Chase Madar was a Nation intern in 1995. Now a civil rights attorney and freelance journalist, he is the author of The Passion of Bradley Manning: The Story Behind the Wikileaks Whistleblower. In this interview, Spring 2014 Nation intern Justine Drennan asks Chase about his work and his time at The Nation.
1. Could you compare and contrast the roles that you see law and journalism playing? In what ways is your work as a lawyer complementary and/or in tension with your work as a journalist? Are your goals with each the same or different?
A great many lawyers don’t know how to talk about their work or the law in vernacular American English, in fact they gleefully lose this ability the first semester of law school. This is perhaps true of experts in general. Courts of law only accept certain kinds of argument, canalized into matters of precedent, statutory interpretation and such, but in journalism you have access to the whole battery of rhetorical and logical arguments.
Law-talk is great for the courts but it also dominates our public debates about many issues, and that is not a good thing. Legalese is a really crappy proxy for political and moral debates that need to be addressed when it comes to, for instance, droning Yemen, police harassment of Black and Latino youth, mass incarceration, mass surveillance—all of which might be perfectly legal, yet very foolish, destructive, evil. There’s a bizarre assumption often that just because something is legally permissible it must be good, or even necessary. American left-liberal types are often afraid or ashamed to talk about politics in expressly political terms so we turn to law to make our arguments more respectable, more “neutral” seeming, and the consequences of this have not been good. I wrote about this for Jacobin not long ago.
2. What has been your favorite story to write so far?
I’ve written many parodies of political figures and most of them were both difficult to write and spectacularly unfunny, but I feel I hit the mark in something I wrote for the London Review of Books after Joe Biden declared that Hosni Mubarak was not a dictator, right at the beginning of the Egyptian spring. My model for all of these is Craig Brown, this British guy who is the Paganini/Michael Jordan of the 1000-word parody, and before him Max Beerbohm.
3. You write for both progressive publications like The Nation and conservative publications like The American Conservative. Are there differences in how you approach writing for such different outlets? Who do you consider your audience to be?
Oh good lord, sometimes feel like I’m never going to live it down, writing for the paleocons. Reminds me of a joke. But I do love these paleocons, their foreign policy coverage is first-rate and well to the left, if that makes sense, of Mother Jones or The American Prospect. I don’t agree with the paleocons about a many things, but they’re people I’m delighted to work with and I highly recommend checking out their magazine if you think peace is, ceteris paribus, better than war.
Several of the pieces I’ve first run at TAC I’ve later run with no changes on the radical site CounterPunch, reaching a whole different audience. What does this tell you? First, it gives the political spectrum too much credit to criticize it as two-dimensional as a line is by definition only one-dimensional. The political compass points apply even less when it comes to foreign policy — issues like humanitarian warfare (and all our wars are of course deeply humanitarian) and our lavish support for Egypt and Israel really scramble the political spectrum. I also try to write without standard left-wing tics, as my goal is to reach and persuade the largest possible audience. A great deal of political identity is based on style, and posing and communicating across these tribal lines is often a matter of translation more than different message — look how the clever Washington Post guy Dylan Matthews translated Jesse Myerson’s Rolling Stone viral list of left economic reforms into the conservative dialect without altering the content that much. There are of course limits to this, not all circles can be squared, and there are real differences, real conflicts that cannot be translated away.
4. How do you choose what to write about?
I look for the silences, the things that other people aren’t writing about but should be written about. And whatever I write should upset some people, otherwise what’s the point? Occasionally I’m asked to write about something that’s already been done to death and I find those pieces very difficult to do — what’s the point of writing something redundant?
5. What’s the best book you’ve read recently?
I just read two terrific books about counterinsurgency warfare, both by intellectuals inside the US military, historians at the service academies. And you might assume these guys would be all for it, but both books are just pungently hostile to COIN, they think it’s homicidal fraudulence, and they really lay into the pious twerps at places like The New Yorker and Slate who lapped up all the Petraeus drivel about “hearts and minds,” COIN working in Iraq and Afghanistan, as if our Vietnam bloodbath never took place. Left-liberal types shouldn’t be afraid of a little military history, otherwise that discursive terrain gets ceded to bellicose nuts.
But the book that really blew me away recently is Greg Grandin’s Empire of Necessity, about a shipboard slave rebellion in the South Pacific that became the basis of a Melville novella. Grandin, a historian at NYU and a terrific writer, looks into all the currents of economic history, political history, social history that converge in this tragic-heroic event, with fascinating digressions that somehow don’t drag on the propulsive plot. Jacobin slavers, the economics of seal harvesting and extinction, Islam in the 19th century New World, revolution in Haiti and the US, the disturbing obtuseness of Melville scholars, an account of a successful shipboard slave rebellion that’ll just have your heart in your mouth. The book is beautifully engineered, amazing how much Grandin packs in to just 270 pages of text.
6. What was your favorite part of The Nation's internship program?
I met so many great people through The Nation, and in fact I’m still meeting great people through the magazine. I love visiting the office because there are several staffers who look exactly the same as they did in the fall of ’95. You should advertise these anti-aging properties of magazine, it’d be great for circulation.
7. How did you get from being an intern to where you are now?
“Where I am now?” Oh for fuck’s sake. Honestly, when I came in to speak to your intern cohort I felt like some college dropout boosting his ego by hanging out around his old high school, leaning against a tree smoking cigarettes acting like Mr. Tough-Guy McWeltschmerz. I hope you all saw through it. Like most writers, I’m nowhere.