Blog post

Goodbye, farewell and farewell to spoiler alerts

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In 2014, I started writing regularly for The Washington Post. This space was my idiosyncratic look at the evolution of international relations, American politics, and popular culture.

Eight years later, it’s time to give the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts their redundancy notice. Today will be my last column.

Given recent events at the Post, I’m afraid some conspiratorial readers may conclude that I’m a little collateral damage from the whole drama. The truth is more mundane: my contact was up, and the management wanted to go in another direction. The Post is figuring out how to best organize its opinion sections, and I don’t fit into those plans.

If that sounds bad to me, the truth is that it was getting harder and harder for me to tolerate the status quo as well. It had nothing to do with the folks at PostEverything; they always edited me lightly, and their interventions always improved my prose.

My problem was the rhythm. I wrote four columns a week on average. Considering these as simple blog posts, it might not seem too heavy. Over time, however, Spoiler Alerts evolved from a blog to a column. Each contribution has become a little longer, a little more refined. The tone of Spoiler Alerts has become less irreverent and more, dare I say, more mature.

Part of that evolution was probably because I was writing for, you know, the Washington Post. Consciously or unconsciously, I tried to make sure that I belonged to the same newspaper that employed legendary journalists and columnists. Another part, no doubt, was the times we live in. plot happened in the last eight years: two wars (or rather one long war) in Ukraine, the election and presidency of Donald Trump, a pandemic, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the attack on the Capitol on the 6 January, etc. I found a few ways to write about it with a puzzled tone, but there were limits.

However, the main driver of this change is probably a less forgiving public sphere. As I’ve noted before, Spoiler Alerts were a form of “contingent writing” – speculations about the state of the world that may or may not turn out to have legs. Some of these thoughts have held up well; others, not so much. And that was fine – I admitted perfectly well when I was wrong.

At some point in the past eight years, however, it seems that the judgment of public discourse has changed. Years ago, many lamented the idea that leading experts could be massively wrong on big questions and not lose their position in the marketplace of ideas. This trend persists for the most part, but it has been obscured by a larger trend, in which the consequences of impoliteness are much more serious.

We live in a time where retweeting a tasteless joke, then apologizing and deleting it 10 minutes later still ends up on your permanent record. Not all offenses are created equal, and in some cases such behavior merits severe penalties. There is something bizarre, however, in the capricious nature of reactions and overreactions to acts that, less than a decade ago, would have barely merited a shrug.

It’s entirely possible that as a straight, middle-aged white male, my reading on this is wrong. Another trend I’ve noticed over the past eight years is that my inner grumpy old voice is starting to get louder. I am fully aware that this voice is not always wrong, but it is not always right either. That said, public discourse relentlessly hostile to a particular installment of norm violations is not fertile ground for the contingent writing that inspired Spoiler Alerts.

We need a more forgiving public discourse, in which mistakes are allowed to be made, apologies are sincere, criticism is tolerated, and respect is upheld despite genuine ideological disagreements.

I’ll probably have more complete thoughts on this in the near future. Maybe those thoughts will be posted somewhere – but not here. It’s time for the hardworking staff of Spoiler Alerts to go offline and bid loyal readers a very fond farewell.