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And a brief case for arguing.
Walter Kirn posted an excellent piece yesterday about the now-obligatory media ritual each Thanksgiving where journalists tell Americans how to communicate with each other during their holiday get-togethers. I share Walter’s irritation with this genre of article, not least because it often rests on the premise that the readers of said advice columns are surely more enlightened than the relatives they find so difficult.
The Battleground Thanksgiving articles share certain familiar tropes and themes. They have a ritual villain, for example. It’s typically a cranky older relative hailing from a roughhewn heartland city who crudely dismays his more enlightened relatives with his blunt views on race or Trump or Covid.
Beyond the baked-in smugness, these articles are based on a more pernicious idea, that people need advice on how to perform basic social functions. Many of the articles feature interviews with psychologists. USA Today upped the ante by including not just a couple of psychologists but also a DEI consultant.
The notion that we need to professionalize conversation, generally with an eye toward avoiding “conflict,” is, I think, unhelpful. Yes, people should be respectful. Yes, they should be open to hearing different views. (And I’m doubtful that simply telling anyone that will alter their behavior and mindset.) But conflict, argument, debate—this is what makes for real relationships.
Sure, sometimes it’s best just to watch football and not get into it. But, generally, I wish people were less hesitant for genuine engagement. Journalistically, that’s what I’ve tried to do. During the pandemic I found my reporting—and myself—estranged from the narratives the legacy media was intent on enforcing. I occupied a rare lane, where I continued to write for establishment outlets, but generally did so as a lone contrarian voice.
I’ve often been asked how I got controversial pieces—on masks, vaccines, schools—published in New York magazine, the Atlantic, and other outlets. The answer is: it was often hard! I’m very grateful that I worked with editors who I respect, and who respected me and my work, and who had enough influence internally to green light my pieces. I’d be delighted to work with many of them again, should the circumstance feel right.
But in the past year, as I’ve devoted my work almost exclusively to this newsletter, the sense of purpose, autonomy, and community I feel is unrivaled. I’ve written around 40 pieces for Silent Lunch, from in-depth features running thousands of words to brief commentaries. I could never be this prolific writing for other outlets.
I am grateful to my informal staff of editors—including physicians, lawyers, and my long-suffering spouse—who I often lean on to help ensure the work I bring you is polished. But, unlike writing for someone else, these editors are not gatekeepers. I am free to pursue what is of interest to me, and what I think will be of interest to you, my readers. The formula seems to be working.
In a short amount of time, without any outside investment, sensationalist clickbait, or promotion beyond my Twitter account and word of mouth, Silent Lunch has grown to nearly 10,000 subscribers, with an ever-increasing number of them signing up as paid subscribers.
I am incredibly thankful for your support and honored to work for you. My goal is to bring you something excellent. Be it thoughtful essays or deeply researched investigative pieces, Silent Lunch is about covering topics no one else is covering, or bringing new perspectives to major stories you’re not seeing in the legacy media. I can’t wait to take this mission to the next level!
Over the next few weeks posting may be a little light, as I desperately try to finish a round of edits on my forthcoming book, An Abundance of Caution, for MIT Press, about American schools during the pandemic. (Alas, the book will not be out for over a year from now. The gears of book publishing grind very slowly, especially at an academic press. But the text gets locked far in advance.)
In the new year Silent Lunch is going into hyperdrive. What you will receive is going to expand considerably. Aside from multiple, large investigative pieces that are in the works right now, there will be some major new features. Specifically, a few extremely smart and talented guest writers are going to join Silent Lunch, penning occasional pieces. And, most significantly, a kick-ass podcast is under development.
I wish you all a restful, tryptophan-induced evening. (That includes vegetarians—lots of foods contain tryptophan, not just turkey!)
With thanks, again,