Rebranding this Newsletter and a Personal Story to Explain What Motivates Me
The time has come to rebrand 'Jay's Newsletter'! This is now the space for the 'Did Nothing Wrong' newsletter and podcast brought to you by Jay McKenzie and Griff Sombke. Welcome!
My grandfather passed away recently at the age of ninety-three. He had a very long, productive and happy life. There were more people than I could count at his funeral service, even after COVID-19 forced us to reschedule it once. I suppose that wasn’t really surprising. He was well known locally and even into his nineties had a great many friends. He outlived many others, but he never stopped making new ones. He cracked Dad jokes long before that was ever a thing. He loved life, and he loved helping people. Everyone who spoke at the service called him a good man, a Godly man and a patriotic man. All of those things were true. My grandfather was never one to brag, but he did well in life. He ran a successful construction company and sold it for a good return when he retired. He built several roads around here. His crew uprooted trees and leveled out ground that became a soccer field I played and practiced on several hundred times as a kid. I remember watching him direct traffic as the backhoes and bulldozers went this way and that. Working those machines for years made him nearly deaf by his seventies, but he never complained much about that or any of the other ailments he picked up along the way. I loved my grandfather a great deal, but I tell you all this because I have a bit of a confession to make. I wasn’t particularly close to him at the end, and I’d like to tell you why.
I spent the last couple weeks remembering the good times we had together. We went to Braves baseball games together. We went to D.C. together the summer after eighth grade. We spent the day in Lynchburg on the way there. We had clear skies that day. We ate barbecue. It seemed like a nice place to live. I remember liking the museums but hating the D.C. traffic. We met one of his buddies from his Air Force days at his home in Arlington. I can’t remember the man’s name. He seemed much older than my grandfather, but I think he wasn’t. My grandfather always seemed younger than the other people I met who were his age. He stayed busy, and it paid off, I guess. His age showed a little on our trip back home. I was falling asleep in the back seat of the car. I remember being irrationally mad when he woke me up, the way a 13-year-old boy is irrationally angry about every damn thing. My grandfather made me sit up and talk to him so he wouldn’t fall asleep driving back. I argued with him until he turned on the radio and told me to go to sleep.
My grandfather gave himself a hernia trying to put my trampoline together for Christmas when I was six. I didn’t find out until years later. The trampoline was from Santa Claus. It didn’t make sense for my grandfather to be hurt putting it together in the backyard, so nobody told me anything at the time. We were usually up at his house for most of the day on Christmas. That year was no different, I have no memory of anything being different or off about him that Christmas. Maybe I was too happy about the trampoline to notice. My mom told me the story when I got older. My grandfather never spoke about it, even after I knew. I think he would’ve considered it boastful, in a way, so he just never mentioned it when I was around. Such was his way.
I remember the relationship between us changing when I was in college. McCain lost the election. Obama won. My family always voted Republican. They weren’t happy. Most Republicans weren’t, but my grandfather took it worse than most. This was around the time the Tea Party started being a thing. People who used to only be vaguely political started getting more and more interested in politics. The rhetoric heated up. Protests and outlandish claims started getting people national attention. You all know how this story goes by now. My grandfather leaned into those emotions and the people behind that movement. I rolled my eyes and shrugged off the obvious falsehoods at first, but he only got more invested in the rhetoric. It never really got better.
In 2008, I remember vaguely wanting McCain to win, but my college campus was giddy over Obama winning. I shook my head at a stranger who asked me how excited I was about “our victory”. I was already quite cynical about what difference any of it would make. I never imagined politics being a central or even important part of my life. It was something I had to hear about once in a while, and I was fine with keeping it that way.
My grandfather always wanted to take me out to lunch. I’d go over to his house, and he’d drive me out to get sandwiches, BBQ, whatever sounded good. Sometimes we’d be there for a couple hours. I often had to come up with excuses to leave, but he’d want to go driving around after. He kept up with construction projects in the area. So, we’d drive out to see the new roads or the new development going up nearby. Whereas he used to look around at the roads and buildings and share a bunch of technical terms that went way over my head, it was around this time that the discussion changed.
Pretty soon, all he wanted to talk about with me was Obama. If we weren’t listening to Rush Limbaugh, he would tell me what Rush had to say earlier. I would nod and smile, never really agreeing or disagreeing but saying whatever got me back to my car sooner. He was on an email chain with a bunch of other retired, grumpy old men who had a little too much time on their hands. Before he got a phone with email, he would print out copies and bring them along in the car. I scrolled through bad photoshops and wild assertions, nodding and smiling uncomfortably and letting him talk. He was old, I told myself. None of this really mattered anyway.
I did scroll through the emails once I got put on the list. Name a right-wing conspiracy about Obama, and it was there. The early stages of “just asking questions”. I sent the emails to my spam folder. My grandfather asked me what I thought about the latest one the next time I saw him. “Oh, I haven’t checked my email yet,” and he’d sigh at me and stare with a long, disappointed pause. Then he’d launch into the topic anyway.
I saw my grandfather less and less each subsequent year. The conspiracies grew wilder, my interest in pretending waned. I tuned out all the political discussions and didn’t even vote in 2012. I honestly didn’t care who won. Let someone else deal with the existential threats I keep hearing about. I found it harder and harder to pretend he didn’t sound completely nuts. Every now and then I’d get convinced to go out to lunch with him. Every time all he wanted to talk about was politics. I would get through it and put off the next get together a little while longer. I could tell he was disappointed in me. I wasn’t faking it like I used to. I tried changing the subject—golf, the weather, his health, anything. It always came back to politics. He was consumed by what he’d been told was happening. Obama was bad. He was downright evil. Every day there was more proof. That narrative stuck. There was no changing his mind.
I’d had enough. Eventually we stopped with the lunches altogether. I’d see him at a few family gatherings every year. We’d say a few words to each other. It was friendly enough, but it didn’t go beyond small talk. I think he knew my beliefs were increasingly not his beliefs, and he couldn’t talk about anything else because he knew those beliefs were the existential threat he had been trying to warn me about. Liberals were the enemy. I was embracing the ideals of his enemy.
One thing all his friends talked about at his funeral service was that my grandfather was always ministering to people. He’d ask the waitress, the nurse, the cashier in the checkout line if they knew Jesus. If they didn’t, he’d ask them if he could help them get to know Him better. It had never clicked with me before, but now I do finally see what was happening. My grandfather was trying to minister to me—not about God, but about politics. He wanted to save me from the evil he saw on the other side of the aisle much like he wanted to save strangers from a trip to hell.
I voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 not because I thought she was a wonderful candidate, but because I thought Donald Trump was an awful one. In 2015, I assumed Trump would flame out like Herman Cain had done four years earlier. Most of us did. Of course, we all know that didn’t happened. By mid to late 2016, I did start to worry about the country. I started to worry about it the same way my grandfather worried about it, though clearly from the opposite side of the political spectrum. How could we elect a man so rotten to his core? What had happened to us? It seemed like all the fever dreams and overblown conspiracy nonsense from Rush and those chain emails had taken over the entire political discourse. I’m sure, to some extent, my grandfather felt vindicated by Trump winning in 2016. I wondered how the liars managed to get away with it.
I wondered what was so irreparably broken about our political system and the media that was meant to hold it accountable to allow us to get to this point. I started reading a lot more news articles. I became consumed with politics in a way I used to roll my eyes at. I won’t say the irony was lost on me, but I knew I was right the same way my grandfather knew he was back in 2009. Therein lies the political polarization which threatens to tear our country in two. Our side is right and the other side isn’t just wrong; they’re evil. But my grandfather wasn’t an evil man. He was a good man who cared deeply about others and helped many people in this world for no reason other than they needed it. He was, however, consumed by narratives that were once fringe but are now mainstream. It’s not just liberals who are evil. It’s the Deep State, the FBI, the mainstream media—the collective Enemies of the People. The great right-wing slayers of communism continue spouting that Leninist term.
Since 2017, I’ve been writing, researching and helping journalists with their articles. Some of this you may have seen, some you haven’t. I’ve done my small part to make sense of the world, uncovering what I can about corruption, disinformation, extremist figures and all those who enable anti-democratic, authoritarian forces in the world. I’ve tried to learn how narratives are used to consume our political discourse, but I continue to believe that avoiding the falsehoods and partial truths inherent in partisan politics is essential if we wish to fix these problems. At times I’ve been in the thick of this fight on social media. Other times I’ve remained in the shadows. Now I’m ready to get back in the fight, and so today, in loving memory of a wonderful, kind and generous man with whom I had a great many differences of opinion, I’m announcing to you all that I intend to step out from the shadows and dedicate myself to writing and podcasting here full time.
As you may have noticed, we’re also rebranding this Substack publication. Going forward, we’ll be calling it ‘Did Nothing Wrong’ because many of the people we’ll be covering in this newsletter share one thing in common: no matter what you catch them doing, no matter how many times they’re convicted of doing that thing, they will assure you they Did Nothing Wrong. Nevertheless, this publication intends to tell you exactly what they did and why it’s wrong. We’ll often do that by dissecting the narratives they want you to believe.
We’ve become a nation not only chasing narratives but governed by them. Increasingly, narratives drive people’s reactions, opinions and responses to anything out in the world. Some of those narratives are true. Many others are not. What’s being lost in between is our shared reality. I intend to help us get back to a shared reality by deconstructing the various narratives out in the world and making sense of them for myself and my reader. I plan on publishing long-form articles weekly with the related podcast published shortly afterwards (both are free to read and listen). The podcast episodes will be co-hosted by me and my friend Griff Sombke (a/k/a @Grzabjj on Twitter) to explain and discuss our weekly articles. I want to turn this into a full-time job, but I will need your help growing a following and getting some paid subscribers on board to help us pay our bills. So please, send your suggestions on how I can make this work and share our work with a friend if you think they’ll like it.
I intend to earn your trust and support. I don’t expect this to be easy. Easy would be choosing one partisan side—left or right—and pushing the approved narratives put out by “my side”, truth be damned. Plenty of people have figured out this is a not so bad way to make a living, but I hope I’ve explained why it’s not for me. I intend to be as fair and nonpartisan as possible. I hope, for those of you who are familiar with my previous work, I’ve proven that to you already. If not, allow me the chance to do so now. I’ve never been one to take the easy road, and I don’t intend to do so now. The truth is hard. Backlash can be quite severe or even ruinous. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about what the future will bring us, but I think the way things are in this country does not have to be the way things always are. Perhaps I can prove my case. Perhaps not. But it’s time to try.
Thank you for reading this. I think we can make a difference, so let’s get it done.
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