Update: When I told the Yeti that I’d posted this but hadn’t set up a GoFundMe page, he basically said I was an idiot.
“But I haven’t worked out every detail of how this will work yet,” I said.
“Just ask for the money,” he said.
Fair enough. I’ve now set up a GoFundMe page. Please contribute here, at Brave Old World. I don’t know how every detail of this will work, but your support is definitely going to get you some good, old-fashioned journalism.
Ladies and Gentlemen of Ricochet, I have a business proposal for you. I’m about to ask you for money, so be prepared. But I think — maybe — this idea could work, and if it does, you’d get a good return on it. So grab yourself a cup of coffee, put on your capitalist-caps, and let me explain.
Ten years ago, I wrote Menace in Europe: Why the Continent’s Crisis is America’s, Too. I’d been living for a while in Europe, and found many Americans’ fantasies about European life delusional. Those who were sure the Continent was on a glide path to peaceful, prosperous, and permanent integration seemed to me suffused with dangerously excessive optimism.
I argued that Europe was haunted by ghosts from the past while confronting entirely new problems it was ill-prepared to face. Americans, I suggested, would be well-advised to pay attention to what was really happening.
When I wrote that book, my views were unusual and considered extreme. Now, obviously, they’re not.
It received excellent reviews in some quarters:
“Serious, well researched—and riveting. More than a piercing alarm over Muslim radicalism in Europe, this thoughtful book takes us on a tour of the continent’s spiritual crisis. Berlinski weaves sociological insight and helpful historical analysis into accounts of everything from the sexual underside of immigration to the dynamics of assassination to Europe’s cities without children to its self-extinguishing tolerance.” —Stanley Kurtz, contributing editor at National Review Online
And of course, it was panned by those who thought me a Cassandra and a hysteric. Still, some of the critics who thought I was seeing ghosts now admit that maybe I had a point. For example, Philip Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Penn State, described me in 2007 as the “author of a highly controversial book on the subject of religion in Europe.” As you can see in this piece, The Age of Permanent Jihad, he’s now more pessimistic than I was a decade ago.
But surprisingly, I’m less sure of my pessimism than I once was.
What changed? I changed, for one. Living for nearly a decade in Turkey changed my perspective on many things. So, perhaps, did growing older. But most importantly, I came back to a continent that had changed, sometimes in ways I didn’t predict. So some of my predictions about Europe’s future proved correct. But others were wrong. Why?
I hated the title Menace in Europe, by the way. I wanted to call it Blackmailed by History. But the sales force thought books with the word “history” in the title didn’t sell. They wanted a title with a terrifying word, one that said to readers, explicitly, why this book mattered to them. I thought it was perfectly obvious that what happens in Europe affects the United States — two World Wars seemed like sufficient evidence of that — but my editor thought that if the sales force hated the title, they wouldn’t try to sell it. So I caved.
I wish I’d stood my ground, because many readers understood my book to be chiefly about Europe’s difficulty integrating its Muslim immigrants. That was an issue that concerned me, but it was only part of a larger story. My other concerns — the rebirth in black-market form of European nationalism, the excessively idealistic foundation upon which the European integration project was built, Russian revanchism — were just as important, and these problems are still overlooked.
There were many things I failed to anticipate. The main thing I didn’t see coming was the crisis of confidence that was soon to befall the United States, one every bit as severe as Europe’s, and more consequential in its implications. Nor did I anticipate the convulsions that were about to take place in the Middle East. But I certainly did see some things coming. I concluded the book this way:
I do not prophesy the imminent demise of European democratic institutions, nor do I predict imminent catastrophe on European soil. But I don’t rule out these possibilities either. Europe’s entitlement economy will collapse. Its demography will change. The European Union may unravel. We have no idea what these events would herald, but it is possible and reasonable to imagine a very ugly outcome. The only people to whom this will come as a surprise are those who have not been paying attention.
Indulge me in a brief moment of personal frustration. Last week I was asked by The New York Times to write an essay about the attack in Brussels and the mood in Europe. I sent what I thought was a serious, grown-up response, but they didn’t run it. Instead, they ran one that began this way:
When I moved to Europe 12 years ago, my biggest concern was whether I’d ever speak decent French. Practically every American I knew came to visit, many saying they dreamed of living here, too. I didn’t worry much about far-right political parties, or the European Union. I certainly didn’t fret about terrorism. …
You can imagine how I felt when I read that. Our newspaper of record, folks.
But on the good-news front, I recently learned that my book has nearly sold out the advance I received for writing it, meaning that from now on, I’ll receive royalty payments. (I’m not expecting to retire on them, alas. But perhaps these checks will one day be sufficient to buy a nice meal every now and again.) It took ten years, but the book is finally making a profit.
Some of you have asked when I’ll be writing a sequel. I agree it’s time to do that, especially in light of the economic and refugee crises and the invasion of Ukraine. I’d like to return to some of the places I wrote about ten years ago to see what I got wrong, what I got right, and why. I’ve watched the changes of the past decade up close, in Turkey and France. I’d like now to report from other places: The Balkan route of the migrant trail, Greece, Germany, Belgium, Britain as it debates its future in Europe, Eastern Europe as it decides whether liberal democracy is truly an idea for which it has much use.
But since I wrote that book, another thing happened that I didn’t expect: The traditional models for book publishing and journalism collapsed. As I’ve noted many times here, the old model for selling journalism, particularly journalism from abroad, is kaput. I’ve written a lot about the consequences of this, particularly here. I wrote a longer piece about the phenomenon here:
… at least eighteen American newspapers and two chains have closed every last one of their overseas bureaus since 1998. Other papers and chains have dramatically reduced their overseas presence. Television networks, meanwhile, have slashed the time they devote to foreign news. They concentrate almost exclusively on war coverage—and then, only on wars where US troops are fighting. That leaves the big four national newspapers—the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times—with independent foreign news coverage. But they too have closed foreign bureaus in recent years. In 2003, the Los Angeles Times shut down 43 percent of its foreign bureaus. …
Lately, my feeling that I wish I could go back to doing that kind of reporting, and my belief that it’s important to do that kind of reporting, have grown. At the same time, my enthusiasm for following the day-to-day minutiae of the American presidential campaign has dwindled. Like many of you, I’ve been so dismayed by the Trump campaign and by what it’s revealed about the real state of the conservative movement that frankly, I’m happier not hearing about it. I’m not enjoying being in the fray of our debates about Trump. I have a terrible feeling about where this campaign is going. I’m not sure I want to invest more emotional and intellectual capital in trying to figure it out. I’m not sure I could, even if I wanted to.
So I’ve been wishing I could go back to old-fashioned journalism — by which I mean, looking at things, asking questions, listening to the answers, reporting what I hear and see. I want to write essays and books again.
But how, in this new publishing world?
The other day, seeing the success of Ricochet’s good-natured campaign to bring Titus Techera to America, I had an idea. It’s not to ask Ricochet to donate money to a book-writing and journalism project. It’s to ask whether members of Ricochet would invest in such a project, in the realistic hope of a return on the investment — although I don’t know what the return would be.
Before I explain the details of this, though, let me ask: Would you be interested in reading, listening, and watching reporting about the transformations in Europe? My idea is to spend, perhaps, a year doing this kind of reporting, with the ultimate goal of writing a book for a larger audience. In the interim, I’d report what I’m doing and learning both on Ricochet and a dedicated site, in a multimedia format: articles, video, audio, podcasts. I’d ask Ricochet members to shape the journalism: to suggest what I should investigate, where I should go, and why; to submit questions for the people I interview, perhaps even to speak to them yourselves on Skype; to guide the project as I go along by helping me better to understand what my audience wants to know. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone try to do journalism this way. It could be an interesting and maybe a useful new approach: interactive, investigative journalism for a specific audience of reader-investors who can help me connect their questions and curiosity better to the stories I discover.
The end product would be a number of things. It would be a multimedia website in which I document the project, post articles, photographs, and video interviews — a bit like the way as I did when I explored the Mavi Marmara fiasco in Turkey. (Here’s a sample of one of my interviews.) It would also be a book, which I’d self-publish through Amazon (as I did my interviews with Margaret Thatcher’s intimates).
What would your role in this be? Well, you’d pay for it. You’d replace Random House or Crown Forum or another conventional publisher as the source of the advance on the book. And then, if I make this into a commercial success — I don’t know yet if I can, but I’d sure try — you’d receive a return on your investment proportional to what you invested. Any earnings beyond my advance and a percentage of the royalties would be returned to you, the investors. And you’d replace The New York Times as the news gatekeeper: Your judgment about what’s important and interesting would guide my reporting agenda. (Bonus: for those of you tired of hearing my views about Trump, this is a guaranteed way to distract me from him.)
Ricochet’s Powers that Be loved this idea. They encouraged me to ask you. And — excitingly — we already have one member-investor who’s willing to get the ball rolling by putting up the first 25 percent of the funds, provided I can raise the other 75 percent from you.
I haven’t yet worked out the budget: I wanted to get your reaction, first. But I suspect the project, including travel expenses, technical expenses (for example, hosting the website, editing the material) and covering my living costs would probably be — rough guess — about $60,000. If you like the idea and think I should pursue it, I’ll work out the details.
What do you think? Would it work? Would you be willing to invest? Do you have any thoughts about how to make an idea like this work?
Help me think this through. I know there’s a story to tell here. It’s obviously important to Americans. It’s a complicated story, and I don’t know, in advance, what I’ll discover. But new media technology shouldn’t be contracting our horizons — it should be making it possible to approach journalism is ways it’s never been approached before. It should be broadening the ways Americans can learn about the world, not shrinking it.
Could it work?