The Man Flammonde, or How I Met Atul Singh

Discourse in Washington can be driven by inertia, uncritical repetition and intellectual laziness. It takes grit and commitment to challenge views and ask for rigorous arguments — something we at Fair Observer have made our mission.

April 27, 2023 22:45 EDT

           The man Flammonde, from God knows where,

           With firm address and foreign air,

           With news of nations in his talk

           And something royal in his walk,

           With glint of iron in his eyes,

           But never doubt, nor yet surprise,

           Appeared, and stayed, and held his head

           As one by kings accredited.

                – “Flammonde” by Edwin Arlington Robinson

Having left the cosseted confines of Southern Methodist University’s leafy Bishop Boulevard, I spent my first few years out of university doing any number of things. Among them, I sold cars, worked as a temp, and spent a year filing papers as a clerk at the federal courthouse in Dallas, Texas. With little in the way of a consistent career, I came to Capitol Hill as an intern in my mid-20s. Little could I have known that 18 years later I would still be in politics.

Coming to Capitol Hill as a beginning staffer is much like a puppy tripping over his paws: eager to be there but not quite sure how things work. Eventually, things become clearer; what is not clear, or even probable, is that staffers will work for a great boss. I was one of the fortunate, having landed my internship for one of the most pleasant members of Congress to work with. Fortune was also mine when a vacancy opened in that same office – an office renowned for little turnover.

In working for Congressman Ralph Hall, I was permitted to indulge my curiosity and grow exponentially over almost a decade. Yet over time I realized that Capitol Hill is not intellectually rigorous. Regurgitative talking points, facile explanations, and an inertia that can be stifling often lead to weak reasoning. I also grew frustrated with what passed for authority and what was called substantiation in journalism. Links to source data were and still are rare, opinions are often couched as facts, and ledes are often buried. Contrariwise, think tanks would send volumes of material that offered little guidance to the salient points or relevance to the issues at hand. There had to be a better source of information than the usual places.

The Man Flammonde

As some of you may know, I live in a small carriage house just off a motor court that overlooks several of my neighbors’ gardens. It is a particularly pacific cranny in Georgetown given the centrality of its location in that neighborhood. Amongst the views from my 2nd floor living room, I can look out and see a cherry tree and catch glimpses of those few and furtive souls intrepid enough to walk down the carriageway to discover this little nook of Georgetown. Amidst this quasi-bucolic setting, I also have three salons, two banks, a dry cleaner, a dining club, four pubs, and any number of restaurants and diners within a 5-minute walk.

What you may not know about me is I’m not a morning person. No, let’s call it what it is: I’m a night owl. Yet one evening I promised to assist my friend with a house renovation, so I was up on an uncommonly cool spring morning at the almost profane Saturday hour of 8:00 AM. As I put on the rattiest clothes I owned, I noticed a thin, athletic, tan man in the motor court gently embracing the buds of my neighbor’s aforementioned and much-beloved cherry tree. He was dressed in athleisure and seemed to have been on a walk or run.

He cupped the buds, smelled them, and then backed away in a posture of near reverence. This he repeated several times. “Who is this guy?” I wondered. I’m accustomed to the annual rite of girls posing for selfies near one of the garden gates, young couples walking back here, and then hastily retreating as though they had trespassed. Then there’s the occasional architectural buff who wants to see what Georgetown’s odd spots hold. But I had never seen someone so at ease in this hidden spot and so deferential to a tree, beautiful as it was.

I walked down and introduced myself, and Atul made his own introduction. He told me about Fair Observer, and, unsurprisingly for anyone who knows Atul, I was given homework on the spot: I was to watch a video of a lecture he had given to Google employees. I’d met charlatans and BS artists (the latter a particular strength of DC), but this man clearly was neither. Before we parted, my carriage house suspicions were confirmed: there was something different about this man, something exceptional.

We exchanged information, and I went on my merry way. As I worked on fulfilling my neighborly obligation by gutting a house (no handyman am I), my thoughts returned to this strange Mr. Singh. That afternoon I wrote to him, and what is simply a blur now in retrospect led us to become fast friends. Later I would learn Atul’s athleisure was a trademark, most notably when we attended an art gallery event, and amidst high heels and blazers, I could swear he was wearing the same shorts and t-shirt as when I first met him.

The Fair Observer Difference

In Fair Observer I found a refreshing combination of substantiation and viewpoint-agnostic outlooks. FO was not a place to have my opinions confirmed but to test them against people who might not agree with me. At the very least I would be exposed to a variety of experiences and perspectives, which, at their heart, represent honest, fair reporting—citizen journalism at its finest.

FO also makes sense of broad geopolitical movements with its monthly exclusive. I’ve told people for years that this roundup with retired CIA officer Glenn Carle and Atul is the best monthly summation of what is going on in the world. These FO° Exclusives with the pair bring timely assessments and helpful distillations of pressing topics. You can sign up for them here.

The man Flammonde of Robinson’s poem is charming and perhaps a subtle grifter. Atul is no grifter, and while impish and happy to lean into his characterization as an erudite “noble savage,” he has no “small satanic sort of kink” in his brain. A learned barbarian is a contradiction to be sure, but Atul presents many contradictions that only smooth into consistency with time and understanding.

Also, unlike the man Flammonde, Atul is not a castaway, though one could be forgiven for thinking of him as such in these times of rigid orthodoxy. Rather than embrace received wisdom, he welcomes all viewpoints to ensure Fair Observer reports sincerely, with no agenda, and with dedication and earnestness – exceedingly rare virtues in today’s environment of “hot takes” and angles, which seem not to require a knowledge of anything to have an opinion on everything.

By publishing Fair Observer, Atul, as Flammonde, warns us of and defends against what might best be summarized in Ronald Wesson Moran Junior’s 1956 doctoral dissertation on the poem:

“No one, except perhaps God, knew the man behind the “man Flammonde”; however, Flammonde made the people of Tilbury Town realize that, because of their unwillingness even to try to understand their fellow citizens, they were perpetuating blind­ness to the point of public and private harm.”

This is the realization that Fair Observer, with Atul Singh as its helmsman, tries to bring us.


Christopher Roper Schell

Contributing Editor

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