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It's Time to Get Smart on Russia
More from the Newsletter of Newsletters.
Every week I highlight three newsletters that are worth your time.
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1. The Russia-Iran File
My buddy Shay Khatiri is very smart on Russia and this piece on how Ukraine fits into U.S. interests is clarifying:
Before the end of World War II, American statesmen began to think about what world order should look like after the war. They designed a global order to mirror four tenets of the American regime at home: commerce, law, liberalism, and guns. This order has preserved the longest peace in human history. . . .
Notwithstanding the outbreak of conflicts between smaller states, Asia has enjoyed a considerable degree of peace since World War II. The wars of the Greater Middle East pale in comparison with the region’s violent history . . . Indeed, the greatest catastrophes in the region since World War II are the Iran-Iraq War and the Syrian Civil War, both results of American inaction. And Europe, a continent plagued by continental wars, has been at peace for a quarter century.
This has resulted in unprecedented prosperity, growth in life expectancy, and decline of violence . . . Most importantly, due to the simple fact that America is the judge, the jury, and the executioner of this order, it has disproportionately benefited Americans. Russia’s threat to Ukraine is not simply a threat to Ukraine; it is a challenge to this very order.
Read the whole thing and subscribe. If you want to get smart on Russia, this is one of the newsletters you should be reading.
2. The Pudding
I don’t really know what the Pudding is. It’s not really a newsletter. Or a website. Maybe it’s just a project to create cool and interesting things on the internet?
The Pudding’s latest cool thing is . . . I don’t even know how to describe it? I feel like Morpheus telling Neo “No one can be told what The Pudding is.”
So it’s an attempt to explain what makes writing readable. To do so, the writers have built an essay that you can toggle between “normal” mode and “plain language” mode, and see the paragraphs side-by-side.
Here’s one of their illustrations:
The authors then delve into the objective criteria which determine “plain language” to show how a non-human—in this case, a computer algorithm—judges human writing. One of the algos looks at number of syllables. Another counts “difficult” words.
And again: The entire thing is interactive, where you can toggle a sentence to see what the “easy,” “medium,” and “hard” versions look like, according to the computer.
You can see the entire project here. Whatever the Pudding is, you should subscribe to it and support it.
3. Slack Tide
I was waiting to read Matt Labash’s tribute to P.J. O’Rourke pretty much from the minute I heard P.J. had passed. There was no one else I trusted to do P.J. justice.
A few weeks later, P.J. happened by our office while I wasn’t there. (In keeping with P.J.’s free-roaming ethos, I was rarely there. I preferred the pirate’s life - learning from the best.) He left a message on personalized stationary on my wreck of a desk. I’m kicking myself that I can’t find it now. But it said something along the lines of: “Fat kid falling off a bike! Fantastic!” Praise from P.J., which he gave generously, was like catching a 30-knot wind in your sails, or having Michael Jordan stop by during your pick-up game to say, “Nice shot.” It could keep you going for a long time.
In case you don’t know, that is not normal. Not fat kids falling off bikes – that happens all the time. But legendary writers praising their inferiors without competitiveness or cattiness or trying to somehow remind you of their place in the status hierarchy. The writing game is full of cat people. P.J. was all dog. He had to know he was a legend, but you would never be reminded of it by talking to him. . . .
After my former colleague, John Podhoretz, wrote an obit of PJ a few days ago, a guy named Sam Pocker sent him a letter. Here’s what it said:
When I was 17, I went to a P.J. O'Rourke book signing in the dead of winter that was sparsely attended. I was the youngest person there by at least 15 years. He signed his book for me and wrote "Peace Kills" on the inscription. I must have looked miserable and he asked what was wrong. After being told for years what a great writer I was, my writing teacher had given me nothing but straight failing grades in my first year of college. I explained this along with the fact that the paper I'd written (which I still remember was a detailed four page review of dinner at KFC) had been handed to me with an F just before heading over to the venue. P.J. asked to see the paper. I took it out of my backpack and stood there as this well-regarded author carefully read all four pages. He looked up and said "she's just jealous.” I grew up and became a published author.
Man, that’s good stuff. There’s more.
When I’d come to New Hampshire on a reporting trip, P.J. would invite me to his stately rural abode – all draftiness and dogs and roaring fireplaces (think John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire, without the incest and weird bear costumes). He’d insist I come by the house for “bourbon therapy.” One brutal winter, while in Manchester to do a story on a crazy libertarian (a type P.J. liked – he was, after all, the H.L. Mencken Research Scholar at the Cato Institute) I took him up on his offer. I drove out to the house, and he stood in the snowy driveway, making steaks for us on his grill, topping off my glass every time it became half-empty. After dinner, he stood by his roaring fireplace, refusing to let me drive back to my hotel due to weather and my elevated BAC, while laying himself bare.
With Mike Kelly now dead, and P.J. long-departed from Rolling Stone, his Atlantic contract hadn’t been renewed. Nursing a tumbler full of watered-down scotch, he stated it plainly, “I’ve been fired.” His lovely wife, Tina, protested, trying to buck him up: “No you weren’t, they just didn’t renew your contract.”
“Yeah,” he said, ‘That’s called being fired.”
I tell you this not to embarrass P.J., posthumously. Nor to show how utterly bankrupt and bereft the journalism industry is that someone of his talent could be that underappreciated. (Though it is. I tossed and turned all that night in his guest room, figuring that if the legendary P.J. O’Rourke could be treated that way, we were all in trouble.) He wrote plenty of books and magazine journalism afterwards, including for The Atlantic, who seemed to have second thoughts. But I tell you this to demonstrate how human he was. His humanity wasn’t an add-on. It was an essential part of his writing formula. How many disposable journalism pieces do we still read from the 1980s or 1990s or even from a year ago? And yet, you pick P.J. up from any period during which he wrote anything, and it still works. You’re still in on his joke. He didn’t just laugh at people, he laughed with them. Even when playing the put-down artist, he smiled it, instead of snarled it. This is what he taught me, even if he didn’t try to. He invited people along for the ride. As if he was saying, “Aren’t we all ridiculous? Let’s not take ourselves too seriously.” And so even if you were the one getting filleted, you didn’t mind so much in P.J.’s skillful hands. But being trenchant without being angry put him grossly out of step with what’s happening now, when even the funny people have grown deadly serious, as everyone chooses up culture-war sides.
After this, Matt gets personal. Please, go read the whole thing.
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