Posts by Edward Champion

Edward Champion is the Managing Editor of Reluctant Habits.

Happy Martin Luther King Day!

[To celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday, I’m repubishing my 2019 essay on Why We Can’t Wait. King’s commitment to courage and humanism through nonviolent resistance remains one of the most inspiring legacies of the 20th century and deserves our great respect and consideration.]

It was a warm day in April when Dr. Martin Luther King was arrested. It was the thirteenth and the most important arrest of his life. King, wearing denim work pants and a gray fatigue shirt, was manacled along with fifty others that afternoon, joining close to a thousand more who had bravely submitted their bodies over many weeks to make a vital point about racial inequality and the unquestionable inhumanity of segregation.

The brave people of Birmingham had tried so many times before. They had attempted peaceful negotiation with a city that had closed sixty public parks rather than uphold the federal desegregation law. They had talked with businesses that had debased black people by denying them restaurant service and asking them to walk through doors labeled COLORED. Some of these atavistic signs had been removed, only for the placards to be returned to the windows once the businesses believed that their hollow gestures had been fulfilled. And so it became necessary to push harder — peacefully, but harder. The Birmingham police unleashed attack dogs on children and doused peaceful protesters with high-pressure water hoses and seemed hell-bent on debasing and arresting the growing throngs who stood up and said, without raising a fist and always believing in hope and often singing songs, “Enough. No more.”

There were many local leaders who claimed that they stood for the righteous, but who turned against King. White leaders in Birmingham believed — not unlike pro-segregation Governor George Wallace just three months earlier — that King’s nonviolent protests against segregation would incite a torrent of violence. But the violence never came from King’s well-trained camp and had actually emerged from the savage police force upholding an unjust law. King had been very careful with his activists, asking them to sign a ten-point Commitment Card that included these two vital points:

6. OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.

8. REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.

Two days before King’s arrest, Bull Connor, the racist Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety and a man so vile and heartless that he’d once egged on Klansmen to beat Freedom Riders to a pulp for fifteen minutes as the police stood adjacent and did not intervene, had issued an injunction against the protests. He raised the bail bond from $200 to $1,500 for those who were arrested. (That’s $10,000 in 2019 dollars. When you consider the lower pay and the denied economic opportunities for Birmingham blacks, you can very well imagine what a cruel and needless punishment this was for many protesters who lived paycheck to paycheck.)

And so on Good Friday, it became necessary for King, along with his invaluable fellow leaders Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth, to walk directly to Birmingham Jail and sing “We Shall Overcome.” King took a very big risk in doing so. But he needed to set an example for civil disobedience. He needed to show that he was not immune to the sacrifices of this very important fight. The bondsman who provided the bail for the demonstrators told King that he was out as King pondered the nearly diminished funds for the campaign. In jail, King would not be able to use his contacts and raise the money that would keep his campaign going. Despite all this, and this is probably one of the key takeaways from this remarkable episode in political history, King was dedicated to practicing what he preached. As he put it:

How could my failure now to submit to arrest be explained to the local community? What would be the verdict of the country about a man who had encouraged hundreds of people to make a stunning and then excused himself?

Many who watched this noble march, the details of which are documented in S. Jonathan Bass’s excellent book Blessed Are the Peacemakers, dressed in their Sunday best out of respect for King’s efforts. Police crept along with the marchers before Connor gave the final order. Shuttlesworth had left earlier. King, Abernathy, and their fellow protestors were soon surrounded by paddy wagons and motorcycles and a three-wheel motorcart. They dropped to their knees in peaceful prayer. The head of the patrol squeezed the back of King’s belt and escorted him into a police car. The police gripped the back of Abernathy’s shirt and steered him into a van.

King was placed in an isolation cell. Thankfully, he did not suffer physical brutality, but the atmosphere was dank enough to diminish a weaker man’s hope. As he wrote, “You will never know the meaning of utter darkness until you have lain in such a dungeon, knowing that sunlight is streaming overhead and still seeing only darkness below.” Jail officials refused a private meeting between King and his attorney. Wyatt Tee Walker, King’s chief of staff, sent a telegram to President Kennedy. The police did not permit King to speak to anyone for at least twenty-four hours.

As his confidantes gradually gained permission to speak to King, King became aware of a statement published by eight white clergy members in Birmingham — available here. This octet not only urged the black community to withdraw support for these demonstrations, but risibly suggested that King’s campaign was “unwise and untimely” and could be settled by the courts. They completely missed the point of what King was determined to accomplish.

King began drafting a response, scribbling around the margins of a newspaper. Abernathy asked King if the police had given him anything to write on. “No,” King replied, “I’m using toilet paper.” Within a week, he had paper and a notepad. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” contained in his incredibly inspiring book Why We Can’t Wait, is one of the most powerful statements ever written about civil rights. It nimbly argues for the need to take direct action rather than wait for injustice to be rectified. It remains an essential text for anyone who professes to champion humanity and dignity.

* * *

King’s “Letter” against the eight clergymen could just as easily apply to many “well-meaning” liberals today. He expertly fillets the white clergy for their lack of concern, pointing out that “the superficial kind of social analysis that deal with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.” He points out that direct action is, in and of itself, a form of negotiation. The only way that an issue becomes lodged in the national conversation is when it becomes dramatized. King advocates a “constructive, nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth” — something that seems increasingly difficult for people on social media to understand as they block viewpoints that they vaguely disagree with and cower behind filter bubbles. He is also adamantly, and rightly, committed to not allowing anyone’s timetable to get in the way of fighting a national cancer that had then ignobly endured for 340 years. He distinguishes between the just and the unjust law, pointing out that “one has a moral responsibility to obey unjust laws.” But he is very careful and very clear about his definitions:

An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

This is a cogent philosophy applicable to many ills beyond racism. This is radicalism in all of its beauty. This is precisely what made Martin Luther King one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. For me, Martin Luther King remains a true hero, a model for justice, humility, peace, moral responsibility, organizational acumen, progress, and doing what’s right. But it also made King dangerous enough for James Earl Ray, a staunch Wallace supporter, to assassinate him on April 4, 1968. (Incidentally, King’s family have supported Ray’s efforts to prove his innocence.)

* * *

Why We Can’t Wait‘s scope isn’t just limited to Birmingham. The book doesn’t hesitate to cover a vast historical trajectory that somehow stumps for action in 1963 and in 2019. It reminds us that much of what King was fighting for must remain at the forefront of today’s progressive politics, but also must involve a government that acts on behalf of the people: “There is a right and a wrong side in this conflict and the government does not belong the middle.” Unfortunately, the government has doggedly sided against human rights and against the majestic democracy of voting. While Jim Crow has thankfully been abolished, the recent battle to restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965, gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013, shows that systemic racism remains very much alive and that the courts for which the eight white Birmingham clergy professed such faith and fealty are stacked against African-Americans. (A 2018 Harvard study discovered that counties freed from federal oversight saw a dramatic drop in minority voter turnout.)

Much as the end of physical slavery inspired racists to conjure up segregation as a new method of diminishing African-Americans, so too do we see such cavalier and dehumanizing “innovations” in present day racism. Police shootings and hate crimes are all driven by the same repugnant violence that King devoted his life to defeating.

The economic parallels between 1963 and 2019 are also distressingly acute. In Why We Can’t Wait, King noted that there were “two and one-half times as many jobless Negros as whites in 1963, and their median income was half that of the white man.” Fifty-six years later, the Bureau of Labor Statistics informs us that African Americans are nearly twice as unemployed as whites in a flush economic time with a low unemployment rate, with the U.S. Census Bureau reporting that the median household income for African-Americans in 2017 was $40,258 compared to $68,145 for whites. In other words, a black family now only makes 59% of the median income earned by a white family.

If these statistics are supposed to represent “progress,” then it’s clear that we’re still making the mistake of waiting. These are appalling and unacceptable baby steps towards the very necessary racial equality that King called for. White Americans continue to ignore these statistics and the putatively liberal politicians who profess to stand for fairness continue to demonstrate how tone-deaf they are to feral wrongs that affect real lives. As Ashley Williams learned in February 2016, white Democrats continue to dismiss anyone who challenges them on their disgraceful legacy of incarcerating people of color. The protester is “rude,” “not appropriate,” or is, in a particularly loaded gerund, “trespassing.” “Maybe you can listen to what I have to say” was Hillary Clinton’s response to Williams, to which one rightfully replies in the name of moral justice, “Hillary, maybe you’re the one here who needs to listen.”

Even Kamala Harris, now running for President, has tried to paint herself as a “progressive prosecutor,” when her record reveals clear support for measures that actively harm the lives of black people. In 2015, Harris opposed a bill that demanded greater probing into police officer shootings. That same year, she refused to support body cams, only to volte-face with egregious opportunism just ten days before announcing her candidacy. In the case of George Gage, Harris held back key exculpatory evidence that might have freed a man who did not have criminal record. Gage was forced to represent himself in court and is now serving a 70-year sentence. In upholding these savage inequities, I don’t think it’s a stretch to out Kamala Harris as a disingenuous fraud. Like many Democrats who pay mere lip service to policies that uproot lives, she is not a true friend to African Americans, much less humanity. It was a hardly a surprise when Black Lives Matter’s Johnetta Elzie declared that she was “not excited” about Harris’s candidacy back in January. After rereading King and being reminded of the evils of casual complicity, I can honestly say that, as someone who lives in a neighborhood where the police dole out regular injustices to African-Americans, I’m not incredibly thrilled about Harris either.

But what we do have in this present age is the ability to mobilize and fight, to march in the streets until our nation’s gravest ills become ubiquitously publicized, something that can no longer be ignored. What we have today is the power to vote and to not settle for any candidate who refuses to heed the realities that are presently eating our nation away from the inside. If such efforts fail or the futility of protesting makes one despondent, one can still turn to King for inspiration. King sees the upside in a failure, galvanizing the reader without ever sounding like a Pollyanna. Pointing to the 1962 sit-ins in Albany, Georgia, King observes that, while restaurants remained segregated after months of protest, the activism did result in more African-Americans voting and Georgia at long last electing “the first governor [who] pledged to respect and enforce the law equally.”

It’s sometimes difficult to summon hope when the political clime presently seems so intransigent, but I was surprised to find myself incredibly optimistic and fired up after rereading Why We Can’t Wait for the first time in more than two decades. This remarkable book from a rightfully towering figure seems to have answered every argument that milquetoasts produce against radicalism. No, we can’t wait. We shouldn’t wait. We must act today.

The Shameful Gaslighting of Bernie Sanders

PHILLIP: So Senator Sanders, I do want to be clear here. You’re saying that you never told Senator Warren that a woman could not win the election?
SANDERS: That is correct.
PHILLIP: Senator Warren, what did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?

I must confess that CNN’s Abby Phillip’s “moderation” in last night’s Democratic presidential debate angered me so much that it took me many hours to get to sleep. It was a betrayal of fairness, a veritable gaslighting, a war on nuance, a willful vitiation of honor, a surrender of critical thinking, and a capitulation of giving anyone the benefit of the doubt. It was the assumptive guilt mentality driving outrage on social media ignobly transposed to the field of journalism. It fed into one of the most toxic and reprehensible cancers of contemporary discourse: that “truth” is only what you decide to believe rather than carefully considering the multiple truths that many people tell you. It enabled Senator Warren to riposte with one of her most powerful statements of the night: “So can a woman beat Donald Trump? Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost ten elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they have been in are the women. Amy and me.”

Any sensible person, of course, wants to see women thrive in political office. And, on a superficial level, Warren’s response certainly resonates as an entertaining smackdown. But when you start considering the questionable premise of political success being equated to constant victory, the underlying logic behind Warren’s rejoinder falls apart and becomes more aligned with Donald Trump’s shamefully simplistic winning-oriented rhetoric. It discounts the human truth that sometimes people have to lose big in order to excel at greatness. If you had told anyone in 1992 that Jerry Brown — then running against Bill Clinton to land the Democratic presidential nomination — would return years later to the California governorship, overhaul the Golden State’s budget so that it would shift to billions in surplus, and become one of the most respected governors in recent memory, nobody would have believed you. Is Abraham Lincoln someone who we cannot trust anymore because he had run unsuccessfully for the Illinois House of Representatives — not once, but twice — and had to stumble through any number of personal and political setbacks before he was inaugurated as President in 1861?

Presidential politics is far too complicated for any serious thinker to swaddle herself in platitudes. Yet anti-intellectual allcaps absolutism — as practiced by alleged “journalists” like Summer Brennan last night — is the kind of catnip that is no different from the deranged glee that inspires wild-eyed religious zealots to stone naysayers. There is no longer a line in the sand between a legitimate inquiry and blinkered monomania. And the undeniable tenor last night — one initiated by Phillip and accepted without question by Warren — was one of ignoble simplification.

Whether you like Bernie or not, the fact remains that Phillip’s interlocutory move was moral bankruptcy and journalistic corruption at the highest level. It was as willfully rigged and as preposterously personal as the moment during the October 13, 1988 presidential debate when Bernard Shaw — another CNN reporter — asked of Michael Dukakis, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

But where Shaw allowed Dukakis to answer (and allowed Dukakis to hang himself by his own answer), Phillip was arguably more outrageous in the way in which she preempted Sanders’s answer. Phillip asked Bernie a question. He answered it. And then she turned to Warren without skipping a beat and pretended as if Sanders had not answered it, directly contradicting his truth. Warren — who claims to be a longtime “friend” of Sanders — could have, at that point, said that she had already said what she needed to say, as she did when she issued her statement only days before. She could have seized the moment to be truly presidential, as she has been in the past. But she opted to side with the gaslighting, leading numerous people on Twitter to flood her replies with snake emoji. As I write this, #neverwarren is the top trending topic on Twitter.

The Warren supporter will likely respond to this criticism by saying, with rightful justification, that women have contended with gaslighting for centuries. Isn’t it about time for men to get a taste of their own medicine? Fair enough. But you don’t achieve gender parity by appropriating and weaponizing the repugnant moves of men who deny women their truth. If you’re slaying dragons, you can’t turn into the very monsters you’re trying to combat. The whole point of social justice is to get everyone to do better.

After the debate, when Bernie offered his hand to Warren, she refused to shake it — despite the fact that she had shaken the hands of all the other candidates (including the insufferable Pete Buttigieg). And while wags and pundits were speculating on what the two candidates talked about during this ferocious exchange, the underlying takeaway here was the disrespect that Warren evinced to her alleged “friend” and fellow candidate. While it’s easy to point to the handshake fiasco as a gossipy moment to crack jokes about — and, let’s face the facts, what political junkie or armchair psychologist wouldn’t be fascinated by the body language and the mystery? — what Warren’s gesture tells us is that disrespect is now firmly aligned with denying truth. It isn’t enough to gaslight someone’s story anymore. One now has to strip that person of his dignity.

Any pragmatic person understands that presidential politics is a fierce and cutthroat business and that politicians will do anything they need to do in order to win. One only has to reread Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes or Robert A. Caro’s Lyndon B. Johnson volumes to comprehend the inescapable realpolitik. But to see the putatively objective system of debate so broken and to see a candidate like Warren basking in a cheap victory is truly something that causes me despair. Because I liked Warren. Really, I did. I donated to her. I attended her Brooklyn rally and reported on it. I didn’t, however, unquestionably support her. Much as I don’t unquestionably support Bernie. One can be incredibly passionate about a political candidate without surrendering the vital need for critical thinking. That’s an essential part of being an honorable member of a representative democracy.

Bias was, of course, implicit last night in such questions as “How much will Medicare for All cost?” One rarely sees such concern for financial logistics tendered to, say, the estimated $686 billion that the United States will be spending on war and defense in 2020 alone. Nevertheless, what Abby Phillip did last night was shift tendentiousness to a new and obscene level that had previously been unthinkable. When someone offers an answer to your question, you don’t outright deny it. You push the conversation along. You use the moment to get both parties to address their respective accounts rather than showing partiality.

This is undeniably the most important presidential election in our lifetime. That it has come to vulgar gaslighting rather than substantive conversation is a disheartening harbinger of the new lows to come.

Why I Don’t Think Elizabeth Warren Can Win

One would need a heart of anthracite to not be wowed by Senator Elizabeth Warren in person. On Tuesday night, at the Kings Theatre in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn — a venue that I was able to walk to from my own stomping grounds, where I am one of a handful of white guys living in a four story building thronged with apartments — Warren was an electric speaker. Wearing a cyan blazer and hitting the stage with the energy of someone at least two decades younger, she filled one of Brooklyn’s finest cathedrals with a series of stump speech talking points in which she discussed her unexpected life decisions — dropping out of a scholarship program to marry her first husband (“Husband #1. It’s never good when you have to number your husbands.”) and why she decided to be a teacher and a professor rather than a lawyer.

One of Warren’s strongest moments was when she described how government could benefit people. She pointed out a time in American life in which toasters would set houses on fire because the toasters would be kept running and a fire emerging from the oven would quickly latch onto an adjacent drape, setting the kitchen and thus the home into a costly conflagration. But when consumer protection laws added an automatic timer to the toasters, the fire problem disappeared. She used this metaphor to segue into her own noble efforts at banking regulation. It was another fine example of how Warren so adeptly connects with smart yet concise everyday comparisons that most Americans understand.

Before this, Julian Castro, who recently abandoned his presidential campaign and seemed to be preparing for a possible role as Warren’s running mate should she get the Democratic nomination, spoke eloquently about the need to include everyone — ranging from those with disabilities to those who are victims of racism and police brutality. And while Castro — dressed in shirtsleeves, relaxed and magnetic on stage — said all the right things, I am not sure if the crowd really understood his full message. I am also not sure if the crowd truly empathized with the two speakers who came before him — whose names I tried to suss out from a Warren volunteer and whose names are tellingly not included on the official Warren website. They were not even included on Warren’s live Twitter stream. But these two speakers felt real to me because they told tales of losing family members due to callous immigration policies and the risks of staying proudly undocumented. Castro and these two speakers were the real America, the America of the 21st century, the America you need to appeal to if you expect to win a presidential election.

I did not take notes, but you have to understand that I didn’t intend to report on this Warren rally at all. I had stupidly believed that the Warren crowd would be a motley group from all walks of life. But on Tuesday night, I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable by how Caucasian and affluent and neoliberal the whole affair was. Despite the fact that one audience member tried to heckle Warren by getting her to badmouth Mayor Pete (to her credit, she didn’t take the bait), the tone was more of a Buttigieg rally rather than a Warren one. The audience was largely white and upper middle-class — a veritable sea of Wonder Bread and Stuff White People Like that unsettled me. As I joked to a friend by text, “This rally is so white that I feel like Ving Rhames.” The volunteers were white. They used ancient cornball slang like “Ditto!” without irony. Was I in Brooklyn Heights or Flatbush? As I stood in line, these people talked of vacationing in France and of the stress of getting out of bed at 2:30 PM and they did not appear to recognize their privilege. I was able to bite my tongue, but I must confess that it rankled me to say nothing. There were complaints among the Warren faithful against Bernie Sanders, about how he was “too mean” and “not nice.” But nothing was said about his policy. Maybe they secretly understood that Sanders is the leading candidate among black millennials and that this is going to be trouble for Warren. The overwhelming takeaway I had was that these white Warren supporters were utterly clueless about how much of a disconnect they had to anyone who isn’t white. I was certain that few of them had ever been poor in their lives.

I watched two African American women try to get into the Kings Theatre, but who were denied entry into the theatre because the Warren volunteers overlooked them in the line and didn’t give them the requisite green sticker that secured them entry. It seemed to me a form of racial profiling. I watched white people refuse to leave tips for the black bartenders who were servicing them. (I dropped a Lincoln into the tip bucket because this upset me.) The first people to leave midway through Warren’s speech who weren’t parents trying to quiet down their kids were African-American. I watched one woman throw up her hands as Warren spoke. And this bothered me. I am sure that this is not the message that Warren wishes to promulgate.

Maybe what I’m trying to identify here is a specific risk-averse form of whiteness. A peculiar timidity that is out of step with these turbulent times and that is certainly contradictory with Warren’s ongoing chant, “I will fight for you!” Just before the rally began, my phone pinged with distressing news of Iran pummeling the Al Asad airbase, which houses American soldiers, with missiles. It was clear retaliation for the American assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. It was, by any objective assessment, the beginning of a major international conflict — possibly a protracted war. Castro and Warren, to their credit, acknowledged this at the beginning of their respective speeches. But I brought this up with the white people who attended the rally, thinking that they would share the same horror for unnecessary bloodshed that I did. I was told to shut up and to not bring this up. Because whiteness is blind and selective about the big issues. Not just with the rich inner lives of people who aren’t white, but with cataclysmic events that produce violence and for which privilege insulates white people.

Then it really hit me. The Kings Theatre was in my neighborhood, which I love with all my heart. According to the 2010 census, only one fifth of Flatbush is white. The average household income here is $56,599, which doesn’t buy you a lot of cheddar in New York but that allows one a modestly happy existence. I recognize my own privilege, but I do not consider myself superior to anyone and I spend much of my time listening to other people’s stories. After all, the whole point of life is to always consider perspectives that are not your own. Who the hell am I to declare my life better? That isn’t what democracy is about.

Please understand that I have the utmost respect for Elizabeth Warren and I think she would make a fine President. But it’s her supporters that have spawned these sentiments. I truly believe they don’t get it. They are simply more sedate versions of the “Bernie bro” stereotype that they have spent the last three years kvetching about. But Bernie spent the last four years learning from his mistakes and trying out an approach that was more inclusive. Warren’s white volunteer base does not seem to understand that you can’t win the 2020 presidential election if you lack the ability to appeal to people who are not white. If you want to do affluent white people things on your own time, such as blowing $180 on a Sunday Funday brunch and complaining about how hard it is to have it all, that’s fine. I’m not going to begrudge you for it. But don’t think for a second that your multicultural myopia will guarantee you an election victory. If you can’t be bothered to remember the names of people who aren’t white and who are genuinely brave and who have truly lived — and, again, I am guilty on this front with the two speakers and I will do better next time — then you have no business participating in presidential politics.

The upshot is that I do not believe Elizabeth Warren can win because the white people who volunteer for her campaign cannot listen. They not only refuse to recognize their privilege, but, if my experience on my own home turf is any indication of a possibly larger national problem, they refuse to do so. Bernie, by contrast, has found support among Muslims and many other groups that the Warren volunteer clan will not talk to because, as nimbly documented by BuzzFeed‘s Ruby Cramer, he has adopted a strategy of presenting stories that represent struggles.

“PEOPLE FIRST” read the letters held by the premium volunteers allowed to sit on stage. But are they really committed to people? Or are they being selective about it?

Elizabeth Warren knew the right neighborhood to go to. But she cannot win because, for all of her dazzling prowess and her willingness to take selfies with anyone who shows up, she cannot reflect the diversity of that neighborhood. And if her present logistical base gets a vital neighborhood in Brooklyn so unabashedly wrong, how can we expect her to appeal to the gloriously variegated possibilities of America?

The Unbearable Stupidity of Chris Cillizza

Like most professional pundits who lull us to sleep with dull platitudes, Chris Cillizza is an imperious tadpole who somehow believes that he has the legs to win a frog jumping contest. Cillizza’s sophism was shrewdly sussed out by Dave Weigel in 2014 and his style, if we can call it that, has long been the bane of anyone who genuinely cares about thinking and journalism. That this aquatic larva is a grown-ass 43-year-old man who has failed to show one whit of growth or intelligence over his astonishingly worthless career and that he continues to fulminate with unbearable stupidity is one of the great embarrassments of current American discourse. And make no mistake. Chris Cillizza is a fool with a capital F. The only reason Cillizza remains tolerated is because his dimwitted dispatches get traffic. Cillizza cynically gives the people the anti-intellectual snake oil that they apparently want. Much like Chuck Todd, Cillizza fell upward into an unfathomable position of influence when this insufferable oaf doesn’t even have the logistical acumen to manage an Arby’s.

It says something fairly significant about our tolerance for stupidity that this inarticulate crank is allowed to get away with this. Watch this unlikely avuncular figure and you will witness a man who cannot form a sentence without falling into a narcissistic longueur. On television, he speaks somewhere between a loutish mansplainer who you can’t escape from during a weekend corporate retreat and a tenured professor who just hit the bottle after coming out of rehab for the seventh time. Monosllyabic words boom from this hulking fool’s mouth with the force of a howitzer firing blanks on the wrong battlefield, as if words like “Big!” and “So!” and “Two!” were the key to understanding why the bog bodies in Northern Europe were preserved for so long.

Cillizza’s spurious and illogical arguments can drive any reasonable person crazy. They’ve certainly caused me to scream obscenities. My neighbor knocks on the door. And before I can say anything, my neighbor says, “Another Cillizza article?” I nod my head in shame. Then I offer the neighbor some scotch and all is well. Until the next unfathomably stupid Cillizza take. In 2018, Deadspin‘s Albert Burneko described Cillizza as “an amoral rat whose professional existence…is predicated entirely on cynical indifference to truth or fact or consequence.” None other than John Legend took Cillizza to task for his ongoing efforts to perpetuate false equivalency.

Chris Cillizza’s present fount of unbridled fatuity is a January 6, 2020 column entitled “What Elizabeth Warren’s statements on Qasem Soleimani really tell us.” You see, the facts never really matter with Cillizza. It’s the impression that does. Even when there is no logical underpinning for how the impression was formed.

Perhaps Cillizza has problems with women who are leagues smarter than him. I really don’t know. What I do know is that this column represented a complete failure of basic rational thinking. Cillizza attempted to impugn presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren by insisting that Soleimani couldn’t possibly be both “a murderer” and “a senior foreign military official.” But that’s not true. Objectively speaking, both statements are true. Soleimani was not only responsible for the deaths of 603 American soldiers, but he was a military man considered to be Iran’s “vice president.” Soleimani’s murder by the United States has kickstarted one of the most volatile situations in the Middle East that can be imagined — one that may lead to needless deaths of Americans and Iranians. One would think that Cillizza would focus on the very dangerous and wildly erratic man in the White House who has ignited this madness without a plan.

But for Cillizza, Warren’s statements are “mind-bending” and “confusing.” When, in fact, there is nothing confusing whatsoever about what Warren said. It is no more difficult to grasp than me telling you that, while I am very fond of dried cranberries, cranberry juice, and cranberry salad, I really don’t care for cranberry sauce.

Sorry. Cillizza is calling me right now. Hang on.

Me: Hello?
Cillizza: That’s mind-bending, Ed! And confusing! I thought you said you liked cranberries!
Me: I do, Chris. I’ve just sent you a video of me dancing a jig after chugging down a bottle of cranberry juice. I just don’t like the texture or the taste of cranberry sauce.
Cillizza: You’ve changed, Ed, from your previous position. And you can’t afford to do that.
Me: I’m not running for office.
Cillizza: You are either for cranberries or against them!
Me: Have you ever heard of a concept called ambiguity? Subtlety? Taste? Hell, why am I even asking?
Cillizza: Are you a member of al-Qaeda, Ed?
Me: Dude.
Cillizza: That’s a long way from where you started this week. A long way.

At least this is the conversation I imagine in my mind.

Obviously, when a person thinks in such absolutes and with such paralogia, there’s simply no appealing to him. But when a thinker this shoddy is entrusted to pontificate for eight figures on CNN, it does make one ponder just how much a news organization will tolerate. Then again, we’re seeing The New York Times cite white supremacists as news sources. Perhaps the only way we can save the Fourth Estate — at a time in which we very much need it — is to start a movement to demand better thinking from all pundits and, if they fail to say anything cogent or useful, starve spastic rodents like Cillizza of the attention they have so cynically and gleefully cultivated.

The Black Dog Barks During the Holidays

It was five years ago when I got the news. Weeks after I lost my mind and I became unhinged and I hurt people with words that I remain deeply ashamed of and I attempted to throw myself off the Manhattan Bridge to end my life and I issued numerous heartfelt apologies and I was spending my subsequent time trying to dig my way out of sadness by extending empathy to people who were more damaged than me in a Bellevue psych ward.

Then it happened.

That’s when the psychiatrist took me into a room and gently said the words that startled me: “Ed, you have bipolar disorder.”

I’ve never confessed this to anyone outside of a few of my closest friends. But I’m saying it now. Publicly. Because I want to own who I am.

I have a disability. And I no longer want to feel any shame about my condition.

I know that I can still live a healthy and positive life. I know that I’m usually a great pleasure to be around and that plenty of people who have taken the time to know me are incredibly understanding and see the great good in me. I held down a job for four years before resigning to pursue other opportunities. I put together an audio drama out of my apartment from nothing, one featuring dozens of tremendously talented actors who are all dear to my heart. I went from being homeless and broke to having my own place in Brooklyn within nine months — a far from easy trajectory. I have devoted every day of the last five years to performing a secret good deed to pay back the universe for any hurt that I have caused people. I know that I have changed — and even saved — numerous lives for the better, but I still believe it’s incredibly self-serving to discuss all the good that I have done. So I usually stay silent about all this.

I have learned that I have to let people make the choice to have me in their lives and to see me for who I truly am. You can’t stack the deck when it comes to social bonds. This has made me, on the whole, a lot happier.

Still, I am very sad and hopeless when the holidays come around. Because this is the time of year that represents an anniversary that often stops me in my tracks and leaves me paralyzed in bed for hours, unable to read or write or watch movies or edit audio or even respond in a timely manner to the texts of friends. And the shame is so deep that, as of right now, I somehow cannot even find it within me to accept a friend’s incredibly generous invite to join her family for Christmas dinner. Because the idea of not having a family, and the crazed associative seduction that comes from believing a narrative in which nobody loves or cares for me, is all part of the black dog’s insidious plan to take over my life.

I know that I have to be on heightened alert before December 26th. When that glorious day comes around, I am usually the happiest. Because I am finally at peace. Until the next year rolls around. You see, the black dog likes to come out and bark during the holidays — as it did recently when a man told me that he would beat me to an inch of my life on the subway because he thought that I was looking at him when I wasn’t. And I was so hopped up, so fully prepared to get into a fistfight with the bastard and show him who was boss. Thankfully a kind soul interceded and there was no violence. The black dog kept growling. He was thrilled by the promise of shaking himself loose from the leash and the cage. I challenged a film critic a little too hard on Twitter over the most trifling subject imaginable and I allowed a writer who I had once admired to debase and belittle and disrespect me and I responded to him — stupidly and privately — with four emails (three vituperative, the last an apology for the previous trio but a firm effort to stick up for myself) expressing how much he had hurt me for cavalierly writing me off and dismissing me after all that I had done for him over the years and all that he did not know about me or my life. It was disgraceful. I want to be clear that I’m not proud of any of this. I was so beaten down from all this that I posted a series of gloomy tweets (since deleted), including a poll asking users if the universe was better off without me. Friends became concerned. God damn that black dog. What a selfish asshole. Causing people worry. Upsetting people dear to me. Wanting to strike lexical terror against people who didn’t deserve it. But I’m grateful to my friends beyond words. I am also deeply ashamed of how I fell victim to the black dog. I received texts. Direct messages. Phone calls. One of America’s most trusted newsmen even tracked down my number and called me to make sure that I was okay, gently telling me that I was irreplaceable and listening to me gab for a ridiculously long time, understanding all the while that this was my way of finding humor in a terrible predicament. It was one of the sweetest things anybody could do. I would defend that man with my life.

What all these incredible people were trying to tell me is something I never got to hear five years ago: “Ed, you have bipolar disorder, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t live a life and it doesn’t mean that we don’t see how you’ve turned your life around and it doesn’t mean that we don’t see the love you give out into the universe. You, in turn, are loved by us.”

That’s it. That’s all I needed to hear. It’s simple really. Love. It chases the black dog out of the room. It’s kryptonite against bad feelings. You’d think that people would recognize that love is the very quality that people would cleave to when others are feeling troubled. But in an age of cancel culture, in an epoch in which making sweeping judgments about who a person is based on a few social media snapshots is now the norm, we’re living in a world in which love is either disposable or at a premium.

This is one of the reasons why it’s taken me five years to own up and be up front about my disability. When people you love betray you and belittle you when you’re down and out, it represents a crippling pain that takes many years to reckon with. When people intuitively detect a moment to attack you as you’re doing your damnedest to be your best and truest self — and there’s no room or space for even the smallest screw-up — that’s when the shame sweeps over you. That’s when the charlatan humanists come out of the woodwork and say, “Hey, be a better person, you son of a bitch!” And the level of rage you feel because some mean-spirited and unthinking dope has summarily dismissed all that you’ve done to be better invites the black dog to dart out of the sagebrush with impunity. I don’t know if anybody can understand or sympathize with that. Looking at how my anger was expressed from a more objective perspective, I’m hard-pressed to empathize with the guy who was motivated by the black dog. But empathize I must. Because to not do so is to give into shame that deracinates personal growth.

The shame was planted not long after I was released from Bellevue. By a vicious podcaster who feigned friendship and who kept badgering me for an interview by phone and text and who I begged to leave me alone. I was trying to recover while living in less than ideal conditions: a crowded room in a homeless shelter in which violence was a regular occurrence and one had to be very careful. I finally agreed to talk with him so that his phone calls and his messages would stop. The podcaster kept saying, “People will understand you after this. Trust me.” Did he not know that I was still trying to comprehend myself? The podcaster proceeded to paint me as the greatest scoundrel who ever lived: a villain unwilling of forgiveness or understanding who had planned this strategy for attention-seeking all along. With casual cruelty, the podcaster negated the terrible truth that I was trying to grapple with: that I was deeply unwell and that I needed to adjust the way in which I lived so that I could be a functioning member of society. The look of selfish relish and rampant opportunism on his face. The way he sipped greedily from one cup of coffee and didn’t even offer to buy me one when I had a grand total of thirty-seven cents to my name. The methodical way that he gleefully punched down as I traced the spot on the bridge where I had tried to off myself. It was all shocking conduct. Behavior that I would never, not even in my darkest hour, offer to my worst enemy. And I was powerless. Desperate. Living with pain. All because I wanted to oblige and be understood after a significant share of people had permanently and justifiably departed from my life.

The shame was furthered by my toxic family. They refused to help me, not even offering me a place where I could simply sit for a few weeks and reckon with the pain of losing everything. They actively and enthusiastically left me for dead. I was forced to sever ties for my own emotional and mental health. The shame got hammered further by my ex-partner, who I had pledged in good faith and as I was feeling debilitating despair to leave alone and not bother again. She used the bipolar diagnosis as a weapon, an occasion to seek needless revenge. She sent me a legal letter in which the attorney declared that I was “retarded,” among other misleading legalese that dehumanized me and reduced me to a sobbing ball of nothingness before I could even come to terms with the truth of my revealed life. But I understand why she did this. I hurt her terribly with my crack-up and bear her no ill will. I was forced to show up in court with a court-appointed attorney on the morning after I had been abruptly moved without warning at two in the morning to another homeless shelter in East New York. I was penniless. I begged the staff to borrow a MetroCard and a razor. I somehow managed to arrive at the court fifteen minutes late dressed in the only sportscoat and tie that I had. That dreadful morning, my identity was attacked with relish. Friends were shocked by her behavior. They were shocked by my family. But I still had love from this small but growing cluster who realized the true score.

It’s bad enough being publicly shamed for words and actions that you never actually committed — such as the time last year in which the audio drama “community” bullied me days before Christmas and invented a series of vicious lies and uncorroborated falsehoods about me — ranging from me being a pedophile to living alone with chickens to harassing people who I had sent nothing but benign messages to — after my audio drama, The Gray Area, won a coveted Parsec Award. The holidays are bad enough for me, what with a family that has disowned me and the way in which so many people who need our love are left in the dust due to the selective application of what constitutes “holiday cheer.” But last year’s attacks sent me into a tail spin of heavy drinking and suicidal ideation in which I didn’t know if I was going to make audio drama again. Thank heavens I had the generous support of friends who patiently stayed on the phone with me and selflessly gave their time when they were very busy. Thank heavens I had an incredibly talented and kind cast who saw that I treated them well and who knew I kept things fun and relaxed and who still wanted to work with me. Months later, I was writing and recording again.

If you’re bipolar, you do have to reckon with and be honest about the behavior that you have actually committed. That’s already a hell of a handful. You look back at the past and you don’t recognize yourself. But if you’re bipolar and you’re something of a public figure, then you also have to deal with a set of false narratives on top of the unruly true one that you’re already trying to nail down.

I want to be clear that I’m not asking for your empathy or your pity. Whether you think I deserve it or not is not my business. And it shouldn’t be. Nor do I want to suggest that I’m using my bipolar disorder as a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. I’m simply telling you how it is. If you think I enjoy occasionally lashing out when the black dog is tearing into my leg with his vicious teeth, believe me I don’t. I don’t enjoy it anymore than the depressed person enjoys feeling sad but who is told by others who do not understand mental illness, “Say, why don’t you cheer up?” As if we people afflicted by black dogs haven’t considered these obvious solutions. If it were possible to instantly wake up one day and be permanently rid of the black dog, I’d do it in a heartbeat. The good news is that I’ve made adjustments and this isn’t occurring nearly as often as it used to. Thanks to therapy, I am quicker on the draw when it comes to shutting the black dog down or instantly apologizing on the rare occasions when he does growl and he makes people very afraid. I am tremendously blessed to have people in my life who are understanding of this. Perhaps one day, if I’m lucky, the black dog will permanently disappear. But one never knows with bipolar. It can either last a few years or stay with you over the course of a lifetime. There is no cure for this. But great men, such as Lincoln and as documented in Joshua Wolf Shrenk’s excellent book Lincoln’s Melancholy, did find strength from their despair.

For now, I know the black dog is there. And December seems to be the time when he takes his destructive constitutional.

What I would like to ask of you — as we approach a new year and a new decade and I’ll make the promise as well — is to consider the very real possibility that the person you’re gleefully maligning isn’t the big bad wolf you’ve made him out to be. That he may be actively working on his problems. That he may even be reachable. That responding with hatred may very well perpetuate a vicious cycle that might prevent the person from growing or excelling and that the tragedy of this stifled possibility greatly outweighs your umbrage. That the person is probably more likely to understand his bad conduct if you give him the time and the space. If you show him love.

You can stop an apparent bad apple instantly in his tracks with kindness or a joke. I’ve done it myself many times. Months ago — and this is a story I’ve never told anyone, not even my friends, until now — a man pulled a knife on the 2 line and threatened to cut himself and others. And maybe this was stupid and reckless of me, but I felt overwhelming empathy for him. I started talking with him. And I asked him who he was and what his life was like. And I kept at it. I had somehow entered a zone. A zone of feeling something bigger than myself. A zone of needing to help this man find peace. Because while I have never threatened anyone with a knife, I saw the pain in his eyes and heard the tremble in his voice. And I told the other passengers that I had this, even though I was flying by the seat of my pants and I wasn’t sure how it would turn out. But I kept at it. And I got him to laugh at my jokes.

That’s all the man needed. Love. Laughter. A sense that he belonged.

And do you know what he did? He put down his knife on a spare subway seat. He apologized. I gave him a hug. I slyly confiscated the knife and kept him distracted and made sure he got off on his stop — still talking with him, still hugging him, still doing everything I could to keep reaching him. And he forgot about the knife. I threw the knife in a trash can on my way home.

I have no idea what happened to this man. I certainly hope he is okay. But I knew he had a black dog like me. I knew it was my moral responsibility to help him understand that he was beautiful. Away from the knife. Away from the tough talk. Away from all the terrible pain he was in.

I have long not been a fan of Christmas because love and empathy is selectively applied. Friends have suggested that I can figure out a way to take back the holiday. So I’m doing that right now.

My name is Edward Champion. I write and make audio drama. Despite my flaws, I’m a pretty fun and good guy, but I also suffer from bipolar disorder. It’s bitten me in the ass a number of times. I hope that you can find it within your hearts to forgive me for my black dog, but I fully understand if you can’t. I also hope that, as you approach the holiday season, you can also understand that three million Americans — and that number merely represents the ones who have been diagnosed, not the untold number of people who are suffering right now and who may not be in the position of being able to afford treatment and who are feeling shame about their mental health — are in the same boat as I am. I hope that you can extend empathy and understanding to this considerable cluster of Americans. They are all doing the best that they can. They really don’t want to give into the black dog. But they do need your love. They do need your understanding. They do need your patience. And they need this not just during Christmas, but throughout the entire year.

For my own part, I’m going to resolve to muzzle the black dog faster. I’ve made steady progress, but I still have a long way to go. To anyone who I have ever hurt, my door is open if you need to make amends. If you don’t, that’s fine too. But if you do, please know that I will sincerely extend any and all time to listen with every ounce of earnest patience it takes and to help the two of us reckon with something that never needed to happen. This seems the least I can do.

I wish all of my readers and listeners very happy holidays.

(My considerable gratitude to Rain DeGrey, who said some very kind and necessary words to me which inspired me to own up and find the courage to write this essay. I really needed to write all this years ago. But, hey, better late than never. Peace to everyone.)