More courage, writers!

Apparently, I'm teaching a class.

“It's okay if I'm not a great teacher because I'm great at lots of other things.” — Lauren Duca, as told to Scaachi Koul, in “How Did Lauren Duca’s Revolution Backfire?”, BuzzFeed

“Digital media has undeniably struggled to rebound, with identity-driven journalism hit the hardest. As this bubble has burst, many have broken through into more mainstream politics, style, film, and TV journalism at legacy publications, and many more have struggled to cope with abrupt layoffs and job insecurity. Some got book deals, some started podcasts. I had already pivoted to video.” — Ty Mitchell, Probottom Book Club (x)

“Shall we not be permitted to ask all of our questions, so that we may become more wise as we pursue the answers? More courage, Bari Weiss! ” — Judith Butler, Bari Weiss’s Unasked Questions, Jewish Currents

(First, some housekeeping: Now, onto the good stuff.)

Tomorrow, I have the opportunity to guest lecture a journalism class at a well-known Toronto j-school. As you can imagine, I am hugely unprepared.

I don’t really consider myself a “journalist” in any context other than a cover letter or a networking event. I don’t know at what point something switches and you just “become” something, but whatever it is, I have not arrived at it yet (at least not inside my own head). This lecture will be on the subject of activism-as-journalism; it will cover a bit of the working theory and learned practice of critical opinion writing. To someone, somewhere, whatever personal branding efforts I have put in paid off. Calling myself a writer for long enough has managed to make it real. This is, apparently, my brand.

As both a practice and a thought system, branding is pervasive. When I first started writing, I had just been unceremoniously let go from a start-up that should really never have existed in the first place. I freelanced for six months, relying on a small pool of copywriting clients and the anxious, nauseating cycle of freelance journalism. I built up a portfolio writing for Torontoist ($50 per reported piece, $100 per feature), GUTS ($50), Canadaland ($350) CBC Opinion ($400, by far my best gig in that whole period), etc. It was bad work. I was practicing my writing and trying to make some money, but it was largely underpaid and the material was not the kind of writing I like doing. But this was the year of J*rdan P*terson and Pride protests, the last great wave of identity-based viral-minded reporting, when people were willing to offer you at least $50 to announce to the world that you were nonbinary and had something to say about it. Canadian media has since moved on, back to open disdain for transgender people (and the political left altogether, two categories that Canadian media seems committed to conflate). Nevertheless, as the saying goes, she persisted: over time, I had burned sufficient bridges and sent sufficient pitches to assemble an actual body of work, one that I think has noticeable throughlines and motifs, and builds towards a general point of view (I hope). But the exercise was and remains largely unpleasant. And Canadian media has only become more and more frustratingly, boringly, aggravatingly right-wing and close-minded. I mean this not in the sense that I am offended, but mostly that I’m bored. I want more. I won’t talk about Trudeau’s blackface incidents, but I think the coverage of this news item speaks for itself. Canada, with its monstrously white newsrooms and pathetically sneering politicians, is bereft of the basic politics necessary to engage this subject. But you see what I mean.

I say all this because apparently branding is important, yet it feels inaccurate to articulate it as some kind of intentional or agentive exercise. I have arrived at whatever my brand is because the kinds of stories that are accepted from me are limited, and perhaps also because those who might beat me out for them have been limited even further. To write about homophobia, racism, violence, etc. is often a task that has been as much imposed as it has been entrusted. In this way, brands mirror identities — they are subject positions that only make sense when seen through a lens of competition, artificial scarcity, gig economy, and other late-capitalist preventabilities. I am often asked to give tips on writing or journalism (guest lecturing tomorrow is, in a way, an extension of this), and I have trouble not always reacting with such dismay. I have fallen into this trajectory not out of excitement, but frustration. I didn’t mean to, but once I’ve started, I don’t quite know how to stop. I worry that by now it’s too late; I’ve made myself suitably unhireable.

My aim with this newsletter was to think through my lecture tomorrow, to give my intended insights a chance to breathe before I am unbottled in front of a classroom of upcoming competitors. Instead, I’ve just written a platform to my anxieties. But here are some takeaways, all the same:

  1. It is false that opinion writing does not require research or journalistic objectivity. As a writer, you must go out and read and engage with the principle arguments of the points you oppose. Those who seek to dismiss criticism as mere bellyaching often are unwilling to do this same intellectual work.

  2. You are not tearing something down by holding it up for investigation. Criticism is productive work.

  3. Don’t be afraid to position yourself in relation to the material. If you have complex ideas, bring them all into the piece. Start a conversation within the instance — your audience will thank you for it.

  4. You belong to a community. Write for them. Write with them.

Much love,

Here are my readings for this week:

What kind of art comes at the end of the world? // Alex Verman

“Often in discussions concerning ‘imminent disaster,’ we’re looking for one particular root cause in the hopes that we can extinguish it and move on,” said Alagraa via email. “But once you realize that the predicament of our time — that of the health and life of our planet — is woven into the fabric of social life in such a delicate way, then we realize that any possible redress has to place, at the centre of its considerations, imagining different ways of living on this planet together at the level of the social and political. Basically, our planet’s condition is not simply an eco-predicament, it is a political one.”

Boucher has the disadvantage of arriving at this game after decades of coordinated denialism campaigns designed to produce apolitical fear without awareness of cause or opportunity for action. And now, in 2019, it feels too late to save the world. It’s difficult to conceptualize a crisis of this scale, especially from within the context of North American settler colonial society. In the US and Canada, politicians and corporations have spent upwards of 30 years and billions of dollars trying to deny the undeniable. 

For many people, climate change is imaginable not as the result of a set of related political and economic decisions and consequences. Instead, it resides within the mind, as an object of guilt around individual consumer choices. It lives as something of a bogeyman, a bad guy that might gobble us up if we don’t switch to energy efficient light bulbs or electric cars (thank you, Tesla). In short, a villain — a singular entity, the end of the world, without discernible cause or political response. 

Thoughts on the Planetary: an Interview with Achille Mbembe

Nilsen: To what extent are our knowledge systems of today still determined by colonialism or oppression? 

Mbembe: We need to develop a broader understanding of “colonisation”. Knowledge systems worldwide are still underpinned by the logic of value extraction. In fact, knowledge as such is increasingly designed as the principal means for value extraction. Colonisation is going on when the world we inhabit is understood as a vast field of data awaiting extraction. Colonisation is going on when we throw out of the window the role of critical reason and theoretical thinking, and we reduce knowledge to the mere collection of data, its analysis and its use by governments, military bureaucracies and corporations. Colonisation is going on when we are surrounded by so-called smart devices that constantly watch us and record us, harvesting vast quantities of data, or when every activity is captured by sensors and cameras embedded within them. This is what colonisation in the 21st century is all about. It is about extraction, capture, the cult of data, the commodification of human capacity for thought and the dismissal of critical reason in favour of programming.

Against(?) Empathy // Zoé Samudzi

There’s a puzzling horseshoe theory within the idea that true empathy emerges from endeavoring to performatively embody or recreate suffering. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt describes SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler’s rhetorical attempts to assuage the difficult feelings that the Einsatzgruppen (the paramilitary death squads) and police leaders were apparently having with their orders to exterminate. “The order to solve the Jewish question, this was the most frightening order an organization could ever receive,” he says, because these ordinary men were being demanded to be “superhumanly inhuman.” The genocidaires in the making were not sadistic by nature, but rather regular men bravely serving Führer and country, blut und boden. To preemptively absolve these men of guilt and responsibility, Himmler instructed any and all moralizations to be turned inward: the Herculaneum duty, their brave service, was a suffering in itself! Arendt writes: “So […] instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!” No matter how difficult the task (“To have stuck it out and, apart from exceptions caused by human weakness, to have remained decent, that is what has made us hard,” Himmler says), it selflessly must be done in order to ensure future generations would not have to fight this fight again. (This is not totally unlike Golda Meir proclaiming: “[Israelis] can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.”) It is this odd horseshoe that connects two sides of individuals enduring suffering: the humanized perpetrator wounded by the infliction of harm and the secondhand witness vicariously wounded by the evocation of tragic memory. The most important party, the victim, is scrubbed from this affective equation.