Embracing Performance: Some Thoughts on Clubhouse

And now for something a little different. I’d been skeptical of the hype around Clubhouse, as I’m old enough to remember many waves of social media hype in my lifetime. The reality is invariably more prosaic.

That said, the reality in question has led me to many deep friendships and I dare say to community. I’m not so jaded as to think the way we shape our online interactions is unimportant. And as I took a closer look at Clubhouse, I began to notice some interesting things about it.

A lot of attention has been paid to the fact that Clubhouse is audio-only, making it the first among social media platforms that organize themselves around individual user feeds. But this wasn’t all that interesting to me. From my perspective, it is simply inconvenient; I have a day job, I have small kids, and I live in a two bedroom apartment. There are few opportunities for me to simply hang out and yak out loud where I’m not bothering someone. This is the main reason I have not been much involved in podcasting.

No, what interested me are threefold:

  • Users do not see a feed of posts, but a feed of “rooms” that are currently active and contain someone they follow or are run out of a “club” they follow.
  • The rooms are divided between the “stage” of people who can talk and the audience of people who cannot.
  • Some subset of the people on the stage have the authority to add people from the audience to the stage, or send people from the stage to the audience.

The tl;dr of my thoughts here are that this is a straightforward embrace of the nature of social media conversations as performance, and designing around that basic assumption is in fact a good thing. Letting any user create a room provides the basic openness of any other social media platform. Giving them a say over who gets to be on the “stage” empowers them to create the conditions for high quality performances.

Many current and previous iterations of social media play this game where you’re encouraged to act like you’re in some kind of small group setting where everyone knows one another and can be at ease. Twitter was just for posting about what you just had for breakfast, Facebook is just for your IRL friendships, and so on.

But to the extent that this ever approximated reality (it never did) it did not survive the massive scaling up of these platforms. Even platforms built with the assumption that moderation would be needed, like forums or closed Facebook groups or chat rooms, scale about as well as comment section moderation. Which is to say, not very well at all.

Clubhouse seems to have a model that could scale well. Of course, it does this by allowing for a stage that can’t really accommodate all that many speakers and connecting it to an audience that can grow bigger than the biggest forum.

That’s the tl;dr. The rest looks at the question of social media performance in a little more depth.

Fake intimacy

When I was in high school, a lot of my friends had LiveJournals. LJ was both my first blog and my first social media, unless one counted forums and chatrooms (which typically are not categorized that way these days).

The way LiveJournal (which, amazingly, still exists) worked is that you had the reverse-chronological feed of your own entries, but then you also had a tab with a reverse chronological feed of all the LJs you followed. For me at the time, this was almost entirely classmates.

There was this weird thing where we kind of pretended that it was an actual, private journal. It’s not like there was an explicit agreement that that was how one ought to write, in fact to have said it out loud would have invited mockery. But there’s no denying that that’s what everyone did, stylistically; they wrote like they were only writing for themselves. Only they very obviously were writing for other people, and the social aspect of LJ was baked right in.

What this meant was you got a lot of passive aggressive signaling and indirect reference, the subtweet before Twitter, the vaguebook before Facebook. With all the subtlety and grace that one would expect of a bunch of teenagers (not that adults have proven much better in this regard).

Posting on LiveJournal was a public act, inherently. You were writing for an audience, whether the one you had or the one that you wanted. You were absolutely not just writing for yourself, or else you’d just write in an actual paper, with actual ink, where no one would be able to access your private words from an Internet connected computer anywhere in the world.

Instead, the tantalizing experience a teen wished to replicate was the trope from fiction wherein someone, but usually the love interest, would discover the main character’s diary. The private thoughts contained therein revealed that someone nominally seemed superficial, or a jerk, or stoic, actually had a great depth of character and was acting from highly admirable motives.

But of course, this trope does not actually work if the main character wrote those things expecting that the diary would be found. Indeed, if they did, then far from being admirable, they would be contemptible, engaging in a kind of emotional manipulation.

Our teenage LJ antics did not rise to the level of emotional manipulation, because they were far too transparent, even to teenagers. But this dynamic, where we pretend that a public platform is anything but that, has remained pervasive as other forms have taken off.

I had an on again, off again relationship with Facebook for years, because I was convinced it was simply going to be high school LJ all over again. And who would deny that, to some extent, it has been? But what finally convinced me was being a groomsman in a friend’s wedding in 2008, after which the wedding party all friended one another (if we weren’t friends already) and shared pictures of the event. The event itself was a lot of fun and it was very fun to continue feeling that sense of a shared experience with people afterwards.

Nevertheless, people (and I’m no more innocent of this than anyone) still talk out of both sides of their mouths on these platforms. When someone jumps on something we post, we’re “just” tweeting or “just” saying something on Facebook, as if it were a private space, or even a small intimate gathering incapable and statements will not reach the ears of anyone outside of the physical room.

This is very silly. Even a private Twitter account and a friends-only Facebook post are speaking to publics. We need to have more acceptance of this basic fact, of the basic role of performance has in our lives in general, on and off social media.

Structuring the stage

There are, of course, intimate conversations, even on the Internet. DMs, mobile messaging services, emails, a chats can all be done on a one-to-one, or few-to-few basis.

At the other end you get extreme one-to-many scenarios; an article at a popular publication or a post at a popular blog, perhaps without a comment section. A recorded video or audio segment disseminated over Netflix or YouTube or a podcast app.

The thing that is both tricky and interesting about modern social media platforms is that they can be anywhere on this spectrum, for any one person, and change very suddenly. You may go to Twitter mainly for the 20 or so people you follow and who mostly follow you back. Or you may go to Twitter to read or reply to accounts who have millions of followers. Or you may have millions of followers yourself and treat the account as mostly a broadcast platform.

Moreover, you may have a small to midsized follower base and yet have one of your tweets go massively viral, resulting in millions of views and hundreds of replies. In other words, you might expect your public to be relatively intimate or at least predictable, and then find that you’re broadcasting to an enormous audience.

I think that most people who tweet, whatever their follower count, are aware of the possibility of a viral tweet. The style of their writing reflects this just as the style of those old LJ entries reflected the awareness that someone was or could be reading.

While we all like having our spaces that aren’t going to suddenly become broadcast platforms on a dime, there isn’t actually a shortage of those; as I mentioned, there are plenty of ways to engage in one to one or few to few communication these days. The fact that Twitter and similar platforms cannot really give you that isn’t a knock against them per se, it’s just something to take into account. If the particular niche that Twitter fills is not for you, then best stay off it or only tweet anodyne things.

The problem isn’t the virality of Twitter. The problem is that the user experience of going viral or having a large audience sucks. This isn’t meant to elicit sympathy, it’s an observation about Twitter’s design: once a large number of people like, retweet, and reply to your tweets, the notifications tab becomes essentially unusable. As someone with only a modest follower base myself I only see this on the occasional tweet of mine that gets a bit more attention, and each time I’m left wondering how the big accounts manage that kind of engagement on a regular basis. How do you not simply end up precluding any kind of two-way communication at all, tweeting only to broadcast some statement to an audience and little else? And yet I talk to people with accounts that size all the time; they somehow seem to manage it.

That they manage it doesn’t make the design good, though. The notification tab is fundamentally designed for the median tweet by the median user of Twitter, who has a low follow count and low engagement. But by definition this means that it’s not designed for the users who are the biggest draw to the platform for most users.

I don’t think Twitter set out to be a platform that had to balance one-to-one and one-to-many all in the same interface. Its founders had the vague idea that people just liked passively sharing what they had for breakfast with their friends, and went from there. They’ve made an enormous number of changes to adapt the platform to how it is actually used but none of them address the usability problem described above.

Clubhouse, on the other hand, seems better designed to strike this balance. Users with small follower counts can start rooms that their friends join and have relatively few-to-few conversations. Like closed Facebook groups, they can even create closed, invite-only rooms. But there’s never going to be a situation where their room goes massively viral and they’re unable to manage it, because going viral just means that the audience balloons but the stage does not. The number of people talking, in other words, remains the same, unless the person who created the room (or the people they gave mod authority to) consciously choose to add more.

In the spectrum from one-to-one, few-to-few, and few-to-many, a user’s Clubhouse feed is kind of like a social media feed of Skype group calls mixed in with podcasts and conference panels that have live audiences. But I think this works better at managing all ends of the audience size spectrum than other social media platforms currently do. No matter how big your audience balloons into being, it isn’t going to impact the usability of the app for you, nor is it going to interrupt the conversation you’re having in any way.

And I think there’s more that they can do within this framework. There’s a hard ceiling on how many people you can have on stage and still hope to have a meaningful conversation. However, I think this could be extended somewhat by giving moderators more tools. For example, allowing a moderate to set a queue for who speaks when, as well as time limits before someone is automatically muted so the next person can go. And just as members of the audience can “raise their hand” to ask to be added onto the stage now (a feature that can be turned off in a given room), people on stage might be able to raise their hand to ask the moderator to let them jump their position in the queue, based on something that was just said.

Little things like that can go a long way. But of course you need a skilled moderator to be able to run a large stage that way, so in most cases I expect small stages would still dominate over large ones.

But note that all of this is only possible by dividing rooms into speakers and listeners, stages and audiences. This is an explicit acknowledgement, right in the design, of the fact that these platforms are used for performing to publics. It’s not hard to design for small group conversations. The challenge is designing a platform that can handle both, the way modern social media platforms have to be able to. Clubhouse does this by building around the few-to-many scenario in a way that doesn’t make it hard to use for few-to-few scenarios.

I expect we’ll see more of this in the near future, and not confined to audio-only mediums. And I take it as a good sign, a sign of maturation in the ecosystem.

My Paper is on SSRN, and Other Project Updates

I received a great deal of feedback after my last post on the state of my paper. The most important of these came from Ryan Muldoon, who very generously laid out what he thought options were in seeking publication in an academic journal. He suggested some papers and books to engage with in the paper, which I fully intend to read (along with a couple of other papers in the same literature).

After giving it some thought, I decided to publish the current version of the paper on SSRN. You can read it here.

Based on Ryan’s suggestions, the next version of the paper will likely be a substantial rewrite.

  • The additional research and of course the writing itself will take time, and I intend to hold off on this until I’ve gotten to a few other things in the larger project this is a part of, which I’ll discuss below.
  • The biggest change will be to create section which reviews the literature on norms and the law, and place my paper in relation to it, and defend the strength of my particular approach over others.
  • The overall effect however will be to make the paper more thoroughgoingly theoretical, as I will likely need to chop down the bits of the history I go through in order to make space for putting the parts I do keep through a more granular analysis according to the framework.
  • In many ways, this simply continues the types of changes I made between the second draft and this one. But I quite like the current version. Even if it is not likely to fare well in the academic marketplace, I’d like to put it out there. Hence publishing it on SSRN.
  • Publishing it also leaves open the possibility of someone finding it and reaching out to (highly unlikely) talk about publishing it, or (more likely) offer valuable feedback.

So that’s where things stand.

The paper, of course, is just one piece in my ongoing research project, though by far the most rigorous output thusfar produced. But I have other things I’m going to be working on, largely book reviews, that are going to take priority over working on the paper for the time being.

The first of these will pair the volume Congress Overwhelmed with Joseph Heath’s The Machinery of Government.

Heath’s book continues to capture my imagination with its unflinching bullet-biting. In Heath’s view, the 20th century saw the decline of the active role of legislatures in political systems around the world, displaced by a ballooning executive branch. Rather than attempting to address this like most political scientists or theorists writing on the subject inevitably want to do, Heath articulates the implicit norms of the status quo, and defends them as continuous with the liberal project.

The contributors to Congress Overwhelmed, on the other hand, are looking at the decline of the American Congress specifically, and attempting to diagnose the specific causes and devise reforms to increase the centrality of that institution again.

Something I did not appreciate until I began this research project is the fact that “parliamentary supremacy” does not, in fact, imply that members of parliament have a larger role in those systems than members of Congress have in ours. Quite the opposite. Mass democracy and the rise of the administrative state have turned parliamentary government into ministerial government, as ministers (rather than a particular members of parliament) introduce all of the legislation, and since the Prime Minister is the head of the majority party (or governing coalition as the case may be), they are virtually guaranteed to have the votes they need. Members of Parliament therefore become a bit vestigial for legislative purposes, and Parliament itself becomes predominantly an indirect mechanism for the popular selection of ministers, as well as a provider of constituency services.

In Congress on the other hand, power is much more decentralized—though the extent to which this is true varies tremendously, especially in the House, but that there is a decentralization leg of the cycle at all is noteworthy, and even relatively centralized moments (such as the current one) are far more decentralized than parliamentary systems.

I see the pairing of these two books as asking whether the path taken by liberal democracies in the 20th century largely correct, or is substantial correction needed to strengthen the role of legislatures? Can they be strengthened, or is some version of the current status quo overdetermined by structural factors that cannot be meaningfully compensated for?

After that I plan to review A Pattern of Violence, which looks at the effects of how a crime gets classified, something highly relevant to my project.

And of course, my main role at Liberal Currents is not, in fact, as a writer, but as Editor-in-Chief! Never mind my responsibilities to my family and my actual employer; in short, it’s certainly going to be a matter of months before a substantially revised version of my paper, likely with another title to distinguish it from what I put on SSRN, can be completed.

That is the long and short (but mostly long) of it.

For the curious, the paper-specific reading that I’m going to be doing is:

  • The Grammer of Society by Cristina Bicchieri
  • Norms in the Wild by Cristina Bicchieri
  • “Social Meaning and Social Norms” by Larry Lessig
  • “The Regulation of Social Meaning” by Larry Lessig
  • “Social Norms and the Law: An Economic Approach” by Richard Posner
  • “The Bases of Cooperation: Social Norms and the Rule of Law” by Jack Knight
  • “A Grammar of Institutions” by Sue Crawford and Elinor Ostrom

That’s the current list, anyway. I’m sure it will grow. It always does.

The Journey of My (Still Unpublished, But Finally Written) Paper

Almost a quarter of the way into the year and it’s my first post of 2021. A few things have perhaps happened since my last rather bitter post.

But this isn’t a post about any of those things. This is a post about my paper, which I’ve talked about before.

The very idea of what the paper would be evolved many times. The framework came first, based on some spitballing I’d been doing almost entirely in blog form, rooted in many years of obsession with hermeneutics, communitarianism, speech acts/pragmatics, and institutional analysis, obsessions to which I subjected many innocent friends, and obsessions which my whole project is largely aimed at bringing to the ground, and giving bones, blood, and flesh.

The original conceit was to focus on various types of actors and the actions available to them, and the ways these actions reverberate in the social environment the actors are acting in. I was stunned when I read David Mayhew’s book, America’s Congress: Actions in the Public Sphere because it displayed a worldview very similar to my own, in which institutions provide actors with stage of action, indeed make certain categories of action possible that otherwise would not be. Josh Chafetz’s Congress’s Constitution took a very similar approach as well. Actual adoption of a framework like this was relatively rare among what I read but much of the analytical and empirical work I have encountered in my project is comfortably compatible with it.

I walked through the various iterations of the basic formula in an earlier post. Naturally, since it has been three months, that formula has changed again. Actually, it changed in just the last week, but I will get to that.

Back in August or September, I thought I had the basic formula licked. In fact, I thought I had the whole theory section nailed down, and all I needed to do was get through the application. My first plan was to apply it to a detailed institutional analysis of Congress, as that was a topic I had spent the most time on so far. This quickly proved too intractable and nonspecific an object. I can’t say what exactly put me on the course I eventually followed, but I think it was watching the Baldwin/Buckley debate. Early on Baldwin notes:

We have a civil rights bill now. We had the 15th Amendment nearly 100 years ago. If it was not honored then, I have no reason to believe that the civil rights bill will be honored now.

When I watched, I thought he was referring to the Voting Rights Act, but the timing of the debate was such that he must have been referring to the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the VRA would be passed later in 1965 than the debate occurred. The VRA did make a difference, where the 15th Amendment did not. This framing hooked me; so much of my research has centered around this exact sort of question. Why did this law have an effect but this one did not? Why did a statute make such a difference when an amendment did not?

I decided that would be the application. By the end of September I had written a very rough draft, based on what I knew of the VRA’s history. On Adam Rust’s recommendation, I then read Ari Berman’s Give Us the Ballot which traced that history in tremendously granular detail. I finished the book in October, but progress on my paper was halting and a struggle. Part of that was simply, well, life. Work, Liberal Currents, the pandemic, two small children; I have felt stretched much more thinly these past couple of months than I somehow did for the bulk of 2020, for reasons I could not explain purely by pointing at objective events which occurred during that time. Anyway, we’ve all been there this past year, we all are there still, some much more so than me.

But beyond these difficulties was a more prosaic problem; I was not sure how to turn the ingredients that Berman offered into the dish I wished to cook. My framework demanded a lot, and he supplied it, but that didn’t mean that I had the skill to use those materials. It was a much bigger challenge than anything I had previously attempted.

I decided to take a page from the way I laid the groundwork for my essay on the media’s early coverage of the pandemic, and construct a timeline. I began, sporadically, in January, and managed to get it done in February. The morbidly curious may see the mess of a thing if you so wish. It helped me get (somewhat) structured and get me going again; I began the second draft in earnest in mid-February.

Looking at things through the lens of why some specific action by some specific actor was more effective than others can get you searching for information at a level more granular than even Berman or others go. At one point I became somewhat obsessed with the question of why federal agents being able to directly add names to voting rolls would make such a difference. Aren’t they just names in a list? Wouldn’t it have been trivially easy for southern officials to smile and nod when federal officials handed them the lists, and then simply thrown them in the trash, or marked them in some way to indicate to poll workers not to let those people vote when they showed up on election day?

I could not find the details about this hand off, or any real particulars of how federal agents taking down names translated into official recognition on election day. So I speculated a little. Here’s an excerpt from the current version of the paper:

To understand the power of voting rolls, consider the scenario of businesses who wish to underreport their revenue. Superficially, simply lying about revenue seems like an easy task. But correct knowledge of income and costs is crucial for businesses to operate at all, so in practice this deception requires keeping one set of closely guarded documents for the people running the business to see, and one set of documents for tax purposes. The existence of the secret documents is a vulnerability; their discovery would constitute proof of noncompliance.

Voting rolls are similar; county officials can keep two sets of voting rolls but need to give a list of names to poll workers on election day. Federal examiners are authorized by the VRA to check that list and compare it to a list of who federal agents had registered in that county. Blatant noncompliance, so long as examiners were watching, was therefore much more difficult. And once examiners have registered a large number of voters in a jurisdiction and overseen an election, the newly registered voters will, so the theory goes, have exerted their influence at the polls and changed the electoral calculus, at least a little.

I couldn’t find anyone who walked through the particulars, so I posited a model that I think is pretty plausible. No idea if this kind of thing will pass muster at a peer reviewed journal, but I think it’s a pretty good model, and I hadn’t seen any attempt to try to explain things at this level.

Obsessions and struggles aside, I finished the second draft the first week of March, and felt pretty good about. But I knew I was way too close to it. I didn’t just need someone to help me edit it, I needed someone who would tear it apart and find the weaknesses I wasn’t capable of seeing any more. So I asked my friend Andrew, who has a skill for finding such weaknesses. And he absolutely obliterated my paper.

Honestly, I was so in awe of how completely he tore it apart that I wasn’t even bothered by watching all those months of work fall apart before my eyes. More encouragingly, he saw very clearly what it was I was trying to do, and his feedback was often in the spirit of “stop giving us all this irrelevant history unless you can actually tie it back to your framework and describe it in those terms.” After obsessing at the level of voting rolls, it did smart to see several passages he called out for being too abstracted from particulars!

Somehow his demolition was actually inspiring rather than disheartening, because I turned around an almost complete rewrite of the paper in under a week. Andrew looked it over again and had only minor feedback.

That timeline that I built up over months? Ended up being almost completely irrelevant to the final product. But the work was not wasted, exactly. The reason I could knock this draft out so quickly this time, even though very little of the second draft’s text was preserved, is that I’d become very familiar with all the particulars. Even though I had to throw out a lot, it was trivially easy for me to draw on what I did need very quickly, and assemble it into the shape I needed it to be.

The last crucial ingredient was an old paper—ironically, from 1965. I wanted to get at what people talk about when they talk about norms, but it seemed to me that the term was fairly underspecified. Jack P. Gibbs’ “Norms: The Problem of Definition” was an excellent reference point.

I didn’t want to use this gigantic taxonomy, though it helped me to clarify my thinking and I of course cited this paper in mine. But what I actually ended up using, in modified form, were his notions of “collective expectation” and “collective evaluation.”

So the (final, I swear) formula I use involves:

  • Groups that are formed by
  • Collective Perceptions held by individuals in the group, who may become
  • Actors by taking some
  • Action, which, if successful, influences the collective perceptions of the group and therefore the relations among its members.

And I elaborate in another part:

  • Groups are individuals bound together by collective perceptions. This necessarily means that some groups involve more people than are in a particular physical location, but some physical locations become venues in which collective perceptions form a particular group; the courtroom and the comedy club are two such examples. 
  • Collective perceptions are what individuals in the group perceive that other individuals in the group perceive. Collective expectations and collective evaluations are a subset of collective perceptions. Collective expectations are expectations that individuals in the group perceive that other individuals in the group have. Collective evaluations are beliefs about what an actor ought or ought not to do, or what action ought or ought not to be done, that individuals in the group perceive other individuals in the group to have. The exact proportion of individuals who must hold this perception, and how widely they must believe the perceptions, expectations, or evaluations are held, in order for it to shape the character of a group, is a difficult empirical matter that is outside the scope of this paper.
  • Actions come in many types but the basic distinction drawn in this paper is between those that cause an immediate change in institutional status and those that do not.
  • Actors are simply anyone in a group who is taking action. The actions available to them are determined by a number of factors, including the particular collective perceptions of the particular group, but also technology. Crucially for this paper, some actors are collectively perceived to fill a role in some group which gives them authority, or the collective evaluation that some specific other actors ought to show deference to them and their actions within some specific domain of action.

This is, I think, a far superior formulation to the one I had landed on back in September (which you can see here, as well as its precursors). Wrestling with collective perception and its aspects made the crucial difference, for which I owe the Gibbs paper.

The application part of the paper actually applies this to a much greater extent than the formula in the second draft was applied in its application section. There’s very little about the 15th Amendment or the VRA that I describe without putting it into these terms and illustrating what the framework sheds light on. I added a particularly involved discussion of why actors in Congress and the rest of the federal government who thought the situation in the south was unconstitutional and unjust nevertheless had their hands tied by the nature of the collective perceptions that formed the very groups which provided them with the possibility of taking action on that matter.

Long story short (too late) I am very pleased with how this has turned out. I’m going to have one or two more people take a look at it before I start reaching out to some friends I have in the academic world, to ask for advice on how I should go about seeking to get this published. No guarantee it will be published, but for now, I am relishing the accomplishment of having cleared the struggle of writing it. It will make it out into the world, one way or another. But I hope that it does so in a peer-reviewed journal.

Neither the Beginning Nor the End

Art by medli20

The pandemic did not truly begin in 2020; it began sometime in November and December of 2019. When the clock strikes midnight tonight and digital calendars tick over from December 31, 2020 to January 1, 2021, we will still be in the middle of by far the largest wave of COVID-19 spread in the US since it reached our shores. In December alone, over 70,000 people have died of this disease. In November we had just over 37,000, in October we had just under 24,000. Over and over again we have learned how quickly things can blow up, and yet we never did really learn this. I doubt that people will begin acting as though they have learned this on January 1, 2021 any more than they have the past three months, to say nothing of the past ten.

I am angry, in case that is not obvious. I’m angry at the complete failure of our leadership and at the people for whom nearly 350,000 bodies and many more sick is not enough evidence that this is serious. But I am also angry at the many, many, many people who talk the talk and yet in their own lives continued to see people outside of their household and travel as though it were just any other year.

This anger held me back from writing a typical year in review post, because true anger is no basis for writing. A good polemic is a wonderful thing, but it is a style, a genre, to be written with an eye to the craft of it. It may tap into a genuine anger on some level, but it does not need to; at any rate writing in anger is about as advisable as texting in anger, or calling in anger, or leaving a voicemail in anger. It always pays to cool off and consider what you want to say, rather than merely lashing out at the nearest target.

Anger has carried me away from my opening point, which was that 2020 is simply a number, a number which contains neither the entire history of the significant events which occurred in its 366 days, nor their endings. But we break time into numbers for the same reason we break anything into numbers; to make it more manageable, and as a byproduct we end up giving ourselves occasion to reflect and look back. I think the kinds of things that we experienced this year are precisely what we need to take a good, long look at rather than moving on.

My anger, like most anger, contains within it a core of guilt. I acted like a fool at the beginning of the pandemic. Even as I wised up, I put people at risk, people I love. I know this and am wary of the knowledge.

In January and February I was essentially oblivious. Catherine was coming to the end of the second trimester of her pregnancy with our second son. I was in the midst of launching the key project that I manage at the job which I had only started the previous June. I was aware of news items about the coronavirus like something in the corner of my eye; in as much as I had thoughts about it, I thought it was something like SARS or the 2013 Ebola outbreak, neither of which resulted in community spread in America and neither of which resulted in many deaths, all told.

Like many Americans, March was a month where the sense of danger seemed to increase rapidly from one day to the next. I flew to Chicago on March 2nd for work. The day that I was to fly—mere hours—I was informed that the most senior person who was meant to be at that meeting had cancelled her flight from Germany because of concerns over the coronavirus. I wavered on whether I should do the same, but decided to simply be diligent in washing my hands during the trip. I did not wear a mask, I did not even consider the possibility. Everyone else came as well. We all made jokes about it the entire time, but there was a distinctly uncomfortable air to these jokes. At one point, during the two or three days we all sat in a small conference room together, someone sneezed and the person sitting next to her practically jumped out of his skin.

The week after that things moved very rapidly. Catherine had an appointment with her OB that Monday, and she asked her whether she ought to switch to working from home. Catherine said “there just aren’t many cases in New York yet,” and her OB, a woman whose default is to tell people not to worry about the many things pregnant women and their spouses worry about, said “stay home if you can. There are many, many more cases than they have been able to document yet.” That marked the moment that we really began to realize we needed to be really taking this thing seriously. Each of us began working from home.

Days later Catherine learned, through a webinar for pregnant women, that major New York City hospitals were considering banning mothers from bringing anyone with them, even partners. We wavered on what to do for what subjectively felt like an eternity but I believe was really only a day. Ultimately we packed up and drove down to northern Virginia, to stay with my parents.

Which meant that we put them at risk. Potentially, we put Virginia and DC at risk by going from New York to the DC metropolitan area, especially after I had so recently flown to and from Chicago. Once there we did not go out except for walks in the quiet suburban streets where my parents live, at a great distance from anyone else. But of course, even then, we were putting my parents at risk. Very shortly after we arrived, I was contacted by a member of my team at work because she had come down with COVID. Ultimately, her husband and young son caught it too, and all three of them experienced severe symptoms, though thankfully they did not require hospitalization.

It was plain, dumb luck that I did not catch it, and give it to my parents and wife and son and brother. Or that Catherine didn’t give it to us, all those weeks we were both commuting by subway and going into enclosed office spaces.

As we worked and my parents babysat Elliot, I began to fixate on the question of how I had failed so thoroughly to see the situation unfolding in front of us. I followed several people who had been sounding the alarm early. Angry with the COVID skepticism that was already being pumped up by the Trumpist wing of the conservative ecosystem, I began to write a hit piece about conservative media’s role in all of this. As I performed the research to back it up, and tested the thesis against several people whose judgment I trusted, however, I quickly abandoned the idea in favor of a broader survey of how the media in general had performed the first three months of the year.

I worked very hard on that research, constructing a timeline of events into which I put links and summaries of news coverage and social media posts. I thought very hard about how to judge something like media performance, and I am proud of the result. Intellectually, and as a writer, I do think that I grew, this year. That is something that is important to me, though perhaps not so very important in the scheme of my obligations and of everything that has gone down this year. But it is important to me. And it is something that I had, for myself.

Max came to us quite quickly, especially compared to his brother. The policy of INOVA Fairfax on that day, April 27th, was to allow mothers one guest, who could stay the whole time but not leave and come back. They also required the mother to take a COVID test before being allowed back into the labor and delivery area. Poor Catherine received one of those early, brain-tickler tests, and said it compared unfavorably with the contractions. Getting someone to administer the test, and then the results, took perhaps two hours (though it felt longer). Though they weren’t saying that labor was imminent, the body language of the nurses all but screamed “this baby is coming any minute!” to me. It was, indeed, very shortly after her negative result came back that Max made his appearance in a dramatic fashion.

Max was our little miracle in the midst of everything. And Elliot has been a wonderful brother. One cannot fault a three-year-old if they are jealous of their parents’ attention when there is suddenly a new member of the household, but he has adored his brother from the start. The biggest problem we had with Elliot was the difficulty he had understanding how fragile babies are; he wanted to hug and grab and play with his little brother right from the start.

We returned to New York two weeks after Max was born. We had stayed with my parents for two months, following the news from New York very closely the entire time. I was terrified to return, but it turned out that New York would be the safest place in the country for the rest of the year.

And of course, all told, we spent much more time with the baby and with Elliot than we would have. That came with all the pain and frustrations and challenges of parenting a three year old, especially as we traded off who would spend time with him and who focus on work, an arrangement that looks much better on paper than in practice, and it doesn’t look great on paper. But of course it comes with untold joys, impossible to tell apart from the frustration in a manner inexplicable to those who have not lived it. As Elliot becomes more independent, he also becomes more anxious to tell us so. He asserts himself in numerous ways, many of them quite small but accumulating, others quite bold and confrontational. It’s incredible but also rather inconvenient, it’s frustrating and heartwarming and heartbreaking. It’s life; his, ours, his rapidly growing brother’s, all bundled together in a great big mess.

That would have been true any year. But we were much more on top of one another this year than we would have been. And in many ways that has been wonderful. Hard, but wonderful.

There is in some ways too much and too little to recount from this point in the story on. Too much, between the crisis that swept the nation and the way our sick political culture twisted this crisis to fit into its pathetic, petty games and narratives, the way the most unfit president in our history, and his followers, have hammered relentlessly on our already battered political institutions. And too little, in that there is little remarkable in the details of how we coped. We were lucky; we had jobs, jobs which we could do from home, jobs which gave us a measure of parental leave after Max was born. We had off again, on again daycare and then Pre-K for Elliot. We haven’t had to face unemployment, or front line work that put us at risk, or the true isolation of those who live alone. It has been hard, but we have also been keenly aware that there are many others for whom it has been immeasurably harder.

I do not count myself as having a particularly naive or idealistic notion of the caliber of our leadership, but even so this year has been truly dispiriting. I was frankly open to forgiving the many failings in March and April; it’s not shocking that officials, who are only human beings after all, were caught flat footed when faced with something they had never known before. But when it came time for public schools to open here in New York, it was clear they had spent the months since the first wave doing absolutely nothing to logistically prepare for this. And when the positivity rate began its inexorable ascent, the mayor essentially admitted that he had no plan for this entirely predictable state of affairs; plan A was for schools to stay open if positivity was low, and there was no plan B. Nor was our city alone in this predicament. And of course now we’re all seeing that just about as much planning has gone into the distribution of the vaccine. The global scientific community has performed wonders this year, but our governors have failed to govern and our leaders have lacked even a glimmer of leadership.

These fine figures will remain with us in 2021. It is true that we will throw out Trump, after a few more weeks of caterwauling on his part and toadying by the Republican members of Congress. That is not nothing. But Biden is very much a product of our leadership class; he is perhaps the canonical product of it. If that is a drastic improvement from Donald Trump, it is still not much comfort after a year of witnessing the measure of this class’s abilities.

I am finishing this an hour and a half before we bid farewell to 2020. Tomorrow we throw out its calendars, we will soon stop catching ourselves putting the wrong year when write down the current date.

Nothing more meaningful than that will have ended, save for an as yet undetermined number of American lives which perished on December 31, 2020.

Words, Words, Words

I began to write a typical end of the year post, only because this was hardly a typical year (even discounting our family growing!) I did not much enjoy what I was writing. What I really wanted to do was just a fun post about what I’ve read and written and what we’ve done at Liberal Currents and such. I’ll likely write that other, heavier post, too. Another time.

The project

As of this writing, I have read 57 books in 2020. I’ll likely finish another, Joseph Heath’s The Machinery of Government, before the year is done. That book, like so many I read this year, are part of my constitutionalism project. The output of this project has been a rather openly moving target, but I have had a paper in the works for a couple of months now. The first draft is done, but I did some further research in order to tighten it up, and I have been procrastinating putting in the actual work revising it. I’m hoping to sit down and do it sometime over the holidays.

What I have ended up making this paper about, perhaps unsurprisingly given it was the motivating interest all along, is the nature of law as it is actually practiced. The paper is divided into a section fleshing out the basic framework, and then the rest of it is dedicated to the application: the Voting Rights Act, how it was passed, how it was implemented, what role the courts have played in that implementation. In my original formulation of the institutional question, I broke it down as follows:

  • What actors
  • under what circumstances
  • performing what actions
  • achieve what effects

With the follow-up question:

  • What the likely effect would be if no other actor made an attempt at nullification
  • What actions from what actors could potentially nullify the effect of the action
  • What actions from what actors would strengthen or complement the effect of the action

I later revised this to be:

  • Given a specific actor
  • in a specific institutional context
  • taking a specific action
  • what is the likely effect?

With the new followup:

  • Given a specific actor in a specific institutional context has taken a specific action,
    • what actors
    • in what institutions
    • can nullify the effect of that action,
    • and what action(s) would they have to take in order to do so?

Once I began the work of formulating this to actually use it in an analysis of the VRA, I changed it yet again, to a more sweeping set of questions:

  • Who are the actors?
  • What actions did they take, and what actions could they have taken?
  • What social or institutional tools were used to take these actions? What tools could have been used instead?
  • What intersubjective effects did their actions have, with what scope?
  • How much uncertainty was there about the effects of the actions at the outset?

I think the nature of the conceptual problems I’m wrestling with should be easier to see by looking at how I have changed this over time. Hopefully it will be clear for those reading the paper as well, in both the theoretical background provided and the practical application.

The circle I tend to run in is this: “a government of laws rather than of men” seems, on its face, impossible, since it is in fact men who write, enact, and adjudicate law. The caricature version of legal realism is that the law is whatever a judge in a particular case says it is, but this is precisely where things begin to unravel: why does what that judge say matters? Isn’t it because we endow judges with certain authority by law?

I’ve wrestled with this quite a lot over the past year, and read a fair amount of books—starting around October of last year—and am happy with how far I have traveled in so short a time. There, of course, continues to be a vast amount that I do not know. I have only begun to scratch the surface of the biggest gorilla in law, the executive branch. Judges and legislatures occupy an enormous amount of the discussion about government and law, but its day to day character is determined by the permanent bureaucracy more than anything else. The success of the VRA, for example, had much to do with the character of the Civil Rights Division in the DOJ, where they had been tangling with the Jim Crow states for over a decade and across multiple Civil Rights acts before the VRA came along and gave them new weapons to use at a moment the courts were also sympathetic to their cause. But here we see where the legislature and the courts do matter, and of course ultimately it was the Roberts Court that dismantled the main instruments provided by the VRA in Shelby v Holder.

Projects of this kind are always something of an adventure; when you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s quite hard to predict how exactly the path is going to unfold ahead of you. At the outset I did not think I would bother with the Electoral College, which seemed a relatively small concern given all the other features of our complex system of government, and given how hard it is to amend the Constitution. But I received a review copy of Alexander Keyssar’s Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? and I took it as an opportunity to read his previous work, The Right to Vote. Both are excellent, excellent books, just very high caliber scholarship and historical imagination. And I realized, to my great embarrassment, that I had not even really understood the Electoral College before I read Keyssar’s new book. I thought that the least I could do for our readers was to use my review as an occasion to provide the most boiled down, nuts and bolts explanation of this possible, so that even if they do not read Keyssar’s book (which they should, in fact you should read both) they would come away with a better understanding of how our system works.

I found this approach suited me, so I did it again for Alex Hertel-Fernandez’s State Capture, which primarily discussed the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) but also talked about the State Policy Network (SPN) and Americans for Prosperity (AFP). Books like Keyssar’s and Hertel-Fernandez’s discuss all the characteristics of their subject matter from various angles, so in my review I try to bring that all together to give a single, comprehensive description. I was once again satisfied with the results, and in both cases the exercise of writing the review helped me grasp the subject matter much more strongly myself.

These nuts and bolts exercises really are the bread and butter of this project. Part of what’s slowed me down with the paper is I’m attempting to describe, in nuts and bolts, something orders of magnitude more complex than what I described in those book reviews. The Electoral College, while a Rube Goldbergian nightmare, is at the end of the day a single decision procedure. ALEC is a novel but niche interest group. The story of the VRA involves the conditions under which a bill may become a statute, the specific actions taken by the DOJ lawyers, the methods by which state officials attempted to defang it, the role of suits brought by activists and state AGs, court decisions, multiple Congressional renewal fights, and so on. A nuts and bolts explanation of why the VRA succeeded in actually crushing Jim Crow where all previous attempts had utterly failed must touch on basically every aspect of the American system of government, federal and local. It’s very hard!

Complaining aside, it’s been tremendously rewarding. And somewhat unexpectedly, though perhaps unsurprisingly, it has helped me to think much more clearly about liberalism. The discipline of thinking through the details as carefully as I can has helped even in more theoretical matters, such as my discussion of the various distinctions that get unhelpfully lumped under the heading of “free speech.” It also paid off in my investigation of how our media ecosystem performed in the first few months of the pandemic.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the role of unelected judges and judicial review in a democracy, and ended up confident enough in my views to write on the matter. I have a draft of a piece about liberal democracy as a whole, which I intend to publish after Biden is inaugurated, that further develops a thread I introduce in the piece on judges; the idea that governance is done by professionals, and that professional politician is therefore not a pejorative and we ought to better support our elected officials with large staffs and other resources to do their jobs properly. ALEC can only exist at all because state legislatures are chronically underfunded, and so it can offer staff and researchers and pre-written bills to its members.

I have read a lot of books in this project, as I mentioned. Here are some that I would recommend to anyone curious about these kinds of questions:

I did some comparative reading, though not as much as I’d like. Patterns of Democracy is a big survey; I also read a bit about the German and the Israeli systems. I intend to read about the French one, one of the few proportional parliamentary systems with an elected president. As far as I am concerned, this project has only just begun. I will hopefully make some progress on the paper over the next few weeks, and finish Heath’s book, and press on.

A new love

When I started reading the Library of America collection of James Baldwin essays in January, I did not expect to fall in love. I had read “The White Man’s Guilt” not even a year before, and it was like a lightning bolt. He unearthed something so clearly, and in such beautiful prose, which I had long felt. Rather than feeling attacked or criticized, I felt understood. It was, perhaps surprisingly, a pleasant feeling. I wanted to return to the well. I also simply wanted to read good writing. My plan was to pick up the massive tome—which includes five other previously published collections in full, such as Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time, along with another few hundred pages of essays beyond that—and put it down, and pick it up again, over the course of the year.

Perhaps it was everything that happened this year. Perhaps it was simply that I fell so completely for Baldwin’s writing. But as the year went on, I simply devoured the book. I finished it, and went on to novels; I read If Beale Street Could Talk, and went right on to Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, and Go Tell it On the Mountain, and Giovanni’s Room, and I recently finished a short story collection. I have a couple more books by him I intend to get to before I start reading about him; there’s no shortage of biographies on the market at the moment.

His writing is very beautiful, but more importantly, it is very bold. He makes me feel like a terrible coward by comparison. But I feel admiration rather than envy. I feel, through the autobiographical nature of his writing (both fiction and nonfiction), that I have come to know him in a way. I ache with the desire to have a conversation with him. Since I cannot, I continue to read.

I have tried to take the craft of writing a little more seriously. When Jason suggested writing something about Mohamed Bouazizi for what would have been his birthday, I decided I would try to think about it as a piece of writing rather than as a simple analysis. While my project helped me think things through even here—Bouazizi’s self-immolation led to a national democratic revolution but changed nothing about the municipal problems that drove him to his death—it was really James Baldwin who was my primary inspiration in writing the piece, even though I won’t pretend it is either in a similar style or within screaming distance of his caliber.

“Discovering” Baldwin has been a real pleasure, a relief from the difficulties of this particular year.

Liberal Currents

We launched a Patreon for Liberal Currents about a month before everything went to hell. We have had quite the year as a result. I turns out that if you offer to pay people, many will come out of the woodwork to pitch you! And I’m quite pleased with the range of work we have published. Over 66 in total, so I certainly won’t link to them all! Here’s a sampling:

I apologize to those who I did not mention here; there are too many good ones to choose from! I’m very excited by how well things have gone for Liberal Currents. Right now, other than our budget for authors, our chief constraint is editorial capacity. While we’re now a paying publication, our editorial side is still an entirely volunteer effort. This was a particularly difficult year for all of us to find the time for it. I want to give a special shout out to Adrian Rutt who did a tremendous amount of editing this year. Without him, Paul, and Jason, Liberal Currents would simply not be possible. I’m grateful to them all.

If you like anything I’ve linked to above I hope you’ll consider supporting us yourself! Or, if you are a writer, reaching out to pitch us a piece! You can do so at writers at liberalcurrents dot com.


It wasn’t all political science and James Baldwin and liberalism for me this year, reading wise. Martha Wells kindly saw fit to publish the first full novel (as opposed to novella) in her Murderbot Diaries series this year, and I ate it up. If you have not read this series, please get yourself a copy of All Systems Red yesterday; it is a delight to read. I’ve pre-ordered the next book in the series, but missed Wells’ storytelling so much that I went and read all of an earlier, fantasy series of hers, which consumed me for a while. Wells has such a skill for surprising you with an incredibly imaginative world that is slowly revealed through the lens of very enjoyable characters.

I also read Alex White’s Salvagers series and enjoyed it tremendously. A really rollicking fun ride. I listened to White’s podcast novel, The Gearheart, back when I listened to podcast novels. His writing has improved by leaps and bounds since then, but I can see how he got here from there. I stumbled upon Every Mountain Made Low shortly after, and enjoyed it as well; it appears to be a one-shot but that’s fine, not everything has to be a series.

I read Arkady Markine’s A Memory Called Empire and immediately pre-ordered to next book. One of many things I enjoyed about this book is that the space empire is a decadent poetry and literature obsessed civilization, rather than an ice cold, progressive technocracy. More historically accurate!

At the prompting of friends, I started Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty with the first book, The Grace of Kings. It’s quite a tour de force. A very sophisticated book with a lot of attractive characters, cut more closely from history than I had realized while reading it. I plan to read the next one after Baldwin’s Another Country.

That’s more or less what I wanted to talk about in this post. There’s a lot I decided I did not want to talk about, as I mentioned.

Next time, perhaps.

As I wrote this, my wife informed me that the mother and brother of a close friends of hers, a nurse and a resident doctor respectively, have received the vaccine. The end of the year is upon, and maybe the end of the pandemic is closer than I feel, at this moment, it possibly can be.

But I’ll leave it at that, for now.