Author Archives: jbfreedman

Ancient Ruins and a Week-and-a-Half-Long Food Coma: Reflections on Italy

I went to Italy for vacation, which is a thing that people apparently do to “relax” and “enjoy themselves.” I am unfamiliar with these concepts, but I figured I would give it a try, as per this video

While I have plenty of thoughts on pasta in Italy (it’s amazing), sandwiches in Italy (they’re amazing), and pizza in Italy (it’s fine), what was most notable about Italy — and Rome especially — was the overlapping histories from ancient to the present. The Colosseum makes a great photo-op, the various Fora are impressive, and my side trip to Ostia Antica, the ancient port city accessible by train, was fascinating; it was, however, a poor choice to explore all of these ruins—which almost by definition have no roofs—in the blistering 100 degree heat of the Italian summer. I guess this is why they wore togas. (I did not pack a toga.)

But it is not just that Rome has this incredible history; rather, you can feel in the streets how each successive source of political and cultural power wanted to lay claim to the inheritance of this tradition. The act of turning the Pantheon — literally, “of all the gods” — into a Christian church (only one supreme being, last time I checked) is one example of this. So too is how many of the key churches and other important political buildings preserve the remnants of ancient Roman columns as part of their facade to show the direct connection between themselves and the tradition of Rome itself. 

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of Mussolini’s fascist regime, which undertook major physical alterations of a city whose center otherwise feels somewhat unchanged from earlier eras. Mussolini bulldozed a wide lane between the center of his government and the Coliseum so that he could see the structure directly from his office. Mussolini’s government was not just a response to the crisis of modernity in the early 20th century; rather, it claimed to be the inheritor of the great history of Rome.

I took a brief pit stop at EUR (Esposizione Universale Roma), a business district that was the model for Mussolini’s vision of a new, Fascist Italy. The district features extra-wide roads; imposing, sprawling structures that overwhelm a normal human scale; and plenty of monuments and manicured parks. It feels empty and cold, even in the 100 degree heat. It also feels imposing and hostile, showing the power of massive architecture and efficiency over the potential for narrow, complex, and unplanned human interaction.

At the heart of EUR is the Palace of Italian Civilization, better known as the Square Colosseum. Perched at the top of a hill and towering over everything around it, the gleaming white building features Colosseum-like arches covering the outside of a cubic tower. It is a modern building, yet it is designed to invoke all the power of ancient civilization. (Ironically, it now houses the headquarters of luxury fashion brand Fendi.) Not only do the arches mimic those of the Coliseum, the building is ringed by Romanesque statues invoking the virtues of the Italian people, as well as horse-riding statues at each corner featuring Castor and Pollux of Greek and Roman mythological fame. The virtues of the contemporary Italian population, the building suggests, are features of Italian Civilization that date back to its unique founding. Embracing the claims to this civilization and its founding gave Mussolini the authority to root his political power in tradition.

The power of civilization and history brings to life the writings of Hannah Arendt, who focused on the experience of Rome as the key example to highlight the importance of authority — or its lack thereof — in the modern world. Rome, she argues, shows how political authority throughout history has always sought to tie itself to some kind of historical or civilizational “founding.” The Roman vision of political authority lay entirely in the past, she says, “in the foundation of Rome and the greatness of ancestors.” Arendt writes:

The authority of the living was always derivative, depending upon the auctores imperil Romani conditoresque, as Pliny puts it, upon the authority of the founders, who no longer were among the living. Authority, in contradistinction to power (potestas), had its roots in the past, but this past was no less present in the actual life of the city than the power and strength of the living.

Those who lay claim to authority did so on the basis that they were inheritors of the past, of the founding, of something external to which they alone could appeal. Authority begets obedience without resorting to pure and unmitigated force and is essential for effective rule.

The pervasiveness of Christianity, too, she argues, follows the same script. If the innumerable churches that dot every street corner of Rome — and the fact that nearly all of the major works of art for 1000 years in Europe are “Madonna with Child” (or “Madonna with Child featuring John the Baptist”) — show that the power and authority of Rome passed down into the hands of the Church, the Church, too, attempted to stake a claim to inheritance of the Roman founding. This stood out to me in how the churches, sculptures, and art intertwined themselves with ancient civilizational symbols (not only Roman but also Egyptian; see the hieroglyphics on statues in downtown Rome, for example). Arendt argues that this is part of the continuity:

The extraordinary strength and endurance of this Roman spirit or the extraordinary reliability of the founding principle for the creation of bodies politic were subjected to a decisive test and proved themselves conspicuously after the decline of the Roman Empire, when Rome’s political and spiritual heritage passed to the Christian Church. Confronted with this very real mundane task, the Church became so “Roman” and adapted itself so thoroughly to Roman thinking in matters of politics that it made the death and resurrection of Christ the cornerstone of a new foundation, erecting on it a new human institution of tremendous durability. 

In a city like Rome, where the lineage of history is so palpable, the power of continuity is unmissable. Even when new political orders are founded on rejections of the past, they still try to absorb the existing authority of the past while superseding it. This was what was so fascinating about Rome: from the pagan, pantheistic Roman Empire to the hyper-religious medieval Church to the Fascist rise and fall, every successive generation overlaid their authority on that of their predecessors. This was especially true in physical space, where they tried to situate themselves on the same ground as the prior regimes, and in the symbolic art and architecture, with direct references to sucking up the power of the past. Walking through the streets, it is not possible to easily separate between the ancient, the medieval, and the modern, for they all overlap and lay claim to each other. 

The power of the authority of inheritance is not limited to ancient Rome. Because I spend a lot of my time thinking about China, I cannot help but make reference to a similar phenomenon further East: Mao’s decision to put the heart of the Communist government in Beijing. As the writer Simon Leys pointed out (and which I wrote about here), Mao explicitly chose to put a massive monument in the center of Tiananmen Square, right at the heart of the line of power from the gates of the ancient city. 

The point of this decision was to appropriate the power and authority of the imperial space, thus connecting the authority of Mao’s government to the millennia of imperial rule. Leys writes, not concealing his frustration with the decision to ruin Beijing in the process: 

The brutal silliness of the Monument to the Heroes of the People, which disrupts and annihilates the energy-field of the old imperial space by trying to appropriate it, epitomizes, alas, the manner in which the Maoist regime has used Peking: it has chosen the old capital in order to give its power a foundation of prestige; in taking over this city, it has destroyed it.

So, too, the contemporary Chinese leadership has put extra effort into drawing a direct connection between the history of Chinese civilization and their own claims to power. The CCP claims to be the inheritor of Chineseness, not only through occupying the physical space of Beijing but through attempts to connect the philosophy of the Party with the ideas and history of Chinese tradition. Just as successive waves of Italian political leaders tied the virtues and authority of ancient Rome to their own rule, contemporary Chinese leaders are attempting to do something similar to bolster their authority — which, Arendt says, is central to understanding politics in any era because it “gives the world the permanence and durability which human beings need precisely because they are mortals.”

Let me finish by saying one more thing: the pasta in Italy is amazing. What are we doing wrong in America? Perhaps our pasta lacks some kind of foundational myth. Or we just overcook it. 

Some Brief Thoughts on the Taiwanese Election

Election season in Taiwan is fun: I just received my first robocall, with one candidate accusing another of being an interloper who has mansions in California and China. I cannot vote, but it’s nice to feel included!

There are many interesting macro storylines taking place in this election: the unpopularity of the DPP, the technopopulism of Ko Wen-je and the TPP, the changing political views of young people, and, of course, whatever last-minute craziness always crops up in the run-up to an election. All of these are interesting and important; what I want to elaborate here is one possible alternative way of thinking about the election to make sense of some of the macro cleavages underlying the party competition.

While most external articles of the Taiwanese election focus on China and its outsize role as both a topic of electoral conversation and potential source of election interference, I think it is much more interesting—and much more enlightening—to frame the core issue at stake here as competing claims to democracy. The most significant difference between the parties is less in their stated attitudes toward China—even the relatively China-friendly KMT opposes unification and “one country, two systems”—but rather about how each party conceives of the core way to protect the shared value of democracy and oppose the specter of authoritarianism. Given Taiwan’s relatively recent democratization, it makes sense that the importance of protecting democracy plays a central role in Taiwanese politics; what is interesting is how each party has portrayed its relation to the protection of democracy.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is currently in power, has built its campaign around the notion of taking the “democratic road.” (The main DPP ad this cycle features the outgoing president and incoming presidential candidate driving a car down “democracy road”; it is not subtle.) The DPP’s claims to democracy rest on its opposition to China: the party and its supporters view China as the fundamental threat to Taiwanese democracy; therefore, the best way to promote democracy is to keep Taiwan as separate as possible from China. 

In its purest form, the DPP position is that any engagement with China potentially threatens Taiwanese democracy because it opens up potential channels through which China can infiltrate Taiwan, destroy Taiwan’s freedoms, and subsume Taiwan into China’s authoritarian system. If China is the largest threat, the DPP argues, then the sure path to protecting democracy is creating as much separation as possible from China: building up Taiwan’s defenses, opposing Chinese attempts at interference, and insisting on a more liberal, progressive politics domestically.

At DPP rallies and in conversations with DPP supporters, the distrust of engagement with China is palpable. Even if the KMT claims it does not favor unification, the DPP views this as a smokescreen for slowly allowing China to take over. More engagement will not reduce tensions between China and Taiwan, they argue, but rather a path toward Taiwan losing its democracy at the hands of Chinese authoritarianism. In one DPP advertisement, time unfolds in reverse, from today’s democratic society through the student-led Sunflower Movement in 2014 all the way back to the era of martial law that lasted from 1949 through the late 1980s under KMT rule. If the KMT regains power, the ad implies, democratic progress will be lost, and Taiwan will return to its authoritarian past. 

This is not the only claim to democracy at stake, however. The KMT, which has its own complicated past with both authoritarianism and democracy, argues that the DPP, not China, is the main threat to Taiwanese democracy. The KMT has adopted the position that democracy requires rotating party power; if one party dominates politics endlessly, democracy has been lost. The KMT slogan for this election is, “Democracy requires a balanced system.” Or, as another slogan states, “The rotating of the seasons is the will of nature; the rotating of the political parties is the will of the people.”

There are two criticisms underlying this, both of which I think are relevant to Taiwanese voters but are rarely discussed in international discussions. First, critics of the current DPP administration allege that the party has acted anti-democratically during its time in power. The KMT (and others) accuse the DPP of abusing its power, cracking down on dissent, and using authoritarian tactics to bully opposition. These critics point to a number of particular instances that they claim represent DPP overreach and anti-democratic action: the decision to shut down a pro-KMT (and pro-China) television station; the year-long refusal to confirm a president of National Taiwan University, which critics claim was due to the academic’s support for the KMT; and excessive consolidation of power during COVID-19, during which authority was centralized under a pandemic control center that reported directly to the president.

While I cannot comment on the complexities of all of these cases, and this may well be partisan nitpicking, I have been surprised over the last few months how many people have raised these concerns about the DPP. Even avowed DPP supporters expressed their discontent with what they felt were excessively strong-armed tactics the DPP has used to get their way. Some of this relates to internal factional struggles within the DPP, and others personal vendettas; regardless, the ubiquity of the complaints suggests that there is a significant share of Taiwanese who think the DPP has pushed the boundaries of appropriate democratic behavior.

Second, and perhaps I am imposing larger theories onto the actual situation at hand, but there is an additional argument behind the KMT’s position that the DPP is endangering democracy. The KMT emphasizes that the DPP’s strong opposition to engagement with China in nearly any form is increasing tensions and making Taiwan less safe. Insofar as the largest threat to Taiwanese democracy comes from a forcible takeover of the island by Chinese forces, the KMT’s willingness to try to ratchet down tensions and keep China relatively mollified is a way of decreasing the likelihood of an invasion and therefore protecting Taiwanese democracy. If the threat of invasion is more damaging than the threat of infiltration, one could argue, then the KMT position is plausibly more likely to protect democracy than the DPP’s more aggressive stance. 

Finally, Ko Wen-je, the technopopulist Taiwan People’s Party candidate, locates the problem with democracy in institutional sclerosis. He claims that democracy requires breaking out of the ossified two-party system: Democracy requires not only the rotation of parties but rotation past the same two parties, injecting new vitality into an otherwise inflexible system. Ko has also called for other institutional reforms, including replacing Taiwan’s presidential system into a parliamentary democracy and switching his role from president to prime minister, lowering the threshold for small parties to gain legislative seats, and increasing supervision of the executive branch.

Part of why it is hard to view the whole election only through the lens of China is that Ko’s positions on China (or on anything) are not entirely clear. On democracy, though, he has a strong institutional and procedural criticism. Ko has staked his claim that the existing two-party system has failed to adequately serve the people of Taiwan. Only through internal institutional reforms can Taiwan be more democratic and therefore preserve its democracy. The threat to democracy is not coming from across the Strait so much as in the internal design of domestic institutions — a message that has resonated with a significant number of supporters, who consistently told me that the parties were only looking out for their own interests and Taiwan’s democracy needed to find ways to speak for the people as a whole, rather than narrow party priorities.

The three claims to democracy represent distinct conceptions of what democracy means as the fundamental value of Taiwanese politics—and where the threat to democracy lies. The DPP sees the threat to democracy in engaging with China; the KMT with the DPP’s domestic structure and its unwillingness to engage with China; and the TPP in failing to overhaul the internal system.

In short, despite the common framing that the fundamental question of this election is about the level of China threat, the parties themselves are starting with the central agreed-upon value of democracy and all making claims to the most viable defender of democracy. Some of this includes China, but not all of it; and there are multiple competing claims for where the largest threat lies. While most Western observers have a natural affinity for the DPP’s position, the contestation over the meaning of democracy is worth taking seriously: it is not obvious to me that devolving the election into a question that focuses only on China as the sole source of anti-democracy is useful for understanding the unique character of Taiwanese politics, or of the complexities of the Taiwan-China relationship.

A very abridged Chinese (Beijing) to Chinese (Taiwan) dictionary

I spend much of my life embarrassing myself in one form or another, but there is nothing quite so embarrassing as going to a place and thinking you speak the language only to draw blank stares. When I showed up in Taiwan earlier this year, I thought I spoke fluent Mandarin Chinese — only to learn that people in Taiwan have different words for just about everything. It was not the harsh, guttural, and “r”-inflected accent that gave away the fact that I learned all of my Chinese in Beijing; instead, it was the fact that I used the wrong word for everything. (The accent probably didn’t help, though.)

Language skills are very malleable, and my accent quickly veered toward the more mellifluous intonations of Taiwan. Expanding my vocabulary took a bit more effort. I gave up trying to order specific types of fish at sushi restaurants (all the fish words seem to be different in Taiwan, and, let’s be honest, I want the chef’s assortment anyway). I came to understand that the reason I could never find a trash can in Taipei was not only because there are basically no trash cans in Taipei, but also because I wasn’t using the right word for garbage. (It’s the same word, but pronounced differently. The difference in pronunciation does not explain the lack of trash cans, however.)

I spent much of the next four months chronicling every time people raised their eyebrows at me and said, “We don’t use that word here” or “What the heck are you saying?” I developed the following handy (but nowhere near comprehensive) dictionary to translate Mandarin Chinese as spoken in Beijing (putonghua 普通話) to Mandarin Chinese as spoken in Taiwan (guoyu 國語). I am sure some of these are wrong, and I am happy to take suggestions to add more.

I cannot guarantee that I will spare you any embarrassment, but at least you’ll know why you are embarrassed.

Updated/expanded 1/12/24 — they keep coming…

Trash垃圾 (pronounced: laji)垃圾 (pronounced: lese)
Public Transit公交車公車
Hotel酒店飯店 (saying 酒店 means something much seedier than a normal hotel, which I found out the hard way when I told everyone I was staying in a 酒店 for the first few nights when I arrived)
You’re Welcome (No Worries)不用不會
New (place name)新 (as in New Zealand, 新西蘭)紐 (紐西蘭)
Eat In在這吃內用
Pick a name起名 (pronounced qi-mingrrrrrrr)取名
Taxi出租車 (rental car)計程車 (meter car)
Bicycle自行車 (self-driven vehicle)腳踏車 (foot-stamping vehicle)
Phone signal信號訊號
Farmhouse for tourists農家樂土雞城
Draft beer扎啤生啤
Stir fry with random stuff you have around隨便炒黑白切
Pretty good挺好的蠻好的 (You can’t say 挺…的 in Taiwan, they think it’s weird)
Percentage成/百分之趴 (According to Wikipedia: “趴 as “percent” originates from Japanese パーセント pāsento. This usage is also unique to Guoyu”)
Good morning/good night早上好/晚上好早安/晚安
Profile picture頭像大頭貼
Charging pack充電寶行動電源
Scrolling on the phone玩手機滑手機 (no matter what phrasing you use, people do a lot of it in both places)
Software app軟件軟體
Potato土豆馬鈴薯 (土豆, or dirt-bean, means peanut in Taiwan. To be fair, they are both dirt-beans, of a sort)
Rollercoaster過山車 (passing-through-the-mountains car)雲霄飛車 (flying-through-the-clouds car)
Italian pasta意麵義大利麵 (意麵 somehow means an egg noodle dish from southern China, not Italian pasta)
Authentically local地道道地 (reverse, reverse!)
Electric scooter電動車 (electric-powered vehicle)Gogoro (a brand name)
Electric-powered car新能源汽車 (new energy car)電動車 (electric-powered vehicle)
Instant noodles方便面 (convenient noodles)泡麵 (soaked noodles)
To hire招聘誠徵
Tissues纸巾 or 餐纸衛生紙 (this means toilet paper in China, and it means all tissue related products in Taiwan. The lack of specificity here does not work in Taiwan’s favor)
Snail蜗牛(pronounced wo niu)蝸牛 (pronounced gua niu)
Ping pong乒乓球 (ping pong)桌球 (table tennis)

Obligatory thoughts on Ted Lasso

I have a natural affinity for soccer, puns, and especially soccer-based puns—so it should come as no surprise that I am predisposed to like Ted Lasso. And I do: watching season one was the most fun a person can have this side of The Great British Bakeoff. Season two, though? Well, with season three of Ted Lasso on the horizon, it is about time that I offer my unsolicited opinions on season two. (It’s not even worth a spoiler alert because the season aired a year ago, and if you haven’t watched it by now, you’re not likely to suddenly purchase an Apple product solely for those free three months of Apple TV.)

My first complaint with season two is mostly a personal one. The best parts of season one are the jokes about soccer and about England, and the best parts of season two are the jokes about soccer and about England. The moment when they discuss how all the fields are different sizes at Wembley is hilarious. When Ted finds out the NHS is free and is confused about how a country could provide health care without charging an arm and a leg — comedy perfection. And my favorite line of the entire season is when Ted reads Dr Sharon’s letter to himself in front of her and his only comment is, “You spelled favorite wrong.” I giggled with delight. The premise of the show—as stupid as it sounds—is just really, really funny.

The second season of the show mostly moves beyond this premise, which is probably the correct decision to make from a writing point of view. It does seem reasonable to conclude that it is not possible to do an entire second season of a show based on a premise that basically boils down to someone mixing up “American football” with “futbol.” I acknowledge this. An idea like this really should never have made it out of any self-respecting writers’ room. But no matter how stupid the premise sounds, it is still extremely funny. When the show moves away from this premise, it loses something essential that makes it cohere.

Seriously — the only things better than the first season of Ted Lasso are the original NBC commercials introducing Ted Lasso. They never get old.

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Obligatory thoughts on Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life

As I understand it, a specter hangs over the literary world—the specter of The Great American Novel. Like the messiah (for Jews), The Great American Novel is something we have been waiting for for a long time, and, although there are plenty of prime candidates—anything written by Jonathan Franzen being perhaps the most oft-cited—it has been years since we last had a novel that captured the American zeitgeist in a profound way. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, I think, is worthy of the title. At the very least, it is a prime contender. (Warning: this piece contains spoilers.)

What this book is about is what makes a life worthwhile. The characters in the novel are, by and large, extraordinary individuals, but each of them has only their own little life, full of its own joys and terrors, highs and lows, friendships and failed relationships. Each of the four main characters goes on to be enormously successful in his respective field—Willem in acting, JB in painting, Malcolm in architecture, and Jude in law. (One critique of this book might be that it is only a portrait of success; there are no professional failures, which leads to a particularly rarified set of professional challenges. I am not making this critique, though; not all books have to speak to every little life.)

Is what makes life worthwhile based on professional success? Despite their elite educations, Jude and Willem do not seem to notice that they are successful, and even then it feels secondary to their other concerns. Malcolm is constantly worried that he will not be working at a prestigious enough firm, which causes him to turn down more appealing career opportunities. JB is the most tortured character when it comes to trying to let go of the seductive allure of success: his paintings are well-received, but somehow his colleagues have career retrospectives before he does. He is afraid of failing, but he is even more afraid of succeeding and then stagnating. There is a beautiful passage in which he describes how his friends’ careers are taking off beyond his, but leaving behind people he doesn’t fully recognize:

The thing he hadn’t realized about success was that success made people boring. Failure also made people boring, but in a different way: failing people were constantly striving for one thing—success. But successful people were also only striving to maintain their success. It was the difference between running and running in place, and although running was boring no matter what, at least the person running was moving, through different scenery and past different vistas. And yet here again, it seemed that Jude and Willem had something he didn’t, something that was protecting them from the suffocating ennui of being successful, from the tedium of waking up and realizing that you were a success and that every day you had to keep doing whatever it was that made you a success, because once you stopped, you were no longer a success, you were becoming a failure. (302)

Of the four main characters, Willem throughout is the least concerned about professional success or failure. He maintains the most earnest—perhaps childlike—attachment to a vision of worthiness that goes beyond any of the metrics that we normally associate with success. He seems happy to hold fast to the unadulterated belief that what matters most in his work is whether he is proud of it, not how audiences reacted or whether the critics gave it a thumbs up. He doesn’t seem to worry about having kids or leaving a legacy, even as his professional stature grows. All he cares about it is caring about others—a positive, pure, possibly naive vision that is either enviable or pitiable in a tragic world.

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Obligatory thoughts on Don’t Look Up

If having a take on Ted Lasso was the defining feature of “being a writer” in America in the first three-quarters of 2021, having a take on Don’t Look Up was the defining feature of writerdom for at least the final four-to-five days. Here is where I show that I am a real “writer” who is “relevant” because of all of my thoughts about topics that are part of the zeitgeist.

Similar to Ted Lasso (on which I have written many thoughts; perhaps I will publish them at some point, but don’t get your hopes up that I will do so any time soon. I prefer to publish only after things become irrelevant—it’s a personal brand thing), the critical response—and the critical response to the critical response—to Don’t Look Up are more revealing and intriguing than the content itself. Most sentient viewers, from what I’ve seen, agree that Don’t Look Up is not a piece of high art by any stretch of the imagination. It is blunt, in-your-face, and heavy-handed in its satire; if the movie attempted to look up the word “subtle” in the dictionary, it would not be able to find it, even if the page was already turned to words from “submarine” to “succor.” Like a Shakespeare play, you already know the plot before it starts, and there is no chance of some hidden meaning or unexpected twist at any point in the movie.

Most critics, though, still find something to dislike in the movie. Conservatives tend to dislike it because it reeks of the condescending, smarter-than-thou liberal harping about Donald Trump and the stupidity of Americans. The movie’s parallels to Trump are, like the rest of the movie, not subtle: the chant “Don’t Look Up” mirrors the cadence of “Lock Her Up,” and the fictional president, brandishing a MAGA-like hat, makes cultural appeals to supporters (who are described as “white working class”) and claims the cosmopolitan elites (the “not cool rich”) are trying to take their country away from them. They are portrayed as rednecks who eat up the president’s rhetoric and willingly blind themselves to reality until it’s too late.

Liberal critics hate it because it is so devoid of subtlety that it does not even pretend to think that it might be “art”—and because liberals, too, are targets of unabashed satire. It is not Trump and his followers who are obviously to blame for America’s failure to prevent its own destruction; instead, liberal elites are part and parcel of the country’s collective failure. The media and the entertainment industry, in particular, are complicit. They are keen to avoid uncomfortable ideas, partisan disagreements, or anything serious, lest it hurt their profits or their access to power. Both new and old media are so caught up in self-congratulatory ladder-climbing and an insatiable need to drive clicks and generate profits that they have lost all conception of any kind of larger public good. Everything is superficial entertainment, and exposing the truth is driven by a desire for personal recognition in the halls of power than serving society.

The editors of the not-New York Times newspaper (whose font looks rather similar to that of the New York Times and which seems to command the same respect in the media world as the New York Times) seem like they are the good guys: they are ready to break a big story in the name of public interest, to hold our government accountable. Yet it soon becomes clear that all they really value are click-through rates on their stories (replete with fancy consulting presentations about what stories are getting clicks) and looking respectable with political elites. “The Daily Rip,” the hottest talk show in the DC politico world, is the movie’s highlight. The show’s tagline—”keep it light, keep it fun”—succinctly encapsulates the thin (and thinning) line between politics and entertainment. The fact that the entire media ecosystem fawns over the show and would sell their souls to get an appearance on it is indicative of what the movie’s writers think of the world of media, both old and new.

This is a far cry from a David Foster Wallace-level critique of the unstoppable allure of television or The Entertainment—but if you accept that the movie is a polemic from start to finish, it’s moderately entertaining. A comet is not a perfect metaphor for climate change, and there is really only one joke that is genuinely funny: the repeated bewilderment that a three-star general charges them for free snacks. But it is hardly a terrible movie, and anyone with even a modicum of experience in the elite world of DC media will confirm that at least some of the barbs are well-deserved.

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Bo Burnham, Herbert Marcuse, and the Transcendent Potential of Political Comedy

If some sort of higher power were designing a comedian tailored exactly to me, he/she/it would probably create something that is basically Bo Burnham. Burnham, like me, started doing comedy in high school; and his interest in comedy is paralleled by an interest in the political and social contexts of the act of doing comedy—to wit, the relationship of comedy as an art to the real politics of the world, what makes a joke pathbreaking rather than offensive, and whether all jokes need to follow the “rule of threes.” The main difference is that Bo Burnham is among the most successful comedians of his generation, and I write solipsistic essays a few times per year and post them on my blog that nobody reads for no money.

Burnham originally got famous by singing comedy songs in his suburban bedroom—songs that very much toe the line between funny and offensive, yet also sit firmly on the side of “not punching down.” One of my early favorite songs of his was “New Math,” in which he does “math” problems by reframing them in cultural and political terms. Here’s one lyric, written when he was approximately 15 years old:

And what’s a bag of chips divided by five?
Well that’s a Nike worker’s meal
And Santa Claus multiplied by i
Well I guess that makes him real
And the square root of the NBA
Is Africa in a box
How do you trace a scatter plot?
You give the pencil to Michael J. Fox

Following this, he gives a knowing groan to the camera, acknowledging that he knows that bit is offensive, but he said it anyway. I mean, you definitely could not get away with that today, and probably for good reason, but it’s still brilliant. When I was 15, I wrote a series of Ogden Nash-style poems about foods you would find at a barbecue. I won second place in our high school poetry competition. Advantage: Burnham.

He’s now 30 and he has a new comedy special on Netflix filmed entirely during the pandemic about slowly going crazy while trying to make something create and worthwhile in the pandemic. The first song is perhaps the most directly relevant piece of artistic work aimed at me ever created in history, and it starts off by mentioning all the terrible things in the world: war, drought, protests, climate change, etc. He asks: should I be making jokes when so many terrible things are going on? He wants to do something good for the world, to be helpful, to add value, but all he knows how to do is make jokes—and he doesn’t really want to inconvenience himself. So what’s the solution? He sings:

The world is so fucked up.
Systematic oppression.
Income inequality.
The other stuff.
And there’s only one thing that I can do about it, while… while being paid, and being the center of attention.
Healing the world with comedy
Making a literal difference, metaphorically

I spent my entire college career outside of class performing comedy, thinking about comedy, writing comedy, and for much of my early life I wanted to do comedy professionally. But I also cared fundamentally about making the world a better place and contributing in some way to some kind of systemic change to make the world slightly less fucked up than it is. I have always cared about politics out of proportion with a normal human being, and doing fart jokes felt meaningless. I wanted to find a way to do comedy but also be politically relevant.

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Power and Powerlessness in the Georgia Senate Race

In the closing weeks of the Georgia Senate runoffs, Republicans charged that the Democrats would cancel Christmas, ban hamburgers, and destroy the fabric of America. Democrat and preacher Raphael Warnock would be “America’s first Marxist senator”; his fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff was compromised by the Chinese Communist Party. Now, I’m no expert on Christmas, hamburgers, or fabrics, but I am somewhat of an expert on Chinese Communism and Marxism—so I can say with some confidence that these claims are, in technical parlance, completely bonkers. 

Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, despite being incumbents, are not running for something; they are running against the impending onslaught of socialism, which, by their telling, is basically already here. (This would be news to the DSA, but nevermind.) With only rare exceptions, the Republicans’ campaign is about warding off the arrival of some sort of invasive species that feeds on the blood of innocent Americans and will overrun the state of Georgia in copies of Das Kapital and veganism. Nevermind that Loeffler is a billionaire whose husband owns the New York Stock Exchange and Perdue is a millionaire corporate executive whose policy priorities of promoting outsourcing are anathema to rural Georgians. Loeffler and Perdue (and Donald Trump) claim that they are on the side of Georgians against “people who don’t share your values.” In other words, as one of their mailers says, “Joe Biden, the Hollywood Elite, and DC Liberals Want to Steal Your Future.” 

Regardless of who ultimately wins, the fact that such bonkers claims carry such power is worth trying to understand. Why are Georgia voters, especially rural voters, receptive to these messages, and to believe wholeheartedly in the imminent death of Santa and meat-based cuisine? And why do liberals and Democrats have such trouble gaining political traction or combating these attacks? The political dynamics at play call to mind multiple episodes in John Gaventa’s excellent book Power and Powerlessness about coal miners in rural Appalachia. Rather than attribute support for exploitative local elites to condescending assertions that rural citizens have a “false consciousness,” Gaventa argues instead that understanding power requires thinking harder about powerlessness. Power corrupts the powerful and shapes their worldview; in the same way, powerlessness shapes the way that those on the outs of society come to understand the world. Similar to Gramsci’s idea of hegemony or studies of how colonized populations often end up accepting colonial ideologies, this understanding of powerlessness creates conditions in which the ideological narratives of local elites become the prevailing “common sense” of society, shaping the field of what is believable to the powerful and powerless alike.

Miners in the communities Gaventa studied in Appalachia faced terrible conditions and were completely at the whim of large mining companies, yet workers only rarely pushed back. More often, they actively supported the dominance of exploitative local elites. Multiple waves of social reformers who tried to help the miners failed miserably as local elites portrayed attempts to empower grassroots society as the work of hostile outside forces. Local citizens believed these claims, often made on the basis of cultural affinities, and fought to preserve the ideology that supported their powerlessness. 

At the time of the Great Depression, unrest in the coal mines attracted national attention from writers, journalists, relief organizations, and other nonprofit groups. Local elites, threatened by these rebellions and the outside attention, had to rely on a new ideology to frame these events in order to maintain their power over the miners. Gaventa writes: 

The ideology which emerged appealed to the forces of law and order, respectability, and patriotism as opposed to the forces of disorder, anti-religion, and anti-government brought in by the outsider. ‘Communism’, as interpreted to the population by ministers and government officials, meant belief in the principles of: 1) hatred of god, 2) destruction of property, 3) social and racial equality and class hatred, 4) revolutionary propaganda leading to the stirring up of class hatred, advocating of violence, strikes, riots, etc.; destruction of all forms of representative and democratic government and the rights of liberty guaranteed under the American Constitution—the right of free speech, free press, and the freedom of worship; 6) world­wide revolution overthrowing all capitalist government and the re­ establishment of the dictatorship of the Soviet proletariat, with head­quarters in Moscow and with the red flag as the only flag.

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The New York Giants or the Democratic Party?

  1. Few supporters outside of New York City
  2. Peaked in 2008, and it’s been mostly downhill since
  3. Only shows up to work one day a week, on average
  4. Is playing a defense 75% of the time
  5. Will get absolutely destroyed in 2022 
  6. Relies on the hard work of Black people to have any chance at victory, yet somehow out-of-touch older white people still call the shots
  7. Owned by rich people
  8. Frequently trips over themselves, even when no opponent is pressuring them
  9. More concerned about producing a good sound byte than actually winning
  10. Better at football than the New York Jets

BOTH: 1-9

In Memoriam: Sherle R. Schwenninger, 1951-2020

Every weekday morning for two-and-a-half-years, I started my day the exact same way: calling Sherle, my boss, to check in. Sherle would pick up the phone from his rent-controlled studio in New York—he refused on principle to live in Washington, D.C., even though he was a co-founder of a think tank based in Washington, D.C.—and clear his throat loudly and thoroughly. Then, in the most unforgettable voice, an inimitable mix of his Nebraska roots and his adopted New York home, he would say, “HellooOOOoo,” undulating the sound of the final “o.” This routine became so drilled into my head that at times I found myself answering my own phone with a throat clear and an undulating hello; still, to this day, if I’m not paying attention, the Sherle hello, as it should be known, will sneak up on me when I pick up a call from a friend.

Sherle passed away unexpectedly last week. He was not a household name by any stretch, but he was an intellectual inspiration and quiet backer of many household names in the world of politics and ideas. Colleagues frequently referred to him the “smartest person you’ve never heard of” in the policy world, and I came to believe that this was probably true. When he spoke, his volume was almost imperceptible, and you had to lean in to catch what he was saying (and you definitely wanted to hear what he was saying, because it was far more insightful than what anyone else was saying). His preference for long, comprehensive answers to simple questions made him ill-suited for political talk shows and live interviews that marked status in the D.C. world. Instead, he made his mark from the sidelines, cultivating young thinkers, convening roundtable discussions, and writing editorials. With Sherle, you didn’t need to know his name; what mattered were his ideas and his impact on future generations.

Sherle maintained a distinct formality even in a world careening toward informality. Everything he did was thorough: thoroughly written, thoroughly edited, and thoroughly researched. Even a response to a question via email would be formatted to the fullest extent. Name, colon, two line breaks, one word, two line breaks, name. It had a palindromic appeal, of sorts, almost comforting in its structure.




I was supposed to call at “around nine am” every morning, but, being me, it became “between nine and ten,” and then “one minute before ten o’clock.” By the time I had called, Sherle had already read the day’s New York Times and Financial Times from front to back, and was waiting expectantly for my call. 

I didn’t always agree with Sherle on policy issues, and, I soon realized, he appreciated that: he’d rather have an interesting discussion than blind obedience. I doubt I ever convinced Sherle of anything, yet he would always give me room to argue my side and try to make my case. (He, on the other hand, did convince me of many things; and the time I spent working with him and Michael Lind were far more formative for my thinking about politics than my four years in college, or after.) Even when I pursued research interests of mine only tangentially related to the job I was supposed to be doing for our team, Sherle was unfailingly supportive. Like a great adviser, he encouraged me to follow my own path, while also making sure I didn’t veer too far off course. 

What was most evident about Sherle was that he was generous. He was generous with salaries, always giving me the maximum raise possible even when he didn’t have to. He was generous with his time, giving feedback on items that didn’t interest him but were important to others. He was generous with opportunities, never treating me as a mere assistant and instead giving me assignments that should have been reserved for researchers far beyond my years. He was even generous with his clothes, gifting his old neckties to younger colleagues when he was ready to move onto new ones. (The tie that Sherle gave me is still the nicest and best-looking tie I own, and possibly ever will be.) And, of course, he was generous with his ideas, caring more that they got out into the world than that he would be the one to get credit for them.

Sherle’s commitment to substance over style made him an excellent manager and mentor, but he was always the underdog when it came to making a splash on the D.C. donor circuit. By the time he hired me, his program at the think tank he co-founded had been reduced to just four people, then three, and, eventually, it was pushed out altogether in favor of more flashy thinkers who could charm donors by telling them what they wanted to hear. Sherle would rather let the program fold than compromise what he believed in: good research in support of a policy agenda that would offer a better deal for the middle classes, a renewed social contract, fewer foreign wars, and better infrastructure. 

Whenever I think of the word infrastructure, I think of Sherle. Sherle had thought through infrastructure funding down to the last detail, and worked with politicians, financiers, and various coalitions to try to get somebody—anybody—to try to make good infrastructure policy actually happen. Sherle knew that a program for infrastructure investment could address multiple facets of American malaise at once: provide good, middle class jobs for workers of all education levels; offer a productive (and socially beneficial) target for the overabundant supply of investment capital that otherwise causes asset bubbles; and make America’s economy more productive and efficient in the long-term. He was a tireless advocate for this unsung cause, pressing his case gently even as the tides of political dysfunction swelled around him.

Infrastructure is, I think, a good metaphor for Sherle’s life. It is the solid foundation that makes the humans around it able to prosper and thrive. That was Sherle during my time working with him: he made it possible for me to grow as a researcher, thinker and editor. And his selfless generosity made me a better person as well.

I am incredibly grateful that I had the opportunity to work with and learn from Sherle for so long, and I hope that my own research and writing will be able to meet his impeccable standards. (My fashion sense and choice of neckties certainly will not.) Every time I pick up the phone and want to say a “Sherle hello,” I will remember the voice on the other end of that phone line each morning, wondering why I took so long to call, and ready to get to work to make this country a better place.