My Favorites of 2021
one of those year end list things
2021 was much, much better for me than 2020, that’s for sure. I’m very fortunate, especially for all of you, who fund this project and through it my life. I’m forever grateful for the ability to read and think and write for a living. I recognize what an immense privilege it is, and I will never take it for granted. Thank you.
I don’t pick favorites from my own work, as I don’t think I’m a good judge. (And also I think it’s all fucking fire.) But if you wanted to read something I feel deserved more attention, please check out my enduring concern about charter school lotteries, my piece on Toni Morrison’s masterpiece Sula, my take on pre-K research, my rankings of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, and my eulogy for my years as a weed smoker.
Favorite Journalist (or whatever): Jane Coaston
I have deleted and replaced this section three times. The issue is that there’s usually just very little utility to me praising somebody in media. Most people in the industry don’t know who I am and thus won’t care about my recommendation, and those that do are more likely to dislike me than like me and thus my praise can only hurt. I am used to criticism directed towards me but I absolutely hate when others are asked to answer for me, and I certainly don’t want to put anyone in the position of having to awkwardly disavow my support.
But here I am praising Jane Coaston all the same. Perhaps the paywall will help. I think Coaston is the real deal, someone who has all the tools to produce analysis that’s sharp and unexpected and which justifies its own existence, which is harder than you think. I don’t consider a lot of writers in news media must-read, but with her I do. 2020 was… a lot, for all of us. The last year of the (first?) Trump administration, it was also our first plague year and a period of almost unbearably emotional politics. There was this big wild spasm of desire for liberation and justice, one that unsurprisingly did not congeal into any actual liberation or justice. All of that energy had to go somewhere, and it went into a social atmosphere that reminded me of nothing less than the period immediate post-9/11: a palpable and pervasive sense of constant political danger, an implicit admonition to watch what you say. And everything was seen as a referendum on BlackLivesMatter, on Trump, on the Great Awokening, whether you meant it that way or not. It was exhausting. (Also kind of like 9/11.)
That will sound like an anti-woke whinge, but I don’t mean it that way. I’m just trying to talk plainly about a truly unique rhetorical atmosphere everybody was writing under. We had entered the Woke Wars, and everything that got written was read through that lens; you were either fighting in favor of social justice or arguing that the movement had gone mad, but almost nothing escaped that frame.
So refreshing, then, to read someone like Jane Coaston, who never avoided those topics, in fact touched on them frequently, and yet again and again found a way to stand outside of the tired and inflammatory debates we all seemed trapped in. She clearly embraces many aspects of social justice politics, and yet I’ve never felt hectored by her work; she expresses skepticism of woke orthodoxy at times but never does so in a way that seems reactionary or contrarian. During a time in which all political writing seems to revolve around the same tired binaries, where some of the most thoughtful writers I know appear unable to make independent arguments in which they argue what they think is good and true outside of culture war, Coaston is a breath of fresh air. Her stances are always surprising without ever appearing to emerge from a desire to cut against the grain. Perhaps her unusual position as a gay Black woman libertarian helps her to occupy a perspective outside of the tired commonplaces so many of us fell into, I don’t know or much care. But I know she’s a skilled writer with a genuinely refreshing take on a whole host of issues, from racial justice to media criticism to college football. Her work was a relief for me in a year where so much I read was sclerotic and tired, and the reason I gave up and paid for an NYT subscription. You finally got me, you bastards.