Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Unpublished Thought, Bin Laden Edition

I realize that I'm in a different position from most people as regards writing things. Where many writers struggle to come up with perfect or even serviceable sentences, I routinely drop jewelz even on Twitter (feel 'em), and am often moved nearly to tears by the spare elegance with which I do things like order tacos. Where others agonize over whether or not to write about thunderously unimportant things that sort of irk them, I write about those things and then I write about those things again. Is it a blessing? Is it a curse? It's a blessing. But I am aware that it sets me apart from most people. So if you were going to write me an email or something about that, it's cool, I know. But thanks, I really appreciate your concern.

So you can imagine my surprise when writing-related things don't go my way. And I'm going to drop the grandiosity, here, and get briefly and hopefully not too unbearably into emo-serious mode. But I'm not actually even a little bit surprised when writing-related things don't go my way. I've had a good last half-year, in terms of getting work and developing some self-esteem ("Barf, dude" -- You) and, over the last couple months, actually making more money than I need to spend on things like water and shelter and tinned meat/fish, but I've had way more full years of freelance jitteriness and anxiety and disappointment and what was at best the most tenuous of solvency. Which is not that cool, but which is also the career I chose and furthermore was never going to leave me out on the street. It makes it that much sweeter that venues I respect are giving me space in which to BS about basketball with semi-idols of mine (or about football, or about baseball, with people I admire like crazy) and write at length about things I care about in ways I never would have dreamed were allowable, let alone available to me. I'm not getting paid for those things, but they've made other good, paying stuff possible and they have brightened my life and it's good. But for all the confidence I have in my ability to write sentences -- the first graf was a joke, but I can find myself Feeling Myself just as easily as anyone who does this -- I don't really have any idea how this business works, or how to work in it all that effectively. What I know about that is what I've managed to teach myself, and I can imagine many better teachers.

So when I meet composed and well-dressed adult-seeming people who blog professionally, or even when I so much as ponder what it would be like to make a good living writing for a living, my internal compass sort of spins. It's not just that it doesn't compute, although honestly it does not compute. It's that it's easier for me to remember not getting emails back on pitches or just generally getting the high-hat in a dozen different ways from editors than it is for me to indulge in even the humblest fantasy of mundane, baseline success and solvency from this stuff. I don't know how many more good things will need to happen before I stop thinking this way, but my guess would be a few dozen hundred.

And so there's a sort of bleak satisfaction -- worst suspicions confirmed and all that -- in getting a story spiked. But at the risk of patting myself on the ass for doing what I am supposed to do as a grown-up, I think I might be getting better at dealing with this. That's good, because there isn't really an alternative to that, but it's also good because I'm angry and sad less often and less intensely and less self-destructively; skipping directly to get-drunk mode has never worked for me, and I've tried it a lot. The story below, on Osama Bin Laden's killing and Barack Obama's presidency, was assigned to me by my editor at New York Magazine on Wednesday, written Wednesday night and Thursday morning and, on Friday, bumped from the upcoming issue. Which sucks, because this was something I'd been wanting to write about here or somewhere else -- I still may write more on it if I can get my brain together on it -- and which I was excited to get to write about for a magazine I respect so much. But which is also very much a thing that happens to stories, and which my editor apologized for and was very forthright and cool about, and which I'm going to get a kill-fee for. And I can run it here without anyone getting mad.

All of which is good, and all of which pales for me next to the fact that, while I was obviously disappointed, I actually feel kind of okay about it. I know it's a thing that happens, but I've always known that. I think the difference, and the part that makes me happiest, is that I've gotten better at realizing that it doesn't happen only to me, and that it's not the only thing that could happen to me. And anyway, I still think the story is pretty good, which helps with the dealing-with-it. And those are the feelings that I have today! I hope you have enjoyed them! Here's the story:

Big Things

Barack Obama is, when it comes down to it, a good and competent man with an impossible job, whose noble intentions have been hamstrung by a broken Congress. Or, if you prefer, Barack Obama is a fearless and cynical revolutionary intent on using the considerable powers of his office to do whatever he wants, regardless of popular support or, indeed, any basis in law. There's plenty of room between the narratives favored by the president's supporters and detractors – and everyone on both sides at least agrees that congress is currently a gilded playpen full of nightmare babies – and the truth of Obama's not-as-transformative-as-advertised presidency probably lies in that in-between space. But with the assassination – "the capture and death," in the President's opaque and queasily parse-able phrasing – of Osama Bin Laden, Obama managed to confirm and confound both narratives at once. That's a strange and impressive feat, and one that might also be the most representative moment of Obama's strange, fraught presidency.

To be clear, that ambivalence has nothing to do with the mission – essentially everyone agrees that the world is a manifestly better place without Osama Bin Laden in it. And the deeper ambiguities of the assassination have barely entered the mainstream discourse, which has thus far consisted of "U-S-A" chants, politicians on both sides using the success to justify previous policy positions , and a series of Drudge-ready headlines for miniature stories – "Palin Says Pics Or GTFO ," "Bush Wants More Credit ," "Majority in U.S. Say Bin Laden In Hell. " Well, that and a persnickety squeakiness from the right that Salon's Alex Pareene summarized as: "Actions are not enough! We need words ." The broader significance of killing Bin Laden isn't simple, but the thing itself can be understood as simply as you please.

One of the prime differences between Obama and his predecessor in the White House, though, is that we assume that this President does not see things simply. Whether you see him as the left's good-hearted nuance-jockey or the right's cunning collectivist conspirator, Obama routinely gets credit (and blame) for his ability to see both sides and work towards an outcome somewhere in the middle. This pragmatic approach long ago tempered the "we do big things" optimism of his 2011 State of the Union address into "we generally do the best things possible," and it hasn't always delivered inspiring outcomes – major legislation on health care and financial reform came off as vexingly over-compromised to the president's supporters, and terrifying strides towards socialism to his detractors. In killing Bin Laden, though, the President has done one of those "big things" with an undeniable decisiveness – there's nothing half-a-loaf about ordering a very public political assassination in another sovereign nation, and there's no negotiating with a Navy SEAL.

But while the successful mission to kill Bin Laden revealed Obama as both as competent and as ruthless as his supporters and detractors respectively imagined, it also raises a bleaker truth about the current state of 2008's hope-and-change optimism. It shouldn't be surprising that the greatest catharsis Obama has given the nation since his inaugural came through violence instead of by, say, reforming college loans. But there's something jarring about the relative ease with which Obama has dropped bombs in Libya and dispatched commandos to Pakistan after punting on numerous campaign promises and passing heavily compromised versions of others. "Tonight," Obama said in announcing Bin Laden's death, "we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to ." The confounding part, for Obama and for us, is how both true and untrue that statement is – how much simpler it seemed to order a secret kill-mission on the territory of a putative ally than it was to secure a few extra weeks of unemployment insurance in the middle of a prolonged economic downturn. Amid the relief at Bin Laden's demise, it's hard to shake the sense that this isn't the sort of change anyone, on either side, expected from this President.

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