Dear Upheaval subscribers:
April 7 marks the one-year anniversary of the day I set up this Substack and published its introductory essay. At that point I had exactly zero readers and a goal of merely organizing my own thoughts by writing for what I assumed would probably remain an audience of around one.
I certainly did not expect that within a year nearly 15,000 readers would have elected to regularly receive that writing by email. Or that, given my aversion to social media, most of you would have found this place almost entirely via word of mouth, so to speak, by other writers. For this I am truly grateful. And I’m especially grateful to those of you who have chosen to maintain a paid subscription. The idea that people would pay to read what I have to say remains both vaguely unbelievable and profoundly encouraging. I am glad that so many find in it something helpful, interesting, or otherwise of value.
Now, since the one-year retrospective seems to have become a tradition for Substack writers, and I respect tradition, I figure I’m obliged to offer some additional thoughts on what has most surprised me from this experience.
The most important thing I’d like to try to express is the sense of meaning and joy that I’ve found comes from being free to write things that I believe to be true. The foremost reason I started writing down my thoughts here is that I felt it had simply become impossible in my professional life (as in many fields today) to discuss the issues that genuinely matter most to all of us – the ones nearly everyone seems aware of but can’t speak the truth about openly.
Having worked for some time now in the foreign policy world that revolves around Washington DC, I can assure you that whatever your feelings about that tentacled city squatting itself on America’s mid-Atlantic coast, it’s probably worse than you think. I don’t care whether you are on the Right or the Left. The limitless narcissism and navel gazing, the gaslighting and dissimulation, the illiteracy and greed of the place is surpassed perhaps only by the weight of its decadent banality – by the same painfully shallow ideas (and people) circulating ceaselessly through an incestuous and wholly unaccountable apparatus insistent on regurgitating them over and over again in entitled cries for more money and power and attention.
But then it’s been like that for a long time. What began to really concern me was when what I was working on started to seem increasingly disassociated from reality as Washington began to collectively concentrate on carefully ignoring the intensifying earthquakes shaking the world all around them. Better to stay focused on the wonky, the petty, or the fantastical than to acknowledge the tectonic but controversial or politically inconvenient.
It’s different on Substack. Writing (and reading) here is like breaking through clouds of swamp smog to breathe clear mountain air again. And working under a pen name, without institutional constrains or self-censorship, has proven a more exceptional tonic for mind and spirit that I could have predicted, not to mention often simply great fun. I have been surprised in particular by how all this has transformed everyday experience – suddenly everything is of electric new interest, always stimulating new conceptual connections and ideas and on which to write. This has become a constant creative background to life in a way I never would have expected (at this point I have a list of topics I’d love to write about for you that is far longer than I’ll ever have time for).
It has also proven to be far more work than initially expected. One cannot, I’ve found, be an on-again, off-again Substack writer. Once people have blessed you with their patronage, there is of course a constant obligation to produce worthy work. But it is more than that: the sense of responsibility owes as much to the unexpected quality of the community I’ve found here.
The brilliance of many of the writers I’ve met since I began here has been humbling. But the intelligence and knowledge of my everyday readers (that’s you) from around the world, who have dived into the comments or sent me emails to correspond on the finer points of Gnosticism, or to point out Xi Jinping’s obsession with Goethe, or simply to chat about the absurdities of our post-modern age, has really blown me away. You certainly outclass the usual Washington hacks, that’s for sure.
So if you’ve ever thought about writing yourself, please do. Try it out. We could all benefit from hearing from more of you in these troubled times. If you haven’t noticed yet, all of the intellectual energy today seems to be crackling around independent places like Substack. And that energy is intense, because we are living through a period of breathtaking intellectual, ideational, and political change, even if that fact is distorted by the seemingly week-to-week crises and eye-rolling nonsense of the news cycle.
Indeed, despite having started a publication called “The Upheaval,” over the last year the world has proven itself crazier than even I would have expected. Unpredictable systemic change is occurring fast, and seemingly at every level. It was only six months ago, for example, that I was considering writing an essay on all the snark millennials received from experts back in 2020 when the internet freaked out over the prospect of WWIII being started by Trump and Iran (remember that?). I would, I thought, explain how the chance of this generation living through a major global conflict during their lifetime was actually significantly higher than many seemed to appreciate. Well, that one has already been overtaken by events; few would likely now have much trouble imagining another world-shattering war occurring in the coming decades.
More broadly, the recognition that this century is not going to be an easy and straightforward one, that we are not set to glide unperturbed into a comfortably liberal, conflict-free, Star Trek-like future, is I think now rightly becoming far more widespread. More people can perhaps now feel the Upheaval happening, even if not all in the same way.
These times are certainly disconcerting, even frightening. But there is, I think, at least a real chance that a genuine philosophical and political renaissance could now be beginning – as has occurred in past eras of turmoil – as more and more people break from the mental strictures that have been imposed on them and reconsider what is true, and right, and where it is possible to go from here.
Or, at the very least, I am certain that there will be plenty for me to keep writing about here during Year Two of The Upheaval.
Sincerely and with thanks,
The Five Top Posts in Year One, by Popularity:
2. No, the Revolution Isn’t Over
4. Ukraine and the End of Dreams
The Five Top Posts in Year One, According to Me Just Now:
5. There Is No Liberal West – Cathartic. Farewell, fair liberalism!
4. Intersectional Imperialism and the Woke Cold War – This will be even more relevant in the year ahead, just watch.
3. No, the Revolution Isn’t Over – Same.
2. Humor and Humanity – The rare heart-warmer.
1. The Upheaval – the OG.
I just found out I share a Substack birthday with Paul Kingsnorth, so here's a shout-out to him.
I first came across your substack through a reference to it in the substack of a British writer, Ed West. The first essay I read was like having a glass of cold water thrown in my face, but in a good way. It was shock to the system to read something with a high degree of intellectual curiosity married with keenly sharp analysis and historical understanding. It did make you realize how much of that intellectual curiosity has been lost across the usual institutions from the media to higher education in the last 20 years. The pursuit of truth has collapsed, with all the implications that come with it.
Keep up the good job. I keenly look forward to your next essay. As a classic enlightenment liberal / small 'c' conservative living in a deeply blue bubble that's found himself suddenly, without warning it seems, on the wrong side of history, I will also say for all the moaning of the horrendous impacts of the social media age, one of the upshots is that it's also allowed for the disenfranchised resistance scattered across the world to find each other and enjoy each other's thoughts. Social media and technological advancement may have allowed a greater degree of totalitarian control, but it also makes resistance much easier, as substack shows.