Introducing...'Notes From The Margins'

A Newsletter and Collection of Writings on Culture, Politics, and Ideas

The Carnival Circus

Sometime in the last decade, writing on the Internet changed. I won’t rehash the whole history other than to note that a generation of younger writers—myself included--came of age through it. Not as writers, but as readers, the first generation truly shaped by the Internet’s republic of letters.

There was the golden era of blogging, from circa 2003 to around 2010, when writing online was more exploratory, polemical, often fragmented, and most importantly, unfiltered. The opinion pages of the leading newspapers and the mastheads of the magazines were at the time still limited to select group of mostly-white, mostly-Ivy League educated journalists, which is why when a consensus developed—like the rush to war in Iraq in 2003—it was impossible to challenge.

Then, almost suddenly, the gates that had been policed so vigorously came crashing down. A nobody could walk-on and write a blistering essay that might deliver the sort of insight that was ignored by the leading outlets. I’m thinking of old-school Ta-Nehisi Coates here in particular, but there are many examples. In this form, intellectual honesty was valued above all else. You were allowed to be wrong, allowed to change your mind. You were on an intellectual and public journey with the reader. The dialectic was one of argument and counter-argument, readers adding to the conversation and offering their own perspectives.

After Twitter and Facebook took the oxygen out of blogs, and smartphones became ubiquitous, there followed a rapid democratization of thought, which would allow someone like me, without any connections to the journalism world, to start publishing my work. It would also allow bad-faith actors to spread misinformation, or allow white nationalists and terrorists to disseminate their manifestos. The limits of free speech would be tested, daily, hourly. But there were other forces at work beyond technology.

I started college the year Barack Obama was elected president and graduated from law school a few months after Donald Trump’s inauguration. Which is to say: I came of age through this transformation.

If you were a Millennial born between, say, 1986 and 1994, you would have been right at the start of your career just as the digital world turned upside down. You would have been trained in an old-school form where the writer honed their craft in the library, read widely, preparing quietly as a kind of training ground before going out into the real battle of ideas. Developing a voice, and something worth saying, took time, patience, discipline. Then the world changed. Anyone could now publish anything. Hysteria became the dominant tone; hot-takes were in demand.

Our new overlords—the social media platforms—didn’t care about enlightening us; they wanted to monopolize and monetize our attention, adjusting their algorithms accordingly.

A writer who came up in this old school, what was he or she to do when the public conversation stopped feeling like a provocative seminar room and started feeling like a racist carnival circus?

Birtherism, Meet Journalism

In hindsight, the ugly timeline of change also dovetails exactly with the birther movement, specifically when Donald Trump begins promoting the conspiracy theory, in 2011, that Barack Obama was not an American citizen. The media did not put the racist allegation to rest. This was by design.

“Open your eyes,” Trump wrote in a letter irresponsibly published by the New York Times in 2011, at the height of the hysteria, “there’s at least a good chance that Barack Hussein Obama has made mincemeat out of our great and cherished Constitution!” Today, the letter might appear on any number of white nationalist websites. While Obama was engaged in respectability politics to placate his critics, elite journalists were giving respectable cover to racism—or what they termed racially-charged language.

This was in April 2011. The next month, the first African-American president of the United States was forced to stand in the White House Briefing Room and release his long-form birth certificate, one of the most demeaning moments in the history of the presidency, brought on by the symbiosis of racist trolls and media elites uninterested in the consequences of their actions. (“Mr. Obama’s comments risked elevating the discredited questions about where he was born…” a Times reporter duly noted without irony.)

Eventually, I noticed that the sort of writing I was reared on had disappeared. It went behind paywalls. It hid in obscure journals. Even as new voices—minority voices—emerged, there was something about this old tradition that I missed. The blending of personal with polemical. The autodidactic joy of discovery, and the thrill of sending one’s arguments out into the world, hopeful that they would find a respectful and receptive audience. And, crucially, the expectation that one’s work would not be deliberately misread.

Obama won the argument; Trump won the election. Who would really suggest, despite all the improvements in technology and information-sharing in the last few years, despite the renewed urgency of economic and political questions, that the public conversation has actually improved?

If anything, we seem to have regressed back to the dark ages.

Notes From The Margins

This preface is another way of saying that I think moments of systemic crisis are also opportunities to examine, from first principles, what we actually believe and why.

It’s with this in mind that I am launching Notes From The Margins, my newsletter and online collection of writings on culture, books, politics, ideas, and everything else in-between. It’s where you will find my latest work, all in one place. I plan to write on subjects across the board, not limited to any particular pigeonhole or area of ‘expertise’—and have some fun along the way.

I’m publishing Notes as a kind of reclamation. My belief is simple: there are issues worth writing about, ideas worth unpacking, and conversations worth having, that are not reflected in the major outlets that publish good writing. Diversity of color and thought are not reflected in the mainstream outlets. That old world of letters may be gone, but it is my generation who will help to create a new, hopefully better, more informed world of ideas in its place.

Fueled by curiosity and a devotion to the craft, Notes will be a labor of love. This will also be the forum where I share news about my forthcoming book, Brown Boy, and build a community of readers interested in an exchange of ideas.

After all, ideas do not exist in a vacuum; they interact with and shape politics. They impact the food on our plates and the thoughts in our head. They influence who will be allowed into our borders and who will be detained in our camps, who will receive vital treatments and who will be left to perish. Ideas shape us as individuals and social beings. I consider myself forever indebted to the intellectual life, only because it saved my real life from ruin—and I plan to pay it forward in every way I can.

This is the spirit—of exploration, connection, inquiry, and joy—that will guide the pieces that appear in Notes From The Margins. I hope you’ll join me in this journey, of sharing stories worth telling, crafting new arguments, revising old certainties—and in the process, maybe, just maybe, learning something new.

Until soon.

Omer Aziz

(Artwork credit: Old Books, by Juan Álvarez Cebrián)