The Atlantic writer Derek Thompson’s college article comparing the Middle East to a college bar scene

Derek Thompson photo

Derek Thompson is one of the top writers for The Atlantic magazine and website, where over the past few years he has become perhaps one of the most entertaining yet incisively thoughtful commentators analyzing current events. Currently a senior editor writing his first book to be published in 2017 on the science of pop culture hits, some of his most popular articles include:

  • The print magazine’s July cover story A World Without Work, about the possibility that increased mechanization and automation could produce a future where there are few occupations that humans could do better.
  • The Secret Life of Grief,  an emotionally powerful piece shortly after the untimely early death of his mother from cancer, a half-personal half-academic article on what psychology research reveals about the grieving process and how much it did (or didn’t) apply to Thompson’s personal case. “I cried often, but privately, in the stairway at work, on the train behind a pair of sunglasses, and in my apartment, indulging a memory behind a locked door.”
  • On Repeat: Why People Watch Movies and Shows Over and Over, which features perhaps my personal favorite example of Thompson’s writing: the two paragraphs about youthful nostalgia beginning with “A year ago, at my college reunion…”
  • The Greatest Good, about which charities and non-profit organizations are the best to donate to. Worth reading all 4700+ words, but the one sentence summary is that Thompson estimates the best charity (combining bang for the buck with worthiness of their mission) as being the Against Malaria Foundation.
Derek Thompson looking suspiciously at his enemies. Oh yes, "CBS This Morning," he knows what you're up to.

Derek Thompson looking suspiciously at his enemies. Oh yes, “CBS This Morning,” he knows what you’re up to.

For his A Step In The Write Direction selection, Thompson at age 29 provides our first writer young enough that their “long time ago” writing sample was still during the Internet age. I’ll let him explain in his own words the backstory behind his November 2007 article, after which the article is posted. You can read in its original form on the website North By Northwestern by clicking the title or else by reading the text pasted below that:

I chose this essay from my college website because it’s sort of the best representation of my voice. When I read it, I can hear myself. That probably sounds conceited. But I think developing a strong sense of perspective in writing is one of the hardest and most important things for writers — particularly online writers today — to do. One of the challenges of digital media is that writing about current affairs on the Internet is one of the most competitive industries ever. There are literally hundreds of millions of people around the world with access to most of the information that you have, and yet you have to say something new and distinct. Information is a commodity. What’s scarce is personality and the perspective that comes from your experience, your voice, your chair. And my favorite writers are those with clear voices that don’t use style to obviate substance.
I was a politics and international affairs writer at Northwestern. In my senior year, I left the newspaper and started writing for a new website called North By Northwestern. My editor pushed me to be interesting and weird. This was in late 2007, and the Middle East was in chaos (unfortunately, this is a timeless clause). I wanted to find a weird metaphor to explain the region. So I picked The Keg, a famously terrible dive bar in Evanston, and built an extended metaphor about the Middle East as the bar — with Iraq as a young coed with a weak “constitution,” Saudi Arabia as the bouncer, Iran as the BMOC quietly ruining Iraq’s night, and so on. It was ludicrous, glib, occasionally smart, and loaded with way too much figurative language. In other words, at 21, I was way too proud of it.

Just when you thought the Middle East couldn’t get any more confusing, you open a newspaper. The White House is talking showdown with Iran, Gen. Pervez Musharraf declared martial law in Pakistan and Turkey has considered invading northern Iraq just as Iraqi civilian deaths started falling. You could be excused for asking what the hell is going on.

So here is your one-stop explanation of Middle Eastern geopolitics. All politics is local, and the politics of the Middle East is even more local than you might expect. Skip your Middle East history lecture and take a closer look at The Keg, on Sherman and Grove. Maybe it’s the liquid resources, but Middle Eastern politics bares a striking resemblance to bar politics, with a few exceptions: angry dancers lob missiles instead of punches; the taps lead to oil instead of alcohol; and the carbombs are real.

Boys and girls: Welcome to The Powder Keg.

Let’s begin with Iraq, since it’s the hub around which our Middle East policy whirls. Iraq is the girl you saw from afar and thought, “This is so easy, I’d be crazy not to do it.” You throw a bunch of drinks at her, such as Fire and Ice, B52s and more than a few carbombs—although she had a few before you arrived. But before you can even try out your new pick up line (“So I hear you like bath parties?”), she’s toppled.

Now you’re in for the close-up, and you realize this couldn’t have been a worse idea. Not only does this girl have more domestic issues than a Democratic Candidate Forum, but also after repeated trips to the restroom to check on her, you can hear your money being flushed away. You once had historic visions for this hook-up, but you’ll settle for any kind of exit to keep your dignity. It’s probably your fault for messing her up so bad, but you go ahead and blame it on her weak constitution, anyway.

You’ve also probably heard about Iran, Iraq’s long-time adversary who is allegedly building nuclear technology and sending troops into Iraq to stir up civil war. We all know Iran — he’s that twit hitting on the girl you’ve already targeted. While Iraq’s teetering around the bar, Iran is still supplying bottomless drinks with a fat wallet. He doesn’t outright declare his intentions to make this a war over a girl, but since he and Iraq share a long history, he knows how to manipulate her. In fact, you and Iran have been enemies for a long time.* The bottom line is that he hates you, and you still think he’s a coy meany.

*You once played an awful trick on Iran when you convinced your friend to date him just so she could pilfer alcohol from his room and bring it back to yours. He returned the favor by stealing your M Bass guitar and keeping it hostage for a few weeks, which blew up your Sha Na Na cover band. I could go on, but the history of drama is pretty complex.

Pakistan is a military dictatorship that denies civil liberties, houses terrorists, bleeds nuclear secrets and cancels elections. Why are you friends, again? Because Pakistan is the bartender of the Powder Keg. Of course he’s a jerk — you’d be testy too if you had his job — but he’s a jerk you need. With one hand on the Jagermeister machine and another on the beer tap, he’ll provide the assistance you need, but at a price. He overcharges and makes his own bar rules, but what else are you going to do — reach across the counter and take things into your own hands? You need him, so you don’t provoke him. Oh, and if he sees you in cashmere, he’ll kick your ass.

Turkey is an odd bird—a secular constitutional republic bordering Iraq with a history of good relations with the United States. That means Turkey is Iraq’s less attractive, but more level-headed, roommate. Since you’re old friends, you initially wanted to get to Iraq through Turkey. But to your surprise, she said no (don’t good roommates allow this kind of thing?). Since then, you’ve strained your relationship with a series of petty and not-so-petty fights with Turkey. She’s mad you tried to use her to get to Iraq; she’s pissed at Iraq for not respecting her private space; and she’s going through some inner turmoil.

And there’s Israel, your precocious freshman brother. You bought him a fake ID so he could go to bars with you, but the regulars don’t think he belongs. Sometimes, Israel does things that really piss you off, and you wonder if bar life would be easier without him. But you stand up for him, because you come from the same family and share similar values. You have to admit that he’s pretty advanced for his age. But he’s got an uncanny ability to piss off every person he meets at the bar. Most of them outwardly hate him. Others pretend they don’t recognize him.

Finally, you can’t talk about The Powder Keg without talking about Saudi Arabia. Like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia is our friend by necessity; not by choice. Despite housing the world’s most dangerous terrorist cells, the Saudis are the gatekeepers of the oil reserves we need. In short, they are the bouncers of the Keg. You tell people that you’re friends with the bouncer, but let’s be honest, you don’t want to know what he does in his personal time. He’s a jackass most of the time, he’s easily bought off, and lately he’s been letting in some truly shady individuals. But the bars have the precious liquid you need, and what else are you going to do? Supply your own? Don’t be ridiculous. With nothing but Busch in the fridge back home, we will rely on The Powder Keg for a long time.


You can follow Derek Thompson on Twitter along with his other 30 thousand+ followers at @DKThomp, on Facebook at DKThomp86, or find his archive of articles for The Atlantic here.

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