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This is the second of two posts recapping the last 20 months I spent working as a full-time freelance journalist—what worked, what didn’t, and what I’d suggest to others going down the same road. The first post is here.

The thought of sending pitches to an unimpressed editor may have given me the most sleepless nights, but it’s still only a small part of the freelance process. Most of your time will be spent doing two things: 1) actually writing, and 2) haggling over/worrying about/counting/realizing you don’t have enough money.

How to Get Paid

If there is one piece of advice I would give to freelancers (and young people in general), it’s this:

TALK WITH YOUR PEERS ABOUT MONEY—OPENLY AND CONSTANTLY.

This is rarely a comfortable conversation, because we’ve been taught to stigmatize these questions. But freelance journalism right now is a buyers’ market, and it’s easy for young people to get stiffed. The most egregious example is when outlets offer to pay a writer “in exposure.” If you must work for free, do it only as a favor to people you like and respect, and who don’t have a ton of institutional resources behind them. Other outlets will pay you, but at rock-bottom rates—watch out for those guys, too.

Before you negotiate a rate with your editor, do some research and talk to friends who have done similar work so that you can go into the conversation with a rough idea of what the going rate might be for a piece like yours. The most invaluable resource here is the Who Pays Writers blog and Twitter feed, the author of whom deserves a goddamn Nobel Prize. Susie Cagle, a freelance journalist based in Oakland, California, is also a must-follow on this beat.

General trends that I’ve found to be true:

  1. When you are starting out, expect to get paid by the piece, not by the word.
  2. A reported piece will take a lot more time and effort to write than an opinion piece, and therefore you ought to charge more for it — at least double what you’d ask for a non-reported piece of the same length, IMO. (Don’t back down on this point, or you’ll be on the hook for a whole lot of underpaid labor.)
  3. The corollary to trend 2 is that reported pieces are harder to successfully pitch than opinion pieces. This explains the abundance of shitty opinion writing, both in print and online, the rise of the thinkpiece as a major part of the media ecosystem, the number of outlets that are committed to aggregating stories, and so on. Reporting is expensive and time-consuming, and that’s just the way it is.
  4. Remember that you will pay self-employment tax at the end of the year. However much money you need to make a living, try to have a net income of about 20% more than that.
    4A. You should prepare for the possibility that paying your living expenses *plus* setting aside 20% for taxes will not be financially possible. At the end of last year, I knew I was going to owe the IRS a lot of money and was prepared to pay it, but I definitely didn’t break even once my bills were all paid.

And in the interest of practicing what I preach, here are some hard numbers. If you want specifics on who paid me what, shoot me an email and I’ll be happy to talk—seriously.

For straight op-eds, whether they were for fun, bloggy affairs or Very Serious Journalism Endeavors, I could make anywhere from $100 to $500 per piece, with both of those numbers being extreme outliers. When I got $100, I was willing to take a low rate because I really loved the outlet in question, thought the Web Editor there did a great job working with my articles, and knew that they were not exactly flush with cash. (Many outlets will tell you they simply aren’t able to pay you that much—sometimes this will be bullshit, but sometimes there’s truth to it. Use your instinct.)

For reported pieces, it depended on the intensity of the reporting involved, but I’ve netted anywhere from $200 for 800 words (in retrospect, I should have asked for more) to $700 for 1500 words of heavy reporting and interviewing. I should also note that I’ve written heavily reported, 2000+ word pieces that I’m confident could have fetched $1000 or more at established publications. Owing largely to the financial circumstances of the outlets that ran the pieces (I knew they were hard-up and/or had limited freelance budgets), I made in the $250-500 range for each piece.

The point of this isn’t to brag about how magnanimous I am, obviously—it’s to let you know that if a piece is long and detailed enough, many outlets will be happy to pay you a lot of money for it. Whether you want to sell an article to a scrappy web magazine with limited cash or an internationally recognized brand is a call only you can make, and IMO should be done on a case-by-case basis.

Me Write Pretty One Day

This is the part where I feel weirdest about giving advice, because writing is such a deeply personal act that I wouldn’t feel comfortable going all Strunk and White on you. Instead of prose style tips, then, some general thoughts I’ve gathered over the last 20 months about how to write, what to write about, and how to maintain your sanity in a brutally competitive industry.

  • Develop a beat, and stick to it. It took me several months before I realized that “Urban planning and millennials and politics and media and occasional jokes” wasn’t really a compelling personal brand. Narrowing my focus to city-planning issues and local politics benefitted my career in a number of ways: It put me in touch with a group of fellow journalists and wonks whose work I really respect. It allowed me to acquaint myself with the ins and outs of a particular cluster of issues, and become more confident talking about them. It gave me really great reporting opportunities by putting me in the middle of a field where there’s a lot going on at the moment. Being associated with a particular topic, I suspect, also made it easier for editors to approach me when they wanted to commission an article. The handful of times someone came to me and said “Would you like to write on this for us?” it was because I already had a track record writing on housing, gentrification, infrastructure, etc. And speaking of which…
  • Love your editors. There is seriously no substitute for knowing that your article is in capable hands. The more you can establish a consistent working relationship with someone, the better you’ll be able to craft a consistent voice yourself.
  • Pick up the phone. So many outlets now aggregate or repackage news that it’s easy to forget how important (and hard) the act of reporting is. My new year’s resolution for work was to include a piece of reporting or research in everything I wrote. I don’t think I’ve *totally* followed through, but I have no doubt that the “Report first, opine later” mindset has led me to produce consistently higher-quality writing.
  • Don’t be afraid to go long if you need to. A lot of editors and media critics make a great virtue of brevity. (Insert your own “snackable content” joke here.) Looking over what I think is my best work, I’d put it differently: Make your article as long as it needs to be, but no longer. Most of the time you won’t need 1000+ words to make your point. But on the rare occasion that you do, don’t apologize for it.
  • You are not the most interesting part of your story. Good writers who only write about themselves are not actually good writers.. Find other people, let them speak for themselves, and elevate their stories above your own.
  • Be generous with your time and network of contacts, especially when other freelancers are involved. I got pieces published because other people were willing to get coffee with me, make introductions, do favors they didn’t expect me to pay back, etc. Pulling up the ladder behind me would make me officially The Worst. (Caveat: Never send single-opt-in emails!)
  • The best articles are about things that actually happened, not about narratives, discourses, framing, or what we’re really talking about when we talk about x. Finding somebody who said something stupid on the internet is easy. Any one thing can feed into a narrative that posits some other thing if you massage the language enough, or write with enough bad faith. (#CancelDerrida) But to use an example from my own beat, what’s more useful: writing about how we should understand gentrification as a continuation of settler-colonialist discourse, or writing about actual poor people of color who are getting illegally evicted from their homes?
  • Twitter is useful for finding like-minded writers and staying informed on your topic of choice. Tweet about whatever you want, and follow whoever you want, but it’s just Twitter. You don’t owe any one issue, or any one person, your attention.
  • You will almost always have more work than time. Set clear boundaries for work/life balance, and follow them.

That’s all I’ve got. Would love to hear questions/comments/concerns/disagreements—every freelancer has a different story.

The reason I’ve been so bad about updating this personal blog in the last 18 months is that I’ve been a full-time freelance journalist. My first priority, to be perfectly vulgar, is getting paid for everything I do, so I only put original content up on this site as a last resort. I’d like to think I got the hang of it eventually, but it took quite a lot of time and anxiety.

Freelancing full-time is not glamorous, and it was never something I really wanted to do myself. I was thrown into this situation after I was abruptly laid off from a full-time job at a digital-news site, decided to really give it a go after a few months thinking about my future, and since then I’ve just kept plugging away at it. Now that I’m moving away from New York, beginning graduate school, and changing career paths, I thought it would be useful to follow in the footsteps of many freelance journalists who I admire, and write down some closing thoughts on what’s worked for me, what hasn’t, and what I would say to someone who’s embarking on a freelance career, voluntarily or no.

Pitching.

I am pretty confident in my ability to string sentences together, but I am terrified of pitching. It’s always been my least favorite part of the freelance process. I think it has to do with some repressed fear that an editor will read my thoughts on what is interesting, disagree vehemently, and then decide that I myself must not be that interesting either.

My favorite advice on this topic comes from Alana Massey, who likes pitching much more than I do. I’m going to just ape her shamelessly and go through some notable articles I pitched, explaining why they did or didn’t work out.

Pitch 1. My first story as a full-time freelancer. This is the pitch that ended up getting accepted:

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Who read the pitch? I emailed it cold to an editor in chief after Googling websites that covered urbanism and transportation.

Did it work? Yes. The article ran in UBM Future Cities, an urban-planning website (sadly now defunct) that focused on issues of interest to industry professionals. Versions of this pitch were rejected by Atlantic Cities, Fast Company Transportation, and Next City. Future Cities, which read more like a trade publication than a general-interest outlet on urbanism, was willing to let me go into the details.

Lessons: If you’re going to email someone cold, make sure you’re not pitching a topic the outlet has covered in detail before (Next City and FastCo both rejected the pitch because they’d covered Bus Rapid Transit and/or Mexico City transpo before).

Also, if you’re new to freelancing, Google websites that cover the topic you’re writing about, and keep Googling. UBM was the 6th or 7th website I pitched this article to, I’d never heard of them otherwise, and I ended up writing for them a bunch of times in the rest of 2014.

Pitch 2. I pitched this only a few months into my freelance career, but had been thinking about the issue for a long time.

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Who read the pitch? An Al-Jazeera America opinion editor, who I knew personally through a couple mutual friends. She invited me to pitch this to her after we had an in-person conversation about the media industry.

Did it work? Yes. AJAM ran the article and it remains one of my two or three best-performing pieces.

Lessons: Punch up, and strike while the iron is hot. This came out when it looked like Upworthy was going to destroy us all, so it touched on the concerns of a lot of very talented writers in a very timely way. Also, this article (and my work at AJAM in general) is a testament to the importance of good editors. I really enjoyed writing for the Opinion team there because they had a good sense of the tone and style I was going for, and knew how to curb my excesses. I was really confident pitching to AJAM because I knew my articles would be in good hands.

Pitch 3. Another case study in the importance of a good editor.

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Who read the pitch? An editor who I’d never met in person, but she and I shared some interests and mutual friends—cities, millennials, etc. She was launching a new vertical for feature writing, and invited me to pitch her after she read and liked an essay I wrote on gentrification the previous fall.

Did it work? Yes and no. I’d been trying to land this article for months, with little success, but in a very different form: a righteous, snarky rant about how much I hated this phrase, with a brief side appearance from the professor in question. The editor read my pitch and realized that this professor, Julia Hobsbawm, was the most interesting character in the story. Making my story largely about Hobsbawm allowed me to get my point across without having to write a self-indulgent thinkpiece.

Lessons: Pick up the damn phone, and when you do it, talk to people with empathy and respect. Looking back on older drafts of this article, I’m struck by several major errors: Shitting on somebody without giving them the chance to speak on their own behalf, assuming that the author’s feelings are inherently interesting, etc. Interviewing Hobsbawm and making her the center of the story made my arguments more broadly applicable, and while I was up-front with her about my strong priors on this topic, she spoke to me anyway, and I tried to give her room to tell her story at length. The final product, as far as I’m concerned, was infinitely more nuanced and fair than my rough drafts were.

Pitch 4. When at first you don’t succeed…

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Who read the pitch? A features editor at The New Republic. The editor and I had never interacted before, and I got his email address from a friend who wrote a freelance article for TNR a couple months earlier.

Did it work? No. I pitched a thinkpiece on House of Cards and The West Wing to five or six outlets in February 2014, just after Season 2 came out, and nobody took it. By the time my pitch got rejected from TNR, I realized that the window of opportunity for HoC reactions had basically closed, and I put the essay up on my personal blog. (Read it here.)

BUT! I tweeted out a link to the blog post, and in the link I tagged Chris Hayes, whose book “Twilight of the Elites” plays a central role in the essay. He retweeted me, which turned the article into a sleeper hit (by my standards, anyway). It’s still the most-viewed article on my blog, and it’s not even close. I’m still weirded out (but flattered) by all of it.

Lessons: The bar for a good thinkpiece is really high, especially when you’re taking on a major pop-culture phenomenon. If you aren’t able to place one, don’t despair—post it yourself and promote it on Twitter like you would any other article. Tag people who you think would find it interesting. You never know what will happen.

Pitch 5. How to frame a piece of straight-up reporting.

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Who read the pitch? A features editor at Gothamist who emailed me about a month earlier, asking for pitches on urban planning, infrastructure, and general “city life” issues.

Did it work? Yes, with tweaks. I pitched this while I was trying to focus less on opinion writing and more on reporting, and what’s noteworthy about this pitch is the way it was focused and refined over time. You’ll see two pitches in my original email: one on subway countdown clocks, and one on bus headways and rider information more generally. After some back and forth with the editor, we agreed that the former was the more compelling and under-covered story, and lent itself better to a concrete investigation. We decided to proceed with a look at why most subway lines in NYC don’t have countdown clocks, a pretty niche topic that still affects day-to-day life for millions of New Yorkers.

Lessons: When you’re trying to answer a question, tailor the question narrowly. An “article” on why NYC is bad at running a reliable bus system could easily turn into a novella. Given my budget of 800 words, subway countdown clocks was a way better pick: I was able to go to the MTA spokesman with a single, concrete question, and I could tie the article to a general feeling that the subways had gotten considerably worse during the past winter.

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The moral of all these stories? Pick your editors carefully, and when you find a good one, keep pitching them. The impulse to spread your work far and wide, and keep looking for new outlets, is a totally understandable one. But if I hadn’t gotten into a consistent routine with a handful of editors and publications, it’s anyone’s guess how many of my pitches would have turned into published articles.

Coming up in another post on leaving the full-time freelance life: Thoughts on how to make sure you get paid well, and some things I’ve learned in the last 18 months that I think have made me better at the writing and reporting process once a pitch has been accepted.

I wrote something on Forbes‘ “Americas Coolest Cities” list, which came out last week and put Washington D.C. in the number-one spot. I think lists like it are sort of silly but also have the potential to cause a backlash and take people’s focus off of what’s really best for the whole city. Some stuff that’s happened in D.C. over the past year is an example. Sorry…it’s sort of long (1300 words, edited only by myself).

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The jokes began immediately. When Forbes released its annual list of “America’s Coolest Cities” last week, Washington, D.C. took the top spot. For D.C.’s many fans, it was yet more evidence that the city has finally arrived as a world-class metropolis. For everyone else, the decision beggared belief. One New York journalist called it “next-level trolling,” and another said, “Being rated America’s coolest city by Forbes is sort of like…” The Times’ Josh Barro quipped, “Are we all going to Le Diplomate tonight to celebrate DC being America’s coolest city? Or are we doing Lauriol Plaza?” (These are two of the city’s most popular restaurants—respectively, a good but very unoriginal French bistro, and a really mediocre, yuppified Mexican joint.)

Though it’s impossible to reach any real agreement on what “cool” is, by the basic criteria of Forbes’ methodology, D.C. seems like a worthy winner. The magazine weighed six factors for its rankings: Cultural resources per capita; recreational amenities; local “foodie” culture; a city’s so-called “diversity index” (the chance you’ll randomly meet someone of a different race or ethnicity); the percentage of population aged 20-34; and the metro area’s net migration from 2010-2013. Washington is a young, growing city with lots of museums, local sports teams, music, and so on. It’s got lots of city parkland, and is close to a national park and large bay. It’s very segregated, but in the aggregate, it’s diverse. Check, check, check.

Even so, there’s something troubling about this list. It’s not that I think Washington is the wrong choice—I like D.C., though it probably wouldn’t be my personal pick for number one (it’s cliché, but I’d probably choose Portland, Oregon). The problem with a “coolest city” ranking is the way it takes things any city ought to be proud of—diversity, urbanity, art, energy, walkability, transit accessibility—and attaches them to a polarizing sociological identity. Most Americans probably don’t have strong opinions about multimodal transit, or bicycle infrastructure. But they do have strong feelings about snobbish urban hipsters.

In fact, as D.C. shines in Forbes’ eyes, the magazine seems to have missed the fact that a local backlash to the city’s “cool kids” is underway. Last summer, the city floated a plan to eliminate mandatory parking minimums from its zoning code (the Office of Planning is still in the process of rewriting the code, which dates to 1958). Parking minimums, which require builders to include a certain number of parking spaces in any new development, exist in most American cities. While the specific requirements vary by city and land-use function, what unites parking regimes across the country is their focus on the convenience of suburban commuters over the wellbeing of city residents. Minimums drive up the cost of development, incentivize private auto traffic over transit and walking, and require a one-size-fits-all approach to development that’s anathema to maintaining a healthy, livable city.

Washington, where an estimated 38 percent of households are car-free, was on the verge of ending parking minimums downtown and in the vicinity of subway, streetcar, and high-frequency bus lines. At the last minute, it backed down. It would be easy to caricature the victors of this battle as entitled, wealthy drivers. The loudest voices in favor of keeping the minimums, after all, tended to come from the city’s affluent, car-centric Upper Northwest. But their advocacy often came with a healthy serving of disdain for the “young people” behind the proposed changes. A local AAA flack, defending parking minimums, said that the move toward transit-friendly development just reflected the arrogance of youth.

The urge to associate young people with dense cities and a car-free lifestyle is reasonable. In the last decade, the most marked decline in vehicle-miles traveled has been among young people. It’s too early to tell whether this is more due to active choices or economic hardship, but it’s likely a combination of both. As Ben Adler has noted, the choice to travel by auto or transit is influenced by a web of incentive structures. If current trends continue, the incentives to go car-free will increase. For anyone who’s uncomfortable with this reality—either because they see driving as an American birthright, they’re resistant to change, or something else—the easiest thing to do is to link unwelcome changes in transit policy to a wave of young migrants who just don’t get how we’ve always done things here.

Of course, when it comes to hating millennials in D.C., no one can hold a candle to Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy. Milloy’s anti-bike screed from this July, which stops just short of endorsing vehicular homicide, is a prime example of anti-cool-kids backlash. Milloy, who casts himself as the voice of the city’s forgotten black middle class (despite living in suburban Maryland), hates entitled bicyclists who believe they have just as much of a right to the street as drivers. They slow down motorists and keep the elderly from exercising their most important right of all: free parking in front of church. And demographically, they are “newly arrived, mostly white millennials.”

Almost all of Milloy’s writing about new arrivals in D.C. relies on cultural code words that play to common stereotypes about young people. He dismisses the city’s young transplants as people who are “too busy tweeting flash-mob snowball fights and guzzling imported beers at urban sandy beach bars” to really care for their new home. He once tweeted, “The main reason I’m on twitter is to track millennials & find out if they do anything in dc other than party and gentrify.” This ability to rely on his audience’s dislike of those kind of obnoxious people, is what saves him the trouble of actually having to explain why bike lanes, dog parks, and fusion restaurants are bad things.

As Milloy likely knows himself, these are not bad things at all. (In fact, he gives away the game late in his piece on bikes, when he justifiably complains that bike lanes haven’t been built in the poorest parts of town.) Almost all the available evidence on bike lanes suggests that they are very beneficial for cities in terms of safety, quality of life, affordability, and sustainability. Making bike lanes part of a broader, multimodal approach to transportation is even better. But the wealthy residents of Upper Northwest and Courtland Milloy, even as they come from radically different backgrounds, have arrived at the same conclusion: You don’t need to argue the merits of urban policy when you can rail against the kind of widely disliked people who you assume will benefit from said policy.

When city officials capitulate to arguments like this, they engage in the same sort of policymaking-by-tribalism that has been so destructive on a national level. (Issues ranging from capital-gains taxes to teachers unions to the mortgage-interest deduction are now proxies for debates over what kind of people deserve to be the beneficiaries of government policy). And while the last year in D.C. has been marked by aggressive moves from those looking to make their city less “cool,” that’s just one town’s experience. A couple hundred miles north, Bill de Blasio’s pitch to bring the 2016 Democratic Convention to Brooklyn has a lot to do with playing up the borough’s youthful, “cool” image, and very little to do with providing tangible benefits to people who actually live here.

Those “tangible benefits” are the heart of the matter, though. And questions about those benefits are what people who study cities should be asking themselves. Not “Will bike lanes, farmers markets, and art galleries appeal to young, well-educated people?” but “Will these things, on balance, make our city a more affordable and diversified place than it was before?” When the focus of city governance shifts away from hunting for compliments from Forbes and toward providing useful services for as many constituents as possible—cool people, uncool people, and the vast, middlingly cool majority of us—the U.S. will have finally have the urban renaissance we’ve been promised.

 

Been working on this Think Piece-y essay for awhile. I got a late start watching Season 2 of House of Cards, but after watching it and mulling it over, I think the similarities with West Wing are more striking than many people realize.

Also, thanks to the Twitter-er who pointed out that this needs a SPOILER ALERT for HoC.

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House of Cards has already earned its place in history. Even if the series itself were an artistic disaster, the fact that it’s Netflix’s first original series, available for streaming and binging on the viewer’s own terms, signals an important shift in the way we watch and analyze TV. But what’s not new about the show is the way it creates a hermetically sealed D.C. Fantasyland for viewers to lose themselves in. Everything about the show furthers the impression that you’ve stepped into a different universe. The show is heavily stylized, brilliantly paced, relentlessly addictive, and makes life in the nation’s capital seem almost seductive. Everyone walks fast, talks fast, and thinks fast. And if all this sounds familiar, it’s probably because a show like this has been done before. The first time around, it was called The West Wing.

Of course, no one would mistake the soap-opera cynicism of House of Cards for The West Wing’s cheery, inspired outlook. But the shows are more alike than partisans of either would admit. The West Wing has a lot of things that House of Cards doesn’t: A president who is one of television’s greatest role models; a cast of characters whose integrity is beyond question; an essentially benign view of the U.S. political system. But ultimately, The West Wing provided viewers with an equally seductive D.C. Fantasyland 15 years before House of Cards did. What House of Cards does is re-imagine this fantasyland so that it speaks to the perceptions of Millennials. The divide between the two shows isn’t ideological; it’s generational.

HOUSE OF CARDS

“Ideological,” in this case, doesn’t refer to a specific political agenda. (It can’t, since House, as a number of writers have noted, decided early in the second season that policy is for losers.) Instead, the ideology of the show is the claim it tries to make about “how politics really works,” from the kind of people who populate D.C. to the way in which things get done. But while both shows — one about a city brimming with idealistic do-gooders, and one about a city filled with treacherous hypocrites — play on common stereotypes about Washington, neither one was designed to give viewers a real-life understanding of politics. Aaron Sorkin has always been up front about this, saying, “The West Wing isn’t meant to be good for you … Our responsibility is to captivate you for however long we’ve asked for your attention.”

Not everyone has listened, of course. Enough young liberals inspired by The West Wing came to D.C. with Barack Obama, that Vanity Fair ran an article on the phenomenon. Meanwhile, House of Cards has become a hit not just in the U.S., but among the Chinese political elite, largely for its ostensible insight into the workings of American politics. I suspect that most people who live in the capital, as I did for three years, know at heart that it’s a complicated place, and that reality doesn’t conform to the expectations of either show. But damn if it isn’t fun to pretend.

It’s in this sense that House of Cards is the Millennial Generation’s response to The West Wing — it’s our generation’s idea of what it would look like to be seduced by the glamour and power of Washington, D.C. For despite all the hope that accompanied Barack Obama’s ascent in national politics, the last decade has not been a good one when it comes to reinforcing young people’s faith in our institutions. In his book Twilight of the Elites, Christopher Hayes calls the period between 2000 and 2010 “the Fail Decade,” a 10-year span in which every major pillar of American life, from the federal government and banking system to the Catholic Church and Major League Baseball, betrayed our trust.

House of Cards should be seen in this context, and its bleak cynicism about politics is borne out by Millennials’ attitudes. In August, National Journal’s Ron Fournier wrote a long piece for The Atlantic on how Millennials may be civic-minded, but hold government in very low regard. He cites a 2013 survey by the Harvard Institute of Politics revealing revealing across-the-board disgust with politics. One-third of respondents agreed that “political involvement rarely has any tangible results.” Nearly 60 percent believed that politicians acted for mostly selfish reasons, regardless of party. And Fournier quoted a student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who said, “Results are important to us, and sadly, politics isn’t a place for results.”

The uncritical use of the phrase “results” raises what should be an obvious question: What good are results if they aren’t good results? The answer House of Cards gives is quite clear: We are meant to admire Frank Underwood’s skill at passing legislation, or as he would say, “whipping the damn vote.” As for considering whether or not he’s passing useful legislation? This is a luxury we can’t afford. The parallels to the Obama era are striking — liberals are desperate to pass a bill, any bill, just to prove they can. The awfulness of government has now gotten so bad that organizations like Run For America are springing up to encourage millennials to run for office, because so few are choosing to do so of their own volition.

Meanwhile, the moments of The West Wing that are meant to tug at our patriotic heartstrings — Sam Seaborn’s “last full measure of devotion” speech, or the military funeral in “In Excelsis Deo” — exhibit a level of sincerity that seems delusional in today’s political climate. By Sorkin’s own admission, he laid on the schmaltz partially because The West Wing was designed as an idealized retelling of the Clinton administration. It’s a world where viewers can have it both ways: a principled liberal administration, presiding over a booming economy and digital revolution. In the House of Cards era, the myth of endless abundance is over. Every resource we have — not just money, but time, column inches, political capital — is suddenly scarcer and more valuable, and even people with good intentions must turn to evil means to get their way.

Capitalizing on this heightened level of conflict, House of Cards takes many of The West Wing’s most memorable tropes and updates them for a darker time. Laurie, the call girl who Sam Seaborn befriends in The West Wing’s first season, quickly becomes fodder for jokes (“Knock knock. Who’s there? Sam and his prostitute friend.”). Laurie’s equivalent in House of Cards, Rachel Posner, becomes the target of Douglas Stamper’s creepy obsessions before turning to Christianity in a Dostoevsky-style conversion, and then killing her tormentor in an act of self-defense.

Likewise, in The West Wing, lobbyists are a secondary concern at best. They’re either blithely amoral (Bruno Giannelli), people who share the president’s views but want things done on a faster schedule (Amy Gardner), or comic relief (Cartographers for Social Equality). Meanwhile, the main lobbyist in House of Cards, Remy Danton, is all-knowing, all-seeing, and totally devoid of any policy goals — a one-man embodiment of the Revolving Door between K Street and Capitol Hill. (Political patronage is decades old, of course, but you could be forgiven for thinking it’s more intractable than ever.) And as for journalism? Both shows feature reporters who get romantically entangled with a source, but one romance ends with a baby and a house in Santa Monica, while the other ends with a dead body on the Metro tracks. (And this is to say nothing of the actual journalism in House of Cards, which, as a number of writers have noted, leaves much to be desired.)

The truth is that despite each show creating a convincing universe in its own way, no single television show is ever going to capture “the real D.C.,” because D.C. is a city with over 600,000 people that sits at the heart of a metro area of more than five million. It’s the nation’s political capital, yes, but it’s also a rapidly gentrifying tech hub, a magnet for immigration, the birthplace of hardcore punk, and home to one of the country’s largest black middle classes. And Beau Willimon and Aaron Sorkin are both smart enough to know this, which renders “Which show is more true to life?” a moot question. House of Cards revels in its emptiness so unabashedly that the only possible defense of Frank Underwood is, as Nicole Hemmer wrote in U.S. News, that he “gets things done.” Toby Ziegler would read a phrase like that and go berserk: “Yes, but what exactly is he getting done?” And Zoe Barnes would shrug and reply, “Does it matter?”

Happy holidays! I’ve spent some time away from the blog (and from writing in general) as I’ve spent the holidays with family, friends, and so on. And yeah maybe I got lazy.

But I want to see if I can hash some thoughts out on Woody Allen, who is the topic of today’s big social-media firestorm. Last night at the Golden Globes, he was given the Lifetime Achievement Award—a decision that, as far as I can tell, no one has contested on artistic grounds. But just before that sequence of the show began, Mia Farrow tweeted:

In case the point wasn’t quite clear, later on that evening, Ronan Farrow, Mia’s son with Woody (or maybe Frank Sinatra?) wrote the following:

At which point Twitter blew up.

This is not one of those periodic Twitter feeding frenzies among social-justice activists who enjoy preaching to the converted. This is a real, honest-to-god moment of outrage toward a man who destroyed his family. And the allegations of abusing a young girl aren’t even Allen’s most well known misdeed. That, of course, would be his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn, which went unmentioned amid all this. Whether or not he’s legally committed any crimes, it’s hard to deny that he’s a scummy person.

So what’s the problem here? It’s that I, and many, many other people, love Woody Allen. I’ve seen at least half of his movies. I would rank three of them (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors) among my favorite films ever. As far as I’m concerned, the first two in particular are pretty unassailable in terms of their place in film history. (And it’s hard to think of a better litmus test for whether you should date somebody than their opinion of Annie Hall.) Even allowing that Allen has made a lot of bad movies, I prefer his bad movies to a good movie by most other directors.

What makes this even more complicated is that people’s love for Woody Allen is usually not a matter of detached, aesthetic contemplation. His best movies are so beloved because they speak to people in ways that few other films can. We begin, of course, with the presence of a cohesive worldview that’s pretty rare in American cinema. Crucial elements of the Woody Allen universe are things like fate, luck, self-deception, wicked irony, cruelty to others, and nearly unbearable bittersweetness. And his films are well-shot, but they mostly hinge around acting and dialogue, not cinematography. Admittedly I’m painting with a broad brush here, but those are not the kinds of themes and motifs that I associate with mainstream American cinema. So it’s easy to see why people who are receptive to this worldview react so warmly to Allen’s films. They are among the few commercially successful films to capture the way we see and experience the world.

Look at that shot. Just look at it.

So the question the Golden Globes has to decide is, What’s more important: the art or the artist? There are a number of reasons why I think they made the right choice, and why it’s generally a bad idea to make artistic praise contingent on good behavior. Elia Kazan (who ruined dozens of lives by giving names to McCarthy’s committee) and Frank Sinatra (who collaborated proactively with the mafia) also received Lifetime Achievement Awards in their later years. Michael Jackson is still a beloved icon. Mel Gibson has been saying Mel Gibson-y things about Jews for awhile, and his career is still intact. Which of these crimes you find most egregious probably has a lot to do with which one you’ve had the closest brush with in your own life. There are only two honest ways to solve this problem: Boycott the work of all terrible people, or enjoy art without regard for whether someone is a good person or not. Almost everybody ends up choosing the second option, because there are too many skeletons in too many closets to really live by the first. Awards shows, generally speaking, should follow the same rule.

Where this particular award for Woody Allen gets hairy is that a large part of the presentation involved Diane Keaton talking about Allen’s love and respect for women. It began as a look at the female characters in his films, but quickly morphed into a testament to Allen’s loyalty as a friend. This is where things got ugly. Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress posted about this earlier today and I think she pretty much nailed it: The speech came off as a transparent, desperate attempt to defend Allen’s character. The Globes would have been on high ground if they’d shown some clips, had Keaton talk about his immense contribution to film and comedy, and called it a day. Having anyone, even someone as awesome as Diane Keaton, talk about how Woody Allen is a good person is a classic case of “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

Two things I wonder/acknowledge going forward: I think you could make a strong case (and Rosenberg alludes to this in her piece) that the art vs artist dichotomy doesn’t work in Allen’s case. Yes, it’s generally wise to reward artistic merit and leave character judgments out of things. But with Allen, a large part of his appeal/originality/obnoxiousness/whatever you want is the way he projects his own persona onto the screen. When Woody Allen the person is so heavily folded into Woody Allen the oeuvre, do you lose the right to say, “Focus on the art, not the artist”?

And second, I assume there is a fair amount of white straight dude privilege bound up in saying, “Forget about all that personal shit and just enjoy the films.” Allen has the benefit of lots of money and a community that is mostly run by white men, and “Judge the art, not the artist” is a sentiment that probably derives from that fact. So I acknowledge that, even as I’ll be the first to admit that my girlfriend and I spent a good half hour watching clips from Annie Hall on YouTube last night.

When I moved back to the NYC metro area in March, one thing I promised myself is that I would finally get around to watching The Wire after hearing most of my good friends rave about it for years. Last week I finally finished the series — so all in all, it took me roughly eight months, with a very long break in between Seasons 3 and 4.

I’m not the first person to make this argument by any means, but looking back on the whole thing, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the show represents a sort of Great American Novel moment for the late 20th/early 21st century. A PolicyMic writer called the show “the greatest work of American fiction that millennials have ever seen,” comparing it to other works of art (Gatsby, The Graduate, etc) that capture the mindset of American society at a particular point in time. What’s especially ironic about The Wire receiving the “Great American Novel” designation, though, is that the show’s major theme — the way humans are trapped inside decaying institutions — is not something Americans are known for thinking a lot about.

Each of the five seasons shows us characters who are good but flawed, coming to terms with institutions and systems that give people the incentive to act in self-interested, evil ways. This isn’t a typical American story about crafting one’s own identity, embracing the power of individualism, or throwing off the shackles of the past. In the show’s moral universe, none of those things are remotely possible. You do the best you can, within the system you’re a part of. And you will probably fail.

Being trapped by institutional power is, of course, not a story that we think of as typically American. And people like my friends and I are natural viewers for a show like The Wire because by and large, we have rejected the idea that as a general rule, virtue is rewarded, hard work  pays off, and people get what they deserve (i.e. none of us believe that America is a meritocracy). But I’ve spent a lot of time wondering whether you have to go into The Wire already believing what the show wants you to believe about American culture. Sharing the show’s moral worldview, even more than being able to follow the complicated plot details, may actually be its highest barrier to entry.

But even for someone like myself, who broadly speaking agrees with The Wire‘s view of agency, institutional power, and fate, it’s extremely discomforting to watch a show that forces you to abandon your preconceptions about good and evil so thoroughly. The show is famous for its moral gray areas, and I knew that when I began watching…so it’s not like I was totally shocked to find myself in sympathy with a drug dealer. But as an experiment, during the first couple seasons of the show I made lists of characters who seemed to be either purely good, or purely evil. My “good” list began and ended with Lester Freamon, and my “evil” list started out with Bill Rawls and Avon Barksdale, and expanded in Season 2 to include Stan Valchek. But I soon had to tear these lists up, and what I realized as the show went on is that one of its most brilliant traits is the way it forces viewers to choose which kinds of “bad guys” they want to side with.

In other words, when you begin the show, Avon seems to be a pretty awful, irredeemable human being. D’Angelo’s introspective qualities become obvious very quickly, and Stringer at least has a relentless drive to better himself, which he expresses in the only way he knows how. Avon, on the other hand, just seems like a brutal, not-so-smart murderer. But by the time Season 4 rolled around and I watched Marlo Stanfield take control of the Baltimore drug trade, I found myself wishing for the good old days of the Barksdales. For all the times I scoffed when Avon emphasized “family” in the first three seasons, it turns out there is in fact room for loyalty in his worldview. And as for Marlo, at the end of the show, he and Maurice Levy may be the only characters who represent true evil — but then again, I’m open to the claim that Marlo isn’t evil so much as a sociopath.

The Baltimore police department is a similar study in terrible choices. The Wire has plenty of awful police, but the show also forces the viewer to pick what kind of awful police they dislike least. Rawls and Valchek may be power-mad, brutish, and underhanded at various points in the show, but when the time comes in Season 4 and 5, they both play a major role in undercutting Burrell and funneling crucial information to Carcetti. Burrell is not evil, of course…he’s just stupid. And you’d be foolish to chalk Rawls or Valchek’s actions up to pubic-spiritedness. But somehow, the show manages to make them the good guys. No matter how cynical their motives, they play a role in taking down a mayor and police commissioner who are both disastrous for Baltimore.

The more I think about all this, the more I realize I took a long break from the show at a very opportune moment. After three seasons, most of the major plotlines have been wrapped up — the Barksdale empire has been dismantled, the police department has achieved what looks like stasis, Colvin’s crazy experiment in drug legalization has ended, and the city’s political situation seems to be heading inexorably towards gentrification and corruption, no matter who the mayor is. The fourth and fifth seasons bring in new plotlines, but they also show how the bad situations from the show’s early seasons just get worse. The Barksdales are replaced by a drug empire that hides dead bodies in vacant houses. The decline of the city’s native working class, as seen in Season 2, is now sped along by greedy real-estate developers. And now, instead of just having morale problems, the police and political systems in Baltimore have budget problems that seriously impede their ability to do good work.

Given all this, the show’s end was not quite as relentless as I expected. Seasons 2 and 4 end on a note of abject pessimism, for example: Things are bad and they’re getting worse. But the end of the show focuses on how cyclical the city’s problems are. We see minor characters stepping up to take on new roles: Sydnor is the new McNulty, Slim Charles is the new Prop Joe, Michael is the new Omar, Dukie is the new Bubbles, and I even see hints of Carver becoming the new Daniels or Bunny Colvin. (One of the bigger surprises of the show, for me, was that Bubbles was alive when it ended.) “Things keep on going the way they’ve always been” is the most optimistic possible ending for The Wire. Our problems are cyclical, inescapable, even intractable. This is a worldview that Horatio Alger would find totally alien — but then again, this is a country that Alger would probably find alien too.

Watching the verdict and sentences come in at the end of the rape trial in Steubenville, Ohio, the first thing we ought to feel is a sense of satisfaction—a sense, unbecoming as it may seem, of giddiness that two rapists will be held accountable for what they did. It’s not Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond’s fault that the justice system has largely spared or ignored their fellow rapists over the years, but alas, all of our pent-up feelings of schadenfreude from those other cases will have to be visited upon their heads instead.

It’s also satisfying to see the trial end in a way that rebukes Big Football for its systematic culture of brutality, thuggishness, and unaccountability from Steubenville to Penn State. Football isn’t the only sport whose athletes are allowed to act how they please with near-total immunity, but given its college and professional status as cash cow and its high-school status as the social force that holds many wholesome Middle American communities together, it’s the sport whose foundations it’s hardest to shake.

But looking at the reaction to the guilty verdict, I see two major traits of American culture at work. The first is the tendency to consistently downplay the severity of rape, or assume rape victims have done something to deserve it. In this case, the news media could not stop reminding us that the victim was drunk, when we don’t apply this “drunkenness” standard to victims of any other crime. And then there’s the way we assign victimhood itself. On TV, there was the now-infamous moment where CNN’s Poppy Harlow referred to the two rapists as “young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students,” as if the loss of this promise were the real crime here—as if the emotional difficulty of the trial stems primarily from watching Mays and Richmond cry in court and hug their lawyers. Writers such as Laurie Penny have cited this as an example of what they call “rape culture,” and they’ve spent enough time thinking about this topic to write about it far better than I can. So go read their work.

The second thing this case has revealed is just how much the United States remains a Christian nation. Not in terms of its laws, of course, but in terms of assumptions about guilt, repentance, and empathy—assumptions that I, having been raised Jewish, am currently feeling grateful I don’t share. The idea that we are now expected to “feel for” Mays and Richmond because they seem remorseful derives from a very Christian way of understanding guilt, in which a person is absolved of a crime by repenting. Repentance is a matter between oneself and God, and so to question its validity or importance would probably seem out of line to most Americans. But I remain unmoved, and the more I think about it, the more I believe my religious upbringing is one of the reasons why.

Jewish law, as set down in the Old Testament and Talmud, largely concerns itself with how to maintain tribal unity in exile. The idea of a personal, intimate relationship with God is a later, Christian innovation. God’s law for the Jews spends a little bit of time on how to interact properly with him, and a lot of time on how to interact properly with each other. This is especially the case in matters of transgression and forgiveness. The injured party is the only one who can truly grant absolution to the injurer, and even on Yom Kippur, Jews are required to ask forgiveness of the specific people they’ve hurt over the past year before they even think about asking it of God. This is not to say that asking forgiveness of other people is anathema to Christians, of course, but the idea of confessing sins to God or a priest as a first step, rather than an absolute last resort, would strike most Jews as a way of dodging the problem. The way to atone properly is to own the fact that actions have real-world consequences, and accept the fact that you will have to deal with them.

Americans, especially those fond of holding forth on “personal responsibility,” love to give lip service to this idea—action and reaction, cause and effect, and so on. But when news reporters lament that two high-schoolers’ lives and career prospects have been ruined because they will henceforth be registered as sex offenders wherever they go, it reveals how inconsistently people actually believe it. Mays and Richmond will be labeled as sex offenders because they are sex offenders. That they are remorseful after the fact (that is, if they regret anything besides getting caught) is a nice thing to know, but it shouldn’t suddenly tempt us to let them off the hook morally, legally, or otherwise.

Of course, keeping our hearts hardened like this is easier said than done. For most Americans, trained in the Christian ethic of guilt and redemption, turning rape into the opening act of a morality play is far more emotionally uplifting than treating it as a crime to be paid for. But that’s another, more stereotypical thing about being raised Jewish: I tend to strongly distrust anything that’s too emotionally uplifting. There are times when this makes me seem cynical and misanthropic, but in situations like the one in Steubenville I believe people are well served by this sort of skepticism. Otherwise we succumb to the message, in effect, that we ought to feel sorry for Mays and Richmond because they feel sorry for themselves. And can they repent and be saved? The majority of Americans may think so. It’s not indecent to hope that one day, they turn their lives around and come to terms with what they’ve done. But when we think of sin this way, we make it abstract. That they might be redeemed one day in the future isn’t a comfort to me, and it probably isn’t a comfort to their victim either.