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Read about it on Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/healing-and-rage-don-t-mix

Leftist infighting versus right-wing herd mentality will doom progressives indefinitely. Read about it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/the-right-has-its-messiah-the-left-will-never-find-theirs

Secrets that involve state actors or politically important individuals are frequently hidden in plain sight. Most people don’t have the time, energy, or research skills to see them, which is what keeps the issue unexamined and quiet.  But those of us who are indefatigably curious often can’t help ourselves.  And, like a black cat in Vietnam, poking our whiskers into the wrong place can get us into serious trouble, even if we are committed to writing about such things.

In general, state secrets seem to originate in very abstract, political (industrial, military, territorial), and bureaucratic forms of aggression, fear, and greed.  These concerns inevitably trickle down to horrific policy decisions that have the potential to hurt people and create insecurity and some degree of social chaos if pointed out.  Unfortunately, there is no country immune from this.  It seems to come standard with the power of jurisdiction and geopolitical boundaries.

The only way to make diffuse information hidden in plain sight comprehensible is to pull together the disparate data and write a convincing story about how it all probably came into being.  Stories are how we’re primarily conditioned to understand what’s going on.  And a writer’s job is to facilitate the emergence of that truth for the public, even if it turns out to be just one of many “competing truths.”  Even in explanatory journalism, exposing secrets is rarely open-and-shut.

State secrecy exists because it needs to—because the decisions being made are contemptible (though sometimes necessary) or because the truth would create serious vulnerability in certain influential groups and individuals.  History is rife with examples.  Current events are also full of them (implicitly, sometimes explicitly) if you know how to look.

I’m not talking about conspiracy theories that involve secret cabals and cartoon evils.  I’ve never witnessed anything like that.  Instead, I’ve discovered very mundane things, real life horrors, birthed from unethical entities making self-serving, highly ambitious choices and fortified with time, encouragement, and usually immense resources.  Anyone with the inclination, research skills, and time can discover as much.  But not everyone can write well enough to help people understand.  More importantly, not everyone wants to or thinks they should.

You not only have to do your homework and be able to write about it, but you have to be mature enough to ask Cui bono? and consider the most quotidian possibilities, because that is usually where you discover useful threads.  The story you tell needs to dramatize the subject matter enough that people can stick with it to the end.  Dramatic tension is the delivery mechanism, even if the final impact of your writing proves too far-reaching and explosive.  In most cases, it will be.  The truth rarely sets people free.  More often than not, it burns a wide swath through everyone involved. 

The first step to being a good investigative writer is being fascinated with details and a good student of history and media.  Read everything.  Keep copious notes about anything that draws your attention.  When you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about something, don’t just roll over and go back to sleep.  Turn on your laptop and start writing those thoughts and insights down.  Then keep writing.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also encourage the use of a good research library in addition to the internet.  Research libraries are invaluable.  They contain a lot that isn’t retrievable online (microfiche, microfilm, archival data, FOIA queries, information stored only at state and federal levels or in restricted archives).  When someone out in the world refuses to talk to you or send you information, chances are what they’re holding back can be found in a newspaper or magazine archive.  And they don’t even know.

When a researcher draws the right conclusions and has an insight that makes a serious secret visible, it’s usually a life-defining moment. She can collect her findings and then write about it and attempt to expose it to the world, risking personal ruin (or murder). Or she can decide that being a martyr for exposing a secret—that may be subsequently covered up or otherwise made invisible anyway—is a bad outcome and that other very good work can be done without making herself so vulnerable.

States will always have their secrets.  It’s a fair bet that most will seize any advantage, regardless of the ethical implications and will then need to cover up what they can’t bury.  Key individuals may refuse to get involved in unethical projects and activities, acknowledging that simply following orders or following the funding is no excuse.  But they can be side-lined or removed.  One wonders whether it’s usually better not to know.

Personally, I take a moderate approach.  Most things I discover, I write about, even if those pieces don’t always find a publisher.  But my life is important to me. So there are a few items, uncovered through methodically correlating public domain, trade publication, and records searches, that I will not talk about.  It’s better to live and write another day.

Mitch McConnell: Gorsuch filibuster is a ‘new low’

We know there’s a recurrent problem throughout this Administration: people who are chosen fundamentally for their utility as loyal Trump soldiers are usually not the most capable for running the country, especially if you take their previous careers into account.  They tend to be, in the most direct sense of the term, Trump apparatchiks at best—trustworthy and agreeable, if not capable, functionaries.

This is obvious.  And yet it’s likely going to be fodder for many history and government essay exams in the future (if we have a future): Explain the high level of attrition in the Trump Administration in terms of the President’s consolidation of power, presidential scandals, loyalty purges, and information control before and after the Mueller Report.  Mention how the Administration’s ideas about professional competency changed or stayed the same relative to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020

I can see the essay exam flop sweat breaking out behind the undergraduate personal protective face shields as they scribble away.  But no matter how clear or murky these interesting times become in retrospect, right now Mitch McConnell’s maneuvering makes him look like an apparatchick par excellence, who mistakenly thinks he’s nomenklatura.  Or, in non-Soviet terminology, a petty bureaucrat who thinks he’s part of the ruling elite.

In politics as in the game of chess, someone used primarily as a blocking piece is called a pawn.  And that’s what McConnell is in the career-warping aura of our very own Boss Tweed, who, for some reason most of us can’t clearly divine, is still President after a major corruption investigation and an impeachment.  Lots of pawns on the board these days, even if the king himself is beholden to other powers.  But COVID-19 might change that.

McConnell’s always been a game-savvy obstructionist.  In any field, some people are keyed in to the essential spirit of the thing, romantic visionaries who create new parts and reinvent others.  Then there are the classical proceduralists, the technicians who are far less dramatic but often just as effective as their visionary colleagues. 

They are the apparatchiks who game the system, moneyballing their way from small victory to small victory, which, over time builds up to bigger things.  This is Mitch McConnell, whose efforts toward sabotaging Obama’s health care and banking reforms have become particularly legendary.

Unlike most of Trump’s people, McConnell is clearly intelligent and capable.  He does not come across as overly charismatic or even popular in his own state, but he writes well and is an avid student of history.  Unfortunately, he’s been drifting right for so long that he now appears incapable of bipartisan compromise.  It seems his unique technical skills as a creature of the Senate have become primarily useful to this Administration as a way to antagonize and obstruct the Democrats. 

So I should not have felt shocked this morning when I opened the Times op-ed section and saw one by McConnell from 2019—one thinks, back in the feeds primarily in light of his recent, wildly ill-considered comments about letting states declare bankruptcy as opposed to providing them emergency funding—entitled, “Mitch McConnell: The Filibuster Plays a Crucial Role in Our Constitutional Order.”  The piece could have been subtitled: Honestly, what do the liberals expect? 

McConnell writes “No Republican has any trouble imagining the laundry list of socialist policies that 51 Senate Democrats would happily inflict on Middle America in a filibuster-free Senate.”  And, given the hyperpartisan state of the nation, one must reluctantly agree.

At the same time, he exposes the central flaw in his argument when he invokes “founding tradition” in the voice of a procedural technician as opposed to someone creatively in line with the spirit of its aims and intentions:  “The legislative filibuster is directly downstream from our founding tradition. If that tradition frustrates the whims of those on the far left, it is their half-baked proposals and not the centuries-old wisdom that need retooling.”  This conveniently overlooks the fact that the filibuster was never intended to be used as a blunt, blatant tool of obstruction. 

If McConnell wants to start talking “centuries-old wisdom,” he would do well to account for the broad scope of historical context instead of cherry picking his emphases.  As Alec MacGillis notes in The Cynic: the Political Education of Mitch McConnell,

In 2007, after Democrats reclaimed majorities in both chambers in 2006 and Mitch McConnell ascended to become his party’s leader in the Senate, the use of the filibuster soared. . . . By 2009, when the Democrats gained back the White House, the use of the filibuster spread, far more than ever before, to block presidential nominees of even the most pedestrian offices.  ‘The idea of a filibuster as the expression of a minority that felt so intensely that it would pull out all the stops to block something pushed by the majority went by the boards,’ wrote Orenstein, the congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, in 2014.  ‘This was a pure tactic of obstruction, trying to use up as much of the Senate’s most precious commodity—time—as possible to screw up the majority’s agenda.’”

Operating primarily as a technical savant insensitive to the world beyond his procedural manoeuvring and its often harmful, lasting consequences, McConnell seems to lack the greatest benefit that accrues from reading history: an encompassing view that allows one to stop scrutinizing each tree and take in the shape of the forest.

In a stunning display of myopic partisanship that amounts to whataboutism, McConnell cautions us that “the Democratic Party is racing leftward, with presidential debates that make the 2008 exchanges between Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards look downright conservative by comparison. The party is rallying around the very kinds of radical schemes that the Constitution intentionally frustrates.” 

If this is true, it must be equally true that there are some things the Constitution did not foresee, such as opportunistic rules pharisees willing to depart immediately from the broadminded spirit of the document at a moment’s advantage. 

No “liberation” is possible from the necessary public health guidelines in a pandemic. And the virus doesn’t care about the Bill of Rights.

Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/a-partisan-pandemic

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I write fiction and nonfiction for magazines, work as a freelance writer / editor / journalist, and teach composition and fiction writing.

This blog is mostly dedicated to writing about politics and media, travel essays, creative non-fiction, discussions about books, the MFA experience, publishing, and work I’ve already placed in magazines. But I might write anything.

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“To educate is to seek meaning in everything. It is to teach others to seek the meaning of things. This means mixing the dreams of children and young people with the experience of adults and the elderly. This exchange must always take place, or else there can be no humanity because there would be no roots, no history, no promise, no growth, and no prophecy.”

— Pope Francis, 5 June 20

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“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery—isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.”
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