My ex-girlfriend and I used to have a principled disagreement over the news. Namely, how much we took in and how much we chose to hide from it. As a journalist, I was firmly in the camp that it was imperative that we face the onslaught, no matter if it was like drinking from a fire hydrant. She’s a brilliant woman, and she was a regular news consumer until the ridiculous speed of the newscycle during the Trump administration felt overwhelming in terribleness and unheard-of happenings.
I was thinking of that as I reviewed stories I’d bookmarked for this week’s newsletter. None of them are about COVID-19 (granted, I used two spots for TV/movies). I had to go actively seek out information about a Christmas Day downtown in my home state that seems to have been largely forgotten on a national level. That’s because January 2021 brought with it an avalanche of news stories.
This week, I got the gift of attending a drive-by parade for a local woman who’d spent two months in the hospital in Billings, Montana, fighting COVID-19. She spent three weeks of that time on a ventilator in a medically induced coma. She’d finally come home, and her former colleagues at the school district’s transportation department, organized a parade of buses to welcome her. She sat in a wheelchair, huddled under blankets on her porch and surrounded by family, and it was impossible not to shed a tear in that cold Wyoming morning with the wind whipping around us at a steady 20-plus mph.
Hers was a story that is overlooked or forgotten too often in the rush of terrible news. It was a look into the real-life effects of this devastating disease. It was a celebration story, and it was presented to a readership that often does not care. So much time and energy here is spent downplaying the seriousness of COVID-19, so much more time is spent fomenting anger toward the governor, county and local officials for having the nerve to try to respond to the pandemic rather than letting it steamroll over us all.
I understand the impulse of those who would overlook these stories, the ones who do it out of fatigue and exhaustion and seeking respite from all that’s swirling out there. Those are the same types as my ex, and I get it. If anyone gets it, I can assure you it’s the journalists covering this stuff, day in and day out.
But I hope our readers fight back against that fatigue, because here, as I’m sure is the case elsewhere, the reasoning behind people’s disengagement from the news is often irrelevant. The same people who don’t read us because we’re “fake news,” or God forbid, because we have the audacity to ask readers to pay for the news, are making team members out of all the weary, tired, fatigued people out there who just wish things would calm down.
That’s my call to all of you, dear readers: Be insatiable in your news consumption. Take time away from it, daily or hourly if you must, for your mental health and well-being is to be guarded above all else. But don’t turn a blind eye to this stuff, even if it disgusts you or exhausts you, even if you’ve been living with it for so long and “stop doom-scrolling” was a New Year’s resolution. Stick with your journalists, engage despite outrage, and hopefully we can all talk about it over drinks one day in the future, about that crazy run of years where the news wouldn’t stop and keeping up felt impossible. With any luck, that long road back begins on Wednesday.
Ten worth your time
Timothy Snyder, the author of On Tyranny and Yale professor, wrote what may be the essay of the year thus far. Titled “The American Abyss” and running in the New York Times, it was a deeply reasoned assessment of America’s political culture that led to a violent insurrectionist mob of Trump supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol and disrupt democracy in progress. His delineation of the Republican Party into gamers (the Mitch McConnells of the world, content to abide President Trump’s nonsense in order to further game the system in favor of his party and ideology) and the breakers (those who would break the system entirely and have power without democracy, like President Trump, and senators Hawley and Cruz, to name a few) is a brilliant framing device for his discussion of the discord sowed by President Trump’s lies. The article is full of quotable wisdoms, but this might be my favorite because it sums things up so nicely:
Post-truth is pre-fascism, and Trump has been our post-truth president. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place.
Bart Gellman wrote a piece similar to Snyder’s in The Atlantic, one that argues that the state of America’s democracy is actually quite weak and fragile. Gellman had already written a sweeping “what-if” story for The Atlantic back in September entitled “The Election that Could Break America,” which I recommended here. In his most recent, he acknowledges that the central premise behind that September piece had come true — The online headline of the story was, “What if Trump Refuses to Concede?” That much was correct. He acknowledged that some of his worst-case what-ifs did not come to pass. But he was troubled by how perilously close we’d been to tipping over the edge, past the point of no return. He cited some who attributed it to strength of character of certain actors along the way (a Republican canvassing board official in Michigan or the Republican secretary of state of Georgia) was what saved us. But Gellman hoped for more, positing that respect for democratic institutions held when it was most needed:
During Trump’s attempted coup, political actors did the right thing at the moments when the power of decision was directly in their hands. The Republicans who stayed true to the law, who chose to follow their duty, were the ones who had actual power to move events.
But he realized just how tenuous that hopeful mindset was:
This hypothesis has limits. Conscience restrained the powerful this time, but power also corrupts. If the election had been closer, or if a judge had given legal cover, or if one of the legislatures—Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia—had gone first, the temptations and pressures on others would have been harder to resist. More than once, but for circumstance, Trump’s efforts might have found traction and momentum might have broken his way.
New footage of the Capitol siege was released, along with its story, by The New Yorker, and it’s every bit as depressing to watch as you might imagine.
In the video from The New Yorker, there’s a moment when the QAnon (who made further news when it was reported that he wasn’t eating in jail because they refused to provide him an all-organic diet) stopped those gathered in the House Chamber and led them in prayer. It was a rambling affair, which culminated with references to vague ominous predictions by the figure known as Q, but it’s an undeniable moment of religiosity. Likewise, on the march to the Capitol by members of the far-right group, the Proud Boys stopped in the street to kneel in prayer.
The blend of cultural references, and the people who brought them, made clear a phenomenon that has been brewing for years now: that the most extreme corners of support for Mr. Trump have become inextricable from some parts of white evangelical power in America. Rather than completely separate strands of support, these groups have become increasingly blended together.
Lyz Lenz, the Iowa-based writer and journalist, described a similar convergence of ideals in a personal essay shared through her newsletter, “Men Yell at Me,” where she attended a gun show on the Saturday after the Capitol siege and then church the following day. It’s a beautiful reflection on a particular cultural phenomenon that goes far beyond her Midwest Iowa town.
I love an old-fashioned debate carried out by smart people via the written word. Doesn’t feel like it happens quite as much as it once did, but I came across a very good one recently that was arguing the likelihood (and constitutionality) of President Trump’s impeachment leading to any sort of condemnation from the Senate. In a Lawfare article entitled Can a Former President Be Impeached and Convicted?,” Keith Whittington, a professor at Princeton who studies American constitutional theory, responded to (and disagreed with) an op-ed from former Judge Michael Luttig in which the judge said that former presidents are beyond the reach of the impeachment power. This scenario is precisely the one the U.S. faces as President Trump leaves office on Wednesday, and the Senate will not have heard the case to determine his removal. It’s an interesting debate that’s very much a live issue.
It’s hard for me to pick a clearer example of education and deep study on a particular topic changing my mind more than the example of the death penalty. In law school, I took a small seminar course devoted solely to the topic, and when I went into the course, I was a casual defender of the practice, not really seeing the harm in putting to death those accused of our most reprehensible crimes. By the end of the semester, I had changed my mind; I could no longer call myself a supporter of the death penalty. It’s not because I think it unfathomable that the government should decide who lives or dies; in its purest form, that does not offend me as much as perhaps it should. It was the clear reality that bias and prejudice and racism could not ever be fully weeded out of our capital punishment scheme in America; we were corrupted to the bone, and the only way to ensure fairness was to do away with the process all together. It’s hard not to see that in abundance in President Trump’s administration, the first to bring back federal death penalty since 2003, and in a six month period that concluded this week, rushed through 13 executions before the next administration takes over. Three of those in the final week. It’s hard not to see that as arbitrary and capricious, “cruel and unusual in the same way that being struck by lightning is cruel and unusual,” to quote the Supreme Court from the 1972 case of Furman v. Georgia, which halted executions in the U.S. for a few short years. GQ wrote about Dustin Higgs, the last of those to be executed this week, and while the crimes for which he was sentenced to death were no doubt shocking, his actual role in those crimes and the punishment he received seem more shocking still. But at bottom, it’s hard not to see Wednesday, Inauguration Day, as a line of demarcation, the other side of which this person would not die, as if the death penalty were a coupon that had be used up lest it expire. Being so close to it and killing him anyway feels most cruel and unusual.
As I read this story in my print edition of The New Yorker, I hated every second of it. Not the reporting or writing, which are both stellar, but in the same way certain people hate-listened to Rush Limbaugh or hate-watch Rachael Maddow. I wanted to throw my magazine across the room, out of disgust and outrage, but I couldn’t stop reading. It feels as if this story should be a million miles from the hand-wringing over our democracy in the first links I shared above, but they’re really of a piece. Extreme onlineness, nihilistic shitposting for the sake of social media fans, irreverence and a self-entitled mindset that says, literally, “I want to be able to post fake things to the Internet; that’s my fucking right as an American” couldn’t be more related.
Lesh, who markets the brand mostly on social media, projects a rogue persona and a lavish life style, full of decadence and danger. Rally cars, airplanes, parachutes, snowmobiles, machine guns, drugs, bikinis, booze: “Jackass” meets “Big Pimpin’,” by way of “Hot Dog.” The act has helped him acquire both a viable customer base—self-styled rebel snow-riders and park rats—and the contempt of his fellow-Coloradans.
Do you need a new show to watch? Let me direct you to a one-man French version of the Ocean’s 11 franchise on Netflix: Lupin. It’s a stylish look at modern-day Paris, with a roguish protagonist adept at disguises and misdirection, who’s trying to solve a mystery about his father. It’s only five episodes long, and it’s a virtual vacation with just enough mystery and intrigue to keep you guessing what will happen next. (Watch it in the original French though; it’s better that way. Subtitles are your friend.)
I cannot recommend Regina King’s One Night in Miami highly enough. If you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber, make the most of it and seek out this film, which was released on Friday after early film festival buzz. It recounts a fictional meeting between Muhammed Ali, Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, and Jim Brown in a hotel room in Miami after Ali, then Cassius Clay, defeated Sonny Liston. It is one of my favorite films of this Oscar season.
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