This doesn’t have to be every writer for themselves
As many have pointed out, newslettering can be a solitary business that, sure, provides a lot of freedoms unavailable to journalists working at traditional publications, but also deprives many of us of a sense of newsroom camaraderie. That’s one of the things we’re happy to be trying to change with the Discontents project, a collective of sorts where we each publish our own work, but also present it all together once a week in a digest much like the one you are reading. (Someone should collect a bunch of newsletters together and bind them with paper lol). A rising tide... as the saying goes. Elsewhere we lean on each other for advice, share each other’s work, sometimes share editors, and in our newest experiment, have bundled a few of our newsletters together in a paid subscription model. In fact, if you want to subscribe to my newsletter for a year today — hello it’s Luke from Hell World by the way — you’ll also get six months of paid-tier subscriptions to Foreign Exchanges by Derek Davison and Forever Wars by Spencer Ackerman. Or vice versa. (If you do so be sure to let one of us know as Substack doesn’t as of yet allow for something like this and we have to do it manually.)
Aside from all that we’re also committed to showcasing the work of other colleagues and friends who are doing their own great writing elsewhere — this doesn’t have to be every writer for themselves — so today to start us off we’re going to highlight three of them.
Stick around after that for updates from the rest of the gang on what we’ve been working on lately. Thank you as always for reading.
The Sword and the Sandwich
Hi, I’m Talia Lavin. If you know of me, you probably know of me as a dipshit loudmouth on Twitter, hurling opinions, bad jokes and selfies with broadswords into the ether. For the past five years, I’ve been writing about the far-right in America — from neo-Nazis to militias to anti-vaxxers to white supremacist religions. As of early October, I’ve taken that writing to Substack, where I publish The Sword and the Sandwich on Mondays and Fridays each week.
The sword part is where I write about the far right. I view my writing as a combination of advocacy and combat, and I’m not abashed about it — I do not pretend to approach the far right with a neutral lens or the disinterested gaze of the dispassionate observer. That doesn’t mean I don’t work as hard as I can to get my facts right. I do, and my wonderful editor David Swanson is there to catch me. It means that I don’t pull punches, don’t write from an airy third-person perspective where I pretend at sophisticated, punditish analysis, and don’t feel the need to call up every Nazi jagweed for their take on the day’s occurrences. That’s one of the freedoms Substack affords me, and I’m grateful for it.
I’ve also been able to dive into some aspects of the American right that I wouldn’t have been able to pitch to a publication in a neat, bite-sized email. I’ve explored the ways anti-vaxxers interpret the Book of Revelation, and taken a look at nationwide right-wing school-board protests in the historical context of similar protests over school integration. Most recently, I’m incredibly proud to have poured a lot of soul and time into a three-part series on corporal punishment in Evangelical households, speaking to dozens of survivors of this kind of abuse and examining primary sources minutely.
But life can’t all be darkness -- gaze into the abyss too long and murky hands try to pull you under. So, speaking of bite-sized emails, the other half of my newsletter is the sandwich part. It’s pretty literal. Every Friday, I write up one sandwich from Wikipedia’s enormous and sprawling List of Notable Sandwiches, in alphabetical order. So far, I’ve gone from the American hero to the banh mi, and I’m about to wade into the controversial and saucy land of the barbecue sandwich. I’ve studied the history of the baked bean, and the existential meaning of bologna salad, and I will continue happily fulfilling my lifelong food-writing dreams for as many weeks as they’ll let me.
I recognize that writing about Nazis and sandwiches in one and the same publication may be a little odd-- a light-and-dark duality whose contrasts are stark -- but it lets me feel the wind on my face and bring joy to my readers, not just darkness (but also a lot of darkness). It’s a fun and complicated journey we’ve been on together, and I hope you’ll consider subscribing.
I’m Dave Infante, and I write Fingers, a newsletter about drinking in America. For the past decade or so I’ve been covering various aspects of the food & drink beat, particularly beer. I don’t review IPAs or anything—I have neither the palate nor the patience for that sort of thing. I focus more on how booze brands and the multinational corporations behind them wield their power and influence to sell billions upon billions of dollars worth of beer, wine, and spirits to a credulous drinking public. See, there’s nothing inherently cool or fun about the beverage alcohol business, but too often, this massive industry gets a pass from mainstream media because a) everybody likes drinking; and b) drinks brands owned by massive conglomerates like Anheuser-Busch InBev, Diageo, and Heineken buy shitloads of advertising.
That’s where Fingers comes in. I cover aspects of the industry that don’t usually get a ton of scrutiny. Like Coors Seltzer trying to market itself as a clean water advocate despite the fact that its parent company’s PAC donates tons of cash to Congress’ most environmentally destructive lawmakers. Or Heaven Hill, one of the country’s biggest bourbon distilleries, strong-arming its union employees to accept a non-traditional scheduling policy that will effectively create a two-tier workforce at the plant during a period of record profit. Or Bang Energy’s wacked-out CEO injecting fetal tissue for #gains on Instagram while also funding a GOP regime obsessed with shutting down regenerative medical research because Project Veritas photoshopped a “evidence” of Kamala Harris eating aborted fetuses behind a Planned Parenthood, or whatever.
Don’t think for one second that this bullshit is limited to the corporate side of the booze business, either. We tend to assume craft breweries and distilleries are the good guys simply because they’re not run by corporate flunkies. It’s mostly true! But there are plenty of seamy operators in the small, local, “artisanal” booze sector, and all too often, they fly under the radar. Case in point: I teamed up with Luke O’Neil for a Welcome to Hell World x Fingers dispatch on the dismal (and ultimately successful) union-busting campaign last year at Surly Brewing Company in Minneapolis. The O.G. craft beer shut down the entire beer hall where they all worked at the height of the 2020 pandemic surge, just days after the workers went public with their drive. Just a coincidence, the company said. Hmm!
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. There’s real labor momentum in the booze business, and at Fingers, I do my best to shine a light on it. For Labor Day this year, I reconnected with sources in the Twin Cities for a look at how the metro has become a veritable hotbed for brewery and distillery organizing—and a beacon for what’s possible elsewhere in the industry. “I am not white and I am not cis and I am not straight, and I know that there are other people out there in the industry [who I] haven’t really connected with yet,” one worker at newly unionized Du Nord Social Spirits told me. “It’s exciting.”
It is exciting, and important, too, I think. But lest you get the impression that I’m only publishing capital-J Journalism over at Fingers, please know that I love a good blog. From the liquified marketing gimmicks being hustled down our willing gullets by The Brands™, to Kelsey Grammer’s vaguely Christian craft beer brand, to the sinister politics of pouring beers for dead troops, I’m doing posts aplenty. Plus long-form interviews with interesting people, podcasts, audio reads, discussion threads, and more.
If this all sounds like your kinda cocktail, I hope you’ll consider subscribing to Fingers. I’m offering 20% off annual subscriptions for the holiday, so get in while the getting is good. Stay safe out there this week, and try not to drink too much. Or do, whatever. I’m not your real dad.
Jonathan M. Katz
It’s freezing cold in Charlottesville as I write this, so I have to say it: Happy almost winter, Discontents.
For the last few weeks I’ve been covering the potentially landmark lawsuit against the organizers of the white supremacist rally-turned-riot that happened here four years ago, over at my newsletter, The Racket. The suit, brought by survivors of the deadly car attack and other Nazi violence that weekend, seeks to bankrupt some of the most notorious white supremacist groups and leaders in the country including Richard Spencer, Matthew Heimbach, and the National Socialist Movement. More than that, it hopes to lay out a roadmap for taking down other neofascist and hate groups by using the Ku Klux Klan Act—a 1871 law that President Ulysses S. Grant used to dismantle the original Klan.
At a moment when a backlash against racial justice is ascendant and democracy is under threat, in other words, it’s a big deal. The jury is deliberating as we speak—it’s possible a verdict (and any damages) will be announced sometime today.
I knew I was going to cover this lawsuit as soon as the trial dates were announced. For one thing I live in Charlottesville with my wife and kid. (We moved here, as it happened, on the one-year anniversary of the riot.) But it also fits the kind of issues I’ve been gravitating toward for the past several years. I spent the first half of my journalism career chasing stories in places I lived overseas, much of that with the Associated Press—in Haiti, Mexico, Israel, Palestine, and elsewhere. I left the wire service to write my first book, about the international response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake (a response that, I argued, was designed to fail).
When it came time to write a second, I decided to go back into history, to tell the often-hidden story of how the United States became an empire in the early twentieth century, and how memories of that era are still very much alive in the places we conquered. The main character of that story, as I tell it, is a little-remembered but insanely fascinating Marine by the name of Smedley Butler. After three decades destroying democracies and advancing U.S. capitalism and power overseas, Butler became a fierce critic of war, big business, and empire. In 1934, he blew the whistle on a fascist plot to overthrow Franklin D. Roosevelt. A year later he wrote a pioneering screed against the military-industrial complex itself, titled War Is a Racket—from which, you will note, my newsletter draws its name.
All of those qualities that Butler had at the end of his life—anti-fascism, pro-democracy, telling the truth even when it burned old bridges and gots himself in hot water—are things I try to embody in The Racket. I’ve used my newsletter to call out coups and concentration camps, told immigrants’ stories and unpacked foreign affairs. I do not shy away from holding even the people who sometimes pay me to account. That kind of attitude hasn’t done me a ton of favors in my career. But I think it’s too important not to. (It’s also, to be honest, a lot of fun.)
If you’re interested in those sorts of things, definitely sign up for The Racket. You can also preorder my book, Gangsters of Capitalism, which comes out in January. (Spencer says it’s good.) And you should probably sign up for Discontents too while you’re at it. I’ll be here, waiting for the verdict, and trying to keep warm.
Wars of Future Past
Kelsey D. Atherton
I became a technology journalist somewhat by accident. Well, by accident and by twitter. What I imagined my career would be, when I moved to DC in the fall of 2011 with just a poli-sci degree and nothing else lined up, was something in the policy space, as though stumbling into policy jobs was a thing that could happen. I bring all of this up because what I find compelling about military technology journalism is whenever I can tie the machines in question back to the policy that makes such machines possible.
My most recent newsletter is about how an armed robot dog forces a policy question in the way that a similarly armed robot tank doesn’t. Drones, a decade ago, forced this question in a big way, and I went on the New/Lines magazine podcast to talk about the way tech feeds policy and policy feeds tech. (That conversation draws a lot on what I wrote about Fog of War and the difference between data abundance and useful intelligence).
Here’s a short taste of that podcast appearance:
It is, in a real sense, a long form version of the “Wow Cool Robot” meme, but it also hits at something crucial. Policy shapes take which shapes policy, and any time the fields are treated as wholly separate, I think our understanding suffers.
Last week on Read Max, I wrote about Rich Kyanka, the founder and longtime moderator of Something Awful, the web's most influential forum. Kyanka, who'd been forced to sell the site last year after his ex-wife accused him of domestic abuse, died two weeks ago, setting off a strange train of “I fucking hated this abuser, and he was also extremely important to me” memorial tweets on Twitter. I tried to explain why that was the case. (Every few years someone tries to explain SA, and the influence its culture has had on the world — mostly through Twitter, which is functionally a SA subforum — and I guess this year it was my turn.)
Overall the site developed a reputation for mercilessness. All web forums have a hazing process, but Something Awful’s relatively long history and dedicated participants meant that it — and especially some of the more infamous subforums — could be a particularly forbidding place. If you didn't get its heavily ironized, sometimes unreadable sense of humor, if you transgressed its unwritten rules of etiquette and decorum, if you exposed yourself as vulnerable in the wrong way, if you built a fucked-up looking house and proudly posted pictures of it, if you just couldn't hang — you'd be relentlessly, ruthlessly bullied. (Sometimes this could happen even if you were the guy who founded the site.) Overall this kind of rigorous hazing was understood to be for the good of the site, if not for the target of bullying. It meant that dummies weren’t allowed to stick around clogging up threads, unless they were entertaining and shameless.
This is the culture that survives on Twitter, the biggest forum of them all. When the 2016 Democratic Primary tore Twitter apart, and establishment liberal journalists and political operatives complained of pile-ons by vicious BernieBros, anyone who’d been on a forum before could see that this was, simply, what happened when you made dumb posts. Imagine if, like, David Brooks had paid ten bucks and wandered onto FYAD: that was Twitter.
Later in the week, I whined about another, terrifying, influential online community: the web3 dorks and their awful, kook, flashmob LinkedIn culture. That post, if you're interested, also has a video of a tank with jet engines attached to it.
Gaby Del Valle & Felipe De La Hoz
What started off as an ambitious proposal to use the congressional reconciliation process to provide millions of undocumented immigrants with a straightforward path to permanent residency and subsequent citizenship has ended up as a proposal to grant them temporary work authorization and protections from deportation with no real new status or a conceivable path to a permanent solution. It’s fundamentally DACA or TPS 2.0, i.e. a version of one of the exact problems Democrats had set out to fix.
The version of the reconciliation bill passed by the House last week includes only a promise of humanitarian parole for immigrants without status who have been present in the United States since before the start of 2011. Parole, by the way, is a discretionary and rather flimsy status that the executive is by law already allowed to grant pretty broadly, meaning that the immigration provisions in the bill arguably amount to, effectively, nothing. We ended up here because Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough (who happens to be a former immigration prosecutor) ruled against the two prior efforts to include paths to real status in the bill; these rulings are advisory, but Senate Democrats have decided to abide by them.
While the bill retains some interesting provisions like expired green card recapture, it fundamentally guarantees very little for the country’s large standing undocumented population, except that we’ll all have to have this same debate again in a few years. As we wrote in last week’s BORDER/LINES, that’s if it even passes the Senate; MacDonough could easily rule against even this pared-down version, in which case it will all have amounted to absolutely nothing.
Big week last week at FP:
I looked at Glenn Greenwald’s tweets about and correlating appearances on Fox News.
The Rittenhouse trial showed the deficiency of commentators, both liberal:
The right incentivizes their heroes to play their roles in an ongoing culture war that’s increasing in intensity. They understand what’s at stake. Liberals don’t, and their continual refusal and unwillingness to face facts is going to have dire consequences for the rest of us.
And the contrarian right:
For right-wing partisans who regularly cry foul when conservative media is criticized or perceived to be marginalized, however, the news that MSNBC was banned didn’t spark outrage.
Instead, the network’s alleged involvement in Morrison tailing the car was framed as part of a diabolical plot to intimidate jurors.
Plus, Bari Weiss’s scam “university” is bleeding board members:
Let’s hope the “university” disappears like right-wing scams usually do, having swindled right-wing rich people out of some money but produced little of note. The alternative means we’ll have to be hearing from this “school” for years.
Sign up today to get these stories when they break, right in your inbox.
Last month, the little-mentioned US military outpost in the southern Syrian town of Tanf came under what seems to have been a fairly significant attack involving drones and artillery. The Pentagon concluded that the attackers were Iranian-backed militias that have been supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Now, according to The New York Times, they’ve also concluded that the militias carried out the attack in retaliation for the Israeli military’s repeated airstrikes in Syria, which have generally targeted facilities associated with Iranian interests.
There is no justification for the United States to have a military outpost at Tanf. Indeed, the entire US presence in Syria is rooted in little more than the joke about where an 800 pound gorilla sits. As the gorilla gets to sit wherever it wants, so the US military gets to go wherever it wants, even into countries where it’s uninvited and unwanted by the government as is definitely the case in Syria. As far as the Tanf base is concerned, whatever utility it might have had to the operation against the Islamic State’s “caliphate” was always a cover for its true purpose—blocking a major commercial crossing point along the Syrian-Iraqi border. Well over two years after IS’s “caliphate” ceased to exist even in theory, the US military is still squatting at Tanf and its real reason for being there is quite clear. This is supposed to interfere with Iran’s nefarious plans for regional domination, which we’re told exist absent much evidence and in contrast to the reality that if any country is and has been trying to dominate the Middle East for the past 30-plus years, it’s been the United States.
The other piece of this story involves the Israeli military’s equally unjustifiable air war in Syria, which has been carried out absent a formal declaration of war and absent any immediate threat from Syria. Israel isn’t the 800 pound gorilla in this situation but it is that gorilla’s client, so it gets to bomb whatever it wants. And in the Bushian tradition of “preventive war,” the Israeli military gets to bomb militias in Syria on the supposition that those militias might one day pose a danger to Israel. It is one thing for the United States to look the other way or even support this Israeli campaign, but now we’ve learned that it’s apparently willing to make its own soldiers accept the blowback for it. I would say it’s time for someone at the Pentagon to rethink this approach, but we already know it’s not going to happen, so I guess that’s that.