Hey all. As promised, this is a Year in Review post. I hope you've been well and that the newsletter’s been of some real value to you in its first full year. I’ve been focused on the book throughout and haven’t published much, but most of the non-book writing I’ve done — and much of the non-book writing I’ve found the most worthwhile — has been here. I’m increasingly glad I took this project on and I’d like to keep it going for as long as I can. As always, send any questions and comments to email@example.com. I’m always happy to hear them.
Some Published Work
“Trump Isn’t the Only One to Blame for the Capitol Riot” — The New York Times (January 4)
On the anniversary of January 6th:
At no point in his political career — not a single day — has Mr. Trump enjoyed the support of the majority of the country he governed for four years. And whatever else Jan. 6 might have been, it should be understood first and foremost as an expression of disbelief in — or at least a rejection of — that reality. Rather than accepting, in defeat, that much more of their country lay outside their ken than they’d known, his supporters proclaimed themselves victors and threw a deadly and historic tantrum. The riot was an attack on our institutions, and of course, inflammatory conservative rhetoric and social media bear some of the blame. But our institutions also helped produce that violent outburst by building a sense of entitlement to power within America’s conservative minority.
“Washington Plays Itself” — The New Republic (April 25)
On film and television about the mucky business of American politics:
Washington movie and TV shows don’t tell us much more than we already know about politics, but they do deepen our understanding of why so few were able to see Donald Trump and the collapse of politics as we knew it coming. “Our lives are more and more determined by forces that overwhelm the individual,” McKay says in The Candidate—this is the first and last you hear of such forces in the film. Instead, the film inaugurates a tradition that misses the forest for the trees—critiques of political professionals that aggrandize them as the frustrating yet endlessly fascinating loci of all our problems. “Politics is bullshit,” one of McKay’s activist friends tells him early in the film. That may well be so, but the empty pageantry has a purpose. Our obsession with political hacks has encouraged the public to think about politics on the hacks’ terms; entirely too much time we might otherwise spend debating policies and values has been given over to trading superstitions about “electability” and “momentum.” Instead, we ought to turn our attention to the defects of economic and political structures we’ve long taken for granted. Filmmakers and artists aren’t obligated to be political didacticists. But those who take up that responsibility and mean well ought to give us more than the easy, know-nothing cynicism we’ve been handed down for generations. So, politics is bullshit. Fine. What do we do now?
“The Democrats’ best message for the midterms: democracy is in grave peril” — The Guardian (September 7)
On messaging in the lead up to the midterms:
[D]emocracy and the rule of law aren’t just abstract ideals — they’re the means by which we solve our material problems. Republican efforts to usurp and delegitimize the electoral process should trouble us not just because they’re unfair and destabilizing, but because they advance the interests of the wealthy and powerful, who benefit from the conservative policy agenda. By attacking our elections and the right to vote, conservatives hope to rob us of opportunities to shore up and empower working class Americans on issues from health care to labor rights. And this is the point Democrats should emphasize — especially given that the pivotal constituencies in the electorate, swing and Trump-curious voters, are clearly ambivalent about, or willing to overlook, Republican violations of democratic norms.
“Did Democrats just have the best midterms by a president’s party in years?” — The Guardian (November 10)
On the midterm results:
[T]he structural advantages that the federal system affords the most conservative parts of the country have prevented the Republican party from fully bearing the costs of Trump’s rise and presidency – and they may well bring him to victory again in the next election. But Trump has been costly, and we can expect a cadre of Republican power-brokers and money men to pursue alternative candidates with more urgency now. That ought to trigger a shift in messaging from Democrats. Throughout this election and the last, Biden and other party figures and candidates labored to give voters the impression Trumpism is a passing fad on the right; the dream of a redeemable Republican party is still alive in the rhetoric of Democratic leaders, if not genuinely in their hearts. But it’s substantively untrue and strategically unwise to maintain that the right’s threats to equality and the democratic process are contained fully in Trump’s person and the figures who’ve tethered themselves closely to him. Over the last quarter century in particular, our politics have been coarsened and destabilized not by a narrow faction of Super-Ultra-Extra-Mega-Magnum-Maga Republicans, but by the Republican party and the wider conservative movement as a whole.
“America’s Post-Trump Delusion Is in Full Swing” — The New Republic (November 28)
On the latest “post-Trump” moment:
The Republican Party understands the climate its rhetoric and strategies have created kills people and will continue to do so; it remains important to Republican politicians that the men being provoked to murder have the right tools at their disposal. It’s of some comfort that many Americans have come to see the right’s degeneracy for what it is and that Republicans continue to pay an electoral penalty for it. But given the mounting structural advantages the GOP enjoys within the federal system, this election barely qualifies as a setback. The 2024 campaign will be hard fought no matter who winds up on top of the Republican ticket. And even if it loses at the polls, we can rest assured that the right will snatch whatever victories it can manage from the jaws of political defeat.
On organized labor and democracy:
I’ve been writing about the Founding and the Constitution more and more not as a matter of historical pedantry, but because I think understanding the origins of the system helps us understand why certain features of it have become problematic and clarifies, too, the extent to which those features can be meaningfully reformed without a fundamental departure from the Framers’ original design. It’s about strategy and rhetorical emphasis, really — simply put, I think our conversations about democracy should be about democracy, and not litigations of whether our contemporary understandings of it can be understood as congruent with the intentions of men who lived over 200 years ago. If it’s true that labor unions helped build a culture that might have helped sustain multiracial democracy, it seems likely to me that reviving that culture will involve talking about democracy in ways broad enough to encompass the role democratic values can play in both economic and political life.
On the pandemic and the zeitgeist:
One reason why the column for The Guardian is bimonthly is that I really don’t feel like I have very much to say about the ins and outs of the political news cycle anymore. I’m reasonably confident some scaled down version of BBB will pass before the midterms. I’m also reasonably confident Biden will lose his governing majority anyway. Also, the Supreme Court seems likely to overturn Roe or do something close. These are the things that will really matter politically this calendar year; most things we talk about actively now are filler destined to be forgotten as thoroughly as people seem to have forgotten most of the Obama years. The other thing that might matter a great deal politically, of course, is the pandemic, although it’s hard to gauge its potential impact without knowing whether conditions will improve.
[...]There’s a real hunger all around — and not just with COVID — for certainty and a return to a sense that the world is governed by a set of intelligible, stabilizing rules, ones preferably set in alignment with American interests. Everyone who really matters in this country — in Washington, in the board rooms, at the polls — grew up in an era when even the threat of existential, annihilating conflict could be internalized as a force that brought order to the world. Clear lines, clear enemies, all matters subsumed by or slotted into a grand and simple ideological battle between good and evil. But now our grand problems don’t seem as simple — not that they ever really were. Climate change, inequality, intractable sociopolitical divisions, decaying institutions —to pessimists like me, the first 20 years of this century already suggested we’d spend the rest of it watching the old world come apart. COVID was a surprise, and maybe the first of many. An early sign that things might get even worse than I’d thought.
“The Past and Its Uses” (February 20)
On reckonings with history:
In the wake of the 1619 Project, many have argued that our counternarratives to the American mythologies we’ve inherited should be animating ones — if we really want to move forward, it’s been said, we have to tell ourselves constructive stories about the past rather than merely destructive ones. Personally, I don’t really see why getting people behind a positive vision of the future would necessarily require them getting on the same page about the past; the impulse to reach an apologetic but ultimately positive consensus about American history seems like a way of fencing ourselves in ideologically to the benefit of institutions that, again, want us feeling sorry instead of feeling radically empowered.
What we need is truth without despair. That is the thing to reach for. Is it possible? Every journalist ought to believe so on some level. But every journalist also ought to understand that as clearly, and as dispassionately, and as thoroughly as you might render something for a reader or a viewer, you cannot make them believe it. The fact that the evils of the American past almost defy comprehension altogether is an added challenge. The more I read about slavery, the less I feel I know about it — not in a factual sense, but, I suppose, a in spiritual one. The facts are only the surviving outermost layer of a larger, wholly unabsorbable reality. I understand what happened in 1619. And yet 1619 remains fundamentally inaccessible to me. And if it’s inaccessible to me, how could it ever be made accessible to those with every reason to believe, or to pretend to believe, the best about our history? The blind cannot be cured by the power of intention.
“Intelligence Failure” (February 24)
On Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and denials it was plausible on the left:
The central indictment the anti-war left ought to have made against Iraq and Afghanistan wasn’t that they were misguided, or poorly defined, or too costly but that they were wars and that war is awful. Period. The further you get from that indictment, the more difficult it is to speak coherently about geopolitics in other cases — you deny the bad things you see in the world because the arguments that might otherwise be available against intervention have been underdeveloped and underpromoted to the public. This is a problem that’s been evident for some time, frankly, and it’s been a boon for grifters. Tulsi Gabbard appeared repeatedly on Fox News over the course of the Obama administration to urge a broader and more destructive campaign against ISIS and "radical Islam." Not too long afterwards, a faction on the left pushed her candidacy for the presidency on the grounds that she had “anti-war” and “anti-imperialist” credentials. Something wasn’t right there; here again, I think the same people made a different mistake for the same fundamental reasons.
What our foreign policy discourse needs, between bloodthirsty demagogues, confused people who mean well, the grifters who don’t mean well that confuse them, and the Serious People in the media spouting banalities about the post-Cold War international order they took for granted collapsing, are left-wing voices who can speak lucidly about foreign affairs without leaning too heavily on mental shortcuts — the CIA and the media lie a lot, etc— of real, but limited utility.
“On Liberalism, Again.” (April 11)
On the philosopher Liam Bright’s writing on liberalism:
[L]iberalism’s critics have a tendency to overstate how agnostic most liberals actually are about the common good. It seems to me that most liberals believe either that liberal rights and freedoms actually constitute the common good in some sense, or that liberal freedoms, the free exchange of ideas, and trial and error through liberal democratic processes will help society discover and implement the common good — whatever it may be. Moreover, as Bright explains at length, liberal principles have, despite liberalism’s putative openness and neutrality, materially contributed to the rise of specific economic formations and forms of governance. Liberalism thus far has organized the state around “a notion of the common good” — that notion is capitalism. It’s just one that the left opposes.
Personally, I really haven’t the foggiest idea whether “the common good” really exists beyond contestable notions at all; what it is if it does; why there might not be multiple, even contradictory “common goods”; how many people have to benefit for a “good” to be “common”; or why the most “common good” would be inherently more desirable than other less “common,” but still expansive “goods.” Given all that, I might be the kind of liberal Bright is actually arguing against, although, again, I don’t think there are many liberals who agree with me.
“Stupid Is As Stupid Does” (April 19)
On Jonathan Haidt’s indictment of the zeitgeist:
It is true, as Haidt says, that the web has been more homogenizing than many expected; I don’t think success on that front would be more room for “dissent” on progressive cultural politics than the space already taken up by anti-woke writers at The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Substack, and so on. These institutions are more responsible for the deadening sameness of our discourse than any other camp; our debates are shallow partially because they insist we have them on their terms over, and over, and over again.
[...] Something, as I’ve said before, is shifting among our better commentators and critics. If I could sum it up briefly, I’d say that efforts are being made to reapproach and construct more affirmative answers to the age-old questions – What is art? What is truth? What is justice? What is character? What is the good life? – now that the gatekeepers who long managed the debates over them have been weakened or toppled. Conservatives are not wrong to perceive that the very premises underlying those questions have been philosophically challenged over the course of the last 50 to 60 years. Those challenges were to our benefit. But they didn’t make it much easier for us to understand how, exactly, we’re supposed to live. So, we want answers again — new ones, from a different set of voices.
“Artificial Intelligence” (August 25)
On the now infamous Sam Bankman-Fried and effective altruism:
[E]ven billionaires who’ve read Derek Parfit can have trouble being ethical. And as I’ve suggested previously, the fundamental questions before us when it comes to inequality — and this confuses people on the left, too — aren’t really about whether someone with a spare billion to spend should buy mansions, give it away, or shove it under a very large mattress. They’re about why the economy gives such people more than they know what to do with in the first place and whether the disadvantaged might be helped more by different economic arrangements than by the benevolence and empathy of people who clawed their way to riches.
What’s more, I think I’m a long-termist in the sense that I do think existential risks are important and worth shoring ourselves against. And I think future generations contending with climate change, pandemics, evil computers, or any other large-scale problems are probably going to find having strong and stable political institutions useful. I don’t know if Bankman-Fried disagrees. But he is giving some of his money to Republicans.
“No More Kings” (September 13)
On the death of Queen Elizabeth:
In 1967, seven years after Nigeria was granted independence, a civil war broke out that really defies brief explanation. In short, there were coup attempts, people of our tribe were targeted in pogroms and tried to secede, and Nigeria, with military support from the British government, quashed the rebellion with a blockade that killed perhaps as many as 1-2 million people through famine and disease.
[...] To my knowledge, the British government has never apologized for its role in the war. Neither did Elizabeth. To do so, the defenders of constitutional monarchy argue, would have corrupted an institution that usefully transcends politics. Beyond turning a blind eye to national atrocities, achieving transcendence also involves the stuff of the society pages — marrying “well,” and publicly living better and more beautifully than those who ought to look up to you and learn from your example. Conservatives have always found these aspects of the monarchy appealing, and they’re fundamental components of the symbolism that anti-anti-royalist contrarians want to reduce to a matter of patriotism and anti-partisanship. I imagine Meghan Markle understands this quite well now.
[...] The mystique of the monarchy doesn’t really hold a candle, though, to the mystique of democracy. “The people” as an entity making their singular “will” known; the divination of their fickle intentions by appointed soothsayers; the pageantry of elections and inaugurations; the drama of action in the streets; the idea that the public, not literally present in the halls of Congress or our statehouses, is still there somehow, embodied in individuals we expect to act as we would and feel or even look like we collectively do — all of this sits on a higher abstract plane than the grubby business of hereditary succession and getting the right people to have sex.
“Are Men OK?” (October 4)
On Jordan Peterson and masculinity:
All my life, I’ve been told that being a man is about both Brooks Brothers suits and overalls. It’s sharp business cards and fishing rods. It’s cruising around in an Aston Martin and sloshing through mud in an ATV. It’s drinking the cheapest beer on tap and taking an interest in expensive cognac. It’s both watching other underdressed men writhe around sweatily and making shows of disgust at male physical intimacy.
Again, I’m relatively untutored in what academics have to say about all this. But my suspicion is that the masculinity of popular discourse is, in fact, a phantom — a meaningless tangle of contradictory cultural practices and consumer preferences that sit atop the one durable and certain thing that’s always defined men and their place in the world, which is their power over women. As Peterson himself suggests, this is the heart of the matter; materially, anxieties about lost control over women’s sexual lives are now manifesting themselves in an ever more draconian abortion policy regime.
As was the case last year, I was stuck inside writing and trying not to get sick for most of 2022 and didn’t get out to see and do much that I might recommend. But I did listen to a ton of music, per usual. Some picks:
Ants from Up There — Black Country, New Road
Beatopia — beabadoobee
Cave World — Viagra Boys
Classic Objects — Jenny Hval
Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You — Big Thief
Electricity — Ibibio Sound Machine
Gemini Rights — Steve Lacy
God Save the Animals — Alex G
Hellfire — black midi
LABYRINTHITIS — Destroyer
Natural Brown Prom Queen — Sudan Archives
PAINLESS — Nilüfer Yanya
Pompeii — Cate Le Bon
The Overload — Yard Act
YTI⅃AƎЯ — Bill Callahan
“American Coffee” — Jenny Hval
“Blessing” — Alex G
“Chaos Space Marine” — Black Country, New Road
“Foul” — Special Interest
“June” — Destroyer
“Karma” — Taylor Swift
“Kill Bill” — SZA
“Natural Information” — Bill Callahan
“Return to Monke” — Viagra Boys
“The Overload” — Yard Act
“Time Escaping” — Big Thief
“Very Online Guy” - Alvvays
“We Cry Together” — Kendrick Lamar and Taylour Paige
“Welcome to Hell” — black midi
“You Will Never Work In Television Again” — The Smile
Happy New Year, everyone. Thanks, as always, for reading.
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