In her essay “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” Kate Julian takes a question that seems to have a simple answer (porn) and shows that it has a complex answer. In one striking part of the essay, which appeared in The Atlantic, Julian shows that fewer young people are having the kind of relationships that lead to sex. In 1995, 74 percent of 17-year-old women had had a special romantic relationship in the preceding 18 months. By 2014, only 46 percent of 17-year-olds had ever had a romantic relationship of any kind.
Having lived much of their social life online, many young people expressed concern that they hadn’t developed the skills they needed to read possible partners in live, face-to-face situations. How do you tell if someone thinks you are special or just wants to be friends? In addition, nearly a fifth of Americans ages 18 to 29 believe that a man inviting a woman out for a drink “always” or “usually” constitutes sexual harassment.
The essay is part of the second batch of this year’s Sidney Awards, which I give for outstanding long-form journalism.
From The New Yorker, I recommend Dexter Filkins’ “A Saudi Prince’s Quest to Remake the Middle East.” In one essay, Filkins weaves together the Middle East’s geostrategic situation, its economic situation and how each of the major players, from Jared Kushner to Iran, is grasping for something.
It’s all built around a profile of Mohammed bin Salman, the young Saudi leader. Years ago, MBS asked a Saudi bureaucrat to help him appropriate a property. When the official said no, he received an envelope with a single bullet inside. Last year, MBS replaced Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince. Bin Nayef had been summoned to the palace and surrounded by guards. His cellphone was taken away and he was forced to stand for hours — in excruciating pain because of an old injury. Just before dawn, bin Nayef agreed to surrender his position.
In “The Constitution of Knowledge,” in National Affairs, Jonathan Rauch argues that the marketplace of ideas is like a funnel. Millions of people float millions of hypotheses every day. Society collectively tests these ideas, bats them around or ignores them, and only a tiny few make it out the narrow end of the funnel, where they are declared useful or true.
But, Rauch says, the funnel is no more. Internet trolls simply overwhelm the system with swarms of falsehood. There used to be an implicit honor code — truth exists, credentials matter, what hasn’t been tested isn’t knowledge — but the honor code has been swept away. Most fringe information used to get ignored. But today, it can’t be ignored because a lot of it is spewed by the president of the United States. Rauch shows that the national conversation had an architecture, which has now been reduced to sand.
It’s hard to write about what religious faith feels like. Tish Harrison Warren does it compellingly in “True Story” in The Point. As a kid she just loved going to church. Then as an adult she learned about the church’s sins — the narcissism, abuse, sexism. But she still became an Anglican priest. The nice side of church, she writes, is the day-to-day goodness, the teenage boy still sweet enough to rest his head on his mother’s shoulder during the sermon, the young man who gives an elderly friend a ride, the way the members see themselves as a community of forgiven sinners.
“Each Sunday during communion, when the members of my church come to the table, I watch their faces. Many tired. Some sad. Some lit up with joy. One kid who has special needs approaches me like he’s won the lottery. His voice rises, ‘Oh boy! Oh boy!’”
Chinese art prices are through the roof. In 2010, a vase with a starting price of $800,000 sold in a suburban London auction for $69.5 million. Coincidentally, Chinese art is now routinely looted from Western art museums. In “The Great Chinese Art Heist,” in GQ, Alex Palmer walks us through these “Mission Impossible”-style robberies. He also captures the nationalist fervor driving the frenzy.
Most of these pieces were looted from China centuries ago by foreign soldiers. The price of each piece is determined partly by quality, but also by how closely it is associated with one of China’s most inglorious defeats. Stealing the items back is nationalist revenge.
I mentioned in my last column that there were several excellent essays this year on tigers. My favorite is “Man-eaters” in The Ringer, in which Brian Phillips explains: “The arrival of a tiger, it’s true, is often preceded by moments of rising tension, because a tiger’s presence changes the jungle around it, and those changes are easier to detect. Birdcalls darken. Small deer call softly to each other. Herds do not run but drift into shapes that suggest some emerging group consciousness of an escape route.”
Sidney nominees are gathered by a completely haphazard, random process. But I couldn’t do it at all without the annual help of Robert Cottrell of The Browser; Robert Atwan, who directs the Best American Essays series; and Conor Friedersdorf, who produces a Best of Journalism newsletter each week.