Mother Jones guest blogger Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, a site devoted to uncovering the best long-form nonfiction articles available online. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the weekend? Below, a hand-picked bouquet of five interesting stories, including word count and approximate reading time. (Readers can also subscribe to The Top 5 Longreads of the Week by clicking here.)
1. War Without Humans: Modern Blood Rites Revisited | Barbara Ehrenreich | Tom Dispatch / Guernica | July 11, 2011 | 16 minutes (4,021 words)
Will the removal of humans from fighting change our perception of heroism and sacrifice? Ehrenreich looks at how stateless enemies, new technology and rising costs will alter the battlefield:
“What will happen then to the ‘passions of war’? Except for individual acts of martyrdom, war is likely to lose its glory and luster. Military analyst P.W. Singer quotes an Air Force captain musing about whether the new technologies will ‘mean that brave men and women will no longer face death in combat,’ only to reassure himself that ‘there will always be a need for intrepid souls to fling their bodies across the sky.’
“Perhaps, but in a 2010 address to Air Force Academy cadets, an under secretary of defense delivered the ‘bad news’ that most of them would not be flying airplanes, which are increasingly unmanned. War will continue to be used against insurgencies as well as to ‘take out’ the weapons facilities, command centers, and cities of designated rogue states. It may even continue to fascinate its aficionados, in the manner of computer games. But there will be no triumphal parades for killer nano-bugs, no epics about unmanned fighter planes, no monuments to fallen bots.”
See also: “A Declaration of Cyber-War” (Michael Joseph Gross, Vanity Fair, April 2011)
2. Weekend At Kermie’s: The Muppets’ Strange Life After Death | Elizabeth Stevens | The Awl | July 13, 2011 | 20 minutes (5,096 words)
More than 20 years after the death of creator Jim Henson—and with Jason Segel’s Muppet movie due out in December—questions about Disney’s acquisition of Kermit and his pals in 2004, and whether the company will ever be able to embrace Henson’s sensibility and revive the Muppets:
“At the end of his life, Jim Henson was in talks with Disney to sell the Muppets. As the talks progressed, the two entities made a TV special together called The Muppets at Walt Disney World. … Kermit’s weirdos (as they often called themselves) wreak havoc across the Disney universe, which was, around that time, a rather staid, stodgy simulacrum of fun. The contrast between the two styles is striking from the first frame. In the opening, Michael Eisner makes a CEO’s attempt at palling around with Fozzie and his mother Mrs. Bear that shades from wooden to weirdly ominous. ‘They’re here!’ he says, sounding more like he’s introducing Freddy or Jason than a crew of puppets.
“Watching the special, it’s easy to see how the Muppets could have brought much-needed personality to the Disney franchise if only Disney had valued the artistic process that created the multimillion-dollar product. But sadly, this isn’t what happened.”
See also: “Can You Say… ‘Hero’?” (Tom Junod, Esquire, Nov. 1998)
3. Harvard and Class | Misha Glouberman | The Paris Review | July 11, 2011 | 8 minutes (2,184 words)
A Canadian’s deflated expectations about life at Harvard: “The thing I figured out soon after I applied was that, on Gilligan’s Island, it wasn’t the Professor who went to Harvard, it was Mr. Howell, the rich man.” Campus life, Glouberman learns, is insular and stifling, and even though students do come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, it doesn’t matter much in the end:
“Now, America really has an upper class, though they don’t like to talk about it much. And class in America is pretty fluid, so people at Harvard really do come from different backgrounds. There are people there whose families have gone to Harvard for generations and who run the world, and there are people there from pretty middle-class backgrounds, and there are people there who are the first person in their family to go to college.
“A thing that’s very nice and very terrible is that those class differences are very rarely talked about at Harvard. So you might have some sort of movie image where the snobs are sort of looking down their noses at the poor kids, but the reality is that once you’re at Harvard, no one’s a poor kid anymore. You’re all, instantly and at that moment, in one of the most privileged positions of the American upper class.”
See also: “Our Universities: How Bad? How Good?” (Peter Brooks, New York Review of Books, March 2011)
4. My Lost Boy John Walker Lindh | Frank Lindh | Guardian | July 10, 2011 | 25 minutes (6,451 words)
The other side of the “American Taliban” story. Frank Lindh, father of John Walker Lindh, pleads for the release of his son after nearly 10 years, arguing that there was never any evidence he aided terrorists:
“Labelled by the American government as ‘Detainee 001’ in the ‘war on terror’, John occupies a prison cell in Terre Haute, Indiana. He has been a prisoner of the American government since 1 December 2001, less than three months after the terror attacks of 9/11.
“John is entirely innocent of any involvement in the terror attacks, or any allegiance to terrorism. That is not disputed by the American government. Indeed, all accusations of terrorism against John were dropped by the government in a plea bargain, which in turn was approved by the US district court in which the case was brought.
“Despite its proud history as a stable constitutional democracy, the US has, for 10 years, been affected by post-traumatic shock, following the horrific events of 11 September 2001. I can find no other explanation for the barbaric mistreatment and continued detention of a gentle young man like John Lindh.”
See also: “Muslim Activist in Minnesota Struggles as One-Man Counter Against Lure of Terrorism” (Eli Saslow, Washington Post)
5. My Father Is an African Immigrant and My Mother Is a White Girl from Kansas and I Am Not the President of the United States | Ahamefule J. Oluo | The Stranger | July 5, 2011 | 9 minutes (2,396 words)
Oluo was abandoned by his father, and when they did finally connect, the man expressed disappointment in his son’s chosen career as a musician. How was he supposed to live up to the name his father game him, “Ahamefule,” which translated to, “Let my name not be forgotten”?
“For my entire life, I had viewed my name as a mandate handed down from the larger-than-life, Mufasa-esque vision of my father that had been growing in my head for as long as I could remember. ‘MAKE YOUR MARK! BE SPECTACULAR! DON’T LET ANYONE FORGET THE DAY THAT THEY MET THE ONE AND ONLY AHAMEFULE J. OLUO!’
“‘Yes, cloud-dad. I won’t let you down.’
“It is the name of a legend, it is the name of a star, it is the name of an artist. It is not the name of an accountant. So why did he give me this name if he had hoped I would do something sensible with my life? Ahamefule is not the name of a sensible man.”
More from The Stranger: “How Reporting Almost Got Me Killed, Before It Saved My Life” (Eli Sanders, May 2011)
Featured Longreader: Joe Spring @joespring
Joe is the online editor of Outside Magazine.
“My favorite longread of the week is “Climbers,” by Philip Gourevitch (The New Yorker). The feature begins with the story of a boy who turned a memory of his father’s bike into a bag of potatoes, that bag of potatoes into a farm, that farm into enough money to earn a bike, that bike into a taxi, and that taxi job into a training gig that earned him a place on the Rwandan National Cycling Team. At a time when a lot of stories about cycling revolve around doping and the rider feuds that read like Mexican soap operas, this profile reminds us that the sport of cycling is primarily about struggle. For that reason, the people of Rwanda can relate to the bikers they see pedaling by on the streets everyday.”
Climbers | Philip Gourevitch | The New Yorker | July 11, 2011 | 53 minutes (13,080 words)