Journal Entry #25

NORFOLK, CONN., October 22—This is a Journal entry with a special purpose. As I publish it I am taking a new turn, and it seems to me right to explain to readers—of this Journal, of my columns—what I mean and why this is.

It is always the same with journals. I have kept one—a private journal—since I was nineteen or twenty, and I have found again and again the same thing: When life is eventful and there is much to reflect upon, it is just then that there is no time to do so—in a journal or otherwise. So it has been since my last entry, too many months ago. That was mid–July, I note. Life since has been tumult. Much to think about, little time to think about it.

I will get to all that in due course, for part of this turn I will now write of is a revived Journal. Readers have found its informality a useful adjunct to the columns and essays. Here, another matter to convey.

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ONE SUMMERTIME EVENT I will mention now occurred in August. I was busy fielding the comeback resulting from a piece I published in The Nation August 9th. A lot of this reaction was nearly hysterical; for many days it was rough going. You can find the piece in this site’s archives, but again, comment later. Ten days after all that erupted, a publication that supplied roughly three-quarters of my income closed its doors. I had three hours’ notice. I began speaking to friends of Crisis A and Crisis B. The former concerned an argument worth making. The latter was a material calamity.

“Every wall is a door.” Emerson’s memorable mot always comes to mind is such moments, and so it did in August. I decided to do my best to make a burden into a blessing. This is what I have been up to ever since that August afternoon when an editor whom I am unlikely ever to speak with again prompted me to calculate how long I had before I was stacking produce at the supermarket. Not long, I quickly reckoned. I have been thinking and acting as quickly as I can since that time. It comes down either to dropping the work or to turning to new ideas as to how to sustain it. The former is out of the question so long as I have a say in it.

By this past summer, a few friends and professional acquaintances had been urging me for several years to consider a device called Patreon, a variant of crowd-sourcing. I shrugged. I resisted. It was not part of my professional training to raise money by direct appeal to readers. It struck me as a touch unseemly: Shaking the bowl, I thought, because you can no longer command a proper salary, as in the old days. Wouldn’t such a thing be merely embarrassing?

A great many people knew about Crisis A when it broke August 9th, but I shared the news of Crisis B with few. One who caught wind of what had happened is a CEO of a zippy internet company out in San Mateo. He wrote and said, directly and persuasively, “Patrick, sign up with Patreon. People are asking me, ‘What’s his account?’ It’s effective. You’re doing worthy work. People recognize this. This can make a difference.” My CEO friend is knowledgeable in these kinds of things. I took his word seriously and began to rethink the question.

This Journal entry coincides with the launch of my appeal to readers via Patreon. I am pleased my friend pushed me—and grateful, of course. Having taken some time to consider it, I think very differently now about the nature of the undertaking.

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IN THE SECOND HALF of the nineteenth century, a lot of books were published on the basis of subscription. A publishing house would advertise an author’s forthcoming work, and readers would purchase it in advance. I do not know a great deal about this method of publishing, but I understand it was widespread. The subscription publishing business was centered in Hartford, about 35 miles from where I sit. It was part of what made Connecticut’s capital the wealthiest city in America at the time. It was why Twain built a fashionable mansion there and lived in it from 1874 until 1891, when he went broke in consequence of a failed investment. (He bet big on Hartford’s first telephone service.)

That is one way of looking at the appeal I now launch via Patreon. It is a variant of what has been done before.

Another is to consider our circumstances.

I often remark to friends—mostly but not always those of roughly my age—that the world we live in is nothing like the one we were brought up to expect. This is true a thousand different ways, it seems to me. And the same can be said of my profession. Everyone knows that technological advances have destroyed the press as professionals of my cohort were trained to work in it: The old revenue model simply does not work. For a long time, fewer understood that this was only part of the problem. The other part—and I would argue the more critical part—has been the collapse of professional standards, ethical standards, and ordinary habits such as honesty and disinterest. The press in America now suffers a very diseased relationship with power—political power, of course, but also corporate power (the wave of takeovers in the 1980’s and 1990’s) and financial power (the exposure of newspapers and magazines to the stock market because their new owners are publicly listed).

The press’s problem with political power is by no means new. I am not into “golden ages” except in the rarest of cases. This problem worsened badly during the Cold War, and I do not think the press ever fully recovered. It worsened from its worsened state again after the September 11th incidents. I lasted five more years and bailed for good. I have ever since lived, once again, in a fashion for which I had little preparation. No complaint: It was my choice to put secure work in the mainstream press behind me. In the end it was not a choice, indeed, so much as an imperative. As I see it now with even more confidence that I did in 2006, conditions are such that it is difficult-to-impossible to work within established structures and maintain one’s professional integrity. It is very hard to get good, uncontaminated work done. If one is going to carry on in the craft, this must be done differently.

There is a broader dimension to this. I write on foreign affairs, for the simple reason I spent most of my professional years reporting on events overseas. It is what I know. And I think of the numerous crises America faces, the crisis in its conduct abroad and its relations with the world beyond its shores is among the most urgent. We are not going to do well in the 21st century if we do not address this with new thinking dedicated to finding imaginative new ways forward. We must also find the confidence and political will to explore these new ways. There is not much of either in evidence.

At the moment, our policy cliques are leading us in the wrong direction with nearly every decision they take. It makes my columns seem relentlessly critical. They are. This is of necessity, I often remind myself when I worry about the matter. As an Indian friend once said to me, all critics are at bottom optimists. “If we weren’t,” he explained, “why would we bother?”

This is another way to explain why I now launch an appeal for support at Patreon. It is not about me. It is not about vanity. It is about work that is worthy, necessary, however imperfectly I get it done in one or another given week.

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STARTING THIS APPEAL is a big part of the turn I determined to make last August. There are other dimensions. Reinvigorating Cú Chulainn as a modestly useful component of my output is another, as I have already suggested. I have also begun writing again for Salon.

When I left Salon, in the autumn of last year, the publication seemed to have fallen into something on the way to chaos. Some people thought it may not survive. I did not feel welcome there any longer, and one of its editors at the time more or less confirmed the perception, kindly enough. But just as I left, Andrew O’Hehir, an excellent writer and a very good cultural critic for whom I have great respect, took the executive editor’s chair. (He is now co-exec ed.) We both expressed regret as to this unfortunate bit of timing. Just a few weeks ago Andrew welcomed me back into Salon’s columns. He is beginning to rejuvenate and redirect what had become a wayward publication. I always appreciated Salon’s reach: It pushed the work out to the most unlikely places, I found. This is why writing for it again counts as part of my new turn.

One other thing worth mentioning is in the way of a goal. It will require a certain degree of support to achieve it.

All the good and great foreign affairs commentators have travel inscribed in their schedules. It is a sine qua non of the genre, at least for those who want their work to be constructively informative. Resources being as they are, I have made do with little travel to places and people I am writing about. To date these few trips have arisen in consequence of circumstances having nothing to do with a publication’s decision to send its columnist somewhere.

It is time to remedy this. Between Salon and The Nation (for which I first wrote 41 years ago) I have good publications behind me now. I am confident they would be pleased to see occasional travel—carefully planned and timed, to carefully chosen destinations—fertilize the work as exposure abroad always does. The platform is in place, in other words. With enough support, this can get done.

It is also time in that the audience for independent commentary from new perspectives is growing as we speak. I sense this very often. It is evident in the letters readers send, in the comment thread following columns, and in the social media after I publish. These are people who understand the urgent need to advance arguments for alternative ways forward. They know this nation needs a new story. They are also people who understand that our corporatized press is not going to do this work. More and more people now realize this, I find. The best I can do is serve these people. They deserve it.

I hope you, reader, are among these people. If you are, you are among those who can still see straight and see ahead. And I hope you will consider my appeal for support in the light of these things.

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