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New Year, New Us Oliver Wiseman

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Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan (23) in action, during All Star Weekend, Seattle, WA in 1987 (Andy Hayt via Getty Images)

This time last year, I settled on a resolution that I hoped would make the world a marginally better place. As 2022 became 2023, I set myself the challenge of offering no cultural recommendations to anyone for the next 12 months. 

It was a departure from my usual, pretty ordinary, New Year’s resolutions: go for more runs, wake up earlier, lay off the coffee after the fourth cup, and so on. Instead, I’d go cold turkey on telling people that they must read this or they’re crazy not to be watching that. 

Why? Because I had grown frustrated by what I call Toxic Recommendation Culture. 

Allow me to explain.

Our bar for recommendations has fallen far too low. In the streaming age, we can watch whatever we want, whenever we want. Yet, faced with limitless choice, we have somehow become less discerning about what we watch—and what we suggest other people watch, too. It’s bad enough being inundated with options. We don’t need to force our viewing habits on others. 

As with other chronic problems, like plunging literacy rates and widespread obesity, the pandemic made Toxic Recommendation Culture worse. Stuck at home toggling between the small, medium, and large screen, we emerged a little flabbier, a little less socially well-adjusted, and completely bloated with content to foist on our friends and colleagues. 

Enough was enough. Time to lead by example, I thought, and “be the change you want to see in the world,” as Gandhi once said. He had the evils of an empire to worry about. I had too many people telling me to drop everything and watch The Bear

How hard could it be? All I had to do was keep my mouth shut.

But what I thought would be a small tweak turned out to be a grueling test of mental resilience. And one I failed spectacularly. By spring, I was back to recommending with abandon. 

Why did I fail? Part of the answer, I think, gets at the key to a good New Year’s resolution: you’ve got to be selfish. My resolution was doomed because it was borne out of my frustration with the world around me, rather than myself.

Free Press contributor and modern-day stoic Ryan Holiday frames resolutions as an effort to close the gap between “the person you are and the person you’re trying to be.” Below, you’ll find what various Free Pressers are doing to close that gap this year. Some are small modifications to daily life (drink less soda!); others are life-changing (get engaged!). All are about becoming better versions of ourselves. 

As for me, I’m letting Toxic Recommendation Culture run amok and instead focusing on myself in 2024. Instead of 365 days of self-control, I’m opting for a feat of sporting prowess that requires only a moment of brilliance (and probably a fair bit of training). 

My resolution is to dunk a basketball before the year is out. 

Why the dunk? In part because, to put it in Ryan’s terms, the person I want to be is a guy who can dunk a basketball. In other words, a slightly cooler, stronger, more athletic version of myself.

But this resolution is an effort to play a trick on myself. I’ve repackaged all the usual pledges of fitness and weight loss into a fun little side quest. Rather than a vague sense that I need to work out more, I have a tangible if pointless goal I’m working towards. 

I’ve never played basketball, but I’m tall (six feet, four inches) and in my early mid-thirties, so this goal is—I think—in that sweet spot of attainable but by no means easy. Enough of a challenge to require some serious work, not so much of a stretch that I’ll give up in a few months. Plus, now I’ve told you all about it, so I have the added motivation of avoiding public humiliation—and being able to boast about my dunking skills in a year’s time.

So that’s me.

What about the rest of the (shorter) people I work with? Herewith, resolutions Free Press team. . .

Olivia Reingold: Go From Nubs to Nails

I’m a full-grown adult with the habit of a toddler: nail-biting, or, if we’re really being honest, nail-picking.

To examine the situation earnestly is to be disturbed—my ex-boyfriend certainly was when he took me to urgent care in 2015 for a bloated, pussing finger infected by my own stupidity.

Consider me in the top one percent of all nail pickers, since the only way to surpass me is to have no nails at all. I am getting off the wagon before I join that camp—while I still have a hard shell left on my fingers.

Expect big things for me in 2024, like my first manicure in years. See these nails get to work, doing things they haven’t done in a long time, like working the clasp of a necklace or peeling back a piece of errant tape. Watch me soar to health, no longer burdened with what were essentially open wounds on my fingertips. Who knows, maybe I’ll master the piano, or at least pose for a killer engagement ring photo (right, boyfriend?). And most of all, hopefully I’ll sit still. No picking, no fidgeting, just stillness.

Nellie Bowles: Keep on Keeping On

I keep thinking of resolutions. This year, I should call my friends more often to check in, or my parents (maybe). This year, I should do yoga once a week. This year, I should read less news and more books. Or. . . this year, I should wear makeup and better clothes, put a little effort in, and maybe I will actually do this. But honestly, then I think: I’ve got enough on my plate! I’m doing plenty and it’s great. I can’t add any of these to some sort of guilt treadmill.

I tried this argument out with some family members in the living room just now, and they said, “Oh, so you think you’re perfect?” Well. Look. I’m 35. I’ve got a kid and a job. I’m nice enough. I’m in some kind of shape. And I like reading the news. I call my friends plenty; we’re all busy moms, it’s really fine. And so this year: no resolutions. I’m not perfect, but I look things over and I think: no major notes. Keep on keeping on into 2024. If that makes me a monster, so be it. Maybe I’ll work on it in 2025.

Emily Yoffe: Attract More Butterflies

The butterflies didn’t come in 2023. Years ago, we pulled the grass from our small patch of yard and planted a meadow designed to attract pollinators. But something went wrong this past year. Spring then summer passed, and I could count the small number of swallowtails and monarchs. The zinnias, the milkweed, even the butterfly bush that once were their landing pads were devoid of our annual visitors. Decades ago, I traveled to Mexico’s Central Highlands where monarchs hibernate. It was magical, like walking through a forest of orange snow. I was lucky—in subsequent years their population has crashed. I read recently that clearing your yard of leaves harms pollinators who lay their eggs on the debris. So no leaf-blowing for us this year. Maybe I have the wrong kind of milkweed and need to tear it out. Come spring, I will do my best to make our garden a waystation for these magnificent creatures. 

Margi Conklin: Fall Back in Love With Books

Growing up, I lived for books. Instead of summer camp, I’d spend my time off from school going to the local library and checking out everything I could. One of my favorite memories from childhood is reading The Secret Garden under the lilac trees on a blanket on our front lawn. In fifth grade, I wrote an essay declaring my intentions to be a journalist, but not a novelist because they’re prone to moodiness and depression. In 2007, I ended up marrying a novelist. (He’s called Christopher J. Yates. He’s lovely. And only occasionally moody.) Before the pandemic, I ran a book club for years that religiously read a novel by a dead author once a month, followed by vigorous discussions about literary themes and big ideas. And then Covid happened, and this brings me to my point: suddenly I stopped reading for pleasure. I literally could not pick up a book. I think the terror and uncertainty of our real lives wouldn’t allow me to disappear into an imaginary world. Anyway, three years later, I can probably count the number of novels I’ve read on two hands. And so my New Year’s resolution is to return to the person I am: a book lover who reads for pleasure. I’ve already started early: last week I finished Tom Lake by Ann Patchett. (I highly recommend this novel to readers of The Free Press—and especially to you, Olly!)

Coby Weiss: Ten Twenty-Seven Resolutions for 2024

Run the L.A. Marathon without crying

Floss everyday to earn the love of my dentist father

Figure out how to stop my gums from bleeding

Finish last year’s resolutions

Convince the ghost of that Spanish friar to leave my house (mi casa)

Keep crushing Duolingo

Water my inner garden

Delouse my inner scalp

Delouse my actual scalp

Stop sleeping in motels

Coin the term inceive (reception : receive → inception : inceive)

Call my parents more

Call my grandparents more

Call my great gr– visit the graves of loved ones every once in a while

Take advantage of my new unlimited data plan by spending more time on social media

Learn one cool dance move to use at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and the occasional flash mob

Revive the flash mob

Become a TGIF headline

Learn to count

Learn to code (this one is leftover from 2022)

Learn what code is

Finally understand crypto

Practice acoustic guitar for 15 minutes a day to finally discover the joys of music

Try to sell “lightly used” acoustic guitar

Either gain or lose 50 pounds—this middle ground is not working

Stop being so hard on myself

Stretch more

Suzy Weiss: Get Engaged

I’ve had a great run being an independent woman. I’m proud of my college degrees and all the paid bills. I eat well, I sleep in, and I have a great job that I got completely on my own merit and not because I’m someone’s daughter. I’m someone’s sister. It’s totally different.  

But here we are, in the twilight years of my twenties. Party’s over and it’s time to get real. I’ve seen what’s out there. I’ve gone on dates with Bernie bros, artist types, tech guys, dirtbags, freeloaders, girl’s guys, mama’s boys, and in a few instances, sons of bitches. I know what’s for sale. I know when the shipments come in. I know that when a man says he’s not looking for anything serious, he’s really looking for himself, or worse, and it’s better to just call the cab now. 

So my resolution: I’m getting married. I just don’t know to whom yet. Details! 

Do I want to go full tradwife? No. I’d like to still go to the occasional movie alone, I don’t want to move to the sticks, and I won’t be quitting my job to start tending hearth and home. But I can get behind baking more bread and eating less seed oils. I’d like to learn more practical skills, or even a practical skill. I like being barefoot, I have a kitchen. All I need is the husband part. 

Beam me up, Ballerina Farm

Candace Kahn: Take Up Cardio Dance Funk

Since Bari subjects me to many consecutive hours hunched over my desk, it should be no surprise that my New Year’s resolution is to move more. I decided to start this resolve early this year, by attending two cardio dance funk classes at the local dance center—an old studio in a suburban strip mall, nestled between a consignment shop and a hearing aid store. When I saw women 40 years my senior jazz-walking and hip-thrusting better than I could, it was just the inspiration I needed. I bought a 20-class pass, and plan on shimmying, cha-cha-ing, and grooving my way into a healthier, less back-achy 2024.

Kiran Sampath: A Full Reassessment

Become better known at restaurants in my area. Fall more confidently when I fall up the subway stairs. Think twice before using scissors to redesign my clothing. Watch a movie at night without falling asleep. Figure out my allergies. Take the ACT as an experiment to see if I am more or less intelligent than I used to be. Go in my basement, alone, with the lights off, and be brave. Turn off the basement lights without sprinting up the stairs. Date a guy who wears multiple cute layers of clothing and knows how to read. Finish the 36 books I’m in the middle of. Find out more about market patterns for my conversations with stock brokers. 

Maya Sulkin: Stop Slacking During Therapy

If any of you have gone to therapy, especially in a city like Los Angeles, it’s no small commitment. I thought remote therapy would make it easier. But it still requires waking up at 7 a.m. as to not let it obstruct the work day, it costs an arm and a leg and, much to my dismay, I end each session feeling slightly more unsettled than the last. And yet, I go every week. And every week, my therapist yells at me for messaging co-workers during our session. “If you want to pay my hourly rate and spend it working, that’s fine by me. But I can assure you that these sessions won’t help if you aren’t engaged.” A valid point. 

The truth is, I am so bored of my own problems and, more often than not, Slack is so much juicer. So, in 2024, my goal is to find an in-person therapist so that my computer is not in arms reach. Or perhaps I end therapy altogether and see where that takes me. 

Francesca Block: Drink Less Diet Coke

There’s no worse feeling than making a resolution that you know you can’t keep. That’s why every year I try to create a resolution that’s extremely attainable. That way, by the end of the year, I can actually feel good about myself for accomplishing it. Last year, it was to wear more sunscreen—and I’m proud to announce I am now obsessive about applying SPF 30 to my face every morning. For 2024, my resolution is to drink more water and less diet soda. I’m getting in those last sips of Diet Coke while I still can.

Neeraja Deshpande: Talk to Strangers

I’m one of those Zoomers who can’t drive (yet!), so I’ve spent a lot of time on public transportation in Boston. In the past, I’d regularly talk with strangers, and often hear their life stories—their hopes and dreams and first loves and work lives and all the rest. But as masks went up and ridership went down, I found my face increasingly buried in my phone or in a book. Somewhere along the way, I stopped looking at people. I’ve had a decent conversation with a perfect stranger here or there in recent years, but even though mask mandates haven’t been in place since spring of 2022, my pre-pandemic habits have yet to bounce back. But enough’s enough: 2024 will be the year I go back to business as usual, focusing more on the people I see around me.

Julia Steinberg: A List of Aspirational Habits

Listen to audiobooks before bed instead of watching Instagram Reels (never TikTok!); become un-lactose intolerant (it’s just a psychological issue); go to the gym; be kinder to my mom; keep a journal; drink water before coffee; try something other than an iced oat latte; spend less time with headphones on; go to Shabbat dinners; listen to one new album a week; enunciate more and talk slower; practice Russian; and start re-learning Hebrew.

Bari Weiss: Look Up*

I hear about all of these high-powered CEOs who “unplug.” And not just nightly, but sometimes for extended periods—I’m talking multiple days in a row—where they go “offline.” 

Apparently, when you get rich and successful enough, you are able to buy crucial things I lack: self-control, discipline, a healthy sleep schedule, the ability to log off Twitter. 

I’m nearing 40. By now I have been humbled by many New Year’s resolutions that have gone unfulfilled. (I won’t list all of them here, but suffice it to say the Covid-era Peloton was returned after three weeks.) 

So I won’t say I promise to sleep with my phone in another room. Let’s not get crazy. But I will resolve, here, in front of 550,000 of my closest friends, to try to look my family in the eyes a little more often, to go for walks without the devil’s rectangle, and generally to look up more at the ever-changing world around me. 

*Bari also promises to stop Slacking Maya while she is at therapy. 

Free Pressers, what are your New Year’s resolutions? Let us know in the comments. Also, if you have any advice on dunking a basketball, Olly needs all the help he can get. 

And if your New Year’s Resolution is to support fearless, unowned, and independent journalism, subscribing to The Free Press is a great way to start:

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Iran Comes Out of the Shadows Bari Weiss

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Iranians celebrate Iran’s attack against Israel in downtown Tehran, Iran. (Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Over the past 24 hours, the war that has raged in the Middle East since October 7 took on a new dimension.

In a historic first, Iran directly attacked Israel from its own territory—launching more than 300 drones and missiles toward Israel.

As Free Press columnist Matti Friedman writes today from Jerusalem: “Like a flash going off in a dark room, the attack has finally given the world something valuable: a glimpse of the real war in the Middle East.”

Tehran’s strike on Israel—who thankfully had defensive help from the U.S., Britain, France, Jordan, and reportedly Saudi Arabia—should make clear, for those still in doubt, that this war is not about Gaza, or even about Israel and a single Iranian proxy in Hamas. It is about Iran.

“The importance of last night’s barrage was that for the first time, the full Iranian alliance gave us a practical demonstration of its scope, orchestration, and intentions,” Matti writes. “If you’d been watching from space, you probably could have seen the lines of this new Middle East etched in orange and red across the map of the region.”

READ MATTI FRIEDMAN HERE.

Some Americans understand that clearly—and aren’t condemning it, but cheering it on. Our Olivia Reingold found herself at a conference of anti-war activists in Chicago on Saturday. Activists were taught how to chant “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” in Farsi. Watch:

And, when news of the attack broke, the crowd cheered and burst into chants of “Hands off Iran.” 

READ OLIVIA’S DISPATCH HERE.

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Michael Oren: How Did the War Begin? With Iran’s Appeasers in Washington Michael Oren

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Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. As Iranian provocations have mounted, the Biden administration has refrained from holding Tehran accountable. (Photo by Andrew Harnik/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — Historians writing years from now about the Middle East conflagration of 2024 will undoubtedly ask, “When did it all begin?” Some will point to the Bush administration which, demoralized by its inconclusive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, rejected Israel’s entreaties to take out Iran’s then-inchoate nuclear program in 2008.

Others might cite Israel’s willingness to play by the mullahs’ rules, retaliating against their Hezbollah and Hamas proxies rather than against Iran itself, enabling it to emerge from each round of fighting utterly unscathed. 

But the bulk of the blame, fair historians will likely agree, will have to fall on the policies of those in Washington who sought to appease Iran at almost any price and ignore its serial aggressions.

Those policies began in the week after President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. In one of the forty-fourth president’s first acts of foreign diplomacy, Obama sent an offer of reconciliation to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. That June, in his historic Cairo speech, Obama became the first president to refer to Tehran’s regime as the Islamic Republic of Iran—legitimizing the oppressive theocracy—and stood aside while that republic’s thugs beat and shot hundreds of Iranian citizens protesting for their freedom.

Over the next four years, the White House ignored a relentless spate of Iranian aggressions—attacks against U.S. Navy vessels in the Persian Gulf; backing for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups dedicated to America’s destruction; and barely disguised efforts to undermine pro-Western Middle Eastern governments.

At the same time, Iran supported Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s mass slaughter—often with poison gas—of his own countrymen. Obama had declared Syria’s use of chemical weapons as “a red line” that would have “enormous consequences” on America’s involvement in the war. It didn’t.

In Washington, the administration overlooked an Iranian attempt to assassinate the Saudi and Israeli ambassadors (including me) and ended a federal investigation of a billion-dollar Hezbollah drug and arms trafficking ring in the United States. Most egregiously, Iran constructed secret underground nuclear facilities and developed an intercontinental ballistic missile delivery system that threatened the entire Middle East and much of Europe.

Why would any White House, even one devoted to rebuilding America’s relationship with the Islamic world, seek rapprochement with such a regime? 

At the time, there were multiple reasons. First, there was the desire of the United States, tired of Middle Eastern wars and no longer dependent on Arab oil, to withdraw from the region and focus on the Far East. Next, there was the belief that the U.S. had traditionally relied on its Sunni and Israeli allies only to discover that Sunnis perpetrated 9/11 and Israelis defied American policy in the West Bank. The Iranians, stronger, modern, and open to the West—so many American policymakers concluded—offered a better alternative if only their leadership were assuaged. Lastly, and ultimately most decisively, was the Iranian nuclear program, a burgeoning strategic threat that the White House refused to interdict by military means.

The nuclear agreement reached in 2015 between the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, Germany, and Iran—euphemistically called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—had three major objectives: to block Iran’s path to the bomb, ensure that Iran became what Obama called “a responsible regional power,” and, failing that, to kick the “nuclear can” down the road. The first two goals proved illusory. 

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei adjusts his eyeglasses after casting his ballots during the parliamentary and key clerical body elections at a polling station in Tehran on March 1, 2024. (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

Rather than block Iran’s path to the bomb, the agreement solidly paved it by allowing Iran to retain most of its nuclear infrastructure and to continue producing ever more advanced centrifuges capable of reducing Iran’s breakout time to mere weeks. The deal put no meaningful restrictions on Iran’s missile delivery systems or its clandestine weapons programs. And even then, the largely cosmetic limitations were set to expire in less than a decade. Well before that time, though, Iran harnessed the deal’s financial and strategic rewards to expand its sphere of influence across Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. So much for the responsible regional power.

In 2018, President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, reinstated punishing sanctions on Iran, and retaliated for Iranian attacks against Americans, indicating a different approach to the issue, but that policy proved short-lived. A centerpiece of Joe Biden’s 2019 presidential campaign was his pledge to restore America’s adherence to the JCPOA. No sooner had the Democrats regained the White House than the Iranians began to violate the agreement on a massive scale, gradually achieving military nuclear threshold capacity.

Of the original motivations for the deal—blocking Iran’s path to the bomb and transforming Iran into a peaceful nation—neither remained. All Biden was left with was the ability to kick the can down the road and to uphold Obama’s singular foreign policy achievement.

As the Iranian centrifuges spun, the Biden administration entered into intense negotiations to renew the JCPOA. The talks were headed by Robert Malley, who was evicted from the Obama campaign in 2008 for meeting with Hamas. Under Biden, Malley became America’s special envoy to Iran, but he was recently ousted for mishandling sensitive information. Though the initiative to reinstate the deal eventually failed, the U.S. still provided Iran with at least $10 billion in funds that had been frozen, and reportedly much more than that in quiet sanction relief. 

Meanwhile, the Iranian provocations mounted. An ally of Russia, Iran provided thousands of offensive drones and long-range missiles used to kill America’s allies in Ukraine. Since the start of the war against Hamas, Iranian proxies have launched more than 170 attacks against U.S. military bases in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan, and all but blocked international shipping through the strategically crucial Bab al-Mandeb Strait. 

Still, the U.S. refrained from retaliating against Iran directly, or even holding it publicly responsible. When, in January, three American soldiers were killed by a drone strike by an Iranian-backed militia, the U.S. struck back at the militia and not at the country—or even the factory—that produced the bomb. 

Then, on Sunday, a historic first: Tehran directly attacked Israel from its territory with hundreds of drones and missiles.

Historians will survey this inexplicable record and wonder how the United States not only allowed Iran to repeatedly assault its citizens, soldiers, and allies but consistently rewarded it for doing so. They may well conclude that in a desperate effort to avoid getting dragged into a regional Middle Eastern war, the U.S. might well have precipitated one. 

While America’s friends in the Middle East, especially Israel, have every reason to feel grateful for the vital assistance they received in intercepting Iran’s missile and drone onslaught, they might also ask what the U.S. can now do differently to deter Iran from further aggression. Press reports about President Biden’s refusal to support an Israeli counterattack against Iran indicate, sadly, that nothing substantial in the U.S. position has changed. He has reportedly urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to see the coordinated response to the attack as a “win.”

The Iranians, though, will not see things that way. Tehran will see this weekend’s direct attack on Israel as a victory—their own—for their ability to continue threatening Israel and destabilizing the Middle East with impunity. If Israel follows Biden’s advice it will send one message to the ayatollahs: “You can launch another 350 missiles and drones at Israel or try to kill Israelis by other means. Either way, the United States won’t stop you.” 

Israel, of course, must respond differently. Our target cannot simply be the Iranian proxies that surround our country and that have waged war on us since October 7, but, as the Saudis call it, “the head of the snake.”

The story of America can end only one of two ways: either it stands up boldly against Iran and joins Israel in deterring it, or Iran emerges from this conflict once again unpunished, undiminished, and ready to inflict yet more devastating damage.

Michael Oren, formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Knesset member, and deputy minister for diplomacy in the Israeli prime minister’s office, is the author of the Substack publication Clarity.

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April 13, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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