Demolishing the Myths of Politics: An Interview with Josh StanField

by | Jan 20, 2024 | RICHMOND NEWS, RICHMOND POLITICS, VIRGINIA POLITICS

Josh Stanfield has spent the last few days in state court, downtown Richmond, traveling from his home in Yorktown, VA. He’s demanding transparency from the School Board on the facts surrounding this past summer’s high school graduation shooting at Monroe Park. The School Board, in its infinite wisdom, denied these public documents from his initial request citing privacy concerns for the consultants hired to comment on findings at the scene. Josh sued under FOIA, the court agreed with him, and now you can view all of the reports surrounding the incident HERE. 

In my book, that’s no small thing. I’m lucky I’ve had a long career in media and know firsthand more than a few honest, rabid, truthseekers. Some of those claim the mantle of objectivity and land on mediocrity, too bland to form an opinion based on facts, in writing. With their name on it.

A lot of them, however, know their tools are weapons, forged for the very purpose of light bringing. When it comes to politics and policy, matters of life and death, stagnation and success, those weapons still cut the power-mad and the corrupt like nothing else can. I was stoked to have the opportunity to challenge Josh, a Public Investigator (a title I just gave him), a P.I. without the film noir trappings, to an impossible conversation. 

NOTE: There’s sooo much more to this convo I didn’t have room for here. I will be inviting Josh to speak with me on my podcast, now in development with RVA Magazine.

Christian Detres: To get things off the ground let’s just have you give me an overall background, the bio page on your website sort of thing. Tell us about yourself and where you’re from. Where are you coming from? Like, what’s your motivating angle in what you do?

Josh Stanfield: Well, I’m in Yorktown, Virginia. I’m from Newport News, Virginia. My motivating impulse here is maybe twofold. The democratization of politics in Virginia and the persistent test of the proposition that an everyday citizen can actually, actively, participate in politics beyond simply voting. So that’s, you know, that’s kind of where I’m coming from testing these two with that idea, and also just simply trying to push small d democratic reform as a hobby, vocation, an impulse I can’t shake.

CD: I’m interested in all this shit too. But I don’t have the background. I don’t have the tools and the knowhow to figure out how to get to the bottom of political controversy. So, in that vein, if you gave yourself a title, what would be the title of what you do? 

JS: Maybe an investigator and interrogator of power. 

CD: Oh, that’s good. 

JS: I’m trying to get broad enough where all this sort of weird seemingly disjointed stuff I do falls under a title. 

CD: I mean, somewhere between a private investigator and an investigative reporter? Or would you say it’s really both of those things, and they’re not mutually exclusive?

JS: Both of those things, but you would have to, you know, be willing to accept a definition of reporter that goes beyond like, mid 20th century till now. The mainstream American definition involves a false concept of objectivity. The idea that there are always two sides to the story when in fact there are always many more than two sides to a story. 

All these professionalizations have occurred with the title “Journalist”. There was no journalism school, I don’t believe, in the early 20th century. If you look at the British journalistic tradition, journalism was even more of a working class vocation. That’s really changed. Back then there were fewer barriers to being a respected journalist. You would have dozens and dozens of different publications that were openly partisan, or that took openly ideological approaches. When you picked up a newspaper, you knew it was coming from a very specific ideological bent. Every story is going to have a ‘lean’, but there were a lot of options. 

CD: Whereas now, we have just a handful of conglomerate outlets that tell you “this is just the facts.” Straight news is very deceiving. Because it’s not just the facts. These institutions have so much baggage, pressure, and conflicts of interest built into their broadcasts, there’s nothing much of objectivity to claim without sarcasm.

JS: And so in that sense, I’m obviously not a journalist. I also don’t work for journalistic entities but I think I do something like a form of New Journalism. It’s not really new anymore, but it might have been around the second half of the 20th century – where the journalist immerses themselves into the story. That’s what I’ve done in Virginia politics. 

I’ve run political campaigns and have personally run for Electoral College and Chair of the state party, often knowing it was impossible mathematically to win. These are tests of propositions like “how easy is it to participate if you’re not connected?” If you’re not from power, or money? How easy is it to convince people what the structural barriers are, and how to overcome them? This is all really an experiment. 

CD: You would say you are more raconteur than journalist? There’s a space in the gonzo journalism sphere, that I think from what you’re describing, where you could belong. You’re not affiliated with anything but you’re not also trying to say you’re delivering straight news with objectivity. I’m thinking like Hunter S. Thompson. I mean, he was getting paid by Rolling Stone or whomever he was on assignment for but his words and thoughts were his own. Not coached by any meaningful authoritarian or commercial pressure to bend his opinions. 

But in this situation, you’re being an activist. You’re participating, you’re recording. You’re compiling data and putting it together in ways that can be used to extrapolate or extract truths about our situation, at least as much as it can be quantified. There are levers which citizens can pull to access that information, via FOIA requests and things like that. But if no one bothers to ask for that information, no one ever knows what it contains. You’re the one doing it. You’re the one asking. 

That’s a special place for a person to exist in. The area where you do know what’s going on, what each person’s job in the local city government, or state government, is. You know what they do, who they answer to. You know what races are important, which candidates are essentially members of the establishment, who’ve come to power in a nepotistic way. Power has been in the hands of these people forever simply because they have owned the most land in “X” county for the last 120 years. They’re always the people who end up at the top of the list of candidates. The position becomes generational and then just essentially becomes maybe not monarchical, but feudal.

JS: In a Socratic way, you know, you start to learn how much you don’t know, right? The more you dig, you realize, oh, there’s some other commission, some other entity – there’s some other employee that actually is powerful that you’d never heard of. You start to realize, maybe there are reasons you haven’t. The more you dig, the more you realize you’re so incredibly ignorant of all of these other realms of power in Virginia. Even outside the government. 

When you start finding out about the personal histories, and the histories of relationships between, the former and current power players, then it gets even more complex. You might have thought from reading sets of news articles on legislation and watching committee videos that a particular political committee confrontation went down a certain way for publicly stated reasons. Then you find out from a close source that actually these two ‘hypothetical’ politicians have, like, a 20 year beef going on. And the reason why a conflict happened in committee had nothing to do with policy. Nothing to do with right and wrong, nothing to do with data. They just don’t like each other. That’s what that was. Anyone who really, you know, is playing here and really knows what’s going on would know that. 

That’s something that you’re not going to find in a book. You’re not going to find that angle in a newspaper. You might be able to intuit from reporting, but you’ll never know if it was true. But once you start learning some of those things about the personal histories and the relationships, you really realize how complicated and complex this is. Sometimes it’s pure pettiness. 

You’re never going to get close to full information on anything probably. So when it comes to trying to predict or trying to explain a situation objectively, it’s always kind of shaky. Understanding that makes it really intimidating. I imagine it’s much easier for some people who read the news to just think they have a full idea of how things are and move on with their lives.

CD: They’re willing to accept the narrative because anything more than that is exhausting. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like theoretically accurate information is going to yield anything actionable anyway, so why bother? Even if someone did spend a long time looking into an issue, they might always be suspicious that they got fooled and the conclusion they came to was predetermined – and so were all the steps they took to get there. 

This sets up an interesting line of questioning here. I’m hearing your obvious distrust of the popular narrative, but the importance in understanding the difference between conspiracy and responsible journalism – opinions based in fact against opinions based in innuendo – is huge. Sometimes it’s very hard to convince the reader (or listener) that what you’re talking about is based in fact and not based on a destructive or misleading agenda. We want to be comfortable in knowing the actions of our representatives are fighting against our problems, not for their jobs, and egos. 

That is an important part of this story that I wanted to get down with you today. How would you guard yourself against reading too far into narratives and possibly constructing a “preferred narrative” in your own mind? How do you stay on the right side of those tracks? When it comes to situations where you have to start with a hypothesis, you might find yourself trying to prove that hypothesis to the exclusion of relevant facts that would take you away from it. 

JS: I mean, this is a foundational philosophical problem. I studied philosophy in college, and spent maybe too much time thinking about this stuff. I have to separate things into two realms in my mind. One is the purely philosophical stuff where you’re wondering about what’s real and the nature of the universe and all that sort of thing. It’s hard to operate day to day in the world if you’re taking a lot of ontological philosophical conclusions seriously. We talk about being objective in these situations but you’re making really a deep philosophical statement if you believe that there’s such a thing as objectivity. 

I don’t believe there’s such a thing as universality or objectivity in any super serious philosophical sense. But as a practical matter, when we’re talking about how do human beings set up something like a judicial system, there are some concepts, some ideals, we’re going to have to put into writing. Put it all down in an ideal form and try to work towards it. Put in safeguards, such that you can reach something resembling social justice. When it comes to reporting, or politics, good faith and honesty should count. I have to read closely and examine, edit and correct others and myself. I have to combine that effort with a hyper skeptical disposition, always questioning authority, knowing from the beginning that everything’s unfair, knowing that as a fact. 

I am really enamored with logic and reasoning as concepts and tools. But, you know, I hung out with a bunch of blues and jazz musicians in college. Music combined with my switching to pure humanities studies in college took me in the complete opposite direction of science and rationality and more in the you know, romantic direction. When the sun has set, we can talk about philosophical questions, but when it comes to talking about what’s going on in Virginia politics, I would rather stick to the facts as much as possible. 

There’s another guardrail in the real world called litigation. If you’re out there, just saying a bunch of bullshit about people, people have been known to sue you. There are other protections in society against really going out there on a bullshit limb. 

CD: How do you balance a fear of litigious reprisal with your desire to pull the curtain back on malfeasance?

JS: Well, first of all, you know, I’m poor. So I, you know, I can take a risk. I feel like as a beat reporter, most of what I do is polemical. It would be classified as opinion. You know, it’s not like when I’m dealing with Dominion. I necessarily want to talk to Dominion representatives. They historically don’t respond to my emails. But even if they did, I’m not sure I want to, you know, put their side of the story in. If someone wants to say that is less valuable than the news, whatever, fine. In my opinion, if you say you don’t have an ideology, that you’re non ideological, then there’s a suspicion that you may be the most ideological person around. I don’t presume to claim objectivity and hide my ideologies within it. 

CD: If you can’t smell yourself then you’re the one that stinks. 

JS: What’s guiding me is just directional towards fairness and justice. Towards the right of “right and wrong”, not necessarily party-line “right or left”. I don’t have a program that I have subscribed to, you know, I’m not a Socialist or a Communist. I guess maybe I’m an anarchist. Technically, like the political theory, not the pop culture caricature of the movement. For me, it’s mostly directional, not philosophical. You can choose a realm of policy where there’s clearly a direction. Maybe if you got down in the weeds there’d be some technical changes you’d need to make to a platform, but in general, you choose a right direction. 

CD: Well, you know, I think this is this is interesting, because I have I deal with I have a lot of friends from a lot of different circles and you know, come from different walks of life and, and there seems to be on either side of the coin a distrust of the media, a distrust of the news, specifically, feeling that are the narratives that we’re presented with are bought and sold or, you know, dumbed down to the point where we never really get enough information to take action on anything because we just don’t know enough about it or don’t trust what we’re being told.

Could you put into words your philosophy? I take you at your word that you’re not going to pretend to be objective. And I think that’s great. Neither will I. I mean, most of you’ve read any of my articles know I’m not objective. I believe if you’re trained in a direction, not a party affiliation, you can always find your true north. And I guess let me ask you, what is your true north?

JS: When it comes to politics, it’s the sort of deep belief that all authority has to justify itself. Has to. If I, or any citizen, or any individual, or any collection of people in Virginia, for whatever reason, are unclear about, you know, the origin of the authority of any coercive entity in Virginia, they should have the ability to ask where’s your authority? Questioning power, questioning the origins of power, or questioning the flow and transfer of power in Virginia now has become more about transparency than legitimacy.

With American politics, there are some predispositions I have. I’m going to always look for a corporate culprit if there’s a serious widespread problem. Because of the nature of the American government and economy, that’s who exerts the most power in this system. So if anything’s happening, I want to see what the corporate involvement is? How is the money flowing in this situation? So my bent is always going to be looking in that direction. Towards corporate accountability, to political and business elites. 

A lot of people who come to me in search of inside perspective actually have power themselves. They, for some reason, can’t figure something out or are being harmed in some way that they can’t talk about, for whatever reason, publicly. But I can talk about it, right? So a lot of what I’ve done, especially in the Democratic Party is acted as a means for people to get information out, and positions out, that if they were to do so themselves would guarantee retaliation. They can’t talk about something and it’s something that they know people should know about. Sometimes it’s something that’s very wrong that’s happening. Well, they come to me, and it can get out in a way where they’re not connected to it. I end up being something of a lightning rod, you know? 

I guess I’m letting off the hook the whole coward block of people who really don’t have much to lose. They really could speak out and don’t. There are people who are really legit and well meaning and it’s better for them to continue to advance, to be able to change things, than to stick their political necks out. I don’t have children. I don’t have a partner. I don’t have hardly any you know, anything to lose. I can speak up.

CD: You’re like a surrogate. You’re describing a superhero, right? You don’t have a cape or a mask or anything but I mean, but the benefits that you’re bringing to the situation that you’re describing, is valuable. So it’s on you, but it’s fine. 

JS: Well, you know, not only is it fine, but I mean, maybe it’s masochistic. I kind of enjoy it. As serious as these topics are – public policy, philosophy, and politics, I’m partly doing this in jest. It’s not all the time constant joy, but there are so many moments of laughter. Laughter at how ridiculous it can be that this is how society is set up. You know, it’s sad, but sometimes it’s so funny, that I’m allowed to continue operating like this. Like, why has no one tried to kill me yet? You’ve seen the movie Casino right?

CD: Yeah, of course. 

JS:  Paul Goldman. I was surprised no one got him in an alley or whatever, you know? and I’m over here in Yorktown wondering, like, man, this casino… This is a lot of money. They cannot let some random guy like me just go digging into this stuff. 

CD: Ha, I worked with Paul Goldman on that.

JS: I know. 

CD: I should have assumed you did. 

JS: But yeah, that’s one of the things I wonder is why they’re letting me make all this trouble. It surprises me.

CD: Well, let’s look at that though. Popular culture will tell us that you go up against somebody of significant enough power, whether it’s a corporation or an individual, the threat of physical violence, or underhanded retribution is just a given. Your brakes get clipped right? Popular culture tells us that that’s not a “maybe”, it says that’s what’s going to happen every single time a reporter does anything against anybody in any position of power. Clearly there are times that’s been true. I mean, shit, I worried about it with the casino stuff. My wife was worried about it. She was constantly like, “be careful, be careful.” Is that overblown? 

JS: There are all kinds of professional retribution. Some would say it’s just hey, you should have expected this as a consequence of something you did politically. So there are things you expect if you run in political circles, if your money is tied to politics, or if you have a business with  partners and employees when you decide to run for office. Now all of a sudden your business partners/vendors etc are getting all these phone calls about how the business is going to be screwed up if you run etc. You’d have to just drop out because your business keeps your family afloat. 

There are real consequences that aren’t someone kneecapping you or placing a car bomb, or something dramatic like that. There are real professional consequences, depending on what your business is in Virginia.

CD: Are there any bulwarks against that? 

JS: There are ways to create some kind of legal structures that would cut down on some of this stuff, but I feel like some of it is also cultural. Stay with me, but, like, my parents didn’t go to college. My dad didn’t graduate from high school. I am the proverbial first person in my family to go to college. When I went to college, a lot of my friends who came from families of “college goers” learned a lot of things growing up through direct exposure (and sometimes intuitively) about the way the world works. About the way power behaves. How you get a job – which is not by submitting an application. It’s by having someone in the family call someone they know at the company or commission and secure the position for you. A lot of people are raised with that expectation of effortless advancement. 

There’s all kinds of unofficial rules that I’ve learned on the way things operate. Things people from other classes do not automatically know. They’re not taught in textbooks. I learned some of it because my college, the University of Pennsylvania, had the Wharton School for Business attached to it. And those people were like, hardcore. A lot of them were dreaming of being investment bankers, but a lot of their education, not formally, but practical education was about networking events, cocktail parties, all that stuff. And when you see that in play, you start to see oh, this is how they’re getting their jobs. Someone passed you a business card at some event and a few months later, when you want to intern, you don’t apply on the company website. You email that person. Yeah. And they send you directly to the hiring manager. “Hey, I met this person with some good university creds, bring them in for an interview…” Just bypass 500 people who applied. 

My point is that there is a set of sort of class- based knowledge that perpetuates itself. And it’s not interrogated. If you’re in this “in” group, you just believe this is how things are done. You can  can see why someone might think it’s unfair from the outside, but it is what it is. They think “It’s what my parents did. Presumably what my grandparents did, blah, blah, blah. It’s hard for someone to come to the conclusion that the way they know how to operate in the world and quote, unquote, succeed is somehow morally or ethically problematic. That they need to change it and enter a world of uncertainty their birthrights have shielded them from. 

CD: I’ve never really thought of it that way. Can you really expect them to change these implicit rules they’ve been operating under when it seems that’s just how power moves. How generational  wealth and security is protected etc.

JS: You’re not gonna have a lot of luck convincing people raised in that world that that kind of thinking and operating is wrong and needs to be reformed. Often what you’re asking them to do is to radically change decades-long relationships. Put it in this context. For some legislators, there are certain lobbyists they’ve known for a long time. Their kids are friends, right? They vacation together etc. So you’re talking about friends, and you’re telling them “now look, Dominions a bad company, you need to stop dealing with the lobbyists and do what you know is good for the constituency.” The reply “but I’ve known this guy for 20 years, our wives are best friends.” You’re asking them to do way more than change their vote, or approach a public utility with activist determination. You’re asking them to screw with their personal lives, maybe years of favors not even political, just personal favors, you know, birthday cards, whatever. That stuff is way harder to cut through than just like partisanship or philosophy or public policy. 

CD: That is a very insightful thread of conversation. Thank you for that actually, because I’ve never really I never really thought about it. And I have thought about this issue before, but I’ve never really thought about it from the idea of it being tied to generationally learned “manners”. In their mind this is how you get the best results. By keeping the team together. You have people that want to work together and do things. Sometimes the very people pulling the slot machine levers of funding put the jackpot money right into their own fucking pockets – and their friends’ pockets. Even if it’s a positive program. “We’re building this park just like you asked!” Well, you know, who’s actually building the park is their cousin and/or their college roommate. It’s still self dealing, even when the results are benign. It’s such an ingrained habit that meritocracy is casually thrown out the window. Not even in a shameful way from the way they’re looking at it. 

JS: What I’ve been doing is basically demolishing the myths of politics, 

CD: I think I might actually just name this article that. Let’s get past noticing the problem though. I think in all the interviews I’ve done recently, notably with Andreas Addison and Susanna Gibson, I try to figure out one thing. Take one thing and ask point blank, “how do we fix it?” I like to put good minds to these problems. How do we fix nepotistic patronage in our government? Because that’s a human thing. It’s not just cultural. That’s a species trait, a human being thing. 

JS: Yes. I believe it is a natural behavioral response. To want to reciprocate. If someone gives you a gift, or does something that you like, or, you know, helps you in any way, people feel like there’s an implied debt, or something like a debt. Something like you want to return in kind. That’s amazing outside of politics and power. It’s one of the foundational realities of business as well. But I believe that when it comes to creating human systems and creating systems of governance, you can absolutely legislate curbs to those human impulses. 

There are plenty of ways to set strict guidelines in law, such that people who want to enter a certain sphere of activity – namely government – and be granted extraordinary power compared to the average citizen, have to operate under. Often with a set of strict conditions that the rest of us don’t have to abide by. If you want to run your local business and have favoritism/nepotism going on, go for it. Helping people out, especially family, giving business to people you like, that’s fine. That’s your own world. But when it comes to politics, then it’s problematic.

If a politician doesn’t see any problem with taking lavish gifts from lobbyists, that’s a serious issue. That kind of person is not likely to institute guardrails on themselves. So the problem is, we’re not starting from a blank slate. There’s no such thing as social contractarianism where the community gets together decides on a social contract that we all now agree to. It’s fucking impossible. I think David Hume said in his argument against all that stuff from Locke and others was, this pipe dream has never happened in human society. Anywhere. 

That’s one of the reasons Thomas Jefferson who we don’t have to look up to, but lets recognize in context, does matter. One of the reasons he wanted a new constitution every generation was, I think, for this whole underlying issue of consent and change. Right now, we’re dealing with governmental structures that have all these foundational problems embedded in them and the people who occupy many of these positions of power got there through a system defined by these problems. They’re not going to change it themselves. And, you know, barring a blank slate, a quasi blank slate situation like a constitutional convention in Virginia would be a start – to answer your question (scroll back up if you’ve forgotten it). I think the last one was in 1970/71? To rewrite the Virginia constitution. 

That’s politically unlikely and problematic for all kinds of different reasons. The moment you talk about a constitutional convention of any kind, you get back “think about all the crazies that are going to come in and do crazy shit, right?” That’s a perennial response to let’s talk about fundamentally changing anything. If you’re not trying to go for a quasi blank slate situation where you get to draft a new foundational document, then I think you’ve got to look to the culture. 

That was the whole deal with the Virginia Dominion pledge. The goal was, at least in the Democratic Party, to make it really problematic to take money from Dominion or Appalachian Power. We knew the legislators were not going to pass a law to ban those contributions. We knew Virginia at least at that time was one of only five states in the entire country that allowed all this unlimited campaign money. We knew there wasn’t going to be a legislative fix. So the thought was, make taking Dominion’s money really politically uncomfortable. The Republican Party was lockstep with the utility, the Democrats for the most part as well. 

The goal was to change the culture and make it clear that all these new candidates running are promising from the get go that they’ll never take this money. If that becomes the expectation, you’re gonna run for the General Assembly as a Democrat. You’re not gonna take this dirty money. We’re supposed to give a shit about climate change. We’re supposed to give a shit about people who, you know, pay these electric utilities, especially folks who can’t really afford the high rates. We’re supposed to care about coal ash and renewable energy and corruption. We shouldn’t be taking this money. And it’s gotten to a point where the state Democratic party has sworn off Dominion money for a few years now. 

We’re getting to the point where it’s understood that you can’t credibly claim to stand for certain mainstream Democratic Party values if you take money from exploitative entities. It’s not the fastest way to get something to change and it’s not the way I would prefer to do it, but since there was no clear legislative way with the folks in power, that’s been really the only shot we had. To get creative and create cultural change. 

CD: May I do the honors?

JS: What?

CD: drops (and nearly breaks) mic.

Photo by Michelle Ding

Christian Detres

Christian Detres

Christian Detres has spent his career bouncing back and forth between Richmond VA and his hometown Brooklyn, NY. He came up making punk ‘zines in high school and soon parlayed that into writing music reviews for alt weeklies. He moved on to comedic commentary and fast lifestyle pieces for Chew on This and RVA magazines. He hit the gas when becoming VICE magazine’s travel Publisher and kept up his globetrotting at Nowhere magazine, Bushwick Notebook, BUST magazine and Gungho Guides. He’s been published in Teen Vogue, Harpers, and New York magazine to name drop casually - no biggie. He maintains a prime directive of making an audience laugh at high-concept hijinks while pondering our silly existence. He can be reached at christianaarondetres@gmail.com




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