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August 14, 2007

Halberstam's Genius (Political)

The late David Halberstam revolutionized investigative reporting by employing it as a technique for historical analysis. Two of his books, The Best and the Brightest, and The Fifties, illustrate just how he did that; a collateral benefit of the technique is that although neither “marijuana” nor “drugs” appear in the index of either one, each can add to our understanding of how inhaled pot (“reefer”) would emerge as a new product in the Sixties and then take American high schools by storm while adults weren’t looking.

The technique Halberstam pioneered while researching the Best and the Brightest and later employed with great skill, not only in researching and writing The Fifties, but throughout his long career, was quite specific. It started with identifying certain trends that would critically shape the ambient culture and then telling the story of their genesis and early development. Since those trends usually began as ideas, it often meant telling the story of their human origins. In many respects, the real extent of Halberstam’s genius is best appreciated by realizing that technique was only a part of what he did; at least as important was his ability to quickly identify trends with staying power and then separate them from the more numerous false starts that flame out because they are either bad ideas to begin with, or good ideas presented too far ahead of their time.

That further understanding allows us to look at the ideas Halberstam chose to write about with new respect. For example, he began his exploration of fast foods for The Fifties with the McDonald brothers, who had pioneered fast food in one family restuarant, and were later happy to sell what they'd learned to Ray Kroc for further exploitation as franchises, a business model he then pursued with such intensity that it spawned the huge modern industry of imitators now employing armies of MBAs to figure out how best to maximize profits while selling their corporate  employers’ fat-laden snacks to an increasingly obese American polity via a constantly evolving TV industry...and so on.

All of which suggests that Halberstam, who was probably researcing The Fifties during the Eighties, also had a great flair (genius?) for spotting other ideas that have exhibited staying power.

The next entry will attempt to link some of his other choices to my own personal obsession: how is it that modern America can be so smart in some respects and yet remain officially committed to such a dumb, destructive and failing drug policy?

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at August 14, 2007 12:34 AM