David Levinson Wilk is a puzzle writer. His crosswords have been appearing regularly in the New York Times since 1996, and his self-syndicated puzzles appear in dozens more newspapers across the country; he’s also an Emmy-nominated writer for his work on game shows like Who Wants to be a Millionaire?. David’s passion for social justice fuels his latest project, Crosswords for Congress, which, aside from being free and crazy fun, happens to tie in quite nicely with our work in teaching people to criticize and create media. Since David also happens to be a long-time friend of The LAMP, we were lucky enough to score an interview with him about activism, the link (or lack thereof) between crosswords and politics, and how puzzles can make a surprising difference in the way we think.
In your own words, what’s Crosswords for Congress?
It’s a website that gives people a new and different (and, I hope, fun) option for political activism. Instead of the bread-and-butter stuff of civic engagement — writing letters to newspaper editors, participating in political marches, etc. — Crosswords for Congress provides one free crossword a week that touches on a current political issue and asks solvers to finish the puzzle and tweet/email a targeted member of Congress who has proven to be on the wrong side of that issue to help raise awareness about it and hopefully affect positive change.
An even quicker answer — it’s a labor of love. We should all be healthy and happy and do good in the world but I’m not an EMT or a social worker or a poet. I write crossword puzzles. Crosswords for Congress is my way of attempting to improve the world using a skill I have.
How do you decide what issue to tackle each week?
The news the other week of California’s drastic measures to combat drought inspired that week’s puzzle. Other weeks I’ll choose a political issue and construct a puzzle around that topic because it’s something I think needs publicizing. Of course, if a fun idea for a crossword presents itself and no politician’s quote or trending media news story inspired it, I might figure out a way to use that idea anyway just because I think it makes for a strong crossword.
What is it about crosswords that makes solving and writing them a tool for activism?
I don’t know. They may be a fantastic tool for encouraging activism. Or they may not. That’s what I’m planning on finding out.
Why are crosswords typically devoid of any politics?
Crossword clues and answers are meant to be facts, not opinions. I can give the clue “Longtime Republican congressman from Texas” for the answer RONPAUL and all solvers would be fine with that. For the same answer, I can give the clue “The only member of U.S. congress who voted against issuing a Congressional Gold Medal to Rosa Parks in 1999” and, even though that’s a fact, a number of solvers would cry foul to the bias suggested in the clue. Why? No one would bat an eyelash if that fact was mentioned in a news story. Because crosswords in major publications have to pass the “breakfast test” — no sex, death, disease and, unless it’s completely apolitical, politics — you’ll never see the answer RONPAUL clued the second way mentioned above. A great example of how the New York Times strays from politics in its crossword while initially suggesting a bias can be seen in its recent clue “Discord on the far left and far right?” The answer (look at the first and last letters of “discord”) is (harmless wordplay): DEES. Great clue. Zero politics.
Can you tell us a bit about some of your own crosswords that have been politically inclined, and how they’ve been received by crossword lovers and politicians?
This is hard to answer because I don’t want to give away or hint at an answer from a crossword of mine that a person reading this has yet to solve. I will say this: besides creating puzzles for the website, I self-syndicate a crossword to weekly
I don’t remember his exact wording, but one newspaper publisher emailed me and basically said: “Don’t ever do that again.”
How does solving a crossword puzzle hone media and information literacy skills?
Traditionally, it doesn’t. I think it’s accurate to say that a good crossword, simply put, makes you smarter, more informed and mentally limber. By offering clues about an array of subjects, a crossword often exposes a solver to a whole host of topics they knew nothing about before.
But it takes a little extra effort (something I’m trying to give to this) to introduce or improve upon solvers’ abilities such as critical thinking. I could give the clue “Muckraker Jacob” for the answer RIIS but I’d rather give the clue (as I do in the debut crossword on the site) “Social reformer Jacob who wrote ‘The slum is the measure of civilization.'” This clue might feel too dark (or wordy) for a crossword editor at a national newspaper. I think Jacob Riis had a lot to teach the world and crossword solvers would benefit from reading some his words.
Additionally, I intend for visitors to the website, in solving the puzzles and contacting members of Congress, to gain basic online skills and, through understanding my intentions with the site, help them to place greater value on critical thinking and political awareness. Other than that, crosswords, biased or not, bend your thinking and that’s, in my opinion, always a good thing. In the 1990s, when people were overwhelmed with the Monica Lewinsky scandal, a crossword pointing out that “President Clinton of the USA” is an anagram of “To copulate, he finds interns” would have been a welcomed refreshment for one’s brain.
In a perfect world, what kind of social change will you make with Crosswords for Congress?
In a perfect world? Visitors to the site will contact members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, those elected officials will say “What in the world is Crosswords for Congress?!?!” and then, after solving the crosswords, they will alter their political positions accordingly and affect positive change.
Justice is a constant struggle. Solving crosswords is a constant struggle. But the answers are there if we choose to work for them.