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Writing conversationally, informally, is supposed to be easier. The best Substack writers have the form down pat. I’m always struck by just how much writers like Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, and Freddie DeBoer are able to put down on the page—and at a steady and regular pace at that.
But I’ve never been able to turn that trick with ease. And more broadly (or maybe as a consequence?) I’m not a fan of this style of writing. Well-practiced professionals like the three I’ve listed above can mostly get away with it. But lesser mortals generally turn out self-satisfied confessionals that are just not very interesting. Most people’s inner lives are not worth experiencing. And no, there is no poetry in the mundane.
On last week’s podcast, Shadi and I talked about how so much commentary and analysis these days hinges on the personal—and how detrimental that writerly tic has become to our understanding the world. The trend was probably unavoidable—all sorts of forces were driving us to this point. But I can’t help but blame Hunter S. Thompson for in some way mainstreaming hyper-subjective “gonzo” journalism. The irony is that for all his over-the-top excesses of drug and alcohol abuse, and his pose of writing while inebriated, Thompson’s journalism was not very personal at all. He was an overtly unreliable narrator, but he did tend to narrate things as he saw them in the state he was in. His many acolytes have been far less disciplined. Today, everything is about the author.
This is all a long way of me saying that while Shadi and I haven’t yet decided on what the “Monday Note” will be for each of us—and it will more than likely end up being a different thing for each of us—I’m leaning towards it being less discursive and more a list of things I’m reading at the moment: a notebook rather than a note, if you will.
To that end:
“‘Patience is crucial’: Why we won’t know for weeks how dangerous Omicron is” — Science
The story about the new strain of COVID is so fast-moving that this link will likely soon be overtaken by events. But at the moment, it stands out as the best article for wrapping our heads around exactly what we don’t know—and won’t know for some time. More media should adopt this as a model for writing articles: instead of explainer journalism designed to give people a (false) sense of knowledge mastery, we should have articles that make readers feel humble before humanity’s collective ignorance.
Mood on Omicron at time of writing:
“Controversy Rages as California Follows SF’s Lead With New Approach to Teaching Math” — The San Francisco Standard
The article is worth reading in full, not just rage-retweeting. What’s more striking than any of the ill-advised policy prescriptions themselves is the spirit under which it is all being undertaken. The foul odor of coddling psychotherapy permeates the whole effort. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt called it “safetyism”. If I lived in California, had kids, and saw that this (optional) curriculum was being brought to my school district, I’d look into more rigorous private schools if I could afford it, and I’d move my family if not. Policies such as these end up crippling families for whom those two options are impossible.
“The black American cotton laborers losing their jobs to white South Africans in the Mississippi Delta” — The Times of London
Always useful to read stories that scramble expected categories: Black American farm workers are apparently under threat from white migrant labor from South Africa. Of course, the story is shaped by America’s odious race legacy: the Mississippi farm owners are white, and one white South African worker interviewed by the journalists says that the owners preferred them to the Black workers because of their “attitude” towards work. Ugly, difficult stuff.
“Who’s Afraid of Dasha Nekrasova?” — Vulture
For those not in the know, Nekrasova is a co-host of the wildly popular Red Scare podcast. While I can’t say that I’m a regular listener, I do have a taste for the show's finely-honed nihilism. This is exquisite:
While we’re sipping our martinis, I ask about her influence on people. Does she take her responsibility seriously as a sort of informal thought leader for a generation? She laughs loudly, like I’m making a stupid joke. “When I was that age … I distinctly remember having this feeling like I didn’t know what kind of woman I wanted to be, and I felt like there weren’t any models for femininity that resonated with me at all. Which is part of the thesis of Red Scare,” she says. “Not that I want to consider myself a role model, but I do find it gratifying, even though the archetypal Red Scare girl is a kind of nightmare. Sometimes I’m like, Wow, I really spawned a monster. But at least there’s an alternative.”
“Peace Without Empire” — London Review of Books
One should try to make time for Perry Anderson’s wooly review essays whenever possible. Among its many other virtues, this one underlines a useful point in passing: EU enlargement was primarily driven by the enthusiasm of the Eastern countries, not by the idealism of the Western ones. It's a fact worth remembering, especially when Brussels folks get dewy-eyed about the bloc being a community grounded in universal values. Such words only serve to obscure deeper political realities that have, in the last decade, helped grind the enlargement project to a halt.