Prof. Mark Danner recently wrote a remarkable story ‘Be Ready to Fight’ documenting his experience in Washington on January 6 attending the Trump rally and the attack on the Capitol that followed. Prof. Danner holds a joint appointment at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and the Department of English.
Mark Danner has written about foreign affairs and American politics for more than three decades. He’s written six books, writes regularly about foreign affairs and American politics, and covered the last four presidential elections for The New York Review of Books. He speaks and lectures widely on foreign policy and America’s role in the world, was hailed as “one of our best, most ambitious narrative journalists” by Susan Sontag, and is a MacArthur Fellow.
You’re in a unique position to write the way you do in The New York Review of Books, a journal that publishes pieces somewhere between personal essay and opinion. Describe why this kind of writing and the format appeals to you over other outlets you write for.
I’ve been associated with the New York Review since its then editor, Robert B. Silvers, gave me my first job there out of college in 1981. It’s a great paper, with the highest standards, and it makes a speciality of my particular brand of reportorial essay (or essayistic reporting). Writing what you see and writing what you think. Combining reporting with analysis.
What did you go to D.C. expecting to capture?
As I told my family and friends, I was going to Washington to cover the Stupid Coup. It was well known beforehand that there was going to be some kind of coup attempt, if you were paying attention. Apparently a lot of people weren’t.
In this piece, you argue folks didn’t truly grasp that Trump “owned them.” You write “the sophisticated members of Congress and the media and intelligentsia could not” see it. What could/should the media have done? Even if they had done, were people ready to hear it? Did any of your contemporaries get close?
I really meant that many, particularly in the broader political class, hadn’t grasped the implications of what loyalty to Trump meant. He demanded total loyalty — loyalty to him transcended, in his mind, loyalty to the Constitution or the country. The coup was the result.
“Be Ready to Fight” includes such a terrific summation: “The imagery of Trumpism is about strength and cruelty and dominance even as the rhetoric is about loss and grievance and victimization: about what was taken and what must be seized back by strength.” How did you arrive at it?
I suppose it struck me from the beginning, when I first wrote about Trump during the 2016 campaign, that his rhetoric of strength appeared to be inextricable from the bitter sense of grievance that pervaded his arguments. His final tweets on January 6, even while his supporters were still rampaging through the Capitol, reaffirmed how mistreated they had been, this time because of the theft of their “great election victory.”
Some of your descriptions reminded me of photographs, how photographs might translate into words, i.e. “Lined up against the wall of a museum, men in tactical gear stood with backs turned, pissing. A woman in a kind of red, white, and blue pajama suit gazed down at her phone and shouted, ‘Pence just threw Trump under the bus!’” Describe for students how you did this; assuming you didn’t have your notebook out?
No, I didn’t have my notebook out. I suppose I’d tell students, and tell them again, that it is imperative you learn how really to look, to see, to remember. That evening I sat down with my notebook in the hotel, pretty exhausted, and just took down pages — I think it was twelve pages — of notes. Just tried to record what had struck me, what stayed with me, and the descriptions you quoted were drawn from those notes.
You change tack mid-way with: “If it all seems too fantastical, you might consider: How do you know the election wasn’t stolen?” What was your structural thinking on this?
I’ve had a horror, ever since reporting on politics, of the temptation to describe some people as irrational, or crazies, or yahoos. Certainly some of Trump’s followers might fit that description but the overwhelming majority don’t. I wanted my readers, few of whom probably support Trump, to understand the thinking and feeling of those who do.
You write so lyrically, i.e.: “The thousands of crusaders were pouring from Pennsylvania and Constitution Avenues and coursing freely, like blood from an open wound, onto the unobstructed Capitol grounds.” How do you open up enough space around yourself to often on such tough subject matters?
I think you try to bring to bear all the verbal forces at your command to try to bring readers to see what you see. Having said that, looking at that quotation, I have to say a little bit of metaphor goes a long way…
Let’s step back a little.
Good editors are everything. What did you learn working as an editorial assistant for Robert B. Silvers, founding co-editor of the New York Review of Books that you still use today? That you encourage students to do?
How much space do you have? Bob was a brilliant editor, perhaps the greatest of his generation, and working for him — I was in my early twenties — was a dream job for me. He taught me how to edit, how to make of an ornate and mannered piece of writing a clean and effective one, how to understand what it is to take a fresh view of a scene or a subject. (“Fresh” was one of Bob’s great words of praise, along with “strong.”) He was also immensely loyal and rigorously honest, two qualities that I have tried hard to cultivate.
Most people think of you as exclusively a writer, but you had a stint producing documentaries at ABC News and won a duPont Gold Baton and an Emmy. Would you do it again?
I’m actually working on a television series at the moment and I’m quite absorbed in it and excited about it. It’s writing as well but a very different kind of writing. Quite demanding and challenging.
Your mother was a teacher…What did she teach you about teaching/connecting with students?
My mother was a terrific teacher — and, by the way, a very accomplished writer — and I suppose she taught me that you have to really see students as individuals, you have to take them seriously. That you are engaged in a work of exchange, not just sending information out for them to absorb. If I’m doing a good job, I learn as much in my classes as they do.
You’ve been interviewed on TV by everyone from Bill Moyers to Rachel Maddow and Anderson Cooper. Who was your best interviewer and why?
Well, Bill was terrific: well prepared, cultivated and persistent. I would say the best interviewers I’ve been privileged to sit with would be Brian Lamb of C-Span, who’s a true genius at deploying the understated question, and the late Studs Terkel, a great and devious charmer who prepared in a way that was really unrivaled.
Lastly, the country’s faced a year of protests and is slowly acknowledging and remedying systemic racism. Journalism institutions also faced a reckoning, including ours. What changes have you seen that give you hope that this time it’s different from previous eras? How do your students help drive the conversation forward?
That’s an enormous question. I’d say the vital first step, and we’re getting there at the Graduate School of Journalism, is to start to really listen, especially to students of color. To see them and listen to them and take practical steps to address what they say. Second, we are in desperate need, at the journalism school and at Berkeley more generally, of more Black students. For a lot of reasons, the numbers are just disgraceful. We have to — we must — do better. Nothing is more important.
Banner photo: Ruddy Roye for the NYRB/Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism
November 23, 2020
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