The Name of Progress

Carson Holloway, a visiting fellow with right-wing think-tank (which is, admittedly, a redundant turn of phrase) has this compelling lede in an article in the conservative Catholic journal First Things this month:

Last year, Christian conservatives had serious reservations about Donald Trump. I was among them. But many of us voted for him anyway. For most, the calculation was straightforward. The end—protecting ourselves, our children, and our country from an increasingly hostile ­progressivism—justified the means, the Trump presidency. This raises a crucial question: May Christians make such a calculation? Or did those of us who voted for Trump on those terms forfeit our Christian principles?

It will disappoint some and surprise no one that Holloway has absolutely no intention of honestly exploring the answer to either of the questions he poses here, so I have some of my own, for him and for others who think like him. Holloway spends his word count carefully masturbating about Niccolo Macchiavelli’s The Prince, a work of genuine profundity to the college freshmen and a code-word for tiresome conversation ever after.

Trump is either a “benign Machiaveillian,” in which case it was wise to vote for him, a “dark Machiavellian,” in which case it was reasonable if unpleasant to vote for him, or “a truly dark Machiavellian prince bereft of moral principles,” in which case there was no choice but to vote for him, because “[t]ruly principled statesmen… are rarely available.” Indeed,

In supporting Trump, Christians may be doing something unwise—there are no guarantees in public life. But they are doing nothing un-Christian.

But of course this is horseshit of the rankest vintage and Christians who voted for and publicly support Donald Trump ought to beg God and their fellow man for forgiveness because Trump is not even an ordinarily venal and contemptible politician but a despicably wicked person who has undertaken for his entire career to enrich himself at the ruinous expense of the vulnerable and destitute and now proposes to inflict this project on the country at large.

If his loathsome mistreatment of women does not disqualify him in the eyes of a Christian church that, admittedly, has little use in its current form for the sex that bears children, perhaps people who supposedly take into account the opinions of Jesus Christ ought to be disturbed by the behavior of someone who sold the dream of wealth to the very poor for tens of thousands of dollars, with special emphasis on black people, through infomercials, high-pressure sales tactics, and positive student evaluations obtained by duress through his unaccredited and unlicensed Trump University.

Perhaps it ought to bother people who claim to have any familiarity with the Gospels that Trump systematically refused to sell apartments in his buildings to black people, or that he took out an ad in the New York Times calling for five black children to be executed as punishment for a crime of which they had been falsely accused, or that he told his supporters to beat up protestors, and that a number of those supporters happily complied, beating Hispanic and black people at his rallies.

When someone brags, not in private, but in an interview with a national news network, that he strategically refuses to repay his creditors in order to enrich himself and calls himself “The King of Debt;” when he says that not returning public money to the IRS “makes him smart;” when the Mafia, for some unexplained reason, builds his casino with undocumented Polish workers who charge far below the going rate, work 12-hour shifts, don’t wear hard hats and eventually sue him for refusing to pay them even their meager wages; then, perhaps, we can begin to reliably infer that at the time of Jesus’ suggestion in Mark 10 that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, the image in the mind of our Lord, of someone whose girth exceeds the diameter of heaven’s gate, might have borne a passing resemblance to Holloway’s supposed champion of conservative virtue.

And, additionally, once we have considered for that quiet moment that Christ’s imprecations against progressivism are difficult to locate using Cruden’s Concordance, it might behoove us to look back on the nature of most of these offenses with a little introspection: Why doesn’t it bother us that Trump stole from black students or refused to sell condos to black house-hunters or bought ad space to demand that the state murder innocent black children? Why do we find ourselves unmoved or even uninformed about the white nationalist who assaulted a black woman at a Trump rally? Why do we roll our eyes when we hear people suggest that there might be some sort of nasty, subsonic valences in Trump’s imprecations against the inner cities and his invocation of murder statistics in Obama’s home town of Chicago and his repeatedly mislabeling Ferguson, Missouri, Brooklyn, New York and Oakland, California as “among the most dangerous [places] in the world?”

Perhaps there is a common thread there.

These are just Trump’s personal statements. His policies are, if anything, worse in their systemic immiseration of defenseless people. And yet Christians yawn at the deportation of Americans brought here by their parents as children, including the adopted children of missionaries. Kris Kobach, the politician responsible for purging black people from voter rolls, has been enfranchised with a special commission that will enable him to operate on a national level—fine. 22 million of our fellow citizens will lose health insurance if Trump’s crushing legislative agenda, such as it is, passes its first hurdle in the Senate—all right.

It’s said often in both progressive and conservative circles that the presidency is most useful in domestic terms as a figurehead; a sort of example to the world of the kind of place our country is, or ought to be. In Trump, his voters, largely wealthy and middle-class baby boomers who will be the final American generation to better themselves socially without college degrees, have found a particular kind of avatar, and not of faith in Jesus.

The most fundamental act of Christianity, clearly, is confession; Trump, for all his sins, is notable for his refusal to apologize except in the most perfunctory fashion and under the harshest duress. When he was for a moment shamed into addressing a recording of his bragging that he could grab any woman he wanted “by the pussy” because he was a celebrity, he denied, absurdly, that his clandestine admission of the kind of mistreatment a dozen women had already accused him of perpetrating constituted an admission of guilt. He said “I apologize” but he didn’t say to whom or ask anyone for forgiveness. If there is a system of belief opposite in every way to the humble practice of Christianity, Trump demonstrates it in his person and his policies.

Finally, what is this “increasingly hostile progressivism” that so frightens Holloway that all of this is somehow the lesser evil? If it is a set of policy positions worse than the above, I applaud its creators for their vivid imaginations.

If, as I more strongly suspect, it is an inchoate social force that promotes a cultural pluralism with no higher good than to live and let live, and seems to privilege the unconventional for sake of pure novelty, and the coruscations of unfamiliar desire that pleasurably accompany that shock of the new, I suspect the name it wants, the name that struggles and fails to deserve it, is America.

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You’re Asking the Wrong Questions

American FlaggAnother day, another offensive image to be upset about, another group of painfully marginalized and sympathetic people demanding the artist who created it suffer consequences; in another quarter, another essay on the ways “freeze peach” mouth-breathers from the web’s underbelly stifle the worthy work of people less privileged than they are.

In all of this there’s a particular video worth watching, called “What Happened at Vidcon?” detailing a minor spat between two YouTube celebrities, Boogie2988, the online handle of an Arkansas man named Steven Jay Williams, and Anita Sarkeesian, the feminist media critic who has managed to barter her notoriety as the victim of persecution by legions of unbearable internet trolls who threaten to rape and murder her into a semi-positive position as a commentator. The video is below.

So there are a few things worth noting here, among them that Williams seems legitimately frightened of Sarkeesian, who is much more famous than he is and will doubtless “win” in a social media beef with him and possibly damage his standing in the video-maker community, which is entirely dependent on various surprisingly large microcults. This is a newish form of entertainment and it is entertaining precisely because it is quite real; the people who are able to make a living on YouTube must strike a balance between participating in intramural drama between other vloggers and remaining likable to their viewership.

Williams makes a number of implicit and explicit requests for sympathy from his audience, which is about par for the course (another video starts with his complaining about his sleep deficit), especially with multiple references to his anxiety, by which I assume he means a psychiatric disorder, possibly professionally diagnosed. Google him and you can learn his family history fairly easily, which has apparently been the subject of some of his videos.

What’s most interesting is that Williams actually does generate scripted work in the form of comedy sketches starring a character he writes called “Francis,” a stereotypical video game nerd. No one, though, could mistake Francis for Williams’s product; his product is himself. He’s not selling art, he’s selling the experience of being close to an artist and knowing the person who creates something of value, which in turn conveniently obscures the value of the the art itself.

In the New York Times today, the comedian and writer Lindy West observes, not for the first time, that the Constitutional right to free speech is a function of government and that therefore it is self-evidently idiotic to accuse her of censorship when she is not at work in the government, but is instead trying to defend people like Sarkeesian, who features prominently in the article, from cruel, anonymous strangers.

The problem with this argument is that when people accuse writers like West and others of impinging on the right to speak of people they disagree with, they are not telling West she has committed a crime, they are saying she has violated a principle, and that of course is true. West is very frank that she thinks people should be fired for saying racist and sexist things on the internet and that’s a statement that feels true until you think about who defines offensive speech, under what circumstances and to what ends.

Which is to say, anyone at all, whenever they want, for whatever reason suits them.

Standards of racism and sexism vary wildly throughout American culture. Liberals often like to think of bigotry as being defined carefully and taxonomically by sober academics who deploy precision and good judgment, conscious of the weight their findings will carry once they are published, but of course academics are the first people in line to use accusations of prejudice to torpedo career tracks, ruin reputations and drive people out of their jobs.

The fact of the matter is that current standards of racism and sexism are not enforced by a council of social scientists but by large corporations and universities who react exclusively to threats to their financial well-being and do not give a good goddamn about what is or isn’t “actually” racist or sexist, only what appears to be publicly damaging to their reputations. West and others have developed complex rubrics and they are often worth examining and understanding but they are entirely worthless in the real world because no one who will fire an employee for saying something outside of work that outrages a group of influential people actually possesses any sort of moral compass.

This seems very obvious to me and to many others but the potential to misuse these incredibly powerful tools of public shame hasn’t stopped people like West and others from lobbying for their creation, and so we now have them: Logrolling campaigns on Twitter and Facebook, doxxing, calling the offender’s employer to tell them about the ugly thing they’ve done; these are all now part of the antiracist and the feminist’s toolkit.

And of course they are also part of the white supremacist’s toolkit, the misogynist’s toolkit, and the troll’s toolkit. While feminists and antiracists often understand ideals with a laudable degree of precision, committed Nazis and chauvinists inherently understand norms, because they tirelessly test them for weak points and invest their intellectual resources not in honing their arguments through committed discussion with their peers, but in finding interruptions and exceptions that will allow them to more easily prey on women and  exclude minorities. A rapist’s mission is very clear; a feminist’s goals are created anew every day by that rapist’s shifting emphasis on new and untried ambiguities.

There’s no more fertile farm for ambiguities than the internet, where no one wants to think about anything for very long, and so West finds herself in a bind she articulates very well near the end of her piece: “It’s not hard to draw a straight line from internet culture warriors’ misappropriation of free speech to our current mass delusions over climate change, the Hyde Amendment, abstinence-only education, health care as a luxury and class as a meritocracy.”

It’s true, the notion of “free speech” has been effortlessly coopted by fantastically wealthy ideologues in order to fund shadow ecosystems of news that traffic exclusively in misinformation. But those things didn’t grow up because they were popular, as West seems to believe; they were carefully nurtured with gobs of money by people who have a vested concrete financial interest in their propagation. The American government, as West observes, does not regulate speech, but it also does not regulate much of anything else, including healthcare, which is the real payment for most modern jobs.

So two things are definitely true, then: The first is that the Right has just as much power as the Left to deploy grievance culture in the service of punishing individual speakers—West cites a number of sad examples in her op-ed, most significantly Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who had to cancel two of her talks after receiving credible threats, on top of dozens of vile, hateful emails, for describing the President as a “racist and sexist megalomaniac” in a speech at Hampshire College that was subsequently aired on Fox News, which is an amazing tool for kickstarting astroturf outrage campaigns through the scores of aggregator outlets that rereport its already breathless coverage at an even higher pitch. Reports in conservative media tied Yamahatta-Taylor’s speech to the decision by Hampshire, where she does not teach, to fly the flag at half-staff to protest post-election violence, an affront to a particular stated value of conservatives, namely respect for veterans (some of whom protested the decision). The resulting spasm of rage demanded, and got, one thing from Yamahatta-Taylor: Silence. This despite the fact of both the lowered flag and Yamahatta-Taylor’s speech being political dissent, presumably exactly the sort of speech any law or principle ought to protect.

The second truth is that the only way to purge a speech act from the public square is to demonstrate that its expression is a significant enough financial liability to an employer that its fiscal state would be improved by cutting ties with the speaker. That will likely either force the speaker to shut up or apologize in the hopes of retaining his job and healthcare, and it will send a powerful message to everyone else: Say this thing, and your child might die of strep throat.

And so at last we come to poor old art, the bastard cousin of conviction, and its latest offense against the people: the cartoonist Howard Chaykin has drawn an ugly picture.

It is in fact an incredibly ugly picture, an image of a man being lynched, his genitals apparently mutilated, and it appears on the cover of issue #4 of Chaykin’s embarrassing comic The Divided States of Hysteria, which communicates with, at least, a great deal of sincerity, a cable-news-watching middle-aged white urban liberal’s idea of what’s wrong with the country and the world. It’s supposed to be a revenge fantasy, I guess, but it traffics in eye-rollingly racist caricatures in exactly the sort of way that is hard to forgive even when it’s clear that the genuine offense it gives is unintentional.

The book also features a transsexual prostitute, like a great many Chaykin books, notably the author’s Black Kiss neonoir comics, which are also very bad.

I’m not going to spend too much of our precious lives defending Chaykin’s body of work beyond saying that it deserves such a defense; Time^2 is a terrific graphic novel series and his long-running American Flagg book broke new artistic ground in a wide variety of ways. His recent stuff has been good, too, notably a 12-issue miniseries about the birth of television with the writer Matt Fraction called Satellite Sam.

The question of whether the cover is in poor taste is a settled one: Yes, absolutely. On a book that is not very good? You got it. On a book that is not worth defending?

Well, now, see, those are fighting words.

The discussion of Chaykin’s work online at the moment is split between bad-faith readings of all his work in an effort to show that he is attempting to convert his readers into trans-hating monsters, well-meaning defenses minimizing a specific tone-deafness that has permeated a long and distinguished career, and highly contemptible efforts to psychologize him and pin down the forces of influence in a life and a mind nobody writing has any access to. These are all hugely, obviously, wrong approaches: Chaykin is not Steven Jay Williams. He is not selling his anxiety disorder on YouTube. He is selling drawings and stories, and if they say something about him personally, you probably don’t know what that thing is. Williams has spent quite a bit of time crafting his personality for maximum likability; Chaykin has spent decades trying to do things with comics that no one else has ever done. To treat the Chaykin the way you would treat Williams is to do the former a tremendous disservice. He hasn’t given you access to his personality and you don’t understand it.

What ought to be said about Chaykin is that he is a tremendously talented artist and a less talented if still very gifted writer who is interested in writing about and drawing transwomen in a very lurid way that isn’t consistent with contemporary progressive ideas, and the fact that his new work still contains those particular blind spots can seem grotesque and to interfere with the baseline pleasure of reading a comic book.

What cannot be said about Chaykin is that he has “exploited” anyone—he draws from memory, not models and his characters are invented—that he has done violence to anyone by drawing a picture no one is being forced to look at, or that he has somehow abdicated his right to publish his comics.

The discussion of his work in the comics community is mostly devoted to whether he understands trans people in his heart, what his relationship to them is and has been, and whether he harbors bigotries that express themselves through his work. All of those are discussions worth having about Steven Jay Williams, because he has invited them. Chaykin has not, and there is no text from which to argue that he is a toxic or harmful person. His person is unavailable.

Many artists have very bad, regressive, perverse or just stupid ideas. Robert Crumb’s obsessions with degrading the women his proxy characters have sex with and with eye-wateringly grotesque ethnic caricatures make much of his early work very difficult to read. They are also obviously necessary for him to work through whatever it was he needed to work through to create some of the most beautiful and insightful satire anyone has ever been able to publish in any form and are of course incredibly valuable to the world for exactly that reason, and he seems to be a decent person in his dealings with other artists and with his family. Conversely, Charles Schulz notoriously drew entire subplots in his  family-friendly Peanuts comics that detailed the ways he was cheating on his wife with a woman 22 years his junior. The character of the artist and the character of the work are so far separated that they are often diametrically opposed, and so you can never really divine the one from the other.

As to what a work of art means, that’s an aspect of art that the artist has never controlled and will never be able to control; it’s what makes it a work of art and not a statement of fact.

Image Comics, the publisher of Chaykin’s current book, pulled the cover last week and issued an apology. It gave me chills. Irrespective of the carefully worded mea culpa, what the statement actually said was this: “We are frightened. We worry that our relationships with our fellow artists and our readers will be adversely affected by work we had already agreed to publish, and so we are reneging on that agreement in order to appease people who might do us harm. We are easily swayed, and unwilling to stand by our editorial decisions on principle, and to defend the economically precarious artists we employ from baseless attacks on their character.

“We will probably behave the same way next time.”

I updated this to correct an error: Keeanga Yamahatta-Taylor was not fired, she had to cancel talks because of credible threats to her safety. I had the incident confused with the case of John McAdams, a public policy professor at Marquette who was stripped of tenure after he blogged some retrograde opinions about a more junior teacher’s handling of a discussion of gay marriage. That case is complicated by the way the right responded to McAdams’ blog, which was by trying to bully the younger teacher into silence. My contention here remains that the bullying and the firing are expressions of the same phenomenon.

Ten questions about journalism

A friend doing a survey for a class she’s taking asked me this stuff. I took enough time with it that I thought I might put it up here in case it’s interesting to people. I was very honest so I hope none of this is shocking. I’ve lightly edited it for repeated words and typos and a couple of identifying details.

1. Tell me what influenced you to choose your profession.

Honestly, fictional portrayals of reporters in movies and comics. Tintin, Clark Kent, Peter Parker; they all seemed like they wanted to do the right thing so much. I never really grew out of that. Beyond that, when I got out of school, the one thing people told me I was good at was writing arts criticism, so I sought out a career doing that. Over the subsequent years I floated toward work that could both sustain me financially (arts writing isn’t really that because it’s been deprofessionalized by websites that don’t pay their contributors) and allowed me to try to do some good in the world. Now I’m in political reporting, where I think there is the capacity, at least, to change things for the better. It’s always hard to tell whether or not you’re doing that.

2. Has it been what you expected so far? If not, explain.

Definitely not, but I don’t know what I expected, really. It’s a very desirable job and I’m extremely lucky to have it, which I mostly do because people were nice to me along the way. There’s a hierarchy among journalists driven by class, personal wealth and connections that has absolutely nothing to do with talent, intelligence or hard work and that’s difficult to square with my idealized notion of the profession as vital truth-telling. Ability, acumen and reliability really don’t correspond at all to questions of who will get a cushy job at a TV network or a major newspaper and who has to take a buyout and switch careers in their forties.

But it’s still a very interesting job even if the conditions under which I perform it are often less than ideal. A shocking amount of really good, solid, effective journalism requires nothing more than a warm body, a working phone, and a willingness to keep on doing the work until it’s done. I also thought there would be more writing involved, but in fact the writing itself is the easiest, most enjoyable, least time-consuming part of the process. The hard part is winnowing down your theories into stuff that has a high probability of being true, getting as close to the people and documents who could tell you whether those things are true or not as you can, and then adjusting your the presumptions you started with to fit what you’ve learned. It’s a discipline I wish more people understood because it helps with consuming the news as well as writing it.

3. Where do you think your profession is heading? Do you view yourself as influencing your profession?

I don’t know where journalism is headed, which is an increasing worry to me as I approach middle age. I think there’s enough recognition that it does society good that it will probably be around for a while, but it’s being pushed toward amateurism really aggressively by people who think they understand what a reporter does, but don’t. No one can tell the difference between an opinion writer and a beat reporter any more, which is quite dangerous because it leads people to believe that every story is based on nothing more than the reporter’s personal beliefs, and increasingly, newsrooms encourage staff to do all their work from a computer. You learn very different facts from the internet than you learn by talking to people on the phone; you learn a third set of facts by meeting them in person. People are very important to journalism, and I think the digitization of the broader world – not just the end of print newspapers but the cessation of voice-to-voice phone calls and technologized general isolation – have damaged our ability to report on the vital human part of most stories, even as our ability to glean factoids in a matter of instants grows exponentially.

As to whether I’m personally influencing my profession, I don’t know. Maybe. I hope I’m influencing it for the better. When I can, I tell my immediate colleagues, who are almost all extremely organized, efficient, idealistic women in their twenties, “Do what you want to do with your life. Don’t be afraid people won’t hire you or promote you because you got married or had kids or took all your vacation days.” It’s all so arbitrary anyway. We all get fired when we turn 40. Ageism is a terrifying force in my profession; hardly anybody gets to retire any more. I was recently laid off and every open position seemed to be looking for someone who was ten years younger than I am and was hungry to pay their dues by working six days a week and filing five times a day. I can’t work like that any more. I regret the time I *did* spend working like that as a younger man; all it teaches you to do is ignore your personal well-being and write sloppy stories. I was incredibly lucky to find my current gig, which is not like that, and I hope I do well in it, but I also hope I can remember how much I learned about what is personally important during the two months I was jobless. If I’m having an influence I hope it’s by convincing people to go home on time and play with their dogs or something. It’s a very hard job and it drains you of a lot of your emotional and intellectual resources which can stunt your personal relationships and isolate you.

4. Is there a philosophy, theory, or framework which guides your practice? Please describe it for me and explain how you use it to guide practice.

The philosophy of journalism is to tell the reader the truth. People have a lot of very different ideas about what that means but it’s a simple enough rule. In general it breaks down into some guidelines that are pretty direct but are hard to follow:

-Seek reliable sources.
-Consider the need of your reader to know something above the need of a source to conceal it, but report only matters of sufficient public interest.
-Report as fact only something for which you can find two corroborating sources.
-Attribute controversial facts and facts without corroboration to people making the claim.
-Don’t ascribe guilt to someone who’s been accused of a crime, only to someone who’s been convicted of a crime.
-Publish corrections when you make mistakes.
-Be kind to regular people who are going to be affected by your reporting, especially if they’re going to be affected adversely. That doesn’t mean don’t ever do reporting that will affect the regular people in your stories adversely, but it does mean to be as thoughtful about it as you can.

And, for me personally, I think it’s important to show far less mercy, if any, to people who have sought power and attained it.

The question of “sufficient public interest” is both difficult and important—for example, Breitbart News, a site I abhor, used to have a story tag labeled “black crime.” The stories weren’t bad in and of themselves—they carefully reported actual incidents that had happened in the world—but because they reported them so selectively, even the most diligent reader would come away believing black people committed all crimes, which is already a harmful stereotype that perpetuates crimes against black people. So if their goal was to diminish crime, they were failing at it really badly. Story selection is an incredibly delicate and amorphous discipline and the one I worry about the most.

5. Tell me about any conflicts between your personal philosophy and the philosophy you use at work.

I often feel bad for the people I cover, especially low-level employees in communications offices working for large and immoral companies or parts of the government that are acting counter to the public good. Often they used to be hacks like me. Those people don’t make the decisions that have caused their employers to receive critical coverage, but they’re very easy to hide behind and blame and they frequently lose jobs or get in trouble over a stray remark to a person like me. I try to square that suffering with the good I think it does the public to know that, for example, a nuclear power plant is so decrepit it might melt down and kill people, but it’s hard. You always wonder if your reporting has made a difference even in a situation like that—which I covered last year, by the way, it’s not a hypothetical—and if it hasn’t, whether it’s worth the misery it causes.

6. In what ways do you use research in your position? Are you comfortable reading research articles?

I love research. When I talk to other reporters it’s often just bullshitting about old newspapers and lawsuits on PACER. It’s static, it’s all there on paper and can be rereported, and the public has a short enough memory that there are frequently bits and pieces readers find shocking or titillating despite their having been a matter of record for years or sometimes decades. A lot of the happier reporters I know have gone into true crime writing or book-length recent history projects.

7. Tell me about someone who has been (or currently is) a role model for you. How did you find this person? How does this individual help/guide you? Is this person aware that you view him/her as a role model?

My friend and mentor Linda Winer will probably always be my role model. We’ve fallen out of touch over the last few years but I still hold her in such high esteem. We met during a workshop when I was fresh out of undergrad and she was an august critic at Newsday. She liked me enough to introduce me to her editor, who gave me my first real assignment. She said so many smart things to me whenever we spent time together, and she hung on through so much upheaval in the industry not merely as an arts critic, which I think of as a hugely vital but often woefully underappreciated position, but as a woman at a time when it was even harder to work in this industry as a woman than it is now. I hope they name a theater after her when she’s gone and I hope that doesn’t happen for a hundred more years.

8. How do you use information technology in your work? How has this changed since you entered your profession?

Information technology has made the processes of reporting much easier by creating open access to things like lawsuits and public records, but it has totally devastated the business model. Everyone expects to get their news for free from Twitter or aggregator blogs that rip off the extremely difficult work of beat reporters. As unions have collapsed it’s also resulted in an era of “always-on-call” reporting where you’re expected to be available on your phone at all times, which ruins your free time and saturates you in the news in a way that prevents you from keeping perspective on what is and isn’t important on your beat. Small changes seem seismic and subtle shifts in interest and direction that will ultimately tell you what the reader finds useful go unnoticed. I hope some day I can get rid of my smartphone.

9. When you first entered your profession, did you feel welcomed and supported as a novice in the field? How do you view your view your role with novices currently?

I felt welcomed by specific people when I first started as an intern at Variety; John Dempsey, the senior TV reporter, was incredibly kind to me and always had time to answer dumb question after dumb question. My boss David Rooney was also very supportive; he scared the hell out of me at first but he inspired a lot of loyalty and he worked very hard on my stories. I don’t say he was patient but he cared at least as much as I did about the quality of my writing and as someone who wanted to be taken seriously as a theater critic at a very tender age that meant the world to me. I miss criticism a lot but I feel like working under David was wonderful training for work as a political reporter.

I love novices. They tend to be incredibly enthusiastic and reward institutional advocacy and support with loyalty and hard work. It’s really important to show up for them if you’re a senior reporter because they’re not going to complain if they get a short check or someone tells them not to file their hours. I hope as I get older I can throw my weight around a little more on their behalf; I think it’s one of the best things you can do at any job. Beyond that, there’s so much territoriality and credit-hogging in journalism that if you make a space for younger reporters you’ll often find them very accommodating and helpful. I think I’ve grown into that; as a younger man I felt threatened by people my age or younger who were working the same patch. But the longer you’re around the greater your expertise becomes, and the harder it is to step on your toes. If someone writes a story I want, that’s OK. I’m pretty confident I’ll have another good idea tomorrow. If someone with my knowledge base is constantly on my patch at my publication, there’s the potential for our work together to be twice as good. That perspective took a lot of time to grow into.

10. Do safety, security, quality, and confidentiality play any role(s) in your current position? Explain.

Yes, a huge role. Reporting on governments, which have unlimited money and are very comfortable with violence, is a dicey proposition. My computer is locked up tight as a drum and I’ve come up with a bunch of ways to secure it so even I can’t get into it if I’m ever in real trouble. I’ve often traveled to out-of-the-way places for my work where it would be hard to call for help, which makes me paranoid now. As I’ve written about Russian hack attacks over the last couple of years I’ve gotten at least one email I’m sure was from a hacker; it was quite a convincing one, too. It’s important for me to maintain the confidentiality of people who speak to me under certain conditions, because they could be subject to lawsuits, deportation, firing or any number of other consequences. Every journalist loves a whistleblower but they’re a huge responsibility and you can endanger them by going to press even if you’re very careful. An acquaintance I like very much published a piece not too long ago that I hope will lead to some major governmental reforms, but a secret tracking code on the document he published was traceable back to his source—whom even he had never met—and she was arrested and will probably go to prison for years. It’s sobering.

Linda, my theater critic mentor mentioned above, gave me the best advice I’ve ever heard about information security, which is a topic with a lot of charlatans muddying the waters with jargon and half-baked theories: It was after we’d been to a show Linda was reviewing and I’d wanted to talk about one of the actors or maybe a producer (Linda ritually refused to talk about the content of the show because she didn’t want your opinion coloring her own). Anyway I tried to strike up this conversation, which I thought was far enough afield from the quality of the show that it wouldn’t transgress on her rule, and she shook her head and pursed her lips and told me to wait until we were three blocks from the theater. So we walked three blocks from the theater and I kind of rolled my eyes and asked her why she’d made us walk all that way when there was obviously no one who cared to eavesdrop on us. And she gave me a big smile and said, “The walls have assholes.”

I hope you can learn to let go of your composure

Over the last few months of conversations with friends, colleagues, and strangers on the internet, conservatives among them, some of whom care for me personally and most of whom hate me and just want to score points off me while seeming nice at the same time — yes, these people mostly describe themselves as Christians — have said a peculiar thing: “You just seem really angry, and I hope you can let go of that.”

This came from close friends at first, sometimes as an eye-rolling “calm down” and sometimes as a gentler “I’m worried about how angry and stressed out you seem,” but irrespective of context, my reflexive response is the same every time, if a little complex. Here it is:

  1. Fuck you.
  2. FUCK YOU.
  3. FUCK
  4. YOU
  5. You stupid motherfucker, you spent eight years of Obama afraid the New Black Panther Party was going to make you get gay abortions, and now we’re headed into a likely stronger-than-average hurricane season without an agency head for NOAA and a bunch of cuts to everything that makes America worth a good goddamn proposed by devil-worshipping Republican supply-siders who want to replace all public benefits with taxpayer-funded contracts for their thieving campaign donors’ businesses. You fucked it up. You, personally, because you have no morals and are a selfish, regrettable asshole, fucked it up for me, and for my wife and son who are so much more vulnerable than either you or me, because you believe stupid dogshit bumper-sticker bromides about how it’s people’s character that makes them great and how America was founded on better ideals than any other country. Well, it wasn’t. It was founded on shitty ideals, like every place, and the only measure of its greatness is its generosity to its least privileged, and in that vital respect, you are the least great thing about it.Your ear-plugging stupidity about global warming means that we don’t even have the incredibly slim chance to save people from disastrous sea-level rises we might have had, and your disinterest in civics means that our friends, relatives and neighbors stand a better than usual chance of losing their Medicaid benefits; or being suddenly deported for the crime of being brought into the country as children by parents who wanted a better life for them, or just murdered on the spot by racists in an act that will now probably not be given the special legal status afforded hate crimes because we have a secessionist cartoon of a Bull Connor-era Alabama racist running the Department of Justice. The children you don’t know are gay are now more likely to be murdered, too. The fact of your interracial grandchildren will be held against your daughter. If your wife’s boss shows her his dick at work she will now have a harder time getting HR to listen to her. All these things were around the corner, but there was a chance to at least pay lip service to the effort needed to avoid them. You saw that chance, and you said to yourself, “Women, blacks and gays are walking around like they own the place. I’m gonna show ’em the score.” Well, congratulations! You did that. Eat shit.
  6. By electing Donald Trump to the presidency, you have empowered every white supremacist fringe group in the United States of America, which is a shit-hot ton. You don’t believe these people exist because they treat you with respect and deference because you are a white man or woman. But in fact, they are terrorists in the same way that Osama bin Laden was a terrorist. Wahabbist Islamists are not a magical people uniquely inclined toward acts of terror; white Christians conservatives are a dangerous group of fanatics obsessed with guns and extralegal justice, too. They have killed people and will kill people again, because you have made them feel enfranchised and given them the courage to act. So good job.
  7. Maybe you should try being especially kind and generous to people of color and your gay friends, and if you don’t have friends who are gay or people of color, get some, listen carefully to them when they tell you about their lives, when you want to argue with them about politics, shut the fuck up, and then meditate on what their lives are like because of selfish assholes like you.
  8. Pray that Jesus forgives you.
  9. Don’t talk to me again until you are also angry.

An argument with a straw pro-lifer

Most conservatives I know personally and respect are very religious – if you are “fiscally conservative but socially liberal” my entire argument with you is this tweet – and among them there’s a sense that no matter how bad Republican politicians are otherwise, their efforts to undo the (presumably purely Democratic) scourge of abortion sanctify all the other evil things Republicans do, like starting wars, taking away healthcare, grinding the poor into dirt and trampling the rights of minorities. Abortion, they will happily (if quietly) tell you, is the moral equivalent of the Holocaust and they are willing to do pretty much anything to see it put to an end. Condemnation of people like clinic bomber Eric Rudolph and Scott Roeder, who gunned down a doctor in the sanctuary of his church is slow to come from these corners.

So I thought I would briefly address their arguments as I understand them, and if people think I’ve mischaracterized those arguments I’m interested in hearing from them. Conservatives tend to think of these positions as totally unassailable so I hope if you’re reading this and you agree with them, you’ll have slightly less contempt for people who believe abortion should be legal. That is pretty important to me because contempt is what creates provisions like forcing doctors to describe fetal pain to women who are getting abortions in the third trimester because they are very poor, had no access to basic gynecological care and birth control and didn’t know they were pregnant, and can’t care for a child, largely because of  supply-side economic policies championed by conservatives and supported electorally by Christians.

Me: Abortion should be legal.

Straw pro-lifer: No, abortion is murder.

Abortion is something one woman does by herself, and there are versions of the procedure that are literally 3500 years old. The Bible suggests it to husbands who suspect their wives of cheating in the book of Numbers.

Murder is even older and it’s still illegal.

Murder requires two people, though. There’s only one person involved in an abortion.

Human life begins at conception.

You’ve skipped some steps here, but even then that seems self-evidently false to me. My hair is human life.

No, I mean new, unique human life.

Since each sperm contains the possibility of a new human life, doesn’t that mean that jerking off kills half a billion people every time?

You’re being obtuse. I mean that when an egg is fertilized, that creates a new, unique human life, with its own chromosomes. It’s not going to grow up to be a part of the mother. It’s going to grow up to be a new person.

So your contention here is that the soul is forged at the moment of conception?

Yes.

Isn’t that a religious argument? What if I don’t believe in the soul?

You believe in some kind of personhood that has to be defined legally. Not too long ago, black people were considered 3/5 of a person.

So a tray of fertilized oocytes prepared during the course of an IVF procedure is the moral equivalent of a kindergarten classroom?

I think it’s important to defend the right to life of the most vulnerable, and your hypothetical clouds the issue. IVF embryos are created artificially and have to be sustained outside the mother by a huge technological apparatus. An abortion proactively goes inside the mother and kills a child that would otherwise likely come to term.

But the mother either doesn’t want or can’t care for a child if she’s trying to get an abortion. What if she’s been raped or molested? Should she have to give birth to a rapist’s baby?

The baby is totally innocent in that situation. Why would you punish the child for the accident of its parentage? That seems incredibly cruel.

There are lots of situations where people die even though they might have lived through heroic sacrifice. I like you fine but we just met and I’m not going to give you a kidney, even if you might die without one.

That’s pretty selfish.

Why? The resources of the body are finite, to say nothing of the resources of time and effort. If I spend those resources in one place I can’t spend them in another. My brother might need a kidney some day. Similarly, a woman might meet a man who doesn’t rape her and want to devote the incredible stress and misery of pregnancy to him in order to have his kid, instead of a kid containing the genetic material of someone who assaulted her.

Every human life is equally valuable.

Is it? Some human lives will end very quickly after birth. Is the totality of a life spent enduring unimaginable pain and ending before even developing the tools to mitigate that pain through description and communication worth the same amount as a happy life of ninety years? Both those lives require a heroic sacrifice to sustain through pregnancy and early childhood. Who are you to say that someone ought to be forced to make that sacrifice?

Those people born into pain that lasts their whole lives still have souls and aren’t somehow less human than you or me.

I’m not calling them less human, I’m saying women have finite resources and ought to be allowed to apportion them as they see fit.

 

And yet many people abort healthy unborn children. Why are those lives worth less than yours or mine?

Beats me, but they are, at least if you consider honestly the way we treat their deaths. The value every culture throughout history has assigned to human life describes the same parabolic arc based on age, even if we start the arc at the moment of conception. While we console people who have miscarriages, we don’t mourn in the same way and we encourage them to try to have children again. That’s completely different from the way we treat the death of an elderly person, which is by celebrating his or her life. Nobody goes to the funeral of a 90-year-old and says “Maybe the next one will take.” The worst thing that can happen is for a child with a tremendous amount of potential dies before that potential is realized; that doesn’t happen at conception. It probably doesn’t happen for a little while after birth, actually. If you want, we can try to work out empirically what the worst possible moment for your child to die would be.

By that logic infanticide ought to be legal. A six-month-old can’t survive without its parents, either, and would be a less tragic death than a five-year-old.

Sure it can. There are loving families waiting all over the world for six-month-olds. It’s the expenditure of effort during pregnancy we’re talking about, not whether or not adoption is real. Or if we are, good news: adoption is real. We were talking about it because you said all human lives were equally valuable, which they’re not.

They’re equally valuable to God.

God’s resources are infinite; ours are not. We have to spend them the way we think he would want us to, and that includes being conscious of our limitations and humbly submitting to the knowledge that we – Christians – have sinned by not creating a society that values the acts of feeding children and treating them medically, and by ostracizing and shunning from the church women who become pregnant out of wedlock or seek to raise children with same-sex partners. Having done that, we have to acknowledge that healthy children in families with the means to care for them physically are the most likely to thrive and grow up to make the best of this hostile environment, and that women who are mature and brave enough to have abortions rather than further our misery by neglecting their children are in fact making the most moral choice possible among the options with which Christians have presented them.

Remarks From a Rally for the Public Theater on Thursday evening

I thought I would talk for just a few minutes this evening about the uses of speech, and about the most politically troubled production of Julius Caesar this great city has ever seen, which, of course, took place in November 1864.

That production was a specific use of speech intended to help build the statue of William Shakespeare on the Literary Walk in Central Park, right about where 70th street would meet 6th avenue on the grid. The benefit was held on Nov. 25 of that year by a group of popular actors. The statue itself is sculpted by John Quincy Adams Ward, who also did the statue of George Washington in front of Federal Hall down near the stock exchange. 

Anyway in the middle of act 2 of this benefit production of Julius Caesar, the one that was supposed to raise money for the statue, the fire department burst in with another use of speech, one that is generally frowned upon: They shouted “fire” in a crowded theater, in this case the Winter Garden, which had 2000 people in it. They had good reason to do so. There had been a terrorist attack. A splinter group from the Confederate States of America calling itself the Confederate Army of Manhattan had set fires in 19 hotels, PT Barnum’s American Museum, and, yes, also the Winter Garden, in a bid to overwhelm the fire department and burn down New York City in retaliation for the burning of Atlanta.

No one was hurt in the attempt to burn down the Winter Garden in the middle of Julius Caesar, because of another interesting speech act. If you go back and read the New York Times account of the failed attack, the writer, who isn’t bylined, credits the actor playing the lead role of Brutus for some extremely quick thinking: He told the audience that there was nothing to fear, which was of course a lie, the place being in fact in serious danger of burning down. The lie calmed the crowd, and Brutus convinced everyone to file out in an orderly fashion, which they did, and all went home with a good story tell, rather than being trampled to death and then burned up on top of it. The actor, as I’m sure a lot of you already know, was Edwin Booth, who starred alongside his older brother, Junius Brutus Jr., as Cassius, and, in the role of Mark Anthony, his younger brother, John Wilkes, who, perhaps obviously, coveted the role of Brutus.

140 days later, on Good Friday, the youngest Booth brother used speech in a couple of different ways. First, he made a point of shooting president Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head on a laugh line, which Booth hoped would mask the sound of a gunshot. That didn’t work, so he jumped onto the stage, but of course he didn’t shout Mark Anthony’s most famous line, “Lend me your ears.” He shouted “Sic semper tyrannis,” a line attributed to Brutus, although it’s not in the play.

“Sic semper tyrannis”, which means “ever thus to tyrants,” is an odd bit of speech. It had its heyday in the US around the time of the Revolutionary War, but it wormed its way into a certain grimy province of the national psyche that refuses all rule and all governance and perceives only lawlessness as freedom. “Sic semper tyrannis” is on the state flag of Virginia, where it was put shortly after Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861. It’s also in the state song of Maryland, which was also adopted during the Civil War, and has also remained unchanged since. “Sic semper tyrannis” was on the t-shirt Timothy McVeigh wore when he killed 168 people by blowing up the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. In plain terms, since our nation’s Civil War the apocryphal final words of Brutus to Caesar seem to be an excuse for violence, an excuse to own slaves, an excuse to kill public servants, an excuse to murder scores of people in what Timothy McVeigh was not alone in thinking of as a battle between, and I quote here from one of his letters, “Free men and socialist wannabe slaves.”

As a committed socialist, it’s hard for me not to take the sort of thing personally, as I imagine it might be for many of you. Sic semper tyrannis, from Booth and McVeigh and from Jefferson Davis, spoken to Abraham Lincoln and to every person of color and to 19 children in the Murrah building, seems simply to mean, “You were asking for it.”

Republicans, you’ll have noticed if you look at any right-wing media, do not have much use for socialism. Their rhetoric against it – against me and you – has become increasingly violent as the party tacks farther and farther toward people like McVeigh, who want to see the state destroyed by any means, including a fertilizer bomb. The party has moved closer to these folks for I would say the better part of 40 years.

The Republican line against birth control and women’s healthcare is that abortion is the moral equivalent of the holocaust. Its objection to gay rights is that marriage equality emboldens child molesters. Its objection to environmental stewardship has long been that environmentalists are crazed hippie terrorist radicals. The party contends that pacifism is the tacit endorsement of tyranny. 

There’s another form of that word again. At every step, Republicans have sought to conflate sensible policy positions that would reduce death and misery with actual, literal violence. In the past the suggestion that anyone to the left therefore deserves physical violence has often been communicated in ambiguous, deniable terms, but more and more, Republicans are simply saying, “knock the crap out of that guy,” which our president in fact did say in so many words during his campaign.

Millionaire Congressman Greg Gianforte did violence to a reporter personally, and his constituents elected him anyway. They cheered him on, because reporters are stuck-up elites – tyrants, who are asking for it. 

The women who don’t want to bear another child, the children themselves, who must have school lunches or new textbooks or insulin, the gay couple that wants to get married, these people are all tyrants in the eyes of the right, and the response to every criticism of racist or misogynist or homophobic violence, or even a denial of garden-variety cruelty, is deadening in its sameness, its literal Brutality: Sic semper tyrannis, sic semper tyrannis.

When wicked people beat up protestors, when they murder abortion providers, when they shoot up gay clubs, when they gun down people of color in the sanctuaries of their churches, they are heroes to themselves, Brutuses striking a necessary, lethal blow. Not everyone on the right strikes those blows, but increasingly, and vocally, many approve. They are resisting tyranny.

To this awful, diseased perspective, the only cure I can conceive of is a production of Julius Caesar. Brutus is, of course, a tragic figure, one who plans the ignoble act of murder for what he thinks are the noblest reasons, only to see it spoiled by harsh, familiar reality: corrupt colleagues who are only interested in money, the death of innocent people like the poet Cinna, his wife’s suicide. To everyone mumbling “sic semper tyrannis,” Shakespeare has the answer of Brutus’s inevitable defeat at Phillipi, prophesied by the ghost of Caesar himself. Among the many lessons of Julius Caesar is this: You can unleash violence, but you cannot control it.

It is dreadful news that someone shot the Republican congressman Steve Scalise. It is probably too much to ask for some self-reflection from the people who have for decades quietly condoned political violence in terms too slippery for condemnation but not quite innocent enough to go unnoticed. Donald Trump, Jr, for instance, seems to want people to believe that the Public’s production of Julius Caesar is the larger culprit. It isn’t, but it might be able to tell him who is.

From the bottom of my heart, I hope Steve Scalise pulls through. I hope when he gets out of the hospital, he realizes that nobody needs an M4 and that everyone should have access to the same kind of healthcare he receives, which would not be consonant with his current list of policy positions. I don’t wish him dead, I wish him understanding. In the same way I hope the sponsors who have abandoned the Public, Bank of America and Delta, discover a good higher than their share prices; maybe that would compel BofA not to illegally foreclose on people who lost jobs in the recession it helped cause. Maybe it would compel Delta to stop trying to kill export insurance for small businesses. We are on the left because we believe our policies will ultimately make life better for people who disagree with us, as well.

But to every assassin, to everyone who would abridge the rights of two men or two women to be happy and unmolested together, to everyone who would deny his fellow citizen birth control or food for her children, to everyone mumbling “sic semper tyrannis,” Caesar’s ghost has our answer: “You will see us at Phillipi.”

How I Spent My Summer Vacation (So Far)

hello dali

  1. Got on plane with baby
  2. Inserted baby into industrial-grade bassinet with text on it implying that child itself, not merely conveyance, had become property of American Airlines and should not be removed from cabin
  3. Slept very little, pondered wisdom of said ordinance
  4. Arrived in Madrid
  5. Carried vast array of infant-sustaining equipment, clothing, emergency supplies, stroller, etc etc etc up same street four times asking increasingly bemused Spaniards “Donde esta la calle [literally a block to the left/right/left/right]?”
  6. Continued to sleep very, very little, fantasized about paella
  7. Arrived at AirBnb obviously owned/rented by bachelor of at most 25 years, had series of pleasant conversations with him on WhatsApp, discovered WhatsApp key to communication across several industries in Spain
  8. Baby-wrangled, pondered fate of young parents in country where restaurants literally do not open for dinner until 8:30, visited five distinct comic book stores within three blocks of flat. Failed to acquire paella
  9. Carried baby on front of person facing outward for first time, received many presumably complimentary remarks in language do not speak nearly as well as thought did
  10. Bought chorizo sandwich at bar where baby was source of much fascination to regular patron with no front teeth who was availing self of slot machine in corner and who tried to give parenting advice, despite hearing explanation “Por favor, mi Español es muy malo” and his saying, “Ah, only English?” and continuing to speak Spanish despite this; bartender smilingly gave him the finger for reasons did not and now will never understand
  11. Learned to lisp, failed to acquire paella for second time
  12. Failed to protect only child from middle-aged lady janitor who said “Que linda!” and kissed him before knew what was happening, said “grathiath” instead
  13. Saw Guernica, cried
  14. Saw three Dalís have wanted to see entire life
  15. Learned to say “Mi ethpotha tiene theliaca” from nice lady at cafeteria (not the same thing) who sold whatever she had that Pam could eat, including delicious olives, potato salad, frittata and mushrooms, none of which were seasoned remotely like anything had ever eaten before. Still no paella
  16. Slept slightly more
  17. Did not stop cafe staffperson from taking flagrant advantage of language barrier to pretend she had heard self order three pastries instead of one on grounds that feigned misunderstanding left self with two additional pastries
  18. Took baby to Museo del Prado
  19. Baby extra charming, demonstrated that his two main words (“oooo,” “laaaa”), while they do not make sense in sequence in English, cause stone-faced elderly woman security guards predisposed to dislike Americans to burst into smiles, pinch fat little legs, and say “hola!” back to him
  20. Discovered source of baby’s happiness: Had shat onesie, leggings, self to extravagant, unnecessary degree
  21. Watched child take lunch in room full of achingly beautiful El Greco annunciation paintings, reflected on degree to which said child appeared to be mocking self in complex fashion with demonstration of contrast; bag of adorable, beshitted garments; saintly wife
  22. Dragged exhausted wife, noisy infant to Goya’s Black Paintings, Bosch room, cried some more
  23. Finally ate some goddamn paella at the museum restaurant
  24. Regretted above
  25. Watched in joy-horror as baby rolled back to front for first time ever two moths ahead of schedule 
  26. Plotted acquisition of wine