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.

Freelancers and Staff Writers: I Need Your Advice

Things have gelled rather quickly since my last update. The form of the piece I want to write about institutional reform has taken a more definite shape in my mind; I have added four books to my list that I think I need in order to get the details down but am confident I can write what I want once I go through those (and probably sooner).

So I’m asking for help from those of you who know what you are doing: freelancers and writers of all sorts who have pitched pieces to big publications.

My goals are a little different from yours; I’m not trying to make a living off of this, at least not right now. If I could place this piece in The Atlantic without compensation, I would in a heartbeat. I want reach and prestige, in that order.

To that end, I have two questions for you:

  1. Where should I pitch this piece? The basic selling point is “We need systematic institutional change, here’s what it should be and how we should get it done.” It will be a lengthy piece that goes through some fine institutional details as well as political strategy. As mentioned, The Atlantic is probably the ideal but I’d love to hear about other options.
  2. How should I go about this? Emailing the generic pitch alias at a publication seems…like an almost guaranteed way to never hear from them. I’ve tried looking into which editors are subject-matter appropriate for a given pitch, but my toolset is fairly limited there.

Any tips are greatly appreciated!

Another Long Year

Well, here we are again, at the end of another year. This felt like an especially long one. Part of that had to do things I’ve been subjected to alongside everyone else; the Democratic Primary race and its never ending churn of C and D list politicians having their fifteen minutes, which feels as though it has been going on three years longer than it in fact has. Donald Trump’s presidency, in general, culminating in actual articles of impeachment less than half a month from the end of the year. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s meteoric rise at the beginning of the year, if somewhat more leveled off position in the second half. And on and on, in the manic political and media environment in which we now exist. In part because I now operate a political publication, but also because of the near-inescapability of political conversation these days, political events in particular made 2019 feel longer than 365 days (and as of this writing we’ve only actually had 354).

Speaking of that political publication: Liberal Currents has had a banner year, in terms of attention, engagement, and most of all, the quality and quantity of contributions and the number of new, bright, talented contributors we managed to bring on. Jason, Paul, and I started LC in 2017 after the shock of Trump’s victory. As an all volunteer operation (a fact I hope to change in the future but cannot be sure when we’ll be in a position to) there have been moments where our contribution pipeline went quite dry for uncomfortably long. But in July of this year, we hit a real turning point, after which our pipeline has been quite robust. Cameron Harwick, Jerrod Laber, and Adam Rust all wrote magnificent pieces that received a good amount of attention. Adam’s piece resulted in our running a response from Kian Hudson, the Deputy Solicitor General of Indiana. I’m very excited by our current trajectory and incredibly proud of our editors and everyone who has been a part of the project. We’re really making something special. The future looks bright for Liberal Currents.

Coincidentally, I didn’t write any pieces for LC myself until July. And that was a piece I shopped around first, but alas its moment had not come. I’m proud of the piece itself, which I worked quite hard on with a number of other people’s input, Jason’s most significantly (as usual). The others were largely book reviews, a format which we have gone in for much more this year. Other than the piece from July, my favorite non-review piece I wrote concerned the nature of freedom of speech, in the context of current controversies over platforms like Facebook. I also wrote more here than I have in years; mostly spitballing but my piece on Rorty’s vision of national self-respect, and an outline of conservative media’s history, while rough, will probably be revised and turned into something more substantial in the future.

It has also been a very good year reading-wise. In my first post here this year, I noted:

Philosophy of law is no shortcut to understanding law. Hermeneutics is no shortcut to understanding literature. Moral philosophy is no shortcut to understanding right and wrong. Political philosophy is no shortcut to understanding either politics or political institutions as they exist and function in life. Epistemology and philosophy of science are no shortcut for becoming a competent scholar or scientist. Metaphysics is no shortcut for understanding reality.

I concluded that it was time to “dial back philosophy” in my reading and “invest more of my time in history, law, political science, and other works focused on concrete particulars.”

By and large, I have done well. I am currently close to finishing my 57th book this year, and may or may not manage another before the year’s end. That will leave me 2-3 books behind last year, though Goodreads tells me I have already exceeded last year in number of pages read. Gross quantities aside, I learned a tremendous amount this year. The one philosophy book I did read, William Curtis’ delightful book on Richard Rorty, was actually quite clarifying in a way that lends itself to application in more practical subject matter. It also coalesced with the image of Rorty that had been forming in my mind since I read Achieving Our Country last year and wrote the post about it this one. 

Otherwise, in my nonfiction reading has stuck very closely to my goal; I’ve read about climate science, the use of memes in the 2016 election (however disappointing that book was), the history of Cuba, the history of postwar India, the Great Enrichment, the history of Athenian democracy (such as we can reconstruct it), the life of Alain Locke, sociology, the Dutch Golden Age, the history of American counterculture, the French Revolution, the life of marginal groups in contemporary rust belt towns, the nature of dog whistle politics, the history of de jure residential segregation in America, eugenics and immigration restriction, the history of protest in Hong Kong, the life of Malcolm X, the history of Uber, the conflict between Peter Thiel and Gawker, parliamentary theory, and the history of policing and Fourth Amendment case law in the 20th century. Two of the novels I read this year were well researched intergenerational histories as well, and I have fallen quite in love with that format.

Looking ahead: legal realism and political science in 2020

Any one of the topics I read a book about this year (including any one of the subtopics touched upon in those books) I could stand to learn a lot more about. But as the year went on, the germ of an idea developed in my mind. Well, more of an impulse, or as those close to me might more aptly call it, a new obsession.

Its seeds were planted by the two pragmatists (in the philosophical rather than merely colloquial sense of the word) who have so influenced my thinking over the last two years, Adrian Rutt and Adam Rust. Adam has experience in both criminal and civil law, and currently works at a firm that represents unions. We have talked at length about his experiences and about legal realism, and his work on originalism (which became the July piece at Liberal Currents mentioned above) opened my eyes to the fact that it is a species of rationalism. Kian’s response only cemented my conclusion: he did not have much to say about the role of precedent, except to note Justice Thomas believes that if we know what the text says, then precedent shouldn’t matter at all. This is rationalism and dogmatism of the highest order, the exact type that Hans-Georg Gadamer debunked in the 20th century.

Legal realism is the jurisprudence, if you can call it that, which focuses on the system as it exists in practice. The more I grew interested in it, the more I worried that embracing it would require discarding the rule of law as an ideal. After all, if the law is nothing more than what the institutional authorities decide, as human beings with fickle psychologies, then how can we ever expect it to be a consistent, predictable, source of stability and bulwark against arbitrary authority?

A very helpful paper by Hanoch Dagan answers exactly that question, breaking down what exactly we value about the rule of law and how legal realism as he formulates it addresses those values. In particular he discusses the pragmatic role of what he calls “doctrinal categories” and how the legal community of a given moment constitutes an interpretive community with a lot of shared understandings that serve to ground interpretations; but these are not the only sources of interpretation. I am not going to rehash the whole paper here, but suffice it to say that Dagan offers a very useful way of thinking about the law as it exists in practice but also in relation to important ideals.

My interest in legal realism and what it means for liberal ideals, and my longer term goal to attend to concrete particulars as opposed to high level abstractions, have led to a project I will be pursuing in 2020, and indeed have already begun. I was loosely calling it the legal realism = unwritten (or ancient) constitutionalism project, but now that the reading list has gelled, I can more clearly characterize it as a crash course in the political science of the American system.

I want to get a better understanding of it all, from top to bottom. The operation of Congress, down to the role of the staffers; the sociology of the legal community and how respectability within it and within the specific social circle that Supreme Court justices operate within constrain judicial decisions; the way policing and prosecution are practiced and how that has changed over time; how the 500 pound gorilla in the room of governance, the administrative state, operates and relates to the more “traditional” branches of government; local government and how it nullifies federal level law in practice; the party system as it is and has been; all of it.

Any one of these is a specialized area of research and knowledge in its own right, so the emphasis here is on “crash course.” I would like to lay a foundation by this time next year, however. In fact, one concrete outcome of this project that I am aiming for is to write a piece in the wake of the 2020 election, whatever its outcome, on what the long term plan should be for Democrats. And that plan will include a laundry list of constitutional amendments to fight for should the opportunity (given a necessary combination of local electoral success, both houses of Congress, and strong party discipline) arise. We too often make the mistake of either writing off amending the constitution entirely, or half-assing what we’d do if we could. The Progressives added four amendments in a seven year span. If you are patient and lay the groundwork, and are ready to be decisive when the right moment comes, it can be done. 

But if you do it, you’d better get it right. If there’s one lesson I have taken away from my various discussions with Adam Rust and my legal realism reading to date, it is that amendments such as ERA are nothing more than an invitation to judges to develop a body of case law. The amendments that matter are ones that restructure our existing institutions in concretely specified ways. The age minimum to run for president, or the apportionment rule for the House, are examples of things that do not leave much latitude for judicial discretion. Creating a new rule like “the president can be removed if two-thirds of the House vote to do so” likewise adds something specific to the House’s toolkit, where “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States” and “Congress shall have power to enforce this article” are much more ambiguous and quite plausibly will change nothing at all.

To return to the piece I wish to write next year: laying the foundation for this will require a much more disciplined approach to reading. To that end, I have laid out around 20 books which I will commit to reading by October. This will hopefully provide me with the basic level of competence required to write the piece I wish to write. Assuming that I stand by that commitment, I have a further 15 to begin going through after that. If I have really stuck to this project and get through all 35 of those, I have yet another set of books to begin going through; if I make it to this point by November I will feel extremely confident in my ability to write the piece. After that, I just have a grab bag of “would be nice to get to” books, including some more theoretical and philosophical works on ancient constitutionalism, legal realism, and jurisprudence generally. I do not expect to get to this grab bag in any meaningful way in 2020 but might draw from it in 2021.

The piece is one specific goal, as I mentioned, but it’s not really the main one. I am attempting to build a basic foundation with several larger ends in mind:

  • Attempting to popularize small-c constitutionalism against “written” constitutionalism, in part by demonstrating its superior merits in meeting liberal ideals
  • Developing a general framework of political activism by laying out a basic sketch of where the main “levers” of power are and which to employ in a scenario where a political opponent controls some specific subset of them
  • Extending the 2020 piece into an academic paper or even a book laying out the specific systematic changes that we should be working towards
  • Developing Curtis’ (and Rorty’s and Deirdre McCloskey’s) virtue liberalism into something concrete and situated in the American system as it exists in practice

These are all quite interconnected and will require developing the same basic foundational knowledge, so which of these I end up pursuing first or in any depth will depend as much on what opportunities are available to me as anything. The 2020 piece itself is largely meant to be part of a broader effort to create such opportunities.

That is what is occupying my thoughts most prominently these days. I admit that I’m more than a little excited to embark on this project. Perhaps it’s an intellectual retreat in politically troubled times, but it feels less like a retreat than focusing on hermeneutics and ontology. At any rate, watch this space. Congratulations to you all for surviving this long year, good luck with the long year ahead.


Decorum (L. “propriety”) – To prepon.

As a rhetorical concept, the idea advanced in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and developed by Cicero, Quintilian and others, that style should suit subject, audience, speaker and occasion. No idea was more carefully worked out in rhetorical theory nor more universally acclaimed; everyone writing about rhetoric touches on it in one way or another. And from Horace – really from Aristotle – onward it forms a major theme of literary criticism as well. (For a detailed discussion and list of citations, see D’Alton, Roman Literary Theory and Criticism, pp. 116ff.)

In spite of its obviousness, and venerability, the idea of decorum could use some rethinking. We might notice, for example, that decorum as a stylistic criterion finally locates itself entirely in the beholder and not the speech or text. No textual pattern per se is decorous or not. The final criterion for excess, indecorum, is the stylistic self-consciousness induced by the text or social situation. We know decorum is present when we don’t notice it, and vice versa. Decorum is a gestalt established in the perceiving intelligence. Thus the need for it, and the criteria for it, can attain universal agreement and allegiance, and yet the concept itself remain without specifiable content.

The number of stylistic and behavioral variables such a judgment must take into account leave the rules which are said to inform it far behind. It becomes an intuitive judgment of the sort a modern phenomenologist might examine, dependent on deep patterns of what Michael Polanyi would call “tacit knowledge.” It thus becomes – and clearly was for classical education – not only a rhetorical criterion but a general test of basic acculturation. To know how to establish the “decorum” of a particular occasion meant that you had, as a child or a foreigner might, learned to find your footing in that culture. I’ve taken the phrase “find your footing” from Clifford Geertz, a cultural anthropologist who locates the center of anthropology in something not too different from classical decorum.

From the perspective of postmodern thought, one can also see more clearly that decorum is a creative as well as a pious concept, that it creates the social reality which it reflects. Decorum, not to put too fine an edge on it, amounts to a pious fraud, the “social trick” par excellence. We create, with maximum self-consciousness and according to precise rules, an intricate structure of stylistic forces balanced carefully as to perceiver and perceived, and then agree to forget that we have created it and to pretend that it is nature itself we are engaging with. Rhetorical theory has spent endless time discussing how to adjust utterance to this preexistent social reality without reflecting on how that reality has been constituted by the idea of decorum. Like the human visual system, rhetorical decorum is a bag of tricks which constitutes for us a world that it then presents as “just out there” awaiting our passive reception.

Further, one might even think of decorum as the origin of, and basis for, what we usually call “common sense” or “reasonability.” Richard Harvey Brown has “reformulated” reason along these lines in a brilliant essay, “Reason as Rhetorical: On Relations among Epistemology, Discourse, and Practice,” where he argues for a “reason” which seems to me isomorphic with the “decorum” of classical rhetoric.

With decorum, as so often in current thought, the basic ideas of classical rhetoric have found new life and further development in disciplines other than the study of formal rhetoric.

-Richard A. Lanham, A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms