Seeing The Magic Doughnut

Sometimes, I doubt your commitment to sparkle vision.

First things first: if you missed Monday’s announcement, the Erin Endeavor is moving homes from Substack to Buttondown. If you are currently subscribed at any level, you don’t have to do anything different to continue to receive newsletters.

As I said in that announcement, I will be posting regular updates this week to give everyone as many chances as possible to get the memo before the switch over next week.

I had intended to do them at least daily, but yesterday I was laid up with a migraine right at the point when I was getting down to business, and didn’t accomplish much with the rest of the day, beyond identifying what was happening as a migraine.

I don’t think it was the first migraine I’ve had and in fact I think I’ve had them off and on for most of my adult life. I just lacked the context to identify them as such. Before yesterday I just was aware, occasionally, that sometimes my vision would "just go” and I wouldn’t be able to see well for a while.

I always chalked it up to fatigue, as it’s not infrequently that my eyes will not focus correctly when the muscles that control them get tired, and I figured that the weird jangly light show that would sometimes obscure a portion of my view was just another permutation of that because, honestly, any other possibility was too terrifying to contemplate, and it’s not like I could afford to go to the doctor for a problem that comes on unpredictably and passes quickly, something I could barely describe and that probably wouldn’t be happening when I managed to get seen.

But then I saw something on Twitter one time between the last spell of that and the most recent one, something like but not exactly identical to this tweet below:

References to seeing a cursed, phantom, or magic doughnut turned me onto the existence of visual migraines, aura effects that don’t necessarily herald or coincide with the painful and particular headaches that are more strongly thought of as migraines.

Having a name for what’s happening might seem like a small thing, but it helps me in a few different ways.

First, it gives me some reassurance that it’s not a completely alien, inexplicable phenomenon that must portend something worse. Knowing these are migraine symptoms let me research diagnostic criteria, and learn that if I could only see the effect in one eye it would be a potentially more serious condition.

Second, it helps me find other symptoms that go along with it, that I might have otherwise missed or not understood. When I tweeted about this yesterday, other people who have them mentioned being drained, slightly fatigued, or even exhausted in their wake. Which… I mean, I have a mitochondrial condition where fatigue and exhaustion are my frequent companions, but yes, yesterday’s spell did leave me feeling very unaccountably tired when it passed, and I otherwise would have just chalked that up as a mystery, another part of the magic of being me, that sometimes I can even tire myself out doing nothing.

And as a potential third thing… maybe now that I’m thinking in terms of migraines, I can figure out some commonalities between the times when it happens and thereby learn if I can mitigate or avoid them. To that end I have downloaded a symptom tracking app recommended by people on Twitter, called Migraine Buddy.

So even with nothing I can act on now, I am armed with knowledge, and that may make all the difference in the future.

We're Moving!

So long, and thanks for all the, uh... subs? Stacks?

So, I mentioned in one of my more recent updates that I’m looking to relocate my newsletter off of Substack, in light of some high-profile business decisions that Substack has made in terms of who and what gets platformed here and to what degree.

Obviously, it would be impossible to find a content distribution/payment platform that won’t host something that I disagree with, but this is not about mere differences of opinions and goes beyond even moral/ethical qualms to existential concerns.

And as I mentioned at the time, my internal conflict over using Substack in the meantime has been an impediment to my use of it as I don’t like depending for money on a platform that I don’t want to make money for. My intention had been to shake off those concerns and push on with using Substack in the interim, but life found a way of adding sufficient other obstacles on top of that one that slowed down both my re-establishment of my newsletter and my move to another platform.

Well, I’m here today to announce that I do have a replacement set up. I’m going with Buttondown Email, a service I never heard of before it was recommended to me, which touts on its website that it’s run by a person rather than a company.

Which can be good or bad, as people are good and bad, and there’s nothing that stops this person from going corporate in the future. But as I’m looking for accountability from my provider, I’d rather deal with a person than a company for now.

What does this change mean for you? Not much. I am seeking further information but my understanding right now is that any subscription you have here will be carried over on the other side after I migrate my content.

In order to avoid this catching too many people by surprise, I’m going to wait until next week to “flip the switch” and will post regular updates to this newsletter between now and then, which will include a reminder/announcement and link to this post.

I understand that some of the people who have read the Erin Endeavor probably do so as part of a daily routine of checking Substack and that however convenient the email migration might be for other people, removing my newsletter from Substack will leave it out of sight and thus in danger of being out of mind.

If that’s the case for you, I want you to know that you and your readership do matter to me, even in the hypothetical and abstract. I hope you will make the switch with the rest of us but I will understand if you don’t or can’t, if it just doesn’t work for you. I’m learning the importance of doing what works for me because it works for me, and encourage you to do the same.

Anyway, talk to you soon!

-Alexandra.

Context Clues in the Era of #MeToo

Against all odds and much prevailing wisdom, the news audience trusts the news media. Here's why that's a problem.

I have a message for our nation’s journalists, and not to be overly melodramatic, but it’s very important that they receive and understand it. Like, potentially “survival of the republic” type important. Possibly “survival of the human race” level.

Ready?

The message is this:

Your audience trusts you.

Impossible as it seems, unbelievable as it may be, the audience for news trusts the people giving it to them.

While this may seem incredible, it’s actually as reliable an axiom as “Trump supporters support Trump.” See, it’s not that everybody believes everything that’s printed or said under the banner of headline news. But people who don’t believe CNN, with rare but notable exceptions, don’t watch CNN, as people who don’t believe Fox don’t tend to watch Fox, and so on.

And it’s not that watchers of MSNBC or readers of the Washington Post or whatever simply passively absorb everything that their chosen news source tells them, uncritically and unthinkingly.

But the fact that they keep going back to the same well for water means that at a base level, they trust the water source to keep giving them water.

And that’s fine. The news wouldn’t work as a business without this kind of trust! The problem arises when journalists and editors and the institutions behind them forget —or pretend not to believe — that their audience does trust them.

By way of explaining further, I’m going to refer to a specific example and it’s not because it is a unique or egregious example but rather because it is a fresh and stark one.

Via this tweet from Michael Hobbes:

Michael links to a blog post on Defector, the sports-and-culture website formed by exiles from Deadspin, started because — and this is a direct quote from their about page — “media is fucked now.”

And the linked post by Camille Bromley, filed under the very meta heading of “Journalismism”, chronicles a bit of that upped-fuckery for us.

If you want a detailed recap of the situation Bromley describes, as the post does a better job of doing it. The short version is that there was what we might call a Toobin Incident during a video staff meeting for The Believer, a literary arts journal of sorts published out of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Suffice it to say that Josh Wolf Shenk turned the staff meeting into a “staff” meeting, so to speak, and a few months later he and the company parted ways.

The LA Times, reporting on the chain of events, reported this:

According to Ira Silverberg, a literary agent and editor who is acting as Shenk’s advisor, Shenk was soaking in a bathtub with Epsom salts during the meeting to alleviate nerve pain caused by fibromyalgia.

He had chosen a virtual background to mask his location and had worn a mesh shirt. When Shenk’s computer battery died, he got up to plug it in, believing the camera was off. But the video kept running. According to Silverberg, Shenk reported the incident immediately.

I could do a whole spiel on how even this “innocent” explanation does not remove responsibility for the lapse from Shenk, and Bromley’s post mentions how this sort of thing was a culmination of a pattern of similar “lapses” from Shenk, but that’s neither here nor there.

Bromley is an editor at The Believer, writing for Defector from the point of view of a staffer on the call who already had concerns about Shenk and who sought accountability for his lapses and transgressions and was stymied. She had this to say about the LAT reporting:

The article did not quote anyone else who had been present, and so there was little room for Shenk’s exposure to be interpreted as anything more than an unfortunate mistake. Staffers were incensed. “This article is all he needs to get himself another job where he can endanger people,” a colleague wrote to me. This was the first we were hearing about a bathtub, and several other details in the article seemed to be acting as convenient distractions; for instance, the “mesh shirt” Shenk was supposedly wearing had appeared on screen to be a normal-looking white t-shirt.  

More puzzling, I knew that the LA Times reporter, Dorany Pineda, had spoken to several sources on staff. When I asked her what the deal was with her article, she informed me that while she had heard negative allegations against Shenk, she and her editors had decided not to include them. Readers, she felt, could understand that Shenk’s account of his actions was absurd.

 

I’ve added the bold emphasis there, because this is what I’m talking about when I say that we need journalists to understand that their audience trusts them.

We heard so many times during the too-long reign of Donald Trump that it wasn’t the business of straight news reporters to tell us who was lying, they only reported who said what and trusted us to recognize the obvious, absurd, and odious lies for what they were. “We don’t make the news and we don’t tell people what to think, we just report what happened.” is the typical refrain, along with “We can do more than lay out the facts and trust that readers will arrive at the obvious conclusion.”

But to the extent that their audience trusts them to tell them what happened, it is a problem when they will not report that something is absurd or obviously false, or will not draw the natural inference or obvious conclusion.

Sure, to a trained journalist, the distinction between “This is what happened.” and “This is what a friend of the accused says happened.” is obvious and important.

But the average news consumer is not a trained journalist, and is counting on the people who are trained journalists to report all the news is news, all the news that’s fit to print, and so if the only account of events presented comes from one source, that’s a sign that this source was found credible.

If accounts by other people who were present and might have thoughts about what happened aren’t presented as news, then it can be inferred — in fact, basically must be informed by any reader who trusts the journalist to be honest with them — that those accounts either do not differ meaningfully from the one presented, or were not found credible enough to be printed.

If Shenk’s proxy explanation for his exposure seems absurd on its face but a trained journalist is reporting it matter-of-factly as though it were credible and normal, that lends it credibility and normality.

Or as Bromley puts it, more succinctly:

Relying on the public to see through the narrative offered by your own article strikes me as an odd strategy. And in fact, several commenters on the article seized on the fact that nothing negative from the staff had come out against Shenk in order to defend him. Predictably, the article fed right into the Twitter controversy machine, prompting a misguided debate as to whether or not a man should lose his job over an embarrassing mistake.

Emphasis, as usual, is mine: “Relying on the public to see through the narrative offered by your own article strikes me as an odd strategy.”

That’s it.

That’s it in a nutshell.

I think if you scratch the surface of this phenomenon, you will find what underlies it is not trust in the judgment of readers to arrive at the right conclusion but rather a mixture of fear of offending the powerful and privileged and a desire to protect one’s peers or social betters.

If they only tell Shenk’s side of the story then they don’t have to worry about how he or any lawyers he may happen to have retained will respond to their reporting. Nobody who exchanges holiday greetings or invitations with him or any of his close friends has to worry about burning bridges. Nobody in the chain of decision-making at the LA Times who may have their own “lapses” around underlings has to worry about a precedent that the paper cares what the ~*little people*~ think about their bosses’ misconduct.

But let’s forget that and take journalism at its word, that this is simply about trust and respect.

Well, there’s the problem.

News media, against all odds and our better judgment, we do trust you… to paraphrase Mark Twain, not all over, but in spots.

And unfortunately but necessarily, it’s in those spots where we trust you that we come to you for the news, to find out what happened.

We don’t need you to tell us what to think about it, but we are social animals and if someone we trust gives us no signs that something is wrong or out of the ordinary, eons of evolution and decades of life experience have primed us to accept that nothing is wrong or out of the ordinary.

If you leave a voice out of your story, that signals to your reader that in your trusted judgment this voice had nothing credible or important to say.

If you center a voice in your story, that signals to your reader that in your trusted judgment this voice and what it had to say was credible and important.

Please, news media. I am begging you. Assume the best of your readers and viewers and listeners all you want, but understand that if they are listening to you then they are listening to you. Your audience trusts you! If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be your audience anymore!

Liz Cheney Committed The Only Crime Republicans Care About

Or, past the point of no return, with Chris Cillizza

First, by way of foreword, I’d like to apologize for having left this newsletter fallow for so long. I was just finding my way back into the groove of updating it when some business decisions by Substack came to light that I, among others, found troubling and bigoted, and I wasn’t sure what to do about that.

I’m still not sure, but I’ve come to realize that there’s no point in sitting still while I’m figuring it out, and that indeed, I’m unlikely to make a change if I’m sitting still.

So for now, the Erin Endeavor is back on, and for now it’s still on Substack. I will probably be moving venues when I’ve located one that I like, but only one that enables me to import my content and my subscribers. Ideally this will require nothing from you except maybe confirming that you wish to receive email from the new service.

…Moving On…

There are two things one can count on Chris Cillizza to do: state the obvious, and miss it.

I know those seem like they’re mutually contradictory, but most situations that Cillizza chooses to focus his analytical wit upon have sufficient obvious features for him to mix it up properly and do a little of both.

Let’s take a look at his piece from today.

To start by stating a bit of the obvious just in the tweeted headline: one does not need a highly paid political analyst to reveal what “the big tell” in a situation is. It’s obvious on its face. That’s what a big tell is. If a poker player quietly sucks in their breath or subconsciously taps their pinky finger on the table when they see they’ve got a good hand, one might miss that if not clued to look for it, but if they do a double-take and yell “Hotchie-motchie, DADDY LIKE!” that hardly requires translation.

If you’ve been paying the slightest bit of attention then you know the real reason that Republican leaders are turning on Cheney is that she’s insufficiently loyal to Trump, and Cillizza wastes no time and many words explaining this.

But he’s offering a twofer: the reason that they want to replace her with Elise Stafinek, he is now able to exclusively reveal to readers of the feature hilariously named “The Point”, is that she is sufficiently loyal to Trump.

Now, mea culpa: I have done nothing more here than explain the obvious, including the fact that Chris Cillizza is not very good at his job, if we assume his job is to do actual political analysis and explain complicated wheelings and dealings to outsiders from an insider’s perspective.

So here’s where we go beyond “The Point” and get to the point: what Chris misses.

He says:

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (California) has said that the reason Cheney appears to be on her way out is because she isn't the best policy messenger for the party. Which, as I noted on Tuesday, is totally ridiculous, since Cheney is a consistent conservative on everything but her willingness to speak out against former President Donald Trump and her vote to impeach him for his role in the January 6 riot at the US Capitol.

And also:

This is Trump as puppeteer, with McCarthy and Scalise dancing to his preferred tune. Still don't believe me? Check this out: According to the conservative Heritage Action group, Cheney's lifetime vote score is 80%. Stefanik's is 48%. And even when it comes to votes in support of Trump, calculations done by 538 show that Cheney voted with the former president 92.9% of the time while Stefanik backed him 77.7% of the time.

The thing that Chris gets wrong is thinking that there is any difference or distance between policy and loyalty in today’s GOP. Loyalty to party, to power, is the policy of the Republican Party and arguably the only consistent and non-negotiable policy.

Composer Frank Wilhoit once said in what may be the most quoted blog comment of all time that “Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: there must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.”

This pithy and trenchant observation is so pithy and trenchant that it has been mistaken for a quote from a book by deceased, coincidentally named, and Wiki-notable political scientist Francis Wilhoit (no relation), because who would expect the defining political commentary of our age to occur on a blog comment? Well, I might, being an internet political commentator.

In any event, the living Wilhoit’s quote was and is certainly true, but I would argue that the modern conservative project has evolved and progressed towards an even worse form of this aphorism where power — which we might define as being freedom to do whatever one wants with zero accountability — is not just the highest good but the only one.

I used the word freedom but I’m not speaking here of some libertarian ideal where everybody is free to do what one wants, because the part about there being those who are protected and those who are bound still applies in full force. It’s just that the role of “the law” in the whole operation that’s becoming fuzzier as conservatives increasingly adulterate or ignore the rule of law to simply do what they want, to whomever they want, while expecting and in fact enforcing zero accountability.

Matt Gaetz has sufficiently demonstrated this in his response to the serious criminal allegations swirling around him, which is not to profess his innocence but to seek the political ex-communication of anyone he deems insufficiently loyal (and thus, dangerously likely to hold him accountable)

It’s not that the current Republican leadership has any great personal love for Donald Trump, or likely thinks much of Gaetz or Stefanik. It’s just a matter of principle: if anybody — Democrats, judges, We The People — can hold a rich and powerful former president like Donald Trump accountable, then we could do it to anyone we choose.

And conversely, if they can excuse and ignore the serious crimes of a man as contemptible as Donald Trump, they can excuse and ignore anything.

The principle that the powerful can be held to account is anathema to Republican Party thinking because their definition of power is freedom from accountability.

And the principle that there is no crime so odious that it can’t be ignored or even flaunted is their endgame, for the same reason.

And thus we arrive at the point of today’s GOP and their proposed re-shuffling of congressional leadership roles. Liz Cheney is guilty of the only transgression that a Republican official can commit that the party will seek to punish, which is attempting to draw a line and say “we cannot cross this, we must not cross this, and if somebody does, there should be consequences.”

The Party of Personal Responsibility cannot tolerate this, because in their worldview, consequences are for other people.

Naomi Wolf on Tucker Carlson: We Must Be Free To Agree

Fascism is a functional government.

Perennial embarrassment Naomi Wolf, most famous for having been factchecked in real-time on the basic premise of her already published book during a radio interview, is at it again, or perhaps, still, given that she was bragging about her restaurant attendance just a couple of weeks ago.

This time, the ostensibly liberal author is going on Tucker Carlson to have a a circle-jerk of a self-congratulatory conversation about how great it is that they can cross the political aisle to have a rational conversation about how trying to keep even more US residents from dying of preventable illness is somehow akin to literal, actual fascism.

I’ve chosen Daily Caller reporter Scott Morefield’s tweet of the clip because I want to address how he frames it, in particular the use of the term “fascism” (which is a comparison Wolf makes herself) and his query of why there isn’t more alarm on the liberal side.

Taking his question at face value, I would say it’s because that those left of the conservative wing believe that the role of the government is… well, that’s just it.

Republicans believe that government has no proper role, that the government is an enemy, an obstacle, an impediment to freedom, that it should be sabotaged and sandbagged and cut to pieces until it’s small enough to drown in the bathtub and if you happen to find a few ways to line your pockets or help your friends out along the way, why, that’s just entrepreneurism and that’s as American as apple pie.

We believe that the government has a role, and that it’s not protecting the business interests of and providing opportunities to the powerful.

We could say that we don’t know what the people who founded our country and guided it through its early years believed the role of the government should be, but in point of fact they left quite a lot of writing behind on the subject.

So much that I can’t claim to have read all of it, though I am reasonably sure that they didn’t talk about wanting to keep government “small enough to drown in the bathtub,” for instance, even though conservatives seem to think that’s a foundational principle of our country.

And while they certainly were justifiably suspicious of tyranny, they don’t appear to have believed that government was itself inherently a problem that needed solving, nor that the words “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” were frightening.

The preamble of the Constitution, the document that Wolf and her interlocutors hold up as under assault, justifies its own existence thusly:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Now, these words do not have the force of law behind them. They are a statement of intent, not a legal code.

But at the time they were written, each and every single one of them had to be written out by hand, so we know they weren’t just there to pad out space on the page. These weighty words were meant to be considered alongside the body of the Constitution, a vital heart giving animating purpose to the meat and bones.

I will freely confess that I don’t have an answer to Naomi Wolf when she asks where in the Constitution it says that we can suspend rights to mitigate a disaster such as a pandemic.

I do know that contra to her wide-eyed, wild assertions that emergency powers have been wielded in these United States at the local, state, and federal level on many different occasions. It’s not something that just happened for the first time in the state of New York in the spring of 2020.

I do also know that the Supreme Court has held that even specifically enumerated Constitutional rights are not absolute and that they may have exceptions, including in matters of public safety.

Those lofty ideals spelled out in the preamble are not laws. Nor is the Declaration of Independence, which further enumerates rights such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Liberty is also mentioned in the preamble. If it seems strange that the framers of these documents would think so highly of liberty as an ordained right but not spell out a law that explicitly protects it… well, it’s hard to put something like that in legal terms, isn’t it? Several of the amendments in the Bill of Rights give a good solid go at shoring it up, but while specific freedoms such as association and religion are mentioned, there is no injunction stating “the right to liberty will not be abridged.”

And there’s even less said about life and nothing about happiness in the Constitution, after the preamble.

That’s because not everything that our founders believed in — not everything they believed was worth protecting and enshrining — is a suitable subject for the law. You can’t legislate happiness. You can’t meaningfully legislate against death, for that matter. To declare a Constitutional right to life would be like declaring that we have a right to have the tides come in whenever it suits us and not when the lunar gravity happens to work out that way.

And yet I would not disagree that we have a right to life, nor would I think every declaration of such a right is pointless. Legally toothless, though a useful foundation for laws that help protect the right. There is a natural right to life even if there is no Constitutional one.

Similarly, we have a natural right to what Abraham Lincoln famously called a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” that works for the people, to secure all those blessings mentioned in the preamble and protects our rights, both those enumerated in the Constitution and not.

And when there is a tension between expressions of any of these rights — say, between one person’s desire to pretend there isn’t a pandemic and their neighbors’ desire to protect their lives and get through it as quickly as possible so we can be about our pursuits, happy and otherwise — well, there may not be easy answers there, but “no easy answers” also means we have to rule out “emergency measures are fascism and we don’t do that in God’s America,” doesn’t it?

Now, we’ve just come through four years of rule by a party that, if the law wasn’t on their side, would file a motion of But We Wanna and petition for a writ of Who’s Gonna Stop Us and I have to say, I didn’t like it. It was bad and scary and wrong, and I don’t want to say “Well, it’s different when we do it,” but I would say: it does matter why it’s being done and in what context.

If someone in a position of power and authority decides to test the limits of that power and authority in the name of protecting a public good (or for less lofty reasons) and somebody else thinks that they are trampling on a right to do so, then we have methods and channels in place for resolving that argument legally.

No amount of Naomi Wolf talking about how much she’s studied history makes her the first or last word on what actions our government is and isn’t allowed to take on our behalf. We’ve got a system for that and it includes elections, which we just had a bunch of and, spoiler warning: the conservative arguments about the nature and role of the government did not win out there.

This is the thing that I find the most galling about the framing that Scott, Tucker, and Naomi are using here. This type of conversation is being put forward as a model of civility, of the kind of conversation that is being prevented by left/right divisions — perhaps deliberately, Tucker suggests — but in actuality, Naomi Wolf is going on Tucker’s show to just cosign uncritically and repeat and promote something that is 100% a foundational cornerstone of mainstream right-wing belief, that the government is the problem, that tyranny is when the government does anything, and that the only things the government is allowed to do are what conservatives want.

“Why can’t we talk like this? Why can’t we have a conversation about this?” in practical terms actually comes down to, “Why are people allowed to talk about this in other ways?”

Freedom, in the world of Fox News and the Daily Caller, is the freedom to be conservative. Fascism, in their world, is doing anything else. It’s a perfect distillation of the Republican approach to “power-sharing” as we’ve seen in action: power is only legitimate when they wield it towards their own ends.

That Naomi Wolf went on Tucker’s show to unironically and unreservedly cosign the conservative view of government as a useless impediment at best and a threat at worst is not some triumph of civility.

It’s a triumph for right-wing extremism, of the sort that not even two months ago staged a violent insurrection to try to re-install a rightwing strongman ruler who incited said insurrection, who had a habit of pardoning his own allies and people involved in crimes for his benefit, and who was protected from consequences by his own party, whom Tucker transparently represents as a partisan mouthpiece.

Somehow, though, none of this seems to register on Naomi Wolf’s fascism alarm. No, according to her, fascism is when the government… I mean, I guess that’s it.

Fascism is when the government.

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