Interview With Vann R. Newkirk II

Vann R. Newkirk II is a staff writer for The Atlantic who covers some of America's most urgent and difficult political and social topics with a ridiculously high level of skill and empathy. He's also a wonderful human being to read Tweets from. 

You write about a lot of really impactful things. Puerto Rican sovereignty (or lack thereof), restoration of voting rights to felons, revisiting the Violent Crime Act, just as a few examples… but, are there any stories from the last year or so that you think are more quietly disruptive or meaningful and have gone under the radar a little bit more? Maybe something that you personally feel is a bigger deal than the general sense of it would indicate?

 I appreciate the compliment and I do hope what I write is impactful. In terms of things that I think might be quieter or under the radar: I've done some work fleshing out the current opioid crisis as a sort of reckoning for the failures of our public health system and criminal justice system.

What we're going to have to do now in order to treat opioids is basically upend the entire way we think about the relationship between disease, mental health, and crime, and in that are also caught some really foundational ideas about what it means to be a good person.

That is going to be one of the key challenges moving forward as we shift from combatting some of our historical disease nemesis to new ones that can only exist in this new technological society. Here's the link to the piece that gets into that history.

You tweeted recently, "I worry every day that stoicism is so ingrained in my coping with the world that it's ruined me. I just pray I won't ruin my children.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

I was writing in response to Mychal Denzel Smith's beautiful book and exploration on black masculinity and its failure to provide healing for mental or emotional health issues. I very much fit in that tradition and even though I know it is toxic and know that mental health is important, unlearning the way you're taught to conceptualize yourself and health is harder than it seems.

I still struggle with learning how to allow myself to admit weakness and I hope that I can do so well enough to at least break my children free from it.

There’s a weird trend going around the business/startup world right now evangelizing stoicism. A handful of popular startup dude types are writing and talking a lot about stoicism as a path to business and personal success. Does that seem weird to you, at the same time that a lot of culture is wrestling with the sides effects of some forms of masculinity you have this other group latching on the same concepts and terminology in an almost self-help approach for (primarily) men pursuing business type of goals? It feels like a really strange contrast to me, although I’m aware this isn’t exactly a question.

I don't know if it's much of a contrast yet. Exploring the faults in masculinity is gaining ground but it's still very niche. I think looking outside my bubble there's still self-help "how to pick up women" crap that still borders on harassment and assault.

And, there's still a cultural emphasis on stoic characters in media. I mean Jason Bourne. He's a hero with like the most compelling case for mental health therapy around, but he never betrays any weakness and solves all his problems by shooting people and running trucks into casinos.

The world is still very much pro-stoicism and pro old-world masculinity.

The “how does Twitter impact your work” question seems trite, especially given how much Twitter works as a backbone for (and against) racial and social justice issues. But, I am curious, what do you see as differences or changes, for you personally, in your relationship to the type of things you write about and the type of things you advocate for both before and after being so involved in the Twitter communities around them?

Well, the relationship between social media, activism, and analysis has definitely changed as I've moved from more independent commentary and activism into journalism. I can't stir as much shit up anymore and mostly, I have to be much more careful about sourcing information and understanding the consequences of tweets and calls to action.

I don't think it makes Twitter any less awesome for me, but it has shifted my role a bit to including much more curation of other folks' ideas. I have a great platform now to bring stories that mainstream media doesn't pay attention to the light and to do so while keeping the voices intact. I enjoy that a lot.

The Brexit vote was last night. I think that was the first time I watched the vote from another country in real time for an entire evening. I have this sort of innate sense that, if this ends up being real, this is one of those once in a lifetime type moments in terms of how politically large it is. But, a lot of what we’ve been living through for a few years now has been pretty politically (and socially) large. Do you have any thoughts or ideas on what you think the historical moment we’re in really is and how it might end up looking in hindsight when all the 30-somethings today are in our 80s?

I've clearly had a few more days to reflect and I think that'll be one stone among many of an avalanche of a return to the kinds of nationalism, racism, colonialism, and nativism that have defined Europe's relationship to the world for much of the past few centuries.

It looks like Brexit itself will potentially be less disastrous than we thought (but still awful enough to probably deal a final blow to England's global importance) but it's still part of a wave of a return to the pre-EU Europe of strife and viral anti-immigration.

I think we're seeing in Brexit the beginnings of the end of that grand experiment of cooperation and I don't think it's good for the world, especially with global powers supplanting the EU in importance already. Might be a return to mass warfare as a common part of life even.

Do you have any daily rituals or rituals associated with your work? 

I wake up every morning at 5 or 5:30, make myself a pot of coffee, and play jazz then I start writing. Something about it just gets me into the zone. 

Favorite recent films, books, and music? Anything that really made a mark and that you feel might be something that sticks with you or leaves an impression long-term? (I know you discuss a lot of these things on Twitter, too, but I’m curious what you’d single out.)

Right now, my favorite piece of anything is N.K. Jemisin's book The Fifth Season. It's just wonderful fantasy/sci-fi stuff. I felt the same way after reading it as I did after the Fellowship of the Ring. The world just grips you, and it inspires me to write fiction too.

Unrelated to the above topics, are the Warriors or the Cavs your championship favorites for next year? It’s okay if you pick the Spurs, too, I wouldn’t mind. Spurs just drafted a pretty awesome point guard, after all.

I'm answering this post-KD news, but it almost feels unfair now to say the Warriors are my favorites. They are maybe the greatest collection of talent ever.