack”: individualistic, capitalist-friendly self-help. Today, conventions like the annual Stoicon draw thousands of attendees, while popular podcasts like Stoic Solutions,” “The Sunday Stoic” and “The Practical Stoic” reimagine Stoic wisdom for a modern age. Some of pop-philosophy’s biggest names, including Jordan Peterson, also draw heavily on elements of Stoic thought. For these writers, Stoicism can often be boiled down to therapeutic platitudes: work hard, push through pain, reframe toxic narratives.

But pop-Stoicism doesn’t ask one of philosophy’s most important questions: What does it mean to live a good life? Stoicism is ultimately a philosophy not of personal success but of virtue, encouraging us to become good people, not just effective ones. And goodness, unlike productivity, is something we can’t “hack” our way toward achieving.

Tara Isabella Burton is the author of the novels “The World Cannot Give” and “Social Creature,” and the nonfiction “Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World.” Her next book, “Self-Made: Curating Our Image From da Vinci to the Kardashians,” will be published in 2023.

Congressional stock trading

By Walter M. Shaub Jr.

Congress has an ethics problem. It has long failed to eliminate the risk that lawmakers will misuse confidential information they receive in official briefings. A decade ago, Congress addressed the issue by passing the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act, which shortened the deadline for members to disclose trades and reiterated that insider-trading restrictions applied to them. But lawmakers are still free to trade stocks and other investments, an issue that can affect matters such as national security and public health.

Congress is now debating new ethics restrictions for its members to prevent insider trading and reduce conflicts of interest. Lawmakers have enlisted by the dozens in an ongoing bipartisan reform effort following media scrutiny of suspiciously timed stock trades, untimely financial disclosures and the insider-trading conviction of a former member.

At least 125 of them have co-sponsored 14 bills and resolutions. Some have sought to mollify an outraged public with weak bills that don’t cover spouses, lack effective enforcement provisions or do little more than raise the fine for tardy disclosures from $200 to $500. But the strongest proposals would prohibit stock trading except through blind trusts or outlaw owning some investments altogether.

As could be expected, not everyone is excited about the effort. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi initially bemoaned what she described as an attempt to exclude lawmakers from the “free-market economy,” though she later said she’d be open to enacting new rules “if members want to do that.”

Prospects for a congressional stock-trading ban looked good earlier this year, but Congress has slow-walked deliberations. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) suggested that complex policy questions might take time to resolve, saying, “It’s way more complicated than I understood when I first started looking at it.”

But the issue isn’t complex. The only thing complicating reform in the legislative branch is that some members lack objectivity when it comes to applying certain standards to themselves. Congress should put the public’s interest first and pass a stock-trading ban.

Walter M. Shaub Jr. is a former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics. He currently serves as senior ethics fellow with the Project on Government Oversight.

The patent system

By Joseph E. Stiglitz

The coronavirus has provided critical evidence that our current patent system, specifically for lifesaving products such as vaccines and medicines, should be tossed out. Its design is simply inadequate for the 21st century, and it has impeded our response to the pandemic. While the patent system has enabled drug companies to make billions of dollars, it has hindered production of vaccines, contributing greatly to their lack of availability in developing countries and emerging markets, and furnishing ample opportunity for the virus to mutate to the more contagious, more dangerous, more vaccine-resistant variants we’ve seen.

And we the public are paying fourfold: We paid for the basic research that allowed for the development of the mRNA vaccine; we provided massive assistance to help drug companies bring the vaccines to market; we pay high prices for the vaccines and other medicines publicly and privately; and now that the disease has festered, we pay continuing health and economic costs.

Patents are a social construction — laws we make for society’s betterment, not simply an individual’s profit. But they are also a prize, designed to reward and encourage innovative activity. They are a very badly designed prize, however — the award of a monopoly right that works by restricting production and raising prices. It’s the antithesis of what we should want, which is the widest dissemination of the benefits of innovation.

There are alternatives beyond the public funding of research on and testing of drugs, such as a publicly funded monetary prize for scientists who succeed in making lifesaving drugs and vaccines. For years, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced legislation toward that end, and there have been discussions at the World Health Organization on how such a scheme could be implemented globally. It’s past time.

Joseph E. Stiglitz, co-recipient of the 2001 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, teaches at Columbia University.

Bloated video games

By Teddy Amenabar

Video game developers today have goals that go well beyond selling copies of their titles: They want to maximize the time players spend in these carefully constructed virtual worlds. The reasons range from the purely mercenary — the more hours played, the more likely a player is to pay for cosmetic features within a game — to the more benign, such as wanting to make players feel they are getting the most bang for their gaming buck.

But the upshot is that games are getting long. I reported in March that the latest entries in some of gaming’s biggest franchises — open-world single-player adventures — can take four times longer to beat than the originals released a decade or more ago. To accomplish every task in Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” (admittedly a bigger endeavor than simply beating the game), the average player has to commit some 135 hours.

Many gamers are noting that the extra length comes at a cost: bloat. To extend game play, developers seem to be tacking on tasks that are worse than nonessential: They’re boring. Pointless, menial objectives in a game distract from the main storyline and dilute the impact of more fun, engrossing missions. Of course, not all long games are bloated. You won’t find anyone saying that “Elden Ring,” a 45-hour fantasy epic that just may be the game of the year, has dull, superfluous content. But others — like “Valhalla” and “Far Cry 6 — have the listless bulk of beached whales.

Blame the trend in part on the demands of the “attention economy.” According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020 the average American spent 5.5 hours per day on leisure. Gaming studios are vying with companies like Disney and Netflix for a piece of this pie. Netflix once told investors that “Fortnite,” the popular battle royal, is a bigger competitor than HBO because teens would rather play the game than binge-watch a show. You can be sure that “Fortnite’s” developers want to keep those eyeballs on their game.

As these games continue to expand, players should get more comfortable with walking away from the games we buy. I know I have. Beating a game simply isn’t worth it when too much of the journey is a slog.

Teddy Amenabar is an audience editor at The Post and a contributing writer to Launcher, a section of The Post that covers video games and esports.

Senate hearings for Supreme Court nominees

By Barbara McQuade

Ketanji Brown Jackson arrived at her Senate confirmation hearing with a résumé as impressive as they come. After the vicious hits she took from the Judiciary Committee, she must have felt like a piñata when she left.

Supreme Court confirmation hearings have become an opportunity for politicians to grandstand for the folks back home on the 6 o’clock news or social media. Senators asked Jackson such probing questions as whether we should “catch and imprison more murderers or fewer murderers,” how she ranks her religious faith on a scale of 1 to 10 and whether she thought babies were racist.

The Constitution empowers the president to appoint federal judges with the “advice and consent” of the Senate. The Senate’s role is intended to prevent a president’s unqualified or nakedly political nominee from reaching the court. Justice Sidney Powell, anyone? But the Constitution has no requirement to question the nominees, a tradition that began only in 1925. Today, the media provides gavel-to-gavel coverage of the hearings. The result is a theater of the absurd that degrades the nominee and erodes public esteem for the court and the Senate. Worse yet, the canned answers nominees now routinely recite do not reveal their views on important issues likely to come before the court. Recent candidates testified that Roe v. Wade was “settled precedent,” yet the recently leaked draft opinion erasing federal abortion rights indicates that they see stare decisis as no obstacle to overturning it. There must be a better way.

We should replace the current free-for-all with questioning by a single lawyer representing each party, similar to the process used when now-Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh was questioned at his hearing about allegations of sexual assault, although in that instance one lawyer served all senators. Senators could submit questions to their party’s chosen lawyer, and the committee chair and ranking member could decide whether each question should be asked. An experienced interrogator would know how to ask probing follow-up questions rather than accepting rehearsed lines at face value. And without an opportunity for a video to post on Twitter, senators’ questions might actually focus on what matters: the nominee’s qualifications.

Barbara McQuade is a law professor at the University of Michigan Law School and a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan.

Homemade sourdough

By Lawrence Downes

Sourdough and I are through. I held up my jar of starter, deflated and bruised from too long in the fridge. I’m sorry, I said, I won’t be kneading you anymore. Then I scraped it empty, for one last batch of waffles.

We were great pandemic pals, back when time was stretchy and slow dough seemed worth the wait. I skipped the first great sourdough wave of 2020. That March, flour sales hit the roof. In April, Vice likened flour to another addictive white powder. By May, ransacked grocery shelves were gluten-free. The mania followed the usual arc, up to the New York Times op-ed in December that signaled imminent staleness. The early adopters moved on, leaving the field to laggards like me, a sourdough long-hauler up until a week ago.

Sourdough and I fell flat at first. But with counseling, the chemistry clicked. We bubbled on strong, loaf after loaf. It was lots of fun, then too much. If I stepped away too long, the starter stopped. It failed to thrive. It smelled of alcohol: the gray odor of neglect.

Sourdough is artisanal, meticulous, rustically delicious. That’s fine, if you have the breadwidth. But it’s a heavy commitment — so much bread in the belly, so much starter in the trash. To me it’s Yukon food, fit for a snowed-in cabin with a virus howling at the door. But now the icicles are dripping, and I crave less-complex carbohydrates. I want tortillas.

Tortillas are humble and easy. Flour, water, salt and fat. Roll and stretch. Fry and flip. Stack and serve. In Tucson, they strew cheese on a thin flour tortilla and broil it flat. It sends grease down the chin and stirs the soul to joy. In Sonora, Mexico, tortillas are big as bicycle wheels, delicate as fine pastry. You can almost read through them, folded like the newspaper next to your eggs, beans and coffee. Holy moley, they’re magical.

Lalo Guerrero, the great Chicano musician, reworked “O Sole Mio” as a Mexican’s lament. “There’s no tortillas,” he sang. “There’s only bread.” He took the words out of my mouth.

Lawrence Downes is the co-author, with Linda Ronstadt, of “Feels Like Home: A Song for the Sonoran Borderlands,” to be published in October.

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