In 15 years of thinking, reporting and writing about global affairs, I've come to the conclusion (after plenty of false starts) that often the best way to understand and explain big events is not by focusing on them directly, but by approaching them through smaller stories.
This insight is probably not original or profound. But what started out as a rationalization for incompetence — when I first became a journalist, I knew so little about anything that even I could tell I had no business swinging for the fences — has, over the years, developed into a conviction.
It's not that Big Ideas about the world aren't important. The problem is that for those of us who aren't George Kennan, coming up with them is preposterously difficult, and thus the results are usually boring and banal. Meanwhile, looking at the news through a tighter lens and trying to make unlikely connections can generate insights that might otherwise be missed. So, at least, I tell myself.
A good example of how this works can be found in the recent turmoil wracking the Arab world. After two-plus years of conflict and the spilling of so much blood (and ink), it's hard to add value by tackling the narratives head-on. As I discovered last night at dinner trying to explain the pros and cons of the Egyptian coup to my 10-year old stepson, who ended up looking as befuddled as I felt, it's hard enough just sussing out what to think for oneself.