Best Excerpts from the Best American Essays 2007

I already posted my favorite excerpts from the The Best American Essays of 2001. Below are my favorite excerpts from the Best American Essays of 2007.

“Loaded” by Garrett Keizer in The New Republic

A pro gun-rights essay that’s eloquent and persuasive (without really meaning to be). He says to talk about guns in America is to talk about race, as guns were the great equalizer among whites and blacks in the slave era. Keizer, of course, owns a gun today, and here’s what he says about it:

I hope that I shall never have to confront anyone with my gun, but owning a gun has forced me to confront myself. Anyone who owns firearms for reasons other than hunting and sport shooting (neither of which I do) has admitted that he or she is willing to kill another human being — as opposed to the more civilized course of allowing human beings to be killed by paid functionaries on his or her behalf. Owning a gun does not enhance my sense of power; it enhances my sense of compromise and contingency — a feeling curiously like that of holding down a job. In other words, it is one more glaring proof that I am not Mahatma Gandhi or even Che Guevara, just another soft-bellied schlimazel trying to keep the lawn mowed and the psychopaths off the lawn.

At the end of his essay, he somewhat leaves his gun argument and says that, contra Saul Alinsky, “we are in need of a liberalism that goes back into the room and starts the fight. We are possibly in need of some civil unrest.” He says he doesn’t come to this conclusion lightly; he’s historically been a nonviolent noncooperator. But times change. His last graf is a call to action, of sorts:

The harvest is great but the laborers are few. Still, if asked to choose between an urban guerilla armed with an AK-47 and a protester armed with a song sheet and a map showing how to get to the designated “free speech zone,” I would decline on the grounds of insufficient faith and negligible inspiration. Rather, give me some people with very fanatical ideas about the sanctity of habeas corpus and the length of time an African American or any other American ought to have to wait on line to vote. Give me some people who are not so evolved that they have forgotten what it is to stand firm under fire or even to squat near the fire in a cave. Give me an accountant who can still throw a rock.

Iraq: The War of the Imagination” by Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books

A 12,000 word overview of how and why America got entangled in the Iraq war. Brilliant. Comprehensive in its analysis. He deconstructs how smart individuals can be made stupid when operating as a collective in the warped hallways of Washington bureaucracy. The most jaw-dropping part of the essay for me was the backstory to Paul Bremer’s taking over Baghdad. Here’s a guy who knew absolutely nothing about the Middle East — his foreign experience was limited to running the embassy in the Netherlands! — and on his very first day, he carried out orders to “de-Baathify” Baghdad In other words, fire all the Baathists — who mostly held leadership positions — in the government and military. It proved a colossal mistake which plunged Baghdad into chaos almost immediately.

“Afternoon of the Sex Children” by Mark Greif in N+1

This is a long, complicated, at times inaccessible essay on the sexualization of youth. I didn’t understand the big picture point, but some paragraphs jumped out at me:

The college years — of all times — stand out as the apex of sex childhood. Even if college is routinized and undemanding, it is still inevitably residential, and therefore the place to perfect one’s life as a sex child. You move away from home into a setting where you are with other children — strangers all. You must be patient for four years just to get a degree. So there can be little to do but fornicate. Certainly from the wider culture, of MTV and rumor, you know four years is all you will get. The semester provides an interruption between institutionalized sex jubilees: spring break, or just the weekends. The frat-house party assumes a gothic significance, not only for the prurient adults but for the collegians themselves, who report, on Monday, their decadence.

As a college student today, you always know what things could be like. The “Girls Gone Wild” cameras show a world where at this very moment someone is spontaneously lifting her shirt for a logoed hat. You might think the whole thing was a put-on except that everyone seems so earnest…The new full-scale campus sex magazines — for example, Boston University’s Boink (2005) and Harvard’s H-Bomb (2004) — seek truth in naked self-photography and accounts of sex with strangers, as if each incident were God’s revelation on Sinai. The lesson each time is that sleeping with strangers or being photographed naked lets the authors know themselves better. Many of these institutions are driven by women. Perhaps they, even more than young men, feel an urgency to know themselves while they can, since America curses them with a premonition of disappointment: when flesh sags, freedom will wane.

“Disappointment” by Richard Rodriguez in California

A pessimistic piece on the idea of California. This noted California writer says:

The traditional task of the writer in California has been to write about what it means to be human in a place advertised as paradise. Not the Buckeye or the Empire, not the Can-do or the Show-me, California is the Postlapsarian State. Disappointment has always been the theme of California….Disappointment continued to be mined in California’s literature throughout the twentieth century. Joan Didion gave us domestic broken dreamers, not so much driven as driving. In the great Didion essays of the sixties, the dystopian mother abandons her daughter on the median of the San Bernardino freeway; dirty dishes pile up in the sink; the hot wind blows from the desert.

I like that last image – hot wind blowing from the desert. Rodriguez’s downtrodden theme continues:

Americans feel disappointment so keenly because our optimism is so large and is so often insisted upon by historians. And so often justified by history. The stock market measures optimism. If you don’t feel optimistic, there must be something wrong with you. There are pills for disappointment.

The California Dream was a codicil to the American Dream, an opening. Internal immigrants sought from California at least a softer winter, a wider sky, at least a thousand miles’ distance between themselves and whatever dissatisfaction they felt with “home”.

And on literature:

In the time of your life, live was Saroyan’s advice. I believe the difference between the literature of California’s past and the literature to come will be the difference of expectation. There are children growing up in California today who take it as a given that the 101 North, the 405 South, and the 10 East are unavailable after two in the afternoon.

An essay I don’t happen to agree with, but that last sentence is just perfect.

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