My 2021 in Writing
This is going to be a different one, and open to non-subscribers. I like to take the end of the year to reflect on my various projects, usually on my personal blog. This year, I thought I would look back on my writing here at The End of Safety. I beg your indulgence for putting this in your inboxes, if you’re a subscriber.
Essay writing felt like much more of a struggle this year somehow. At various points in the year I felt as though I was losing my touch, that I was going to have to go back to the drawing board on my whole approach. In parallel, I also had my hardest year of reading yet, and this seems likely related to my struggles with writing, as what I read so often feeds into what I write.
But whereas I read fewer books than I have in years, when I survey what I have written this year, I have to confess I feel pretty proud. Not seen by readers are a graveyard of aborted attempts, some I worked quite hard on. But I killed those darlings for good reason. They were not going to result in quality work. Looking at the longform works that I actually produced this year, they seem neither small in number nor poor in quality. Somehow or other I had a good, productive year of writing.
And of course, that does not even take into account what I have done here, week after week, since May.
In 2019 I began a research project which by design could go in several directions. The meat of it was to try and grasp the mechanics of the American political system, the nuts and bolts, at the level of granularity of “what person in what institutional role making what action has what effect? What other person in what other role making what action could counteract that effect?” Most of my essay writing in the last two years has been produced as something of a side-effect of this project.
The biggest, most challenging piece of writing that came out of it was my paper, “Law and Social Action.” I began work on it in late August of 2020. I remember visiting with my parents and talking it over with my father at the time, a reference point that stood out for me as the months went by and little progress was made.
A jumping point was James Baldwin’s point, made in his debate with Buckley, that even though “we have a civil rights bill now,” we had a whole amendment, the 15th amendment, a century prior. Baldwin remarked that “If it was not honored then, I have no reason to believe that the civil rights bill will be honored now.” That very year, the Votings Rights Act was passed, and ultimately did crush the Jim Crow regimes.
My question was simple: why could the VRA in 1965 do what the 15th Amendment in 1870 could not?
I had a rudimentary theory of social action already developed, which I refined further in the first part of the paper I managed to write, largely in 2020. I turned chiefly to Ari Berman’s Give Us the Ballot for the history, since it dealt very granularly with the VRA from the details of the Selma march to the legislative wrangling and, crucially, the implementation. I also drew on the sections of Alexander Keyssar’s The Right to Vote which covered the VRA. After finishing Berman’s book I drafted an extremely rough history section, meant to apply the theory. To put things mildly, this did not go well. I merely summarized, but added no analysis.
In order to make this more workable, I created a spreadsheet of various events in the history of the VRA and attempted to map actors, actions, effects, and so forth, to those events. This is an approach I have taken more and more as I’ve attempted to keep concrete details in view in my writing, and while it is invaluable, it is also extremely time consuming. With life being what it is, I ended up doing this piecemeal week after week, until I finally set aside all other projects to focus on completing this one aspect. By February, I had finished it, and could start rewriting the application section.
I felt all right about that draft, so I began sending it out to some discerning friends for feedback. One of them completely demolished it. Really just annihilated the whole thing. I was not mad, I was not hurt, I was truly in awe of just how completely he eviscerated the whole thing. Strangely, I found the whole thing exciting. Even in getting to that stage, I was in something of a rut in figuring out a plan of attack. A firm blow (or several dozen firm blows) shook me out of it and sent me back to basics. I looked for help and found it in the form of a little 1965 paper by the sociologist Jack P. Gibbs, “Norms: The Problem of Definition and Classification.” In particular, using collective expectations (what people expect other people to do) and collective evaluations (perceptions about what ought to be done) as, along with different types of sanctions, the joints along which to cut the taxonomy, was very clarifying for me.
The third draft was an almost total rewrite, with much of the history thrown out (after all those hours populating that spreadsheet!) so that I could draw out the application of the theory to what remained in greater detail. That was more or less the final version, with some modest revisions based on feedback from others.
I learned a tremendous amount in the struggle to write this paper. The framework I developed is in much more useful shape for analyzing particular events or even thinking about possibilities for the future. I’m unsure of what the future of this particular paper will be, whether I will create another iteration of it that is more publishable, which was my initial plan. But for now I am mostly pleased at the accomplishment of it, which was a big step forward.
My research on institutions has gelled with my longer standing reading in philosophy and political theory to produce something like a general theory of liberal democracy. What I’ve come to understand is that a lot of the specific institutional features of the countries that have free and fair elections, more or less stable legal regimes, and fairly broad prosperity, specifically emerged in the 20th century. Universal franchise, formally organized parties that engage in mass politics, and large, unelected executive bureaucracies—these are things that emerged early in the 20th century and became fleshed out through trial and error across many countries around the world. What developed is, I think, a fairly coherent form that can be fleshed out normatively as well as descriptively.
At Liberal Currents I have written three essays on this topic. The first has a very normative focus, trying to speak in fairly general terms without floating too far from concrete examples. The second was more descriptive in its focus, imploring Americans to learn more about liberal democracy in general in order to understand what is and is not unique about the American system. The most recent proposes a reform program, based on my general model of liberal democracies but also on the lessons from other liberal democracies that are specifically organized as federal systems, as ours is. I would very much like to continue fleshing this out and even, ideally, to turn it into a book. But we will see. I do not have a very good track record when it comes to dreaming up books I wish to write. The project remains worthwhile regardless.
As a bonus, my dad—someone with a considerably better track record where books are concerned—proposed a little back and forth after the first essay, which we published. You can get a strong sense of what’s different about our perspectives from a recent article he wrote, which also looked to another federal system for guidance. He is committed strongly to the small-r republican tradition. The 18th and 19th centuries saw a great deal of experimentation in what I would call liberal republics, rather than liberal democracy, alongside liberal constitutional monarchies. These were all important precursors to the liberal democracies of the 20th century, but they were distinct. He is more committed to the vision that emerges out of those precursors, which is skeptical of the professionalization of politics, whereas I am an advocate of the best versions of contemporary liberal democracy, in which professionalization is of central importance. That is how I, anyway, would characterize our disagreement.
Something rather out of place from everything is a little thing I wrote about online community. This was a very personal piece, resting as it does on the death of a friend. The entire purpose of Liberal Currents is to foster a community, but also, liberalism is perennially accused of atomizing the foundations of community.
By far my most read essay was my critique of Anne Applebaum’s essay in The Atlantic about what often gets called “cancel culture” but which neither she nor I would use that name for. I have a number of mixed feelings about this. I shy away from this topic because my attitude is that if one does not believe, like Applebaum, that this is a serious problem, there’s little point in jumping into the fray. But Applebaum’s essay struck me as low hanging fruit, as it touched on a topic which drew a lot of attention, and was by an imminent author (for whom I have a great deal of personal respect) at a prestigious publication, yet was seriously lacking in rigor.
Since the crux of my criticism was not inaccuracy but lack of rigor, I tried to be rigorous myself as much as possible. I carefully parsed out each individual case, including the anonymous ones, in Applebaum’s essay. I looked at the various databases of disinvitations or campus speech incidents or anything that could conceivably be lumped into this. I looked at a prominent self-censorship survey. In short, I didn’t just shoot from the hip; I tried to provide a criticism that would be useful to all sides of the debate, or anyone simply attempting to reach a better understanding. The flimsiness of Applebaum’s own argument allowed me to pad this with a good amount of culture war red meat where I’m not holding back in pointing out flaws in the specific essay, but I did hope to accomplish more than just a feeding frenzy.
At any rate, as a piece of marketing for Liberal Currents, the essay was a success. Not only was it widely shared by many notables on social media, but it was specifically referenced in places like The New York Times and The Economist. While it’s easy to focus on the more unhinged replies I received, I actually overall greatly enjoyed the discussions I ended up having with the many people who strongly disagreed with me. They offered some empirical work I wasn’t aware of (which I confess I have not taken the time to dig into since, but have set aside for a time when circumstances might lead me to revisit this topic) and just generally offered what I thought were reasonable critiques of my perspective on the matter. In short, I learned something, and developed some relationships as well out of the whole thing.
That said, I’m not eager to go another round. I’d much rather keep working on turning this liberal democracy project into something.
The End of Safety
Of course, the biggest development writing wise was the launch of this very Substack, back in May. I admit I’ve developed a bit more respect for those columnists who churn something out week after week, given I’ve set looser constraints on myself and yet still find it difficult to produce something worth reading at that interval.
My birthday this year fell a few days before I was scheduled for my second Pfizer vaccine shot. At that time the data indicated that even one shot, after that many weeks, provided a great deal of protection. So I took a day for myself and spent some time perusing a book store, and seeing a movie in theaters, among other things. And I also wrote an essay for pleasure, about being a father at 36. The enjoyment I found in this exercise is what got me thinking about doing writing of this sort more often. The end result was The End of Safety.
There are too many to discuss individually, so I’ll just go through a few highlights:
She Said No has lived in my head for years, but I have never felt comfortable publishing it where it could potentially reach a large audience. I realized that having a small paywalled publication afforded me the opportunity to actually sit down and write it. Many thanks to my dear friend Dave, a far greater writer than I will ever be, for his assistance getting this one to where it needed to be.
As is no doubt obvious, I love writing about parenting, especially when I can serve as the punchline. All of the digusting, retching, ridiculous details have been (perhaps perversely) enjoyable to share with those willing to pay for the pleasure. But also, of course, the joys.
Growth, intellectual but also moral, is something of a fixation. I have seen many become narrow or stagnate who seemed promising at one time. I have written about this several times this year and even driven a bump in subscriptions as a result, to my surprise. Who knew that essays on intellectual growth would be a viable revenue growth strategy?
Pets present about as strong a temptation for self-deception in their owners as children do in their parents. One of my samples I launched with, still free for non-subscribers, attempted some emotional honesty about my relationship with our dog Clementine. I also enjoyed the conceit of this other piece.
I finally put to bed the idea, towards which I once had a strong affinity, that we simply needed more education in the humanities rather than focusing on techno-scientific solutions. I discussed why the notion is appealing, and why the humanities are important sources of wisdom, but also why its proponents fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the problem that they think they can solve better than technocrats.
I tried very hard to write about Chandran Kukathas, whose work I read quite a lot of this year. I did the same for Ernest Gellner, whose Conditions of Liberty I read, along with an intellectual biography. I could not find something interesting to say about either that was not simply summarizing, which was not something I felt was worth the effort, at least not when I could even produce a summary that would be interesting to read. I put a lot of effort in these cases only to abandon them. I believe there were others too, at various half-stages of writing, which were discarded. So it goes, but the graveyard was definitely larger this year than usual.
And that does it for 2021. I look forward to continuing to write for you all in the year ahead.