Anthony Bourdain died today.
Unlike so many self-styled literary and entertainment industry badasses, there was simple skill, craft and humanity underlying the attitude, which he would freely allow to show. The former without the latter -- and without self-awareness-- is empty. Whatever he was doing to project that bad boy persona was immediately set aside when he got down to work writing about or chronicling a place, a people, a cuisine or whatever it was he was interested in at the moment.
In losing Anthony Bourdain, we didn't lose a "celebrity chef" or a "travel show host." We lost an insightful, empathetic and humane chronicler of the human condition. A man who could have so easily been a complacent, thrill-seeking, luxury-living, globetrotting celebrity but chose to be something more. He was an anthropologist who discarded dispassionate observation in order to advocate for the best in humanity, paying special attention to the vulnerable, the exploited and the overlooked.
Last year Bourdain went to West Virginia for an episode of his show, "Parts Unknown." In the space of one hour he did a better job of capturing my home state than a thousand poverty porn tourist journalists with pre-written stories parachuting in from coastal publications have ever done. It was typical of his work. He never went with the easy or expected narratives, even if doing so would've saved him a lot of work. Probably because he knew that those easy narratives obscured truths, perpetuated lies and, unwittingly or otherwise, served to work injustices, both large and small.
I embedded that episode below. You should watch it. If he ever went someplace special or interesting or unknown to you, you should watch that too.
This evening I did a segment on BBC World News about today's announcement that the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will play a two-game series in London next year. They allowed me on the air even though I spent most of the day trafficking in the silliest British stereotypes and mocking the monarchy.
Come for me talking about baseball, stay for the Shrek Funko Pop! figurine I had forgotten that my children put on my mantlepiece.
In today's Washington Post Jonathan Greenberg writes about how Donald Trump lied his way onto the Forbes' 400 list of the wealthiest Americans back in the early 1980s. It's an amazing story, which illustrates just how insecure, desperate and pathological Trump truly is. It reminds us that, then as now, he possessed no shame whatsoever and would stop at nothing to portray himself as wealthy and powerful, going so far as to disguise his voice and to pretend to be another person in order to appear as something he was not.
While most people are sharing and reacting to that story based on the bald-faced lies Trump told and the audacious things he did in order to make Forbes' list, the story tells a larger and, in my mind, more significant story. It's a story about journalism and American values and about how a certain failure and bankruptcy in both of those things led us to where we are today.
Malcolm Forbes came up with the idea of the Forbes 400 in 1982. The idea was to personalize wealth after decades in which faceless corporate conglomerates dominated the story of American business. Given the circles in which Malcolm Forbes traveled, his personal extravagance and his obvious love of fame and celebrity, it's not surprising that there was more going on here than the mere reporting about powerful business figures.
The Forbes 400 was about elevating and celebrating the wealthy -- many of whom were not, actually, business figures but, rather, heirs -- simply because they were wealthy. It was a gossipy, clickbaity listicle for the pre-Internet age. We all know what MegaCorp Consolidated owns and what it does, but who is its biggest shareholder? How is he special? What makes him tick? More importantly, what does he own? What does he wear, eat, drink, drive and fly? The Forbes 400 constituted an implicit argument for the social value of wealth for its own sake. An argument which kicked off or, at the very least, worked in tandem with the greed-is-good, "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" social and cultural forces ascendent in 1980s America.
It was this culture which gave us Donald Trump. Donald Trump became president because he was famous. He became famous because he was portrayed as rich. He was portrayed as rich because, in the early 1980s, there was a big cultural push -- much larger than Donald Trump -- to celebrate the rich simply for their status of being rich. If that culture did not exist, there would have been no Forbes 400 for Trump to lie to get on to and if there was no Forbes 400, and the culture which surrounded it, it's an open question whether anyone outside of the New York real estate world would've ever heard about Donald Trump. Donald Trump did not lie his way to the presidency on his own. He had a lot of help.
The elevation of the rich for their own sake in the 1980s was not new, of course. Back in the Gilded Age the robber barons were larger-than-life figures, permeating the culture far beyond the business pages. In the Great Depression the names of the wealthy could be found in song lyrics and constituted instantly recognizable references in movies, on stage and on the radio. This elevation of the rich likewise did not stop with the death of Malcolm Forbes and the end of the go-go 1980s. To see how this celebrity-style reporting on the rich and powerful still works, one only need look at the often uncritical coverage of figures like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and, more broadly, the culture of Silicon Valley as something separate, apart and, somehow, more noble and visionary than the mere businessmen and women that they are.
All of which is to say that, however much fun it is to point and laugh at the prospect of a 36-year-old Donald Trump pretending to be something he wasn't, that's not really the big takeaway from today's piece in the Washington Post. We know Trump is a pathological liar and those of us who paid attention to him before he got into politics have known this for years.
The more important questions raised by that article are how and why Trump was given the platform from which to tell his lies in the first place? Who will be the next to take advantage of America's sick and misguided fascination with wealth for its own sake to ascend to a position for which he is clearly unqualified? Finally, when will the media, which utterly failed to push back against the idea that greed is good in the 1980s and has continued to fail in this regard each and every time that ethos has been repackaged for a new era, begin to ask itself why the wealthy are celebrated and considered newsworthy in and of themselves?
I've spent a lot of time beating up on "Hillbilly Elegy" author J.D. Vance over the past year or so. My review of his book is here and some further stuff on him and his political writing is here and here, in case you've missed it. The short version of my beef with him: while his personal story may have been compelling enough for a decent memoir, he and others have attempted to use that personal story as disingenuous cover for an odious political agenda.
It's not a new political agenda, mind you. The gist of it involves blaming the poor and downtrodden for their misfortune, which has long been a talking point of the conservative establishment of which Vance, a Yale Law graduate who worked for a hedge fund in Silicon Valley for years, is quite firmly a part.
The twist is the use of Vance himself and his dubious hillbilly bonafides to provide absolution to anyone who would prefer to look away. "It's not your fault that poor people in flyover country are screwed," Vance has told both conservatives and liberals alike, "they've done it to themselves!" Upon being told that they all exhale in relief, content in the knowledge that they cannot do anything to help and thus cannot be criticized for turning away, their guilt assuaged because, hey, a hillbilly said it was OK for us not to care. It's almost genius, really.
As coastal elites have gotten off on Vance's guilt-free rural poverty porn, Vance himself has been plotting a political career. Now relocated to Columbus, Ohio, he strongly considered a run for the U.S. Senate in 2018. While he ultimately decided against that, he has surrounded himself with the sorts of advisors and donors, both in Columbus and nationally, who anoint political stars. He's writing Op-Ed pieces, spoken at political luncheons and has gone on the lecture circuit. It's the usual stuff a future candidate does.
Vance, however, claims that he has a particular problem for a Republican in middle America: he does not support Donald Trump and did not support him during the election. This "problem," of course, will increasingly be seen as a strength the longer Trump stays in office and the lower his popularity plunges. Vance, no idiot, knows this quite well and will likely continue to position himself as a Republican Party savior, seeking to take it back from the insane fringe that has taken it over in the past few years.
There's only one problem with that. He's buddying up to Steve Bannon, who is angling to get Vance installed as the next head of the conservative think tank, The Heritage Foundation:
J.D. Vance, the best-selling author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” a memoir about his upbringing in Appalachia, was also floated early in the process as a possible high-profile, younger recruit. He has met in recent months with Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist who has returned to his post running Breitbart News, and Bannon has privately expressed a desire to see an ally installed at Heritage.
You can endeavor to heal the nation of its Trumpist fever, or you can work with the leader of the alt-right agenda who parted with Trump because he wasn't extreme enough. Likewise you can work to elevate the voices of the overlooked people of poor middle America, as Vance has claimed over and over again that he desires to do, or you can fall in with Bannon, who has worked tirelessly to exploit these people into backing his twisted, white nationalist delusions. You cannot do both.
What J.D. Vance decides to do in this regard is his own business. It's a wonderful time for all of the rest of us, however, to stop listening to Vance and to stop believing he's some fresh new voice of reason who can bridge the vast political, cultural and social divides in this country. Because once you start taking meetings with a guy who blows up bridges and brags about doing it, you've opted out of the "bringing us all together" business.
UPDATE: I have some other ideas on politics and bringing people together. It's a decidedly more inclusive view of the world than whatever it is Bannon and, by extension, Vance is interested in pursuing.
This morning the President of the United States, in response to an accurate news report that made him look bad, threatened the license of a national broadcast network:
It happens to be the broadcast network that employs me. I'd hope, however, that such a thing angers people who don't work for NBC. I mean, I get that he's mad, but the most powerful member of the United States government threatening the media because it criticized him is, if not the most un-American thing ever, certainly in the top-10.
I'm pretty sure if Obama had said this about Fox News in 2010 there would be talk of impeaching him. Short of that, it'd dominate the news cycle for several weeks and be cited in the rants of conservatives for years and years. Now, I presume, we'll just chalk it up to "Trump being Trump" and stagger on to the next unnecessary crisis he creates or legitimate crisis he neglects.
In the meantime, Trump can take my NBC WordPress login from my cold dead hands. Or whatever it is people say in such situations. Sorry, I'm new to this "living under a petulant dictator" thing. We all are.
In the past week President Trump, first through a spokesperson, and then personally, demanded that United States citizens lose their jobs because he does not agree with their political views.
We can disagree about the underlying issues which led to him saying this. We can debate the nature of protest and the mode and manner of expression of views with which he takes offense. We can discuss the propriety of sports figures wading into non-sports topics. No matter where you come down on any of that, however, we are left with the President of the United States saying people should lose their jobs because he does not agree with their political views.
No one, no matter their views about the protests or comments of athletes, should find this acceptable. Whether one holds far right or far left views, every last American should find it abhorrent that a government official, let alone the most powerful government official, is demanding people's jobs because he does not like what they believe.
This is not a controversial assertion. It is not a close issue. It is, perhaps, the most basic and fundamental issue there can be when it comes to our rights and our liberties as Americans under the Constitution. It is the entire goddamn point.
Some people who take in interest in genealogy discover that they are Irish when they thought they were Scottish. Others find a long-lost cousin. When I began looking at my family history I found out that my great-great grandmother murdered my great-great grandfather with an axe on a snowy winter's night in Detroit, Michigan in 1910.
Nellie Kniffen's violent rampage and her husband Frank's grisly demise was front page news in Detroit for several weeks, but she and her crime were soon forgotten, both by the public and by her family. Those who remembered it tried hard to forget it and those who came after knew nothing about it at all.
Through research of public records, personal interviews and a review of the sensationalistic newspaper stories written before Frank Kniffen's body grew cold, I unearthed a chapter which had been torn out of my family's history. And I began to better understand the ghosts and demons which have haunted my family for over a century.
The story of Nellie and Frank -- Nellie Kniffen Took An Axe -- is available as a Kindle eBook for $2.99.
Daniel Drezner wrote a column in today's Washington Post about the foray of some "Silicon Valley thought leaders" into politics. The short version: Zynga’s Mark Pincus and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman have launched a platform aimed at rallying people into political causes outside of the current party structure, forming some sort of center-left, pro-business movement and basically "disrupting" political engagement. Or something, in the way that only Silicon Valley types talk about such things.
Many have been sharply critical of this and similar initiatives. Drezner is critical, but less so, noting that even though Pincus and Hoffman are bound to fail, we should nonetheless take them and other Silicon Valley types seriously when they wade into politics, saying that Democrats should keep "their neoliberal billionaires inside the tent."
My distaste for neoliberalism notwithstanding, I don't necessarily disagree with Drezner. I don't believe anyone should be kept outside the tent if it can be helped. If they advocate good policies and want to make the world a better place - of if they are open to discussion about making the world a better place and share at least some common ground -- I want them in that tent. That's the point of all of this, after all.
At the same time, I share some of the skepticism many have about tech giants wading into politics, mostly because of the frankly odd manner in which tech giants tend to wade and the manner in which the media and the public has tended to discuss such wading.
So let's put it all into perspective, shall we?
By accident of my age and some friendships I made years and years ago, I know a number of people who are either Silicon Valley denizens themselves or people who at least orbit that world. They used to be programmers or startup employees, now they're mid-to-upper management guys. Some have made a lot of money. Others haven't. Some are academics now. But they all speak that odd Silicon Valley language and, at times, share a bit of it with me. It's a strange world, but so too is any somewhat insular subculture with which one is unfamiliar. Like any other, there is jargon and custom and behavior that those of us on the outside don't quite understand.
The people in that world, however, aren't fundamentally different than those of us who are not. Contrary to how tech moguls are often described, they have needs, desires and opinions that are not of some other planet.
When the election hit last year, a lot of Silicon Valley types freaked out, just like a lot of the rest of us did, because it did not conform to expectations. Most of them never thought that Trump would win and, like a lot of us, they started to question the assumptions they harbored. Assumptions which they thought were safe. As I said, Silicon Valley culture can be insular and, of course, Silicon Valley sits in the Bay Area, which is far more politically homogenous than a lot of places. While I disagree with so much of what has been written about so-called "bubbles," I don't think it's unreasonable to say that many of the political assumptions held by Silicon Valley types were less-challenged and more strongly held than those held by some of us in the Midwest, making the freakout of the Silicon Valley types a bit more pronounced than our own.
There are a lot of transplants in Silicon Valley. My friends are from Ohio, many others are from other places. During the post-election freakout, a lot of them asked me or their friends back home, "WHAT HAPPENED TO OHIO?" or "WHAT HAPPENED TO MICHIGAN?" Soon those panicky questions turned to more thoughtful ones like "what can I do to help Ohio?" or "what can I do to help Michigan?"
Some -- like venture capitalist-turned-author J.D Vance or former Uber executive Brian McClendon -- have moved back to their home states and have vowed to take an active role in politics. Some, while staying in California, have vowed to funnel money back home to political causes or to otherwise become engaged in local politics from afar. Some are still trying to figure it out the answer to that question. Some only asked that question for a while and then got back to the business of Silicon Valley.
Others, like Pincus and Hoffman, are simply trying to apply what they know to the problem. To combine their life's work with politics, while bringing the jargon and weirdness of their particular subculture along for the ride. Thus you read articles about entrepreneurs wanting to "disrupt democracy" and about how "thought leaders" are going to bring bold new innovation to a tired industry, just like they did so many times before. Because most in the media don't have a super strong grip on either business or technology, the coverage, like all the coverage of these folks which has come before, is often comically credulous.
Here's the thing, though: you can't "disrupt" politics, let alone public policy. Not in any fundamental way. Politics and policy will always come down to one's values and ones goals and how clearly those values and goals are communicated to voters. Voters who have shown, time and time again, that they will respond to ideas and promises, not branding and cultural framing on its own. You can try to sell them "innovation" and "the future" all you'd like, but they will not get on board with you unless you tell them what you plan to do, in very basic terms, or what it is you stand for, in very plain terms. Voters do not do Silicon Valley cloudspeak.
In light of that, I've talked to my friends in Silicon Valley about what, exactly, Silicon Valley actually wants. What are its political values. They have some ideas. They're not crazy or disruptive or innovative, really. They're a lot of things many people support and some things only a few people support, but they're pretty conventional, politically speaking:
All of this adds up to Silicon Valley being just like and other industry, sector or collective of activists. It wants what's good for it, in its conception of the world. And those wants are all things that have been discussed over and over again by any number of parties, politicians and interest groups. It's not sui generis.
In light of that, the next time you hear about a tech billionaire getting into politics or a group of entrepreneurs putting together some killer app that purports to change the game forever, note their status, but just for a moment. Note their financial power, but not in any way you wouldn't note the financial power of a media mogul or an investment banker who enters the political fray. Then: ask them what it is, exactly, they stand for and ask them if they have a good idea about how to implement it or to convince a majority of people to get behind it. If they stand for good things and have good ideas, join them. If they don't, don't. As I have argued before, there is no magic bullet when it comes to this stuff.
What we should not be doing is what so many in the press have been doing lately, which is treating these guys as if they're magical unicorns with heretofore unprecedented ideas, with plans to disrupt democracy forever.
I just watched the latest Trump press conference. As usual, it was a disaster. Not for him so much, as he's apparently bulletproof and/or oblivious, but for things like rationality, democracy and civil society. It served as just the latest in a never ending series of reminders that we have given a dangerously arrogant, deluded and incompetent man the nuclear codes.
It also reminded us that the press has no idea how to ask Trump a question.
I understand why they are having so much trouble. While presidents have used press conferences as a means of propaganda and reality denial for as long as presidents have given press conferences, at least a small amount of actual information has been disseminated at the things over the years. Presidents -- even Nixon -- have always possessed at least a scintilla of shame which regulated just how big their lies could be and which, in turn, reined in their most nonsensical tactics of distraction. As such, a reporter's lazy, open-ended or compound question has never been that harmful. Presidents have become experts at ducking them and steering them to other, more comfortable topics, but they have always at least pretended to be acquainted with reality and have always communicated some rudimentary information as they sparred with the Fourth Estate.
Not Trump. He hits the lectern at Mach 2 with his hair on fire spewing a brand of nonsensical drivel that would make Tristian Tzara chuck it all, go back to school and become an actuary. He is so utterly shameless that, were he not so mendacious, dangerous and corrupt, it'd almost be perversely admirable. He has blown past Orwellian archetypes so quickly that he is not even bothering to answer the question "what is two plus two" with "five." He's gone straight on to "potato."
As such, the presidential press conference has shed the last vestiges of an exchange of information and has, necessarily, become a truly adversarial affair. The guy being questioned has already, in explicit terms, declared war on the press. The investigative journalists and columnists have grokked this and are firing their big guns at Trump on the daily. It's time for the members of the White House Press Corps -- the ones who actually get to ask Trump questions -- to quit pretending they're sparring and join the goddamn fight.
While I am a member of the media, I'm not really a reporter. I never went to J-school and I don't interview people very often. I don't have a fedora with a card that says "press" in the band. I don't even own one of those cool little digital tape recorders. As an interviewer of willing, sensible and amiable subjects, I'm fairly mediocre. I get the basic information fairly well, but I'm not fantastic at digging too deeply below the surface. I just don't have the reps yet.
But as a lawyer who did cross-examinations and depositions and who conducted internal investigations for 11 years, I do have a lot of experience asking questions of people who don't want to answer them. Or who have something to hide. Like any trial lawyer, I've sat across a table or stood across a room from people who I knew to be lying to me and I got them to either admit it or to look so bad in denying it that they may as well have.
I was not successful at it because I am uniquely talented. Indeed, compared to my colleagues, I suspect I was pretty average when it came to legal talent and instincts. I was successful at it because I followed some basic rules that I and every other trial lawyer is taught. They are rules that, in this mad age, when the President of the United States of America is trying to get one over on us like some employee embezzling from the payroll of my clients tried to get over on me, would serve the White House Press Corps well.
The big ones:
Litigation, war and conducting presidential press conferences are, obviously, very different things. But they do have a few things in common. In all three you have a mission. Thanks to the approach the Trump Administration has taken, in all three you, unfortunately, have an adversary. Above all else in all three you have to have a plan and it has to be a plan that you can carry out without your adversary controlling the terms of engagement. By following the rules of litigation and, in some cases the rules of war, you're way more likely to be successful than whatever the hell it is you're doing now.
Wikileaks was founded in 2006 with a self-proclaimed mission to oppose what its founder, Julian Assange, considered to be “secrecy-based, authoritarian” governments and entities. To combat their censorship of information in the public’s interest and to expose their lies and corruption. If Wikileaks made bumper stickers to promote themselves, they might’ve printed them up with something like “Wikileaks: liberating information and fighting the powerful.”
In the past few years, however, Wikileaks has itself become powerful and its mission and acts have come under increased scrutiny and criticism. Criticism ranging from its careless outing of dissidents to its alleged connection to Russian state-sponsored hackers and the publishing of hacked emails from the Clinton campaign during the U.S. presidential election.
And now, in keeping with the behavior of the powerful entities upon which it has declared war, Wikileaks has decided to protect itself by going after those who would seek to expose its own secrets.
This month Baseball Writers Association of America members with ten years or more of tenure will cast their ballots for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Many already make their ballots public with some writing columns explaining their choices. Next year they will be required to make their ballots public. Fans and non-voting writers like me lap all of this up. As a result, in baseball, December is the month for Hall of Fame arguments.
For some voters, however, it is the month for complaints. Complaints about the process for voting for the Hall of Fame and complaints about the arguments their very own votes set off
There has been a lot said lately about fake news, echo chambers and bubbles. A big part of that involves how, rather than obtaining information, people consume news a source of confirmation of their ideological biases, which in turn leads to polarization and things like people believing that a New York real estate developer who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth is the savior of The Common Man.
It’s hard to identify let alone stop this pernicious pattern, but today I got a great view of how it starts. In my little world of baseball news of all places
We’ve heard much lately about how liberals live in a bubble. About how they fail to understand people different than they are and, to the extent they do have impressions of conservatives, middle Americans and the working class, they come by virtue of caricature and exaggeration via stereotype and pop culture. They are told that they do not understand “Real Americans.”
It's a two-way street. Let's talk about both ways. And let's talk about our lack of community despite a fully-connected society.
I was quoted extensively in a story in the Columbia Journalism Review about sports writers who do not, as a rule “stick to sports."
Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein, talking about why he decided not to be a sportswriter:
“I realized I didn’t want to be a sportswriter when I was interning with the Orioles back in ’92, ’93, ’94. I did do a lot of media-relations stuff, and I saw that the life of a sportswriter is pretty lonely. You kind of work by yourself, sit there by yourself in the press box, go back to the hotel bar.”
The best parts of being a sportswriter – not having to work with anyone else and getting to drink on an expense account – is what made him not want to be one? Weird.
I just read a fascinating story by Sarah Ellison in Vanity Fair about the downfall of Fox News head Roger Ailes. The backstory is well known by now, of course: Ailes sexually harassed women he employed for decades and got away with it for almost as long. His downfall came when former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson sued him for it in July, leading to his disgrace and departure.
The Vanity Fair article is not interesting for the facts regarding Ailes’ conduct, however. For a much better treatment of that go with Gabriel Sherman’s detailed and at times sickening account of it all in his early September story at New York Magazine. No, it’s fascinating because it’s an account of the legal process which actually effected Ailes’ termination. Specifically, the Fox-led internal investigation of Ailes launched by James and Lachlan Murdoch, sons of News Corp head Rupert Murdoch, and Gerson Zweifach, the general counsel of 21st Century Fox once Carlson filed her lawsuit.
I sort of owe my career to Andrew Sullivan. Not in any direct way. He doesn’t know who I am and never did anything to help me get a job. But he and other web-based political writers who flourished in the early 2000s provided a model for me.
The model was basically:
I wrote a web column covering national topics in 2002 and 2003 and didn’t think of it as a blog, but looking back at those old bits, they were basically blog posts. After a hiatus I began again in 2007. While there were several baseball bloggers around then, they were mostly team-specific or didn’t post as frequently as I did. While I respected their work and still do, I didn’t really emulate any of them. No, by 2007 I was consciously aping the political blogging style, only about baseball.
I modeled myself particularly closely on Andrew Sullivan. While I did and still do disagree with him politically on a whole host of issues, there was a lot about his style that appealed to me. He wrote in the first person a lot and did not hide the fact that he was a human being with his own interests. While he was and still is accused of completely reversing course on various topics, he didn’t really care, noting that changing one’s mind upon encountering new information or simply reconsidering old topics was a sign of intellectual strength, not weakness. He was, with some rather notable exceptions, more self-aware than a lot of his peers and knew that some of his readers wouldn’t care about whatever hobby horse he was riding at any given moment yet still kept riding them anyway.
A lot can be written about some of the awful arguments and positions Sullivan has taken over the years, but his approach as a blogger always appealed to me. Emulating it in a baseball context set me apart from my peers. I wrote more, wrote more quickly, more frequently and covered a wider array of topics than most people in the baseball blogosphere. To the extent I was able to leverage two years of independent blogging into a larger platform at The Hardball Times and then, later, at NBC, it wasn’t because I had a ton of friends in the industry or because I networked. It was based almost exclusively on being that weird lawyer baseball dude who updates constantly and talks about everything. It was because I was the baseball Andrew Sullivan. I owe a lot to him, even if he doesn’t know it.
Though I stopped reading Sullivan on a regular basis several years ago, I was sad to see that he quit blogging in 2015. And I am sadder still to see what he wrote today in New York Magazine:
I Used to Be a Human Being
In the article, Sullivan talks about how he burnt out on blogging and all of the online reading, reacting, arguing and writing it requires. About how posting every 20 minutes and obsessing over every twist and turn in a news story, often before anyone even knew what the story was, caused him to crash. His personal health was a factor as well – he suffered from multiple respiratory infections – but his “living-in-the-web” lifestyle, to use Sullivan’s term, was his real problem. He says it took a massive toll on his health, his personal relationships, his intellectual capacity, his writing skills and style and maybe even his sanity. This is, quite obviously, not ideal, and I’m glad that the internet detox on which he has embarked and the meditation regime and sabbaticals and everything else he has done has been good for him. Real life matters far more than four paragraphs of thoughts hastily posted to WordPress.
Of course, it would not be an Andrew Sullivan article if it didn’t include some broad overstatement, generalization and projection of his own feeling and experience onto the rest of us (an occupational hazard of all bloggers, but one which dogged Sullivan more than many). And here it is: too much technology and time online was not just something that harmed him, he says. It’s the scourge of the entirety of 21st century civilization:
Just look around you — at the people crouched over their phones as they walk the streets, or drive their cars, or walk their dogs, or play with their children. Observe yourself in line for coffee, or in a quick work break, or driving, or even just going to the bathroom. Visit an airport and see the sea of craned necks and dead eyes … this new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness. And its threat is not so much to our minds, even as they shape-shift under the pressure. The threat is to our souls. At this rate, if the noise does not relent, we might even forget we have any.
With all due respect to the man on whom I’ve modeled my career: this is fucking bonkers.
I will grant that the manner and to degree to which technology has changed our lives in a very short period of time is, frankly, staggering. I’ll grant that all of us could use more time unplugged and offline and away from screens than we spend.
I’ll likewise grant that people in Sullivan’s line of work are particularly susceptible to being crushed in the manner which he describes. I never was nor have I ever been quite as immersed in the “living-in-the-web” lifestyle as Sullivan was, but doing what I do for a living, as obsessively as I do it, from home, usually alone, I am likely on the far right portion of the, ahem, Bell Curve, when it comes to full Internet immersion. I have over indulged at times. I have had loved ones tell me, hey, you need to unplug, get off of Twitter and close the laptop for a bit. It happens to most of us, especially if we work online.
But Sullivan’s article reads like a harangue from a recently sober alcoholic, convinced that everyone else is destined to fall victim to demon drink simply because he did. It’s calm and measured tone just barely hides what’s really being revealed here: a man with poor work-life balance skills blaming technology for what befell him as opposed to his own inability to unplug and pace himself
Sullivan talks about how he posted seven days a week, every twenty minutes. I remember when he did it and it was insane. I used to do something close to it. It was five days a week for me and it was every thirty minutes – with my blogging partners chiming in once or twice an hour to give us close to the same frequency of Sullivan’s blog – but it was pretty similar. It was also entirely unsustainable, both in terms of content – there really isn’t enough good stuff to write about 40 times a day – but more importantly in terms of the writer’s stamina.
Eventually, I ratcheted back a bit. Instead of writing 20 things a day I wrote 12-15. Many days now I don’t write even that much. Partially because blogging has changed a bit over the years and partially because I have people who work for me whom I trust to handle nights and weekends and those times when I have life to live and errands to run. Mostly, though, because I realized a few years ago that there was no way I could continue that pace into my 40s while still being a sharp thinker, a present father and an all around healthy person. I still write more than most people in my field, but I write way less than I did a few years back. Both I and my writing are better for it and my readers have not complained about it.
I’ll grant that baseball is not as important as politics, but Andrew Sullivan’s blog was not defending us from invading hordes or keeping Democracy alive single-handedly. No matter how important the underlying subject matter, no one was ever going to save the world with a blog post. At the very least the world would have survived for a few short hours if Sullivan had taken his husband out to a nice diner during the Green Revolution or if he had unplugged one night and read a good book in 2008 rather than writing yet another post about Sarah Palin’s baby.
Ultimately, reading and writing about crap on the internet is a job. It can be an extraordinarily immersive job. One that, if you’re not careful, can cause you to lose yourself. But still a job. If Sullivan wasn’t killing himself with this job, I strongly suspect he would’ve been killing himself with another one. I suspect he’s just wired that way.
One final point: Sullivan’s article is illustrated with famous paintings, photoshopped to show their subjects using cell phones, such as Edward Hopper’s “Hotel Room,” at the top of this post. It’s cute, and you can see what he and his editors are getting at with the little joke. But it also proves too much.
Most of Hopper’s best works portrayed subjects who were isolated and lonely and detached. Amazingly, something besides the Internet was to blame.
Over in Baseball Land I recently wrote about how I was getting out of the business of mocking the Hall of Fame ballots of other baseball writers. There’s no real point in it and I find myself not really caring much about it anymore. I made an exception, however: I won’t mock ballots just because I disagree with them, but I reserve the right to comment on vile, petty and borderline defamatory reasoning in the course of columns explaining a given writer’s Hall of Fame votes. We’ve seen a lot of that over the years and, upon reflection, that has always bothered me more than the actual votes with which I disagreed.
A great example of this can be seen in today’s Washington Times. There, columnist Thom Loverro dives into the messy politics involved in the candidacy of players who took performance enhancing drugs such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Like many voters, Loverro will not vote for them. Which, while I disagree, is not really a problem. Roughly two-thirds of Hall of Fame voters don’t vote for those guys. There is a legitimate ethical debate about their careers to be had and if that’s where Loverro falls, that’s where he falls. Battling over those particular ethical considerations is that business I decided to get out of when it comes to the Hall of Fame.
Loverro’s column, however, goes beyond merely reasserting his position regarding drug cheats. He goes after Bonds and Clemens’ supporters, including fellow Hall of Fame voters, and equates them to the Black Lives Matter movement and mocks them as the “No Justice/No Peace Wing of the Baseball Writers Association of America.”
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will not get in. But don’t worry about them — they’ve got the No Justice/No Peace wing of the Baseball Writers Association of America fighting for them.
The Black Lives Matter movement on which Loverro thoughtlessly plays was born in 2012 following the murder of Trayvon Martin. It campaigns against violence against black people, particularly killings of black people by law enforcement officers, which typically go unpunished and, sadly, unnoticed. It works to combat racial profiling, police brutality, and racial inequality in the United States criminal justice system. In short, it concerns itself with serious business. Matters of literal life and death, justice and tyranny. Matters every bit as significant in the grand scheme of things as someone’s Hall of Fame ballot is insignificant in the grand scheme.
That Loverro applies a variation on that label – and “No Justice, No Peace,” which is a venerable slogan of the civil rights movement and other protests throughout history – in his typical mocking manner is pathetic and, frankly, disgusting. In so doing he simultaneously belittles and insults serious people with serious and legitimate concerns by equating them with those who, in his mind, are unethical and feckless crusaders for cheaters who should not be taken seriously in any way whatsoever. Based on the context it would appear that, to him, the criticism goes both ways. He takes neither the Black Lives Matter movement seriously nor those who disagree with him about baseball things.
Of course Loverro has always been like this. He’s a poor writer, a poor thinker and an attention-seeking troll who writes inflammatory columns so he can have fodder for his bad radio show and vice-versa. Nothing I say here will change that. Indeed, I am certain he will use this post and similar disapproval of his column as a launching pad for his radio show on Monday. Good for him.
But I’m not really aiming this post at Loverro. I am aiming it at his peers in the Baseball Writers Association of America in the hopes that, eventually, its members stop tolerating this kind of garbage and that, eventually, they’ll start calling out their peers who engage in it.
We rarely see that sort of thing, of course. “Takedowns” of other members of the baseball press are seen as impolite. It’s simply not done. You do not criticize a fellow credentialed writer. It’s mean. It’s an “attack.” In sportswriting, at least among the upper echelon and at least publicly, every opinion is good and valid and calling out your colleagues is considered rude. It’s the ultimate sin in the world of sportswriting. You can make up stories from whole cloth and be considered an institution, but don’t even think about criticizing another writer where anyone can hear you doing it. Many sports outlets specifically forbid their writers from criticizing other members of the media as a matter of policy.
This is why you see so much bad sportswriting. While no one likes to be criticized, it’s undeniably the case that criticism – even sharp criticism, as long as it’s aimed at the work and not the person – leads to a better product. This is the case in just about any field. Whether it’s doctors being put to the test in morbidity and mortality conferences, lawyers’ arguments being challenged by opponents and judges in appellate practice, academic peer review, competing columns and editorials of political and business writers or even through the application of generalized media criticism, the act of pointing out the flaws in the logic or the practice of one’s fellow professionals works to raise the discourse and improve the work. That a line is drawn with respect to this practice at sports writing makes little sense and it’s why sports writing is considered by some to be trivial. The “toy department” of journalism, as they say.
It shouldn’t be that way. Sports writing can be – and in the hands of solid professionals often is – vital and important and illuminative of both the world of sports and the world at large. We’ve all seen great sports journalism. We know how edifying and enjoyable and uplifting it can be. We know how, at times, it can even enhance our enjoyment of the game itself by its very existence. In some rare cases topics with importance and implications to life and society in general are better-handled by sportswriters and in a sports context than they are if they were set in a different, real-world milieu.
I will never stop wanting sportswriting to be better and, for that reason, I will never stop critiquing bad writing. I simply won’t surrender to the notion that sports are so unimportant that there’s no harm in sports journalism being bad. I talk to sports fans every day and it’s clear how many of them base their opinions on bad sportswriting and commentary. It’s easy for them to do this because that bad writing and commentary goes almost wholly unexamined and unremarked upon. I love to talk about sports with people and I want that discourse to be elevated as much as possible. As is the case in every other walk of life, the way to elevate the work is to critique it and seek its improvement.
But I’m just an uncredentialed blogger, easily dismissed by the Thom Loverros of the world as “the Internet mob.” How nice it would be if he and others who traffic in his sort of garbage were called out by people he actually respects in the industry. By the people he considers his peers. Maybe not in lengthy columns or posts like this one – they’re sportswriters after all and have sportswriting to do – but how about on Twitter? How about on radio shows and podcasts where the subject matter opens up a bit? How about, instead of merely presenting the bad work with a hands-off, “no judgments here” tweet, the giants in the industry call out the garbage for what it is?
I’m not holding my breath until that happens. But I sure as hell would like to see more of it.
The other day, a day before a Yankees playoff game, pitcher CC Sabathia left his team and checked into alcohol rehab.
If this had happened in, say, 2009, I am 100% certain that someone – a columnist, a radio host or a TV talking head, and maybe several of them – would’ve talked about Sabathia’s timing being wrong and about how he was quitting on his team or letting them down. And, of course, we would’ve no doubt heard some ignorant things about the nature of alcoholism and Sabathia’s weakness and toughness and stuff.
But generally, the opinion was this:
Good for CC. Glad he’s getting the help he needs. Baseball is not as important as one’s health and family. Thoughts, prayers and hope for him in these no doubt trying times.
This is a very good thing. Good perspective and evidence of an admirable empathy on the part of the commentariat. Empathy and perspective that, when I started writing about sports professionally six years ago, I don’t think would be anything close to uniform. Indeed, I question whether it would’ve been even a couple of years ago. We’ve come a long way.
Of course, even if the bulk of the professional commentariat has evolved on points like these, there are always going to be some sports fans who treat athletes like gladiators and get all pissed if they actually show human qualities. So in the wake of the Sabathia news I, not surprisingly, heard and read several people saying things about his bad timing or his weakness and who otherwise saw this only through the lens of their entitlement as sports fans as opposed to a lens of empathy for a human being going thorough a rough patch.
This sentiment came in the form of tweets and comments on blog posts. There weren’t a lot, but there were a decent enough number to where it can’t be said that only fringe loonies feel this way. I’ve been in the internet sports business long enough to tell the difference between fringe whackos and the merely misguided. This was the latter. And, as I often do when I encounter some misguided sports sentiment, I engaged with it. I responded to some. Tweeted in general about it a bit. Retweeted some of it to put the speaker on display and open them up to a wider audience so they’ll be forced to either defend or reconsider their views. A pretty standard practice in the world of internet sports arglebargle.
In response to this have come two columns taking issue with me and others who do this. One from Tom Hitchner, a reader and follower of mine and a blogger in his own right. Another from Dan Brooks, who followed on Hitchner’s. The upshot of both of their essays was that it’s wrong for professional writers with big followings like me to call out unpopular or misguided sentiment from random people on the Internet. Tom characterizes it as me “punching below [my] weight,” and asks “[d]o we need someone with Calcaterra’s credentials, audience, and power of expression to step in and crush [the commenter] like a bug? Whose side does that elevate, Calcaterra’s or [the commenter’s]?”
Brooks is more pointed in his distaste for calling out the arguments of the non-professional and non-widely-followed Twitter account or internet commenter. He says that to do so encourages judgmental sentiment and is an exercise in “the worst kind of piety:”
There’s value in refuting popular, wrong arguments. It’s not to my taste, but I’m willing to concede there might be moral strength in calling out people for believing wrong stuff. But looking for unpopular immoral arguments—the kind of arguments that need a search bar to find—so you can publicly rebuke them is the worst kind of piety. It’s the intellectual equivalent of being a pharisee. Punch your weight, as Hitchner says.
Each of their essays have a lot of good points to consider. But each of them presents something of a paradox as well. They tell us that (a) the practice of highlighting arguments advanced by non-professional types with few followers is illegitimate; because (b) It’s judgmental. But is that not itself elitist and exclusionary? If you take the substance of the argument out of the equation, are you not saying “you’re not worth listening to unless you have a certain status or a certain set of credentials?”
I won’t put too fine a point on that because I have a more important point to make here, but suffice it to say that getting into the business of deciding who is and who isn’t worth listening to based on their platform or follower counts can be a pernicious business. A business that, if everyone took to, would’ve kept me and many, many others from ever becoming sportswriters in the first place.
But there’s more to this than merely taking a democratic approach to internet and social media commentary. This goes to the nature of that commentary itself and the understanding that these seemingly random and bad opinions do not exist in a vacuum.
One thing I agree with Tom and Dan about is that there is a certain groupthink that exists these days, particularly on sports Twitter. There is in-group signaling and some thought-policing that happens. I don’t think it’s some toxic, “politically correct” sort of business in the way it is often described – if you don’t care about losing some followers you can say a lot of gonzo shit – but it’s certainly the case that the platform’s dynamic pretty quickly singles out and disapproves of less-than-widely-accepted sentiment, to put it as neutrally as possible.
But just because that sentiment is singled out and disapproved of among a certain class of Twitter users doesn’t mean that sentiment is refuted, diminished or let alone eliminated. Indeed, all that dynamic really does is cow people who are in the media business and who are more sensitive to public opinion than most. People like Twitter-savvy writers, TV folks, radio hosts and the like. Inasmuch as those folks are influencers of opinion, yes, it likely means that their, um, suddenly more enlightened commentary causes readers and listeners to follow their lead to some extent and, for lack of a better term, think smarter about stuff. But to believe that the Twitter-savvy media’s greater sensitivity to stuff like Sabathia’s alcoholism means that people in general are is to greatly overstate the influence of the Twitter-based sports commentariat.
Tom and Dan characterize the seeking out of unpopular opinion like some sort of archeological expedition, but it’s nothing of the sort. One need not dig down deeply to find people who think Sabathia is some worthless drunk who quit on the Yankees. They’re all over the place. My comment section at HBT is full of ‘em. Just because the folks saying these things don’t have little blue checkmarks by their name doesn’t mean they’re buried under the dirt. These are people echoing the sorts of sports opinions you hear at every bar, every office water cooler and on every call-in radio show in the country. And, even if they aren’t as immediately visible on Twitter, there are WAY WAY more of these people than there are of well-followed and allegedly influential sports bloggers like me.
Look at the most popular sports shows and personalities in the country, and who do you see? Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless spouting 95% garbage at “First Take.” Collin Cowherd doing, well, Collin Cowherd things at Fox. Mike Francesa at WFAN and the scores and scores of talk radio hosts who followed his lead into the business trading, for the most part, on the lowest common denominator. These people dominate the non-Twitter, non-blog portion of the sports discourse. And that’s the vast majority of the sports discourse.
These guys aren’t popular and highly paid because no one listens to them. They’re popular and highly paid because LOTS of people listen to them. People who don’t have a lot of followers on Twitter but who spend a ton of time consuming sports and sports commentary. Each of these personalities have orders of magnitude more influence than the allegedly right-thinking folks on sports Twitter do, and all of them together render the notion that someone like me is squashing anyone like a bug – to use Tom’s phrase – laughable.
In our little Internet/Twitter bubble, we don’t see a lot of them. They may comment on the occasional blog post but generally do not. They may respond to the occasional tweet, but generally do not. But they are out there. In great numbers. And no matter how far sports discourse has come in the past several years, they still dictate the shape of sports discourse as a whole. They’re the ones who allow the Stephan A. Smith’s and Skip Baylesses of the world to make the nice living that they do and who continue to make sports a safe place for bros and neanderthals who, even if they didn’t slam CC Sabathia all that much this week, spend a lot of time spewing misogyny about Jessica Mendoza. Or offering thinly-veiled racial critiques of Latino ballplayers. Or when a domestic abusing football player is suspended immediately worry what it means for their fantasy team as opposed to the human beings affected.
When someone like me challenges those folks it may seem like I’m punching below my weight. But I prefer to see it as taking on a far larger, far more formidable fighter and working the body a bit before going for the head. And as a wise man once said: kill the body and the head will die.
I love baseball so much that I turned it into my job. I love bourbon so much that I drink it like it’s my job. The drinking parts of baseball are pretty much owned by beer, so the two of those things don’t come together very often, but when they do I am about the happiest camper there can be.
I am midway through a fantastic new book by Reid Mitenbuler called “Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey.” It’s a bourbon history, basically. And so far a good one. My favorite part of it is that it is, in essence, a debunking. A debunking of the myriad myths surrounding bourbon, its history and its culture. About how those old frontiersman named on the bottle of your favorite whiskey had little if anything to do with it. About how hardly any of the stories about bourbon and its provenance are really true, even if you hear these tales on an actual distillery tour. Maybe especially if you hear them on a distillery tour.
“Bourbon Empire” is not a mean-spirited debunking by any stretch, however. Mitenbuler clearly has affection for his subject and the demystification of bourbon has led me to enjoy the two or three glasses of bourbon I’ve drank since I opened this book the other night even more than usual. There’s something uplifting about knowing the mess of history whence those glasses came. I’m a big fan of messes and chaos. Such things are far more amenable to the creation of great things than a neat and tidy order.
A lot of my baseball writing involves debunking the news and narratives of the day and a lot of my favorite baseball writing of others involves debunking baseball history, so this all has a natural appeal to me. Like bourbon’s origin stories, baseball’s origins were, for years, presented in as neat and tidy a manner as you could imagine. Baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday one fine afternoon. Or, if you don’t believe that, its rules were laid down by Alexander Cartwright. Or would you believe Henry Chadwick? OK, maybe we can’t agree on who the “father of baseball” is, but the idea that baseball was simply invented one day by some father figure is true, right?
Well, of course not. Baseball developed from any number of stick-and-ball games like rounders, bat and trap, and stool ball. The games which, over time, meshed together in important ways to form what we now know of as baseball. It’s a fascinating history, featured in a great documentary a few years back, which reveals that baseball wasn’t truly invented. Rather, it evolved like many other games, from some primordial common ancestor, probably in England, often due to pragmatism and random chance.
Modern baseball is likewise filled with neat and tidy tales. We don’t identify them as tales that often because they come to us in the form of news reports or commentary. But they’re tales. Whenever something can’t be sufficiently explained, fantasy is sprinkled on top of it in order to make it make sense. Sometimes that fantasy is old, unfalsifiable conventional wisdom. Things like a player’s “will to win” or “hunger” for success. Or his lack of fire, motivation or respect for the game. Sometimes people attempt to fill those empty spaces from another direction altogether. Analytics and sabermetrics which, though I am clearly partial to them, have their limits and are probably in need of some cosmic-level rethinking.
Such is the case with bourbon. It was born of a similar pragmatism. The availability of corn as opposed to other grains. The practicality of shipping it in barrels, which led to the serendipitous discovery of some interesting new flavors. The borrowing of distilling and aging concepts from other spirits like brandy and consumption and criticism habits regarding it from things like wine, even as the entire macho frontiersman gestalt of bourbon encourages a rejection of fancy-pants things like brandy and wine.
On page 52 of “Bourbon Empire” Mitenbuler quotes the author Julien Barnes in identifying everything you need to know about the marketing of bourbon. Specifically, that it can be characterized as:
“ … that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
And so it is with so much that is written about baseball. Most people in my industry are content to fill up that empty intersection with bullshit or false, tidy narratives. Hey, if you don’t buy it, prove them wrong! If they’ll stop appealing to their place of perceived authority long enough to even listen to you.
The longer I write about baseball, the more I prefer to allow that intersection to remain empty. And, at times, messy. The world is sometimes empty and messy, after all. Why should baseball, bourbon or anything else be an exception?