‪Two things right off the bat about Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts: (1) I’m going to get a headache from this book, probably; and (2) his wordsmithing is at its most rhythmically seductive here — or, not just seductive: gravitational, like you don’t quite have entire control over your body stumble-stepping down a hill.

‪Facepalming at this Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD producer saying that Devs “used the word quantum a lot to make it sexy-sexy”. Quantum mechanics literally is central to the entire underlying thing in Devs. It’s not just tacked on like the technobabble most science-fiction shows use to make things sound plausible. Which isn’t to say I have a problem with technobabble; it’s crucial narrative tissue for a lot of sci-fi television. It’s just, like, I know you joked earlier about how your show just brings out quantum mechanics whenever they need to have an explanation for something, but that doesn’t mean every show that mentions quantum mechanics is doing that. It’s all the more weird because he was touting the show.

There’s a compelling remark by writer Bryan Hill in one of the panels I’m watching for Comic-Con@Home today, and I’m just going to drop it here. It’s long, and I’m never any good at editing out the all the rights and you knows and stuff from people’s speech, even though I know some people do that with transcriptions.

I do think that if you are charged with telling stories about ethical characters, about superheroes, I think you have the responsibility to manifest those ethics in other ways, you know? I don’t understand how a person can write superhero stories and act like a supervillain. You know? Like, I think you just have a responsibility to uphold the ethics that you’re writing, otherwise I’m not going to take your work seriously, right? So, I do feel like because of the nature of my work, I can’t give people a terrible experience, if I’m, you know, feeling down or in bad mood. Like, I have to get over that, a little bit, you know? Because the last thing I’d ever want is for someone to read a Batman story I wrote, find me on social media or something, and then have a horrible experience with me as a creator, because I’ve ruined their experience and I’ve tainted their relationship to that character. I won’t do that, and so, you know when we think about pop culture and its importance during these times, you know I think it’s incumbent on creators to understand that in a lot of ways the work that we’re creating is the last vestige of, like, popular philosophy, you know? That’s where people are getting their ethics and their ideas from. Most people aren’t going to read Aristotle, they’re not going to read Marcus Aurelius, right? You know, they’re not going to read Plath, you know? They’re not going to read Naomi Wolf. But what we can do is, not bury the stories with our personal theses, but just kind of fully embrace where they are ethically, and allow these things to be vehicles for, yes, entertainment but also like a little bit of brain food and soul food at the same time.

What I appreciated about this week’s Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD is that they didn’t settle just for having found a way to do a time-loop episode, but that they supercharged it by drastically reducing the length of the loop compared to other shows that have played with this trope. Being also a bottle episode, this meant that everything necessarily could happen rapidly, since there could be no moving around.

Alan Jacobs accidentally reveals that despite the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over accountability culture, in the world of “the open web and the pre-web internet” you actually can’t cancel established or privileged writers, and the world he describes pretty much exactly is what Gurri and Nwanevu were talking about regarding the freedom of association and disassocation. I’ll leave it to Nwanevu.

For instance, while public universities in America are generally bound by the First Amendment, controversial speakers have no broad right to speak at private institutions. Those institutions do, however, have a right to decide what ideas they are and aren’t interested in entertaining and what people they believe will or will not be useful to their communities of scholars—a right that limits the entry and participation not only of public figures with controversial views but the vast majority of people in our society. Senators like Tom Cotton have every right to have their views published in a newspaper. But they have no specific right to have those views published by any particular publication. Rather, publications have the right—both constitutionally as institutions of the press, and by convention as collections of individuals engaged in lawful projects—to decide what and whom they would or would not like to publish, based on whatever standards happen to prevail within each outlet.

Balaji Srinivasan, after apparently coming across this post, messaged me on Twitter to link this tome (when saved to Pocket and read on my Kobo, it is 77-pages long; for some reason it was published on Substack), but Jeremy Arnold lost me on what for me was page twenty.

That said, there’s apparently been a new employee push to oust her, this time also predicated on a culturally insensitive Pocahontas Halloween costume.

The “her” here of course is Steph Korey. Arnold loses me here because this costume isn’t “culturally insensitive”, it’s just plain racist appropriation.

It’s theoretically possible that Arnold’s novella is not just, “It’s about ethics in journalism!” but if you can’t even get racism right, I’m not going to read your next 57 pages.

Pankaj Mishra basically sort of rolls his eyes at the purported civilizational threat of “cancel culture”.

Could it be that increasingly diverse voices and rich conversations are a threat to their free speech — more accurately, the prerogative of famous and powerful people to speak at length on all sorts of things without interruption or disagreement? For instance, Rowling seems intent on tweeting her disapproval of transgender people. Certainly, a closer examination of the critics of cancel culture confirms the suspicion that many of these self-appointed defenders of free speech prefer monologue over dialogue.

It’s certainly an astonishing coincidence that the privileged seem so fretful just exactly at a historical moment when “conversations about almost everything, from political economy and international relations to literature and gender relations, have never been more vibrant”.

Mishra also offers a helpful cheat sheet on several of the signers of The Letter in case you’re wondering just what sorts of views they have for which they fear any accountability.

Hannah Giorgis distills the critiques of The Letter down to the essentials, and it’s a must-read for anyone who remains unclear on what’s the big deal. Or, at least, for anyone who is unclear and who is operating in good faith.

There’s something darkly comical about the fretfulness of these elite petitioners. It’s telling that the censoriousness they identify as a national plague isn’t the racism that keeps Black journalists from reporting on political issues, or the transphobia that threatens their colleagues’ lives. The letter denounces “the restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society,” strategically blurring the line between these two forces. But the letter’s chief concern is not journalists living under hostile governments, despite the fact that countries around the world impose draconian limits on press freedom.

Emphasis mine, because if you read the Thomas Chatterton Williams interview I mentioned earlier today, you know that he as The Letter’s shepherd tried to justify just this blurring.

MARTIN: As I said, there have been these lengthy responses posted, and people can easily find them if they want to read them in their entirety. But I’m just going to summarize and say I think the criticism falls into three buckets. You know, some people are saying, well, you’re equating repressive government with a repressive culture, but there’s a difference between people being horrible on Twitter and being hauled into jail or tortured for what they write. And what would you say to that?

WILLIAMS: Sure. Well, you know, we have signatories that have been hauled into jail and tortured in other countries, in Iran for one. We have refugees on the list. We have at least two signatories who have lived for extended periods of time with fatwas on their head. So you can say there’s a distinction between kind of outrage mobs and that kind of state oppression. But these are people that signed that believe that the line is quite fine and the boundary is porous and that we should be always in defense of liberal principles so that we don’t fall down that slippery slope.

Emphasis mine again, as this argument strains credulity. This sophistry apparently is something of Williams’ calling card, at least if we go by what Giorgis notes.

In addition, the Harper’s letter tacitly conflates the president’s raft of anti-media practices and open disdain for the press with the signatories’ own irritation at the prospect of being ratioed on Twitter or fired because of the “woke” brigade. The author Thomas Chatterton Williams, who spearheaded the letter, told The New York Times that some of the events that inspired the statement echoed the actions of Donald Trump, whom he dubbed the “Canceler in Chief.” But Trump would more accurately be described as a violent demagogue and a mendacious racist. He is not, as Williams seems to suggest, dangerous simply because of his interest in stifling free expression. Even this comparison is revelatory. Amid a worsening pandemic and ongoing protests against lethal state violence, using glib internet-speak to describe the president of the United States betrays a deep detachment from the carnage wrought by his policies and ideology. It is important to remember: The president is not merely a Twitter troll, but the leader of an awesomely powerful government security apparatus.

Emphasis mine, still. Williams there is not someone seeking a good-faith discussion of either debate or justice. This is not someone who in any serious discussion of either should be taken seriously.

Which brings me back to Alan Jacobs, who posted a followup to his earlier post which sparked my rolling series of posts today.

Every good thing in this world, without exception, is commended by at least some people of impure motive and gross sin. Love is celebrated by the cruel, justice by the sexist, kindness by the rapacious.

In a sense, this simply restates something Williams himself said in that interview (about agreeing with a bigot that the sun is shining), but the real point should be achingly clear: that a bigoted person can say something true nowhere obligates the rest of us to associate ourselves with them.

The moral obligation to shun the cruel, the sexist, and the rapacious remains intact, lest some utopian delusion of liberal socializing across any and all boundaries lend such people any undue credence or credit even from our mere transitory proximity.

Speaking of The Letter, from this interview (hold that thought), I learn of The Other Letter, written in response. It does not begin slowly.

On Tuesday, 153 of the most prominent journalists, authors, and writers, including J. K. Rowling, Malcolm Gladwell, and David Brooks, published an open call for civility in Harper’s Magazine. They write, in the pages of a prominent magazine that’s infamous for being anti-union, not paying its interns, and firing editors over editorial disagreements with the publisher: “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.”

(This is like that satisfying line about Warren Ellis in The Daily Beast the other day.)

The Other Letter takes to task The Letter’s refusal to acknowledge “how marginalized voices have been silenced for generations in journalism, academia, and publishing” or engage “with the problem of power: who has it and who does not”. It then proceeds to take each of The Letter’s “six nonspecific examples” in turn, arguing that they do not, in fact, amount to a “trend”.

But back to the interview which alerted me to The Other Letter, primarily this bit from its summary.

On the criticism that some of the signers have been accused of transphobia and that their presence on the letter is seen as excusing their bigotry

These are principles that anyone could sign and that everybody should actually be able to uphold. And I think that part of what the letter is trying to do is trying to argue against the idea that you have to look around and Google every statement that anybody on the list has ever said to know if you feel comfortable signing it. The point is that that’s irrelevant.

At one point in the interview Williams suggests that the issue is as simple as being able to say the sun is shining when it’s true, despite the fact that a bigot also might be saying that the sun is shining. This is revealing of exactly why The Letter is troubling and problematic.

What’s really happening with The Letter is that by making it “anodyne”, people who use their voices to punch up (or at least to speak up for people getting punched from above) would feel comfortable signing on, whereas the many, many signers who either often use their voice to punch down (e.g. Pinker, Rowling, Singal, Sullivan) or use their voices to preach moderation and civility to people getting punched from above (e.g. Brooks, Frum) would be able to use the former group’s presence as a kind of shield for their behavior.

The Other Letter is exactly correct: “[The Letter] is actively informed by the actions of its writers, many of whom have championed the free market of ideas, but actively ensured that it is free only for them.”

I’ll be honest: I don’t even know what to do with Alan Jacobs suggesting that dog whistles aren’t a thing. The entire trap Republicans set for themselves by electing Trump is that their decades of dog whistles suddenly became speaking the quiet part out loud. Jacobs is rabidly disingenuous here. Meanwhile, the way we know that The Letter was not what it superficially was purported to be is by the fact that this is the editor who led the charge, my first encounter of whom came last year when he tweeted his ignorance of civility being subject to asymmetric power imbalances and typically used as a weapon to punch down. The Letter was anodyne precisely to entice people who otherwise would see through the charade to sign it.

Newsletters Aren’t New, But They Are Still Newsletters

It never will not be weird to me that people feel the need to make up new names for old things. Newsletters are not blogletters just because services like Substack have come along; they are newsletters with a fancy archive. It’s also not true that “what most newsletters of this type have inherited from blogs is tone of voice”. Newsletters with a personality and a perspective have existed for a very long time and pre-date blogs. Back in the early days of blogging and even before, I can think of two just off the top of my head that I subscribed to: Red Rock Eater News Service (mentioned here before) and Entropy Gradient Reversals. Most such newsletters had an online archive of one sort or another, although in the early days it might have been accessed via FTP or gopher. EGR ran off of Topica, and so had an easily-used web archive. What something like Substack does is model its lists’ archive pages on blogging’s traditional reverse-chronological format; that doesn’t magically create a new thing, per se. Nor is sending out your blog via email once a day a new thing; blogs as a form often have incorporated “daily digest” emails for quite a long time. Arguably the sort of thing Dave Winer has been doing lately has more claim to some fancy newish term, as what he does arguably could be described as writing his daily newsletter in public, viewing each day as a discrete entity that relates to itself as it goes. My admittedly-biased gut feels like this is what happens when content marketers discover a thing that already existed: they need to rebrand it in order to claim it, because their job and their mentality is to generate hype. It’s just newsletters. They literally pre-date the web, so you can’t hardly suddenly call them weblogs.

This thing that Robin Rendle says product designers need to do is a thing I’ve always thought anyone and everyone should do, pretty much.

In the early stages, solving the problem isn’t important. In fact, the first round of design that you show anyone should be focused on setting the stage for a discussion. It’s about gathering all the ideas and giving enough space for weirder, better ideas. Early designs should not try so damn hard to solve the problem, instead they should define and push the scope of the project into a frightening new territory.

Admittedly, I’ve mostly thought about it sometimes when listening to writers talk about how this or that show or movie happened, and I cringe whenever I get the sense that for the original pitch they tried preemptively to imagine feedback and notes and incorporate them in from the get-go.

Thing is, in any creative process, the client is going to want to feel they have control and input. If you have an idea you consider a 10 but you pitch it as a 7 because you think that’s where the notes will push it anyway, you could end up with a 4, and then everybody loses.