If you want to help people, there are many fine causes you can donate to. If you want to change the world, support a small magazine. It’s hard to imagine the Progressive era or the New Deal without a small magazine, The New Republic. There probably would have been no Reagan revolution without another small magazine, National Review. The Partisan Review had a circulation of roughly 5,000 to 7,000 at its peak but set the tone for America’s postwar intellectual life.
Small magazines cohere a community of thinkers. They develop a body of ideas. They plant flags and inspire social movements. They create a persona that serves as an aspirational ideal for people, a way to live their lives. Small magazines can alter history in a way big media outlets just can’t. So with the 20th annual Sidney Awards, which I named for the philosopher, public intellectual and expert polemicist Sidney Hook and are dedicated to celebrating some of the best long-form essays, this year we’ll pay special attention to these vanguard publications.
I generally don’t agree with the arguments of those on the populist right, but I have to admit there’s a lot of intellectual energy there these days. (The Sidneys go to essays that challenge readers, as well as to those that affirm.) With that, the first Sidney goes to Christopher Caldwell for his essay “The Fateful Nineties” in First Things. Most people see the 1990s as a golden moment for America — we’d won the Cold War, we enjoyed solid economic growth, the federal government sometimes ran surpluses, crime rates fell, tech took off.
Caldwell, on the other hand, describes the decade as one in which sensible people fell for a series of self-destructive illusions: Globalization means nation-states don’t matter. Cyberspace means the material world is less important. Capitalism can run on its own without a countervailing system of moral values. Elite technocrats can manage the world better than regular people. The world will be a better place if we cancel people for their linguistic infractions.
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