I’m not very interesting when I’m feeling badly. That may sound tautological—who’s at their best when they’re In A Mood? And yet there appear to be ever-larger digital media markets for rants, laments, and grave warnings. I guess that’s what happens when fewer and fewer of us go to houses of worship. You have to get your fire and brimstone somewhere.
To each their own, but I always have to look for the positive angle. If my apartment building started taking artillery shells, I’d run toward the railyard and scale the fence and hide among the trains. And as soon as I was clear, I’d start telling myself this would all make for a good story. I worry in advance about how boring I’ll get when I complain, so I look for a way to make misfortune interesting. I also get sappy about regular ol’ good fortune.
So of course, as someone always looking to make everything sound happier than it perhaps is, the stated premise of Thanksgiving suits me. I say “stated” because it’s a holiday that, I’m told, has its origins in Politics and History. It’s also very clearly a scam by airlines. If you celebrate both Thanksgiving and Christmas, you’re supposed to go home for a family feast exactly a month before you’re also supposed to go home again? Gtfoh, United.
This year, we—or rather, a novel virus—got one over on the airlines. A lot of us will be sitting alone on Thanksgiving. So what, exactly, are we supposed to be thankful for? I won’t speak for anyone else, but I do want to briefly give thanks for something as we draw to the conclusion of 2020. I am thankful for fictional characters who get what they want and have to deal with the consequences.
A while ago, I posited that one of the most important distinctions in any made-up story is between characters who want to be in a story and those who don’t. In my own work and elsewhere, I’m increasingly drawn to characters who want to be in a story and even get a version of the story they want. This could be said, for instance, of both Ahab and Ishmael in Moby Dick; Ahab wanted to find the whale, and Ishmael wanted adventure. They both got their wish, and yet…
It’s that “and yet” that fascinates me, both in fiction and in life. I find myself at a weird juncture where I’ve gotten a version of a lot of the things I wanted but nothing is going quite the way I wanted. “Nothing is going quite the way I wanted” is something I have in common with a lot of you, I suspect, given the uh situation. So how do fictional characters help? How does it help me if they get what they want?
I think about Wuthering Heights at least once or twice a day. As I do my own writing and try to help others do theirs, I marvel at Emily Brontë’s achievement. A novel published in 1847 and written by a woman who lived a short, outwardly circumscribed life still feels transgressive and unnerving almost two centuries later.
One key to the book’s irreducible strangeness is that most of the latter half of its action involves the tormented Heathcliff getting what he wants in the most twisted and uncanny way [spoilers follow, if you care about that kind of thing]. He can’t be with Cathy, but when she dies, he wishes for her to haunt him. Which she does, even as he tightens his grip on everyone left alive who ties him to his separation from her in life. In time, Heathcliff fades away and also dies. Local children report seeing his ghost walking alongside that of his doomed love.
Heathcliff’s character arc invariably cheers me up. It’s both a dark myth and a painfully believable portrayal of heartbreak. It’s grim and, in a sense, everyone loses. But Heathcliff wanted to be with Cathy in a conjoining way—“I am Heathcliff,” Cathy famously says—that’s impossible in real life. He could only get what he wanted if ghosts turned out to be real. The force of his passion gave him that story.
It was something unpredictable / But in the end it was right—OK, I’ll stop.
I don’t plan on living like Heathcliff. He was not a happy man, or a good man. I do plan on taking as much solace as I can from made-up stories. Right now that solace mostly takes the form of, here’s a story about characters who get what they want in a really fucked up way. I’m thankful these stories exist and that I can always go back to them, no matter how bad things get. I hope all of you have a good Thanksgiving that gives you some of what you want, even if it’s in a kinda fucked up way.
Also if you feel able, here’s a way to donate to hurricane relief in Nicaragua. Derek tipped me off to this; it’s one nice thing we can do in this wretched season.
A Lonely Impulse of Delight
Connor Wroe Southard
One of the fun things about doing this newsletter is that I get to veer between the highbrow, the lowbrow, and all the brows in between. Two weeks ago I wrote about Baby Yoda. Last week I wrote about Ulysses. The Mandalorian and James Joyce’s magnum opus have very little in common, except they’re both made-up stories, and I’ve been watching/reading both in the past couple of weeks. I’m thankful to be able to share my thoughts on both with my subscribers. You should sign up so I can count you among their ranks, and surprise us both with what I write about.
What will come next? I admit that I feel myself running out of steam. I feel the same flagging madness as seemingly everyone I know. That doesn’t mean, however, that I won’t keep trundling along with the newsletters. It’s fun! That’s the main reason I do it. I think my next one will be about a samurai movie. Maybe Yojimbo? Only one way to find out.
This week I welcomed Alexander Thurston, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati, to the Foreign Exchanges podcast to talk about his new book, Jihadists of North Africa and the Sahel: Local Politics and Rebel Groups. Alex is a fantastic scholar of political Islam and the Sahel region, and his book offers a unique and I think very useful perspective on jihadist groups that break from the mainstream narrative that either focuses on the supposed global jihad or focuses very narrowly on “radicalization,” through the countering violent extremism (CVE) movement. I hope you check out the interview and his book.
Like Connor I can feel myself hitting a wall these days, and I don’t think we’re the only ones. Since it’s the season for being thankful, I’m thankful for the chance to take a little bit of a break. I’m thankful for my wife, our daughter, and our cat and dog, who in addition to all of their other excellent qualities have fortunately turned out to be great lockdown companions. I’m also thankful that my parents are still kicking around, though we’re approaching a year since I’ve actually seen them. Even when I worked overseas I managed to get back to see them more often than COVID has allowed. I’m also thankful for all of you, who have made Discontents’ first few months a real pleasure. So if you’re celebrating it this week, Happy Thanksgiving!
Wars of Future Past
Kelsey D. Atherton
I, generally, go about my daily life without a particular concern about what would happen if a violent mob came for my head. Even if I did fear mass violence against my specific existence, I cannot imagine shelling out $50,000 for a backyard bunker-that-looks-like-a-shed, rated as resistant to “pistol-caliber bullets.”
The Riot Shed, a joke on twitter and apparently a real company in Oregon, is hoping to capitalize on feverswamp fears of imagined violence to sell such death-traps to an eager audience of paranoid and well-off suburbanites. For my latest newsletter, I took a first stab at what this kind of atomized paranoia and survival strategy has in common with fallout shelters, a grift of the 1950s. There’s maybe a real market for selling an unproven apocalypse survival strategy to people with more cash than sense, I think.
As for Thanksgiving, my whole family made the call last week to gather online instead of in person. I’m grateful for this; without federal support our ability to stay home and apart becomes the defense we have against worse ravages. New Mexico is handling the pandemic better than most places within the US, but we’re still setting records and straining hospital capacity and the numbers are only going to get worse nationwide I think until, I dunno, Febraury? It is hard to know.
I’m thankful, I guess, that we cannot yet tabulate the dead in whole megadeaths, the unit nuclear warplanners came up with to more easily quantify violence in the millions and tens of millions. As of November 24th, I think the US is at just over 257,000 officially dead from this virus, or roughly 1/4th of a megadeath.
Welcome to Hell World
Over the weekend I reported on a police raid on an encampment of unhoused people in Manchester, New Hampshire. A volunteer from New Hampshire Mutual and Relief Fund who’s been on the ground there all week as a deadline for their eviction loomed explained what has been happening in the Granite State. It’s not good! “Some of these people had everything stolen from them,” she said. “Some of them came back from work and it’s literally like if your house had been torn up from the ground. We’re going to need to replace everything for them.”
Thursday’s Hell World was for subscribers only. Here’s a 33% off coupon. It was about Andrew Cuomo and Nancy Pelosi and Gavin Newsom and the rest of our “good” Democrat leaders sucking the most shit possible and the exploding death and sickness in El Paso and South Dakota and elsewhere.
Regarding thankfulness my terms are rather simple. I am thankful as always to have my physical health (if not my mental health), particularly as the pandemic continues to ravage the country. I am thankful that my wife and I are able to work from home, a privilege many do not enjoy. I am thankful for family and friends even though it feels sometimes right now like they are drifting away due to the distancing nature of the virus and the poisonous politics of the current moment. And while this is probably corny, I am thankful to have so many engaged readers. It really isn’t something any of us should take for granted.
Perspectives: Past, Present, and Future
I’ve been working on an essay for the past few weeks and I want to be sure I get it right. The topic is American ethnonationalism, the kind of vague, sense of weaponized American-ness that’s emerged in the past couple of decades, focused around Supporting the Troops, obsessively researching AR-15 builds, getting into and then out of Crossfit, posting American flag-branded things on Instagram, and being really sure that America is always right and if you don’t like it, you can get the fuck out. It’s the Arizona or Ohio suburb-dwelling child of the Tom Clancy Nationalism that emerged in the late 90s, where the American military always emerged victorious from some sharp and perfectly justified conflict with a poorly defined Other.
Anyway, the reason I’m trying (and not yet succeeding) in writing about this is because I think it’s everywhere, but it’s effectively hidden from much of the work of cultural and political interpretation that happens in the United States, and I’d like to try to both understand and explain it. That’s what’s happening in between Perspectives posts on the Neolithic.
I’m thankful for so many things. I’m thankful that I don’t yet live in a country openly at war with itself, despite its best efforts (more TK on that front, obviously). I’m thankful for my podcast, which is as close to a dream job as I can imagine; for my spouse and my kids; for my friends and my parents; for my health; and for everybody who reads or listens to my shit, which is still mind-boggling to me. Even amid the absolute fucking madness of this year, I’m thankful for the many ways things could be worse than they are, but aren’t.
Felipe De La Hoz & Gaby Del Valle
We’re both thankful that Felipe didn’t get concussed and/or die after he got hit by a car on his bike last week. Also, on a more earnest note (not that we weren’t being earnest before), we’re thankful for the beat reporters and policy people who are going to keep analyzing immigration goings-on even as the general public is already losing interest.
On that note, we’re once again going to talk about kids in cages.
One of the reasons that we sometimes get annoyed by the endless deployment of the “kids in cages” motif to describe border horrors is that it now largely paints an incorrect picture. Horrors still abound, but they are different horrors now: asylum-seeking children aren’t being put in cages because they’re largely not being allowed to stay in the country and apply for protections at all. Instead, since mid-March, the administration has adopted a policy of simply expelling all migrants without further process, sometimes within hours of an attempted entry, on the thin pretext of this being a coronavirus-response measure.
Last week, a federal judge stopped the policy’s use against unaccompanied minors, many of whom at one point were being held in hotels under the watch of private security contractors for a few days before being unceremoniously ejected to Mexico or Central America. As with many Trump-era immigration policies that have ended up in court, the judge took the time to deconstruct the absurdity of the government’s position on several legal grounds, including bluntly pointing out that the law it’s relying on doesn’t authorize expulsions at all. Adults and families will children will still be subject to the expulsions, but the legal groundwork is set for it to be blocked completely.
Jordan Uhl & Rob Rousseau
This week, we (regrettably) bring back Ken Klippenstein to give him a verbal warning about starting a rival Substack as well as his penchant for playing cruel japes on the heroes of the National Intelligence apparatus, and once again ban him from the show. Along the way we talk about Biden’s troubling cabinet appointments, the clear signs that liberals have zero intention of holding his administration accountable for anything, and the chaos Donald Trump is creating in American foreign policy on his way out the door (if anyone actually ends up successfully getting him to leave).
Is it okay to cover Joe Biden's incoming Cabinet? Not if you're going to raise questions about what the prospective members did in the private sector, apparently.
That was the message from Vox's Aaron Rupar last night. Rupar snarkily shot back at the American Prospect's David Dayen for tweeting (accurately) that Biden's Secretary of State nominee Tony Blinken spent the last four years "getting rich working for corporate clients at a pop-up strategic consultancy."
"Blinken participated in society," replied Rupar in an impressively incorrect mangling of the famous Matt Bors cartoon. "The horror."
That Rupar would run interference for the subject of reporting from reporters is not that surprising. A stalwart Democratic partisan who's risen to fame by clipping Trump speeches and cable news coverage of the current president, Rupar's seldom made even passing attempts at pretending to be anything else.
But if reporters, partisans or not, are already sending the message that they're not even going to engage with the pretense of reporting on the new administration, that's a genuinely bad thing that will have ramifications on how the Biden administration is covered and hints at what kind of pushback actual reporters will get if they critically look at the 46th president.
Last week at The Flashpoint, I covered the reelection of Massachusetts Democratic Party Chair Gus Bickford in spite of his involvement in the Alex Morse scandal. Bickford was resoundingly reelected by members of the Democratic State Committee who ignored his role in the smear campaign to send him back for another four years. The article was produced in partnership with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
With respect to thankfulness, I'm happy to be surrounded by a loving family and to have the reader and professional support to do the work I do. I hope your week is a good one.
Before we go into our usual roundup of stories from the last week, I want to use this space to promote the Discourse Blog Stay Home Giving Drive.
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If you’re wondering what we’re about, take a look at our stories from this week, on Andrew Cuomo (he is bad), the COVID outbreak in Congress, Dave from the Great British Bake Off, Donald Trump’s troop withdrawals and America’s forever war in Afghanistan, Rahm Emanuel (also bad), Joe Biden’s student loan plan, Harry Styles in a dress, Madison Cawthorn (anti-Semitic), and those clowns in Congress overall.
See you next week!