Hey all! Let’s hop to it.
I have blurbs on Critical Race Theory and the billionaire space race in The New York Times' Year in Debates package. It's my first writing for the paper. I've also done a column for them on the anniversary of January 6th that should be out soon.
As promised, I’ve got a year in review post ahead. I did get a couple of questions for Mail Time though, so we’ll start there.
I imagine that your political views have changed somewhat over the course of your adult life. Do you feel that you've spent that time seeking out a political vision that aligns with your values, or do you feel like your values have been influenced by being exposed to the views of people that you identify with politically? (I acknowledge that the boring answer to this is probably "both").
I suppose the answer really is both – maybe the latter thing more than the former. I’ve definitely been pulled leftward by left media and fellow writers since 2016. But now that I’m writing a book on political theory more or less, I’ve gotten the opportunity to think more deeply about what it is I believe and why, and I don’t think the answers I want are available in the day to day political press. So I’m on a more deliberate hunt now for writers and thinkers who articulate the way I feel better than I can. I’m open to having my mind changed of course, but I don’t anticipate my basic intuitions and commitments (democracy, equality, freedom) shifting all that much.
Benjamin from Baltimore:
I'm a recent Baltimore transplant. I didn't know much of anything about the city before moving here a few months ago from the West Coast, and naturally I'm still getting my bearings. I'm not sure these questions are general enough for your broader audience, but hope you'll consider them:
Is there anything you would recommend reading or watching as part of an introduction to Baltimore City? Better yet, would you ever consider writing about Baltimore?
If you had one day to show an out of town guest around the city, where would you take them?
Always happy to talk up Baltimore to a broad audience — it’s a great town and I’d like to be here for a long while if I can. Needless to say, it’s also a city with a lot of troubles, and most of the reading list I’ve written up for myself since moving here is fairly depressing. I’ve had Baltimore: A Political History by Matthew Crenson and Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City by Antero Pietila recommended to me often. “My Baltimore Bargain,” a 2015 piece by Alec MacGillis in Slate, is a good short read about the city’s divides and the latent dynamics of living here. Baltimore Magazine also ran a good short piece about the history of the city’s divide with Baltimore County a while back. And be sure to familiarize yourself with the white “L” and the black “butterfly.” I won’t tell you to watch The Show as I’m sure you’ve already seen it or are going to anyway. It’s as good as people say, but there’s more to the city and life here than violence and dysfunction.
As for what to do in a day, it really depends on what you’re into, but here’s an itinerary that would sound good to me, personally. I’d start the day at one of three art museums: the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), the Walters Art Museum, or the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM).The BMA and the Walters both have eclectic and expansive collections of art from around the world. AVAM is focused on American self-taught and outsider artists — it’s the one I haven’t been to yet myself and the one people keep raving to me about the most. I might spend the afternoon in Hampden browsing Atomic Books — a bookstore that also sells comics and zines and takes John Waters’ fan mail — and vintage and antique shops like Strawberry Fields and Whatnots. I’d check out Beyond Video, a cool little film library I've been meaning to visit, before catching a rock show next door at Ottobar. I might venture out to Fells Point for late night drinks and rambling around by the waterfront. Or I could stay closer to the center of town and drink at Mt. Royal Tavern or Club Chuck – if it hasn’t mysteriously closed yet again.
Food: I’d be taking someone new to the taqueria Clavel for dinner probably, which means we’d practically have to go to W.C. Harlan afterwards — it’s a tiny candlelit cocktail bar just a hop away. We might also go to NiHao, where I spent my birthday this year —it’s a new Chinese place in Canton run by the daughter of Peter Chang, a legend around these parts.
There’s lot’s more, but this seems like a pretty full day as it is. The one big tourist trap I’d actually consider as well is the aquarium. Its reputation is deserved, but it would probably eat up more of your time than you’d want if you just had 24 hours in town.
Year in Review: My Work
Anyway, the year’s at an end. I don’t have that much to say about it, honestly. Like everyone else, I’m sick — maybe COVID, maybe not — I’m tired, and I’d like to move on. But not before I’ve done a recap of my work. Here are 10 things I wrote this year that might have been worth a damn.
“The Democrats’ Stark, Historic Choice” — The New Republic (January 11)
On Trump’s second impeachment and the administration to come:
The Democrats will soon have the presidency. They will have the House of Representatives. By the skin on the skin of their teeth, they will have the Senate. They will, in sum, be entering into an alignment of power in Washington that we have every reason to believe is becoming exceptionally rare. And every actor within that trifecta will have a choice to make. Should a party that mounted a crusade against a legitimate election and the democratic process—a party whose rhetoric has killed—continue to accrue structural power? Or should the Democratic Party work to curb it? This question, as simple as it is, can be condensed further: Should the United States be a functional democracy or not?
The question is elementary, the answer is simple, and the proposed solutions have been discussed at length by not only activists but political scientists and constitutional scholars insisting that our federal political system as designed is no longer tenable, if it ever really was—a conclusion driven by facts that are increasingly difficult for even self-styled pragmatists to ignore.
“The Hard Truth About Joe Biden” — The New Republic (January 20)
On Biden’s inauguration:
How might Joe Biden and our political leaders renew faith in the American project? This was the question on the minds of the nation’s least interesting commentators throughout last summer. And then, as now, the answer was simple: commit to making America a democratic society capable of meaningfully addressing its largest problems.
We have an economy built upon extraordinary and abominable inequities of wealth and power—one that leaves thousands of people in our nation’s capital and in cities across the country searching for warmth on cold January mornings. Reorder it. We face an ecological crisis that will disrupt and destabilize American life 10 times more than another 10 years of Donald Trump would have. Confront it. We are governed by skewed political institutions that, by design, grant some Americans more political power than others. Remake them.
None of these objectives will unite America. But neither did most of the moral and political advances we’re now urged to take pride in. Biden has an opportunity now to remind the American people of this—to frame division as the price for progress and not an obstacle to be evaded. He will not take it. The interests governing his party and our politics will not permit it. And so the tasks of speaking frankly to the American people and agitating for the deepest changes they require will fall to activists and voices outside our political system.
“The Democrats Are Blocking a $15 Minimum Wage” — The New Republic (February 27)
On the failure of the $15 minimum wage push, the Senate, and Democratic governance:
If it really is the case that Manchin and Sinema can’t be won over, we should come to an important conclusion: Congressional politics is mostly a fraud. Over the past year, many have found the size and design of the coronavirus relief packages Congress has put together encouraging. And it is genuinely good to know when a once-in-a-century global crisis kills over half a million people in this country, our legislators are capable of stretching themselves enough to temporarily supplement and expand unemployment benefits, send Americans a set of means-tested stimulus payments, and perhaps pass a large expansion of the child tax credit. But the prospects for fully elective Democratic economic and social policies—the minimum wage, immigration reform, climate legislation, and all the rest—still do not seem very promising.
Between now and the midterm elections next year, we will hear from Democratic leaders that the solution is electing more Democrats and giving the party the resources it needs to do so: more donations, more canvassing, and more voting. We’ll also hear from progressives who will insist that the solution is defeating the Democratic establishment with progressive candidates all over the country: more donations, more canvassing, and more voting. But it’s all nonsense: every part of it, top to bottom, start to finish.
What Democrats have in the place of a constructive politics is a set of interlocking pyramid schemes operated by people who know full well that no matter how many doors are knocked on, how many calls are made, how many alarmingly titled fundraising emails are opened, and how many people show up to the polls, whether or not anything significant happens in Congress depends mostly upon a relatively small set of people in a few very specific places: the most conservative Democrats in the country and the moderate-to-conservative states that have elected them. They are the ones who will decide whether the filibuster goes or whether legislation the party tries to jimmy through reconciliation will pass. No matter how much work is put into gaining Democratic majorities, they will have the power to invalidate them, denying Democrats any reasonable hope of utilizing a chamber structurally skewed in the Republican Party’s favor. Progressives can talk themselves blue about primaries, but activating a progressive electorate in, say, West Virginia is going to take more than one election cycle, or two, or five, and Manchin isn’t up for reelection until the end of Biden’s first term anyway.
“Saving the Nation Cannot End With Biden’s Covid Relief Bill” — The New Republic (March 11)
On the American Rescue Plan:
It is true [...] as many progressives have insisted over the past several days, that changes in the country’s ideological landscape over the past decade are probably responsible for the shape the Rescue Plan took and some of its provisions. The left has spooked the Democratic Party establishment in high-profile primaries and shifted a policy discourse now populated by far more left-leaning journalists and policy professionals than there have been at any point in recent memory. Centrists, by contrast, have been the victims of their own success: With the full run of American politics for most of the last 30 years, they’ve failed to produce solutions adequate to the scale of the problems the country faces and are plainly out of ideas beyond a conviction that whatever progressives are proposing at any given moment should be smaller in scope. That simply isn’t fertile ground for meaningful policymaking in a crisis.
But the crisis is coming to an end. When it does, things will be looking up for both Americans eager to resume their normal lives and the policy voices who oppose improving them further. The question many commentators have asked over the last week—why the right has been louder in defense of Dr. Seuss than in opposition to a “free money” pandemic relief package supported by more than 60 percent of the country—really answers itself. We can expect them to be more attentive to more contentious items on Biden’s agenda. But progressives should probably be more worried about their opponents within the Democratic coalition, who will continue shaping and shrinking Democratic bills before Republicans even get a say on them. Centrist policy professionals may be losing their grip on a large share of the Democratic Party’s politicians and they are clearly out of touch with voters. But, as negotiations over the Rescue Plan’s checks and unemployment benefits illustrated, they still have the ear of the moderate and conservative Democrats in the House and Senate who are functionally running the party in Congress.
In the weeks ahead, the word on their lips will be “inflation.”
“The End of American Politics” — The New Republic (June 29)
On just about everything:
[A]s things already stand today, the Republican Party can return to power in Washington without the support of the majority of the American electorate. Democrats, by contrast, had to win more than simple majorities or pluralities to gain the power they tenuously hold now—if Joe Biden had defeated Donald Trump by any less than 3.2 points in the popular vote, he would have lost outright in November. None of this is privileged information; these and other related facts have been widely disseminated in recent years by academics, analysts, and journalists who also tend to imply, nevertheless, that an undemocratic America is merely a hypothetical looming ahead of us. It isn’t. It is the quicksand we’re already in.
We all know this, even if we aren’t prepared to face the truth directly; the angst of the moment is less about the coming end of a functional democracy in this country than it is about the end of American politics as we’ve known it. Through suppression and its other shenanigans, the Republican Party is atrophying not only the right to vote but our sense that national political outcomes can be meaningfully shaped by the agency of voters and political actors. All the material we’ve long considered the real substance of politics—particular candidates and particular election campaigns; political scoops, gaffes, and scandals—have lost ground to larger concerns and ideas. It is no longer possible for the informed to believe or pretend that these things matter more than the structures and institutions underlying American politics and American life. This shift in consciousness isn’t purely a partisan phenomenon. Progressives might not be getting big structural change, but structures are big now for just about everyone.
“The Incoherence of American History” — The New Republic (August 24)
On the work of historian Alan Taylor and how to read American history:
The angst over statuary, school curricula, and all the rest in recent years has been underpinned by the conviction that asking what we’re to do with American history amounts to asking what we’re to do with America—once we’ve settled whether the American conscience is defined by original sin or high ideals, we seem to believe, we’ll understand our destiny. But America has no destiny. It has no conscience. There is no American DNA, no American soul. America will not be carried off into hell for its crimes; it is not fated to repeat them. But no moral engine will pull this country and the world inexorably forward either. In the last century, the world has seen both extraordinary expansions of social and political freedom and bloodshed on an extraordinary, technologically facilitated scale. We live longer and we live better thanks to an economic system that has nevertheless produced previously unfathomable levels of inequality and that, for the short-term profit and convenience of a relative few, is gradually undoing the basic systems that have sustained stable human life on this planet.
The popular narratives we construct, to noble and ignoble ends, do not and cannot do justice to the interplay of agents, institutions, systems, and ideologies that actually shape history. We can find logic in the chaos. We might discern, in historical material, forces and circumstances that may have made, and may still make, certain outcomes likely or liable to recur. None of this amounts to spiritual predestination. You simply will not find, even in the best histories, binding instructions from the dead as to who or what the living ought to be.
“What is Political Writing For?” — Columbia Journalism Review (September 15)
Day in and day out, readers from the center to the left are offered the same arguments about the state of the Republican Party and what Democrats ought to be doing, without much discernible impact. Many journalists in my particular corner of the political landscape have persistently high hopes for what progressive writing can do, and those hopes are grounded in some real accomplishments. It’s probably fair to assume that bold and strident left-wing punditry has intertwined with other factors—including on-the-ground work by activists and organizers and the socioeconomic realities facing key Democratic constituencies—to bring about some of the policy and electoral victories progressives have seen in recent years on issues such as criminal justice reform and drug policy, particularly at the state and local levels.
But at the federal level, where most of our energy and attention is spent, national political commentators have succeeded mostly in encouraging an impressive share of Democratic political elites, activists, and policy professionals to engage with important policy ideas— Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, the addition of new states, the expansion of the Supreme Court, and so on—that are unlikely to pass Congress.
[...]Of course, there was never a time when the world could be expected to move at the stroke of a hack’s pen. But we’re living in a moment at which the basic premises justifying conventional engagement with national politics no longer seem plausible, and our structural stasis has been belied by the unprecedented volume and intensity of our punditry. Certainly, the internet has had some positive effects on the industry and helped diversify it with more writers from under-represented backgrounds. But that only makes it all the more surprising that online conversations feel as homogeneous and repetitive as they do. The tonal and stylistic differences between writers and publications are eroding; the dynamics of the internet have driven competing outlets to make similar judgments about what’s worth writing about and how. The morsels of rage and misery we offer might not have much political effect, but they do feed an online writing economy that rewards speed, quantity, and deference to algorithms designed for the profit of three or four tech companies—an economy that offers few incentives to generate writing that lingers in the mind longer than half a day or half an hour.
“The Case for Partisanship” — The New Republic (September 20)
On the history of “bipartisanship”:
Despite and, again, because of our deepening political divides, leaders and voters in both parties, and the Democratic Party in particular, continue to make rhetorical appeals to bipartisanship as though it’s a fully coherent and foundational political value—one that, given the initial reluctance of Democratic leaders to impeach Donald Trump without Republican support and the dubious defenses of the filibuster as a facilitator of bipartisan compromise, has come to sit a few rungs above the rule of law and majority rule. What could possibly justify that position? While it’s produced decent legislation here and there, bipartisanship has also yielded many of the most destructive policies of the last quarter-century, including welfare reform, the deregulation of Wall Street, and, in another demonstration of bipartisanship’s power to foreclose foreign policy debate, the war on terrorism. Many of the bills the Democratic advocates of bipartisanship take the most pride in—from major legislation of the New Deal to the Affordable Care Act—were products of the party’s partisan dominance. We’ve come to a point where the protection of the right to vote and the reform of our federal political system are also partisan projects. And it cannot seriously be denied that the concept of bipartisanship—insofar as it is deployed as a case against unilateral Democratic action—has become a threat to the democratic process. If Democrats fail to check Republican voter suppression and the risk that the right subverts the next election, it will be because the pivotal voters in the caucus and the president upheld a doctrine that presupposes an equivalence between the two parties and holds that Republican abuses cannot be curbed without permission from Republicans.
“He’s Really Had a Substantial Amount of Time to Die” — Gawker (October 13)
On No Time to Die and the James Bond films:
The argument Dench’s M makes for an unshackled MI6 and agents like Bond in Skyfall is revived paraphrased by Fiennes’ M in No Time To Die’s trailer. “We used to be able to get into a room with the enemy,” he says. “And now, they’re just floating in the ether.”
The line doesn’t really work for this film and its plot — Safin and Blofeld are old-fashioned Bond villains — but it does illustrate something remarkable about the state of the series: the Bond franchise is arguably more ensconced in the post-9/11 mindset today than it was in 2002. And that’s a shame given the latently subversive premise of most of the series’ films: there exists a hidden world of luxury and ease populated by wealthy megalomaniacs so delusional and dangerous that the only just remedy is their assassination by the state.
At the outset, this was a narrative copout, a way to downplay the material and ideological conflicts at the heart of the Cold War and exonerate the great powers as the hapless dupes of shrewd manipulators. But as reductive as that basic conceit remains, the Bond universe has never seemed quite as plausible as it does today. The first two films of Craig’s tenure, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, were widely praised for offering a more “realistic” pair of villains in Le Chiffre and Dominic Green, subdued financiers quietly controlling the purse strings of international politics and terror from behind the scenes. As refreshing as those films were, they were works of understatement, the kind of realism they sought belied the extent to which inequality can be, and has become, an engine of eccentric excess and extremity.
There’s a vaguely Bondian headline in the press every other month now. Peter Thiel’s designs on the blood of the young. Ex-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn escaping trial in a box smuggled out of Japan by ex-Special Forces operatives. Jeff Bezos, aspiring space colonist, hollowing out a mountain to build a 10,000-year clock that will chime once a millennium. Mohammed bin Salman’s plans to inaugurate “a new way of life from birth to death” with “genetic mutations” in a pollution-free city that’ll be built in a single straight line across 100 miles of desert. Jeffrey Epstein’s plan, as reported by The New York Times, “to seed the human race with his DNA” by having “20 women at a time impregnated at his 33,000-square-foot Zorro Ranch” property in New Mexico. Laugh off space lasers and volcano lairs all you’d like, but understand this: We are entering an age of supervillainy. There’s no shortage of people around with more money and technology than sense and scruples; at their sociopolitical best, the Bond films encourage us to wonder what else they might be getting up to.
“Doing Popular Things Won’t Save the Democratic Party” — The New Republic (October 28)
The trouble for the popularists is that liberals—who made up nearly half of the Democratic primary electorate last year, a larger share than ever before—have shifted dramatically to the left on cultural issues in recent years. Democratic candidates and organizations depend on liberal time, liberal money, and liberal votes; it makes no more sense to suggest that the priorities of cultural progressives could simply be kicked to the curb than it does to suggest that the Republican Party could easily free itself from the grip of pro-life and gun rights groups. And even if it were true that it’s structurally more important for Democrats to rein in their outré voices than it is for Republicans, that need wouldn’t make the task any easier to accomplish. Bill Clinton’s “Sister Souljah moment” and the political impact of the crime and welfare reform bills have been immortalized in political memory; fewer remember that racial politics within the Democratic coalition remained polarizing enough under Clinton, despite his best efforts, that the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and major civil rights leaders courted by Democratic candidates were willing to play footsie with Louis Farrakhan.
But while message discipline is never really total, and advocacy groups can’t easily be muzzled, it should be acknowledged, again, that the Democrats under Biden are already doing as much of what the popularists are asking of them as could reasonably be expected. In fact, they were doing popularism before it had a name—the message that Democrats supposedly “don’t want to hear” is pretty much the only advice Democratic leaders have been willing to listen to for the last 30 years.
And their total commitment to the safe and the inoffensive endangers the rest of Shor’s project. The chances of major structural reforms being enacted while the Democrats hold Congress are dim not because college-educated progressives in advocacy groups and on Twitter hold too much influence over the party, but because they hold so little on this front that they’ve been ignored by the party’s pivotal actors. And as skilled as they might be at winning white moderates and conservatives, it’s those pivotal actors—Manchin, Sinema, and the other Democrats working, publicly and privately, to hobble even the popularist portions of Biden’s agenda—who are doing the most to pull the party toward oblivion.
Year in Review: Music
Beyond the recap, I hope to leave off every year with some lists of things I happened to enjoy. I didn’t manage to see very many new films for reasons that ought to be obvious. And my reading list was too work-specific to be much use to anyone — I imagine the same will be true next year. But I did listen to plenty of new music. Here, in no particular order, are 15 albums and songs I can recommend.
Afrique Victime - Mdou Moctar
Seek Shelter - Iceage
Cavalcade - black midi
Sling - Clairo
Sinner Get Ready - Lingua Ignota
Juno - Remi Wolf
On All Fours - Goat Girl
Collapsed in Sunbeams - Arlo Parks
For the first time - Black Country, New Road
New Long Leg - Dry Cleaning
Ultrapop - The Armed
HEY WHAT - Low
Bright Green Field - Squid
Happier Than Ever - Billie Eilish
Let Me Do One More - illuminati hotties
Deja vu - Olivia Rodrigo
Bitter Streets - Sault
G.S.K. - Squid
Chismiten - Mdou Moctar
What Do It Mean - Lord Huron
Ascending Forth - black midi
Closing In - Goat Girl
Trouble in Paradise - The F16s
Sunset Dreams - Jane Weaver
An Iteration - The Armed
Hope - Arlo Parks
MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA - illuminati hotties
Dealer - Lana Del Rey
Sunglasses - Black Country, New Road
Reasons to Be Cheerful
Happy new year, everyone.
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