This year has not…quite…gone as expected. Remarkable that on March 10th I was writing about constitutionalism without any tip of the hat to the unfolding events. Then again, fixating on an unrelated topic to avoid the matter at hand is a rather predictable tendency of mine. Especially if that unrelated topic involves a lot of reading and writing and arguing.
I’ve been getting that itch to write again, but I’ve just recently completed a rather large writing project and don’t have something else specific I’m working on. So I thought I’d go through some updates here.
At the beginning of February we launched a Patreon for Liberal Currents. The immediate goal was simply to get enough to begin paying authors, which we accomplished in the first week. I’ve been blown away by the support we received, especially with the level of support from each individual patron.
By this point last year I had not written a single piece on Liberal Currents, and would not until July. In 2020 I’ve written four so far, two of which I put a significant amount of work into, and the most recent involved more research than I have done for a single piece in many years.
Sometime in February, Jason Briggeman floated the idea of writing a piece about Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation had sparked a series of mass protests that spread and became The Arab Spring (to summarize simplistically). I was a bit unsure about the idea, as I didn’t know what there was to be said about Bouazizi specifically.
The idea was to put up the piece on what would have been Bouazizi’s birthday. I began digging into what was known about him and decided that I ought to use this as an opportunity to try and grow as a writer. I have a tendency to write highly analytical, argument-driven pieces, but I have a great admiration for writers like my friend Dave. Dave filled Sweet Talk with posts that were both beautiful and invited his readers to approach wisdom, without hitting them over the head with it. I have also been reading essays by James Baldwin, for whom the beauty of his prose was also coterminous with the wisdom contained therein. Notably, both of these men are novelists as much as nonfiction writers.
I would not utter my final result in the same sentence as a work produced by either of these talents, but I was quite pleased with it. Of course, by Bouazizi’s birthday, March 29th, everyone had something quite different on their minds than revising the personal story of the man who inadvertently began mass protests back in 2011. All the same, I hope you’ll consider reading it.
My most recent piece is more in line with how I typically write, but producing it was quite an endeavor. As the pandemic steamrolled everything else, I first sat down, in March, to write a hit piece about the conservative media. It was going to be a straight application of my narrative of the conservative media insurgency to those figures in that ecosystem who at that point were claiming that shutdowns were nothing more than a liberal attempt to tank the economy and hurt Donald Trump’s reelection chances. Only as I began to do the research for the piece, the reality did not appear nearly so one-sided. The mainstream and liberal press made many glaring mistakes as well as bad faith maneuvers in the early days of the outbreak.
As my family and I fled to my parents’ home in order to have access to a better hospital situation when our second son was born (as he was, safely and without complication, on April 27th), I tabled the piece. But the question of how the media had performed, and how one would even go about evaluating it, stuck with me. Some individuals who had been sounding the alarm early, like Matt Parlmer and Balaji S. Srinivasan, had blistering critiques of the media’s coverage as a whole. A locked account that I follow pushed back on this category of critiques, saying “I don’t know what people mean when they say the media failed in its coronavirus coverage. I followed the outbreak from the beginning and was only able to do so through the media.” Then there was the blog and social media aspect; a Medium post in early March had gone so wildly viral that it was a subject of conversation at my place of work, with members of my team specifically recommending it to me.
When I began to rethink the piece, Adam Rust and I talked about a collaboration. We would use the media performance during the Spanish Flu as a historical point of reference. He would write about that, and I would write about how the media performed today. So I went and gathered more and more sources, ultimately amassing something like 200 (the exact number is kinda arbitrary to pin down because some were tweets, some were essays, most were articles but some articles I used for constructing a timeline of events rather than for evaluating coverage).
The more I read, the harder a time I had formulating a one-liner version of my evaluation. So once I finished my research, I sat down and simply tried to write something out. The first draft, completed maybe an hour before we went to the hospital for the baby to be born, clocked in at 6,000 words. Rust was kind enough to provide feedback on this draft, but suggested that expanding it by writing an additional section on the Spanish Flu was probably ill-advised. Between his feedback and my father’s (who I probably would have solicited it from regardless given the topic but it was nice to be able to discuss it in person) I shaved the piece down to 5500 words and, more importantly, significantly restructured it.
For such a monster of a piece, it has been among the more successful at Liberal Currents this year. The Neoliberal Project folks liked it so much that they invited me onto their podcast.
I’ve been babbling on about my pieces, but we’ve published ten others so far this year. In addition, our pipeline is as robust as it has ever been—it turns out more people will write for you when you pay them for their work! Liberal Currents has grown in general, in its audience, its social media following, its contributor base, and as mentioned, its revenue. It’s all happening as an unprecedented disaster rocks the world, so it’s easy to lose sight of. But I’m extremely proud of everything we’ve accomplished since we launched three years ago.
The research project
As I mentioned at the outset, my research project is broken up into four reading lists. I made the conscious choice not to share those lists because I planned to be updating them as I went, while keeping them roughly the same length (with the exception of the fourth list, which is more of a place to dump things that would be nice to get to some day).
As an outsider to the fields I am reading up on, my initial lists were self-consciously tentative based on extremely limited knowledge of what I even needed to know. As I read more, and connected directly with more scholars for recommendations, I substituted the books I originally put on the list for better, more relevant, more authoritative texts.
However, at this point I have almost completed the first list, which I had set a (quite conservative) goal of completing by October. It is the only one of the lists I put a deadline on; essentially I wanted this list to give me the bare-bones basics of what I’d need to write the piece I hope to write in November.
It will be a stretch to finish the second list in time, but I think I can realistically get through half of it; hopefully more! Getting to the third list is extremely unlikely, and starting the fourth list by the end of the year is, I think it is safe to say, impossible.
At this point I can share the first list, though:
- Parliamentarism: From Burke to Weber by William Selinger (read at the end of 2019) which I reviewed.
- Policing the Open Road by Sara Seo (read at the end of 2019) which I reviewed.
- America’s Congress: Actions in the Public Sphere by David Mayhew (read at the end of 2019)
- No Middle Ground by Seth Masket (read at the end of 2019)
- Evicted by Matthew Desmond
- Congress’s Constitution by Josh Chafetz
- When the State Meets the Street by Bernardo Zacka
- The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement by Steven Teles
- How the Courts Work by Marilyn Englander
- The Presidency and the Political System edited by Michael Nelson
- Harsh Justice by James Whitman
- Mobilizing Interest Groups in America by Jack Walker
- The New American Political System edited by Anthony King
- The Politics of War Powers by Sarah Burns
- Implementation by Jeffrey Pressman and Aaron Wildavsky
- The Supreme Court and the American Elite, 1789-2008 by Lucas Powe
- The American State Constitutional Tradition by John Dinan
- The British System of Government and Its Historical Development by Christopher Edward Taucar
- Patterns of Democracy by Arend Lijphart
- Why Parties? A Second Look by John Aldrich
- Disjointed Pluralism by Eric Schickler (currently reading)
- Weak Courts, Strong Rights by Mark Tushnet (to-read)
- Illegal by Elizabeth F. Cohen (to-read)
I can’t even begin to say how much I have learned, compared to how little I knew at the start, and I still know so much less than I need to. As you may have noticed, I began by writing reviews of each to help me absorb them a bit better, as well as some more gut-responses here. I intended to write a joint review of Congress’s Constitution and The Politics of War Powers and still may, but the pandemic intervened; my family left our home temporarily and the books stayed behind. I will undoubtedly write a great deal more and revisit many of these numerous times, but doing it one by one (or even two by two) was simply going to take too long.
I’d love to have the forthcoming Congress Overwhelmed on this list but it looks like the review copy won’t be coming soon enough. Hopefully it’ll make it in time for the second list.
The last few years I’d tried to balance nonfiction reading with novels, but my constitutionalism project has left little room for that this year. After reading The Last Policeman trilogy in December and January—a good series, though it probably could have been a single book rather than a trilogy—I didn’t read any other novels. But then Network Effects, the first full-length novel novel in Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries, came out, and it seemed an opportune moment to take a break from the research project.
I cannot recommend that series enough. As I mentioned, the latest one is the only novel-length part of the series; the first four are novellas. All Systems Red, the first in the series, can be obtained for two bucks and is a very quick read. If you like science fiction at all, or fun, campy series, (like Buffy the Vampire Slayer for example), you owe it to yourself to give this one a try. I’d love if it took off and we got a Netflix series out of it.
I can’t imagine I’ll be getting to too many more novels this year unfortunately, with the tight timeline I have for my research project. But it was definitely worth the detour for this particular one.
That’s all I’ve got. Thanks for those of you interested enough in what I’m working on to read through infodumps like this.