The Story After the Story Tells the Story


Andrew Donaldson

Born and raised in West Virginia, Andrew has since lived and traveled around the world several times over. Though frequently writing about politics out of a sense of duty and love of country, most of the time he would prefer discussions on history, culture, occasionally nerding on aviation, and his amateur foodie tendencies. He can usually be found misspelling/misusing words on Twitter @four4thefire and his writing website

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31 Responses

  1. Avatar Pinky says:

    I’d forgotten about this story in the Christmas rush. Thanks for highlighting this article.

    We’ve been talking recently about the idea of “high crimes”. There are a lot of ways to violate the public trust. Dante depicts those who do so in the lowest circles of Hell, and not just because Italian politics provided such good characters for him to work with. Relotius did damage to people like those in Fergus Falls, and to the press in general, but he did such a disservice to the readers. He fed back to them their laziest prejudices and made them think they were well-informed. And each of them is going to be more skeptical when they read the truth because they’ve been tricked before.Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    How much would you pay to have your priors confirmed?

    There’s a market for it, after all.Report

    • Avatar Pinky says:

      But they didn’t know that’s what they were doing. They thought they were risking their priors by reading articles by someone on the scene. How much do I really know about life in, say, rural Germany? If I want to learn, I either have to go there or talk to someone who’s been there. Millions of readers made a reasonable assumption as part of their process of attempting to understand the world better. I can’t fault them.Report

    • Avatar PD Shaw says:

      I suspect its more that the reporter decided he didn’t want to go to some remote place, maybe stopping at the Mall of America instead, and wrote a story that his editors would find credible about a quirky small town near . . . Fargo. If they’ve seen the show, they may not be dazed by a virgin burgermeister who packs a pea-shooter, quotes Voltaire and organizes the annual Cowboy Days where the villagers wear leather chaps and eat huge slabs of beef.Report

  3. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    I rapidly learned the best way to find out about a people was to work through the culture and language barriers by just spending time with them. No amount of reading ever really gives you insight like sitting down to a meal, attending a local festival, or the experience of being dependent of the good graces of strangers to explain to you what’s going on.///

    The same goes in politics domestically. With the rash of “Understanding the Trump Voters” stories comes the assumption they are some type of alien species to be studied and understood. Perhaps if you drop that assumption and talk to people, sit down with them, and understand that politics is a part of their lives and not the defining feature would be much more healthy. Then those folks can sit down with reporters and find out they aren’t all a monolithic block of diabolical “them” out to get everyone and everything for sensational headlines. Things would be much better if, instead of trying to own the libs, some of our pundits might remember our shared humanity and work from there out, rather than starting at our differences and manning the ramparts. Wishful thinking, but much healthier wishful thinking that taking the story of a fraud reporter at face value because it seemed ok to some folks’ bias filter.

    I agree in theory but have some questions about how useful this is in practice. I admit to being partisan and sympathetic to the left/urban/blue side here but a big question is whose burden is it to reach out. The reason that I think a lot of people on the urban/blue/left/minority side of things are pissed off is that the media (and lots of other people) always assume it is our burden to do all the legwork and reach out and try to understand the Trump voter. When is the last time a right-leaning publication made a sincere and not snarky attempt to understand urban/blue/left/minority voters.

    There is also the issue that understanding does not mean that a compromise is possible or that people will change their mind. Some issues are really hot-button and there is no real compromise, just a Hobson’s choice. The idea of understanding always seems predicated on the possibility that everyone is basically good and compromise or change can always be found. Life is not an after-school special. Der Siegel possibly got it wrong but plenty of people will still loudly and proudly wear xenophobic t-shirts and/or anti-Democratic t-shirts with expressions like “I’d rather be Russian than Blue.” Or they will broadcast that they believe in absurd conspiracy theories like QANON. Time and resources are limited, why am I morally required to reach out to people who proudly broadcast that they believe in things I find reprehensible and/or absurd.Report

    • Avatar Doctor Jay says:

      I don’t see what Andrew is advocating as a burden, I see it as an opportunity. I’m pretty sure Andrew thinks that too. Maybe it’s a better opportunity for those of us who aren’t Jewish, or black, or gay. That could be.

      The only burden I would advocate is stay away from media that promotes stories that simply confirm your priors. Stories like “some small-town police chief said something racist”. That’s important for the people of the community, but is it important for me to know that? Is that any different than “black (or illegal immigrant) man commits crime”?

      Treat these stories like the pandering they are. The sales pitch is “confirm your world view with a mere click!”

      But then again, becoming a value shopper when surfing the internet enhanced my life, so I don’t know that that’s a burden, either.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        First off: What the previous reporter did was massive fraud, unethical and immoral, and in come cases might even count as libel/defamation even under the looser standards of American defamation laws.

        More substantively: I think there are a lot of myths we like to tell ourselves about democracy, rhetoric, debate, and facts and then there is the reality. I think a lot of people might not want to grapple with the real because it is quite depressing if you think about it.

        The myth we seem to like is one where most Americans (or maybe people) are inherently non-partisan, plain dealing, and blank slates out to be convinced for every election. The MSM will talk about how many votes the parties and candidates received. They will almost never talk about partisan turnout and what factors made the D partisan turn out more successful or vice-versa because that is an admission that division works or people have committed world-views and that is bad for the bottom line or something.

        What I think is real is that a lot of politics is about tribal identity. Also everyone has biases and cognitive dissonance and a lot of people probably come to their conclusion first and then work backwards for the evidence.Report

    • Avatar Pinky says:

      A good reporter should reach out beyond his experiences. I’ll always respect Anderson Cooper for living in Vietnam for a year. But if he’d been a rich kid who went to Columbia School of Journalism then got a job at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, how broad would his life experiences have been? Ditto a small-towner who attended Liberty then went to work at FNC. Not only would I want a journalist to have broad experiences, I’d be reluctant to listen to one who didn’t feel the impulse to pursue such experiences.Report

    • a big question is whose burden is it to reach out.

      Burden is probably too strong a word. The real world issue is if you want to reach out to the other side, that usually requires initial discomfort and everyone has their own level of tolerance to do that in the name of reaching out. I have a decently high tolerance for it, and go out of my way to give fair hearing to people I know disagree with me, but everyone is different. But that is also the point; it’s easier to hate what you don’t know, as the old saying goes, and if you can manage even a few interactions that are fruitful it might give pause before we get out our broad brushes about “all of them”

      I couched it in the piece as wishful thinking, but it is better wishful thinking than the wishful thinking that your side is all righteous and the other side all evil.Report

      • Avatar Damon says:

        I don’t know if you even need to reach out. Just buy spending time with folks you can gain a different perspective and an understanding that “the other” is more like you than different.

        I’ve spent most of my adult life living with and amount liberals. In the last few years I’ve spent more time with gays and other minorities–a lot of the current GF’s friends are gay and lesbian. We have many of the same concerns and worries and are only divided by a few–a very few- political issues.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        The problem is not everyone hates what they don’t know. I know plenty of people in big cities who grew up in these small towns, got the tar kicked out of them for being “different” in some way, moved away as soon as they could and never looked back. But people like this are inconvenient to the grander narrative and often just swept aside.Report

        • Avatar bookdragon says:

          This. Once upon a time I bought into the ‘reach out and understand the other side’ idea. But the small town where my parents still live is in a very red part of Ohio, and while we used to be able to over look or just avoid politics with a lot of people there, the Trumpies have been so nasty and in-your-face that even my generally congenial mom has just cut people off of her list of folks to socialize with.

          They ran into the same with a group of people back in Western PA that they’ve been friends with since grade school. The hatefulness, not toward them directly, but toward everyone else not in the accepted circle of Real Americans was just too much.

          There was yet another a NYT article about Trump voters recently. This one talking about complaints because the shutdown is hurting them. One woman is quoted as saying

          “I voted for him, and he’s the one who’s doing this,” she said of Mr. Trump. “I thought he was going to do good things. He’s not hurting the people he needs to be hurting.”

          Maybe the reporter is being selective or even as dishonest as Relotius, but the quote struck me as emblematic of the Trump voters I’ve encountered in RL. They want stuff for themselves and their ‘tribe’, but an equal or possibly larger motivation is the desire to see the other side, the other ‘tribe’, get hurt.

          I don’t know how to reach out or even engage people like that. Honestly, I have little desire to even try. I’d rather spend the time I have trying to help the people they are fixed on hurting.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        Not everyone on the left is virtuous. There are plenty of solid liberals who are at least assholes. I’m finding the number of good-faith Trump voters to be very close to zero though. Most of them refuse to debate in good faith, will take willingly contrarian stances just because and keep them hell or high water. Same with many alleged anti-Trump conservatives who seemingly can’t help themselves from the shtick of “I can’t stand Trump but you libs hate him so I will defend him because I hate liberals more than I love freedom and liberty.”

        There is also so much of this that could be stood before you just want to role your eyes.

        My point is that the alleged idpol debates there have been lots of essays from the center and the right which more or less amount to saying “Befriend a Nazi please because your screaming at the Nazi makes us uncomfortable.”Report

        • Avatar Pinky says:

          A-H-ness is not a permanent trait. Everyone is an a-h at times, and/or on certain topics. It’s also very dependent on the observer. It’s not like a diagnosis where you can check off the boxes (at least, not usually). And the observer affects the observation, Heisenberg-style. If you’re talking to someone who is considering whether you’re an a-h, you probably realize it.

          And even if the other guy is one, so what? Are we only looking for people we can persuade, or are we looking to increase our understanding? The recipe for confirmation bias is to only talk to people who make you feel comfortable.

          Now, granted, we’re in a difficult time. Our most recent two presidents have been flat-out a-h’s. In my lifetime we’ve only ever had one other a-h president, Johnson. Of course, the available systems of communication encourage that kind of behaviour as well. So I recognize that it’s tough.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        Also to Doctor Jay,

        In just came across this essay from a month ago:

        The corruption of the Republican Party in the Trump era seemed to set in with breathtaking speed. In fact, it took more than a half century to reach the point where faced with a choice between democracy and power, the party chose the latter. Its leaders don’t see a dilemma—democratic principles turn out to be disposable tools, sometimes useful, sometimes inconvenient. The higher cause is conservatism, but the highest is power. After Wisconsin Democrats swept statewide offices last month, Robin Vos, speaker of the assembly, explained why Republicans would have to get rid of the old rules: “We are going to have a very liberal governor who is going to enact policies that are in direct contrast to what many of us believe in.”

        We have seen Michigan, Wisconsin, and North Carolina Republicans react to the election of state-wide Democratic politicians by quickly enacting new laws to severely limit the powers of those new politicians-elect once sworn in. Wisconsin Democrats received 54 percent of the vote but Republicans hold a supermajority in their state legislature.

        Attempts to debate the problems of gerrymandering usually just end up with headaches and angels dancing on a hairpin scholastic arguments on how we should be totally cool with such undemocratic gerrymandering.

        Honestly, it feels really naive to think that reaching out to such hardcore partisan Republicans is going to change anything. Am I suppose to write an essay that states “I used to think they were wrong for such gerrymandering but I went to a Republican smalltown and talked to the voters and now see it is totes okay.”?Report

        • I long ago gave up on the Republican party.

          I understand where you are coming from. I personally, just me, when dealing with things like reaching out I try really hard not to attribute anything to malice until I rule out ignorance first. Maybe I’m just weird and the exception but in dealing with people presenting viewpoint that I disagree with or no it’s not true I try to find something, even if it’s an irrelevant outside thing, of commonality before getting to the stick points. Of course there are limits and things that I’m not going to bend on, as do you. But if I’m sitting in Bar Crudo with my San Francisco friends, as I have, and they have viewpoints on the folks in WV that are stereotyped I know it’s mostly because it’s such a totally different world for them. Same if I brought my redneck brethren to the bay area, or took one of the tech bros to the backside of Cranberry Glades. I like to at least take a swing at explaining and working around ignorances and prejudices before writing people off. For example, even many folks that follow politics don’t understand the ins and outs of redistricting/gerrymandering other than the term itself. There no doubt some who really want it to be a tool of evil to suppress voters of certain groups, but that is the minority of people. You will never think it is ok, but may allow that people who are not agreeing with you might not have malice of thought in doing so.Report

          • Avatar DavidTC says:

            I personally, just me, when dealing with things like reaching out I try really hard not to attribute anything to malice until I rule out ignorance first.

            I used to think that. But then I realized: Ignorance can _very easily_ be manipulated into malice.

            There are a lot of people out there who are malicious because they have been told a lot of lies. A _lot_ of lies. And part of the problem is those lies include ‘Everyone else is lying to you’.

            But, and here’s the important point: They are still malicious, and I don’t really have to assume they’re acting in good faith, and I’m _way_ past the point of assuming they can be reasoned with. Because, again, part of their framework is that ‘Everyone is lying to them’.

            People can’t just handwave ‘They don’t know any better’. Yeah. Neither did the people in the Manson family. They got sucked into something and it reprogrammed them, and then they killed people.

            But the question here isn’t ‘moral culpability’. That’s between them and God. The question here is ‘How the hell do I _stop_ what they have put in motion?’

            And that is not premised on ‘understanding’ them. It’s premised on getting the current asshat out of the White House and constraining him. It’s premised on showing the levels of insanity that exist over there, getting people who are horrified to actually step up and vote and drive that side from any sort of control. And then actually fixing problems, getting more support.

            The damn cult members…I have no idea what to do with them. Considering they were programmed via immoral lunatics who just wanted ad revenue, who knows where they will go next. Who the hell knows? _I’m_ over here trying to deal with children in cages and wildfires ragings and cities drowning, and then infrastructure falling apart and massive inequality, and then I can get around to figuring out what the hell nonsense they want. By that point in time it will probably be deregulating the sale of human organs so they can sell their livers to some advertiser on Glenn Beck’s holo-podcast so the rich can live forever.Report

          • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

            The old cliche is “you attract more flies with honey than vinegar.”

            This isn’t true. Vinegar is damned good at attracting flies and it might be really good at attracting people as well:


            The president’s particular brand of identity politics — the racist attacks on blacks and Latinos, the Muslim ban, his cruel treatment of women — similarly depends on negative rather than positive appeals. Antoine Banks, a political psychologist at the University of Maryland, wrote a book on the connection between anger as an emotion and racial politics. When politicians gin up anger, an emotion that necessarily has a negative target, voters tend to think about the world in more racial (and racist) terms. Trump makes his voters angry, he centers that anger on hated targets, and that makes them want to take his side.

            This is what makes Trumpism work. This is the dark heart of our political moment. Even people who are tremendously vulnerable themselves, like Crystal Minton, support Trump because of his capacity to inflict pain on others they detest. The cruelty, as the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer says, is the point.

            Now I can see and sympathize with why people would want your worldview or the worldview of Doctor Jay to be true but I have my doubts on its veracity.Report

          • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

            A few years ago, there was an academic sociology book called Paying for the Party about the risks young, first generation students face at college when picking majors. The study was conducted at the University of Indiana so many of the first-generation college students were white and rural. The authors decided to study women.

            The authors broke the women into three groups:

            1. Really rich women could party and take business lite majors (travel and leisure studies) and get paid-jobs because of their culture knowledge, wealth, and connections;

            2. More middle class women would study hard and enter grad school or a profession after graduation like law, medicine, accounting, dentistry, etc. They tended to be the children of professionals in the same fields (Lawyers beget lawyers, dentists beget dentists. etc.);

            3. The at-risk women would try and emulate group #1 and fail because they lacked the cultural knowledge/taste, money, and connections, they were at higher-risks for dropping out or if they graduated, they failed to get good paying jobs because of their business-lite majors and lack of culture and connections.

            A lot of women in Group # 3 did not really know any minorities. The authors wrote that they would lash out against Jews and LBGT people because of the lack of support and their inchoate rage at what was happening to them or happened to them. They would vandalize posters for the Jewish Student Body Group. They rarely knew minorities because of their small town upbringing. One student came from a town with a Jewish music teacher but he lasted less than a year because of anti-Semitic attacks and harassment.

            Sometimes when I read people like you and Doctor Jay and the well-meaning call for dialogue, it does sound like it is always up to minorities to do the outreached hand and to do so until it works. I find this burden unfair.Report

  4. Avatar Chip Daniels says:

    Even if people aren’t assholes, they can still do incredibly awful things.

    Every awful horror in history was done and enabled by people who went home, kissed their children, played with the dog, and were perfectly sweet and loving.

    Tonight we are going to be treated to an 8 minute rambling bit of madness from from a man who may very well declare for himself emergency powers to put half of America under de facto martial law.

    What we will see tomorrow morning is how all of us react. Who will stand up in dissent, who will eagerly relish the opportunity to crush the dissent, who will meekly cringe and acquiesce.

    It won’t have anything to do with assholes or nice people. Its just a matter of how we behave. Asshole is as asshole does.Report

    • Avatar JoeSal says:

      ‘America under de facto martial law’

      Wasn’t it just a few years ago that talk like this was dismissed as stark raving mad conspiracy theorist chatter? All the wisdom of not having the presidents course of action swayed by the hecklers veto of dissenters.Report

    • Avatar Pinky says:

      I remember what America was like yesterday morning, before the president declared martial law over half the country. It was a decent place. You didn’t hear gunfire in the streets. You could leave your home without fear. We had access to the internet…wait, if I’m typing this on the internet, does that mean that martial law never happened? No, of course not, it’s just that I’m white, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading Chip’s comments, it’s that white men never experience consequences. So I must be the half that Trump didn’t declare martial law over.Report

  5. I know you wrote this a few days ago, Andrew, but I’m just now reading it. It’s a good piece.

    As you may know, I’ve long been an advocate for the need to understand others and especially those whom we count as (for lack of a better word) adversaries.* Of course, for me, that means understanding many of the liberals who form my circle of friends and with whom I work.** It is very hard to step out of one’s comfort zone, and you’ve pointed that out in the comments.

    *I realize, especially from your comments here, that you’re NOT saying we necessarily have the duty to do so, but that if we choose to do so, a good way is to engage those people directly.

    **I’m a “liberal,” too, at least when it comes to supporting most policies that are generally counted as “liberal.” But the condescension I encounter against people presumed not to be liberal really riles me. Sometimes the presumption is even incorrect.Report

  6. Really good piece as always, Andrew. Thanks for writing it.Report