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Newsletters and “Third Places”

What a critique of Substack gets wrong about the role of media in a democracy
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I don’t know if you read Anna Wiener’s piece yesterday on Substack. It’s a fair survey of the return of the newsletter, though it’s a tad indulgent of the concern that newsletters are somehow undermining “traditional” media. When it comes to news media, there is nothing more traditional than newsletters. They haven’t existed “since time immemorial,” but they have been around for over 400 years. The first was Johann Carolus’s Relation (1605). Another early one was Pieter van der Keere’s Dutch Courante out of Italy, Germany, etc. (1618), which was translated into English a few years later. It is from newsletters like these, which were aggregated reports from various locations on specific items of interests (weather, politics, religion) for the ruling and merchant classes, that we get the modern newspaper. Even when newspapers began to take the form they have today, they remained thoroughly regional publications. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that one might refer to such a thing as a national paper. Put another way, The New York Times and The New Yorker are the anomalies in the history of news and opinion in the West, not newsletters.

Wiener points out that Substack has little oversight and is a way for writers to capitalize on fame to make money or cover special interests. There’s nothing wrong with making money, as Wiener notes, but she goes on to write this: “But whether Substack is good for writers is one question; another is whether a world in which subscription newsletters rival magazines and newspapers is a world that people want. A robust press is essential to a functioning democracy, and a cultural turn toward journalistic individualism might not be in the collective interest. It is expensive and laborious to hold powerful people and institutions to account, and, at many media organizations, any given article is the result of collaboration between writers, editors, copy editors, fact checkers, and producers.”

What’s interesting to me, though not particularly surprising, is Wiener seems to assume that a few well-funded national newspapers and magazines located in urban centers like New York and Chicago—where “fact-checkers” in small windowless offices determine “truthfulness,” editors set the national conversation, and writers hold “powerful people . . . to account”—are better for “a functioning democracy” than the proliferation of newsletters. Are they?

Let me answer that indirectly. I’ve been re-reading Christopher Lasch recently, and in “Conversation and the Civic Arts,” he argues that “institutions that promote general conversation across class lines” are essential for a functioning democracy. In the essay, Lasch focuses on bars and restaurants, where people of different classes might meet and talk. The replacement of the local bar and the local restaurant—and various other neighborhood hangouts—by national chain restaurants and private clubs, where the elite and the working class never meet, much less interact, has been terrible for democracy, he argues: “As neighborhood hangouts give way to suburban shopping malls, or, on the other hand, to private cocktail parties, the essentially political art of conversation is replaced by shoptalk or personal gossip. Increasingly, conversation literally has no place in American society.”

So what does this have to do with Wiener’s argument above? Wiener seems to think that what makes national publications valuable is their ability to gather experts—“writers, editors, copy editors, fact checkers”—who will “defend” democracy. But whose democracy will they defend? Their own, of course. Where is the reader in Wiener’s brief but rose-colored account of national media? Totally absent. Everyday readers don’t matter, except when they stop listening to the experts, of course, and subscribe to some supposedly junk newsletter.

What Wiener gets wrong is that the problem is not so much the absence of fact checkers or editors, important as they both are, but the abandonment of general conversation across class (and religious) lines, as Lasch puts it, for which The New York Times and The New Yorker and various other publications share a fair share of the blame.

Of course, newsletters can contribute to this bifurcation of society, too, but they can also bring people together in ways that national publications can’t. Because of their smaller size, they offer readers the opportunity to interact with writers and editors, where readers might influence the coverage of a topic or change how a writer or editor sees particular states of affairs. Some newsletters have the potential to put readers of different socio-economic classes in direct contact. I’d like to think this column (which is also a newsletter) one does. I can tell you that you are all over the map, politically, religiously, and professionally. I am not saying that newsletters are a contemporary version of what Lasch (citing Oldenburg) called “third places.” They’re not. Still, they are closer to them in some ways than our current national publications.

I’m not knocking national publications. I think they are—or can be—important. But what makes them important is not the number of experts they have on the payroll, but how they foster a “general conversation.”

In other news: You can never read enough Gary Saul Morson, so here he is on Dostoevsky as a “realist” of human nature: “People do not live by bread—or, what philosophers called the maximalization of ‘advantage’—alone. All utopian ideologies presuppose that human nature is fundamentally good and simple: evil and apparent complexity result from a corrupt social order. Eliminate want and you eliminate crime. For many intellectuals, science itself had proven these contentions and indicated the way to the best of all possible worlds. Dostoevsky rejected all these ideas as pernicious nonsense. ‘It is clear and intelligible to the point of obviousness,’ he wrote in a review of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, ‘that evil lies deeper in human beings than our social-physicians suppose; that no social structure will eliminate evil; that the human soul will remain as it always has been . . . and, finally, that the laws of the human soul are still so little known, so obscure to science, so undefined, and so mysterious, that there are not and cannot be either physicians or final judges’ except God Himself.”

Vinson Cunningham explains what Thomas Jefferson never understood about Jesus: “‘I am a Christian,’ he insisted in a letter to the educator and politician Benjamin Rush, ‘in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, & believing he never claimed any other.’ In order to establish that this was the actual limit of Jesus’ claims, one had to carefully extricate him from the texts that contain nearly all we know about his life and thought.”

In Plough Quarterly, Ross Douthat makes the case for having more children: “The consensus during my youth held that falling birthrates were always a sign of progress, that Third World overpopulation might doom the world to famine, and that anyone who cared too much about Western fertility was probably a crank. I took this gospel for granted as a child: I remember quizzing my dad about how the earth could possibly survive the combination of overpopulation and pollution. But I also came young to the realization that the problem might lie elsewhere.”

In The Atlantic, Annie Lowrey writes about the plight of lonely elderly during the pandemic: “As the country plunged into a deep and unusual economic recession last year, it also plunged into a deep and unusual social recession: atomizing families and friends, evaporating hours of laughter and care and touch. This phenomenon hit nobody as hard as America’s seniors, who are much more likely than their younger counterparts to live in care facilities and many of whom have struggled to connect in a socially distanced or virtual fashion. The elderly bore the brunt of the pandemic’s fatalities: COVID-19 has killed nearly 250,000 people over the age of 65. They also bore the brunt of its isolation. Many older Americans spent months discriminated against, frightened, and alone.”

Hemingway in his prime: “It was surely no accident that the first Library of America volume devoted to Ernest Hemingway was released on the first day of autumn, or, if it wasn’t, it was a happy accident. For Hemingway’s work has always had an autumnal feel to it: because so often its theme is death, but also because of its bracing quality. As Hemingway wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘Summer’s a discouraging time to work—You dont feel death coming on the way it does in the fall when the boys really put pen to paper.’”

Late Schubert: “Schubert contracted syphilis in 1822 and would thereafter have been aware that he was not to live out a normal span. It is not difficult to discern in his music the presumed effects of this knowledge; Tom Service has even written an article about an 1824 piano work (D784) entitled ‘Schubert’s syphilitic sonata’. Once infected, he had to cope with severe pain and visible, socially embarrassing symptoms, though these were interspersed with periods of remission. In a famous letter to the painter Leopold Kupelwieser in March 1824, he describes himself as ‘a man whose health will never be right again’ and who is ‘the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world’. Whilst it is generally undesirable to map biographical elements onto abstract music in the absence of external evidence, in Schubert’s case the evidence is to hand.”

Photos: Simplon-Hospiz in summer, fall, winter, and spring

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