Christian Schneider

Author, Columnist

Category: Collection (page 1 of 3)

The Unbearable Whiteness of Balling

Over the weekend, a carrot-topped Q-Tip named Kevin Huerter dismantled the Philadelphia 76ers, destroying their nearly decade-long “process” and catapulting the Atlanta Hawks into the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals.

The sight of a gangly caucasian torching the Eastern Conference’s number one seed caused much bemusement among NBA viewers. On Inside the NBA, TNT’s Shaquille O’Neal called Huerter “Opie Richie Cunningham.” New York Times reporter Astead Herndon, who is African-American, tweeted a photo of Huerter, saying, “imagine this guy ends your season.”

Herndon’s tweet immediately provoked the performatively offended on Twitter, who cried reverse racism for a joke about a white player in a 75 percent Black league.

“Imagine the outrage if a white man tweeted this about a black man playing a white dominated sport,” wrote one commenter. “Huh? This dude just put up 27 against the number 1 seed in the East and was seminal in winning the game. And that’s your take? Come on man,” wrote “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” actor Rob McIlhenny.

“What should the guy who ends your season look like?,” wrote another commenter, asking Herndon to explain his tweet.

L’affaire Huerter unveils an open secret in competitive basketball: White players are viewed differently than Black players. And you know what? It’s fine.

Here’s the thing that non-athletes don’t get: When your Black teammates or competitors tease you for being white, it is the ultimate honor. You are now part of the club. They are showing you respect.

As an avid basketball player growing up in the Washington, D.C. area, I always got a close-up look at how I was viewed vis-à-vis my Black teammates. At playgrounds, I was inevitably one of the last players picked. When you finally got some run and could show you had some flavor in your game, you’d start getting affectionate nicknames, always based on famous white players.

“Oh look, we got a little John Stockton here! Look at mini Bobby Hurley!”

At one point in college, playing on a court outside a dorm reserved primarily for Virginia Tech football players, a group of Black players actually stopped a game in amazement when I went between my legs and behind my back, a move the Miami Heat’s Tim Hardaway had perfected and which I had practiced hundreds of times. The move would not have gotten so many hoots and hollers had it been performed by a player who was…um…more “stereotypically” flashy.

The purpose of pointing this out is not to brag that I was really all that great – at 5’9”, I wasn’t anywhere near good enough to play in college, and these are dribbling techniques every high school player can do – but when you can do them as a white player, it gets you more attention.

As evidence, look no further than college basketball or the NBA, when announcers begin speaking in tongues when a white player throws down a vicious dunk. Pat Connaughton of the Milwaukee Bucks sports a 44-inch vertical leap – the second-highest ever measured at the NBA Draft combine – and yet even after seven years in the league, announcers are still caught off guard by his “sneaky” rise. (This is exacerbated by the fact the Bucks are well-known for their parade of white stiffs throughout the years.)

And you know what? It’s awesome.

Sports is an oasis from much of America’s performative nonsense in that it is purely a meritocracy. And when you’re part of a team, the abrupt honesty fomented by competition can provoke honest discussions of all sorts. Being in the pressure cooker of a basketball team forges friendships and trust in a way that is missing in the social media era – different players of different races can joke with each other in ways not possible among strangers. Honest conversations about race can be had without participants immediately assuming bad intentions.

(For example, my high school team’s bus rides were always accompanied by boom boxes playing Go-Go music of the late 1980s. This prompted me to ask our star player what white artists he ever listened to. “George Michael,” he told me, “because he gets all the ladies.”)

Getting teased as a white player among friends is fine, because racism is, in effect, an act of power. As a spokesman for white people, I can report that we are doing just fine. We can even storm the U.S. Capitol, live stream it, and all walk out without a bruise.

Of course, there’s always going to be the dopey “if there’s Black History Month, why isn’t there White History Month, too” brand of internet troll, and they were out in force after the Huerter game. But the reason you can make fun of white players is simple – if you joke about whiteness, you’re not making fun of something that can cause real damage to an individual. If, by contrast, you joked about a player’s “Blackness,” you would be making light of a thing that could have widespread detrimental effects on his income, educational opportunity, and way of life.

You would also be a dumb racist.

And if you are somehow offended by being taunted for being white, there is always the option of being awesome and earning the respect you think you deserve.

During one practice in high school, I dribbled the ball up the court, stopped at the three point line, and put up a shot. The coach blew the whistle and excoriated me on the spot, yelling, “you have to be a hell of a player to take that shot!”

Next time down the court, I dribbled up to the same spot, and again took another three pointer. Our coach at this point was beside himself with rage. Veins bulging, he screamed, “what did I just tell you?”

“All I heard was that you have to be a hell of a player to take that shot,” I said.

And therein lies the beauty of athletics. Want to dispel a stereotype? Do it on the court or on the field. Like Kevin Huerter, regardless of your race, you’ll always get your shot.

“Zero Star Reviews” – where history has its final say

In March 1885, a small Pennsylvania newspaper called the Valley Spirit wrote a brief editorial comment about a new book they wanted banned.

“The lines were coarse, the situations vulgar and the general style of the book too grotesque to be natural,” they said of the novel, concluding it was “trash of the veriest sort.”

Of course, that novel was “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, regarded by many as the greatest American story of all time. “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn,’” Ernest Hemingway said in 1935. “It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.”

To his credit, Twain was always willing to make fun of his bad reviews. “I like criticism,” he once said,  “but it must be my way.”

Over the past couple hundred years, American newspapers have been stuffed with similarly awful historical reviews of classic books, movies, and music, and I have set out to find them. I’ve set up a Twitter feed called @ZeroStarReviews, where I post critical reviews that have, in the subsequent years, been exposed as preposterous outliers.

Take the reviewer who said the popularity of “The Godfather” was “the sick reaction of a sick society” and compared admiration of the mafia to praise of Adolf Hitler.

Or the reviewer who couldn’t get into an HBO show called “The Wire” because the writers took too long to introduce an actual wire tap into the story. Or the New Jersey reviewer who predicted a “rank and vile” show called “The Golden Girls” wouldn’t last past one season.

In digging these gems up, I’ve wondered why it feels so good to read the musings of other people who were so catastrophically wrong. There has to be something other to it than merely feeling an adrenaline boost of temporary superiority in knowing your take has been confirmed by the history books.

One thing people have written to me is that it makes them feel impervious to criticism – that, hey, if someone was dumb enough to shred the Beatles for “Abbey Road” (and some were), surely Twitter trolls knocking your work should roll right off your back, right?

Imagine if, after a Minneapolis Star Tribune critic said Prince would be “working in a three-piece suit in a year or two” after releasing “Dirty Mind,” he threw up his hands and said, “yeah, maybe this isn’t for me.” We never would have gotten “1999,” “Purple Rain,” or the greatest Super Bowl halftime show in history.

What if the Beastie Boys had listened after a Fresno Bee critic wrote them the following rap after the release of “Paul’s Boutique?”

“Hey Beastie Boys
Don’t be fools
Quit making records
And go back to school”

Perhaps in 2021 you’d have a urologist named “Adrock.”

(Side note: If, in this scenario, your “critic” is your boss, and he or she is criticizing your enthusiasm for taking pictures of women’s feet in the office, please listen to your critic and stop immediately.)

But even more than being an inspirational tool, the feed has made me think more about time and memory, and how perceptions of each can mold what culture believes to be “true.”

For example, in May 1977, a little movie called “Star Wars” hit the theaters, to somewhat mixed reviews. A critic at the Louisville Courier-Journal called the movie “relentlessly childish,” complaining it was hard to sense any real drama in a cast that largely wore rubber alien masks.

Now, with the benefit of history, we know what Star Wars became – a franchise that pulled in billions of dollars in revenue, raised an army of dedicated fans, and spawned an entirely new cinematic universe. History has, in effect, proven the movie’s critics “wrong” – but were they? It was just a guy’s opinion – maybe he ate a bad tuna sandwich for lunch that day.

Perhaps this is a bit of late-night, dorm-room philosophizing, but it has made me wonder how many other historical concepts we now accept as “true” or “false” simply because the right people had the right opinions about them way back when they were introduced. It seems “reality” is malleable based on public opinion, and oftentimes, public opinion is influenced by critics.

And as a result, it seems jarring to go back and revisit the opinions of people who contradicted what decades of public opinion has now deemed “true.” (Put another way, if public opinion is a measure of worth, then Shania Twain would be as objectively great as Mark Twain, as her 1997 album “Come on Over” was the second-highest selling album of the 1990s.)

Or maybe it’s just funny to laugh at people who were spectacularly wrong.

Some other side notes in putting the feed together:

-At first, I thought it would be funny to include some modern Amazon user reviews of classic works. For instance, the Amazon user who read Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and said, “This is my dad’s favorite book…without understanding fishing, I had to look a few terms up, and the story just dragged on.” (Editor’s note – the book is like 100 pages and can be read in about two hours.)

I scrapped this idea, though, thinking it was best to stick to classic, contemporaneous reviews to further make my point about the elasticity of time and memory (see above.) But I would totally read a Twitter feed featuring hilarious Amazon reviews – someone get on this.

-The review database I use is enough to make anyone wistful of the days where every little paper across America had their own reviewer, with their own opinions and axes to grind. It’s these reviewers that provide the real gold. Sure, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune are going to pan something popular every now and then, but working at one of those big papers implies a bit of worldliness and cultural taste than tiny paper critics don’t necessarily have. And the little guys often have more leeway to let it rip.

-In some cases, I have tagged artists mentioned in the reviews to see if they’ll laugh about how wrong the critic was. This has not gone well – either the famous person will ignore it, or actually get angry for mentioning them. Clearly, they don’t understand the point of the feed, which is to show how great they are by demonstrating how ridiculous criticisms of them were – typically, if they see any bad opinion of themselves in print, they will not laugh along. (Which is, in a way, refreshingly relatable.)

-There are some films and albums for which bad reviews simply don’t exist. This is especially true in the 1930s and 1940s, when local papers didn’t so much “review” movies, they simply announced a film was coming to their town and provided a plot synopsis. Presumably, people were still very excited about the prospect of going to see a moving picture, so the idea of a paper convincing them they shouldn’t leave their homes to see the miracle of projection seemed anathema. (The Holy Grail of this era, in my mind, would be a newspaper badmouthing “Singin’ in the Rain.)

And, finally:

Some people have complained that the actual reviews don’t really give a movie or album “zero stars” – for instance, a critic will give a film a “C-plus,” or some such rating. I basically go by the review itself – even reviews that moderately recommend a piece of culture can say things that look ridiculous in retrospect. So everyone relax, the “Zero Stars” title is a bit of an exaggeration – in the real world, there are zero reviews that give “zero stars.”

(Plus, “One Star Reviews” was taken.)

I Am Also Not Dating Jane Krakowski

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

In the past few weeks, I have had any number of insults directed at me. I have been called a “traitor,” a “liar,” and been accused of “treason.” But I want to distance myself from perhaps the most insidious calumny that may soon be hurled my way: I have never dated beloved actress Jane Krakowski.

If I were to be accused of such a misstep, it would no doubt overshadow all the good I have done for the last year, from inciting an armed insurrection against the nation’s government to spreading lies about the security of voting machines, to pitching miracle cures for the COVID-19 virus. My run of positive media coverage simply couldn’t take the hit if I were accused of once having romanced the beautiful and winsome star of such shows as “30 Rock” and “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

Think of the damage such a rumor could do to my persona as the leader of unimpressive white men! Just the other day, a young man with tears in his eyes approached me and said “please tell me you haven’t been involved with the multi-talented host of “Name that Tune” airing at 9 ET/8CT on FOX.” I slapped him in the face for even making the suggestion, and he thanked me effusively, indicating he now had a reason to continue living.

I have had one acquaintance suggest to me that an unfounded accusation of being a stone cold lover that beds starlets may be a boon to my public persona. “Nonsense!” I yelled to him as he handed me a sampling of Vienna sausage on a toothpick. I didn’t care who in Costco was aware of my displeasure!

If the FAKE MEDIA is allowed to go around and destroy powerful men by accusing them of bedding starlets, will there be no end to the witch hunt? Innocent men in offices across America will no doubt be brought down for an unfounded suggestion that they once took Tootie from the “Facts of Life” to Applebee’s!

In fact, I already had to fire one employee simply for admitting he once had amorous feelings for Janice from Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem band!

Clearly, being tied to a charming and funny personality would be a catastrophe for the three employees at my company, MyCravat. It’s a neckerchief, but…slightly different! And on the strength of nonstop late night television ads, we have sold almost several!

Yet for some reason, our products have recently been pulled from most big box stores, forcing me to sell MyCravats in Bed, Bloodbath and Beyond, the nation’s largest retailer of products for anti-government-based domestic terrorists. It’s your lucky day when you’ve been taken hostage using their lavender-scented zip ties!

To prove I am serious, I have sent up a charity to fend off others who may have been accused of dating Jane Krakowski. With any contribution of $100,000 or more, you will receive one free MyCravat and a complimentary visit from the FBI to search your home.

An Open Apology to Those Who Won’t Get to Meet Me Because of COVID-19

A SHORT STORY

We can all agree – since the virus hit, we’ve been missing out on a lot. No symphony of clinking cups in our favorite coffee shops. No eye contact with strangers, as sidewalk passersby treat us with suspicion. Some of us won’t even have a job to return to when we all escape home confinement.

But trust me – the thing you’ll miss most is meeting me.

I am so sorry.

Sometime next week, we were both going to lock eyes at a show put on by an up-and-coming singer-songwriter at a tiny local bar. You were going to stroll up to me and compliment my ironic “Lordy, Lordy, Look Who’s 40” t-shirt I bought last week at Goodwill, hoping it would draw attention from someone just like you. We would have begun talking, and you’d strategically never ask my real age (26), impressively ducking the most obvious conversation starter.

Instead, I would have casually mentioned I have a podcast and pretended to accidentally throw out my Instagram handle. You would have then walked back over to huddle with your friends, obviously perusing my Insta feed to confirm I wasn’t a creepster. My phone would then buzz with your friend request, and I would know I had earned the votes of the valuable concerned-best-friend demographic.

A week later, we would have met up at a grimy local restaurant, pretending it was fine dining. You’d say “no” when the gum-snapping waitress offered you gravy on your fries, which was standard at this hole-in-the-wall.

That night, we would have kissed for the first time, but you wouldn’t have let me stay over. Two nights later, I would have slept at your apartment, and the next morning we would have laid together all day talking – you’d pretend you like dogs and I’d pretend I care about the environment. I would have teased you for how you arranged the books on your shelves by color; you would have joked that I was just lazy.

I would have held your hand over the weeks as we took walks on the lakefront, watching the weather turn from summer to fall. I would have eaten with your family at Thanksgiving, even though your brother, Brad, who I just met, would have kept calling me “smelly nuts.”

That is SO Brad.

We would have gone ice skating together, even though my balance is awful and I wobble terribly.

You would have put on my long-sleeved shirts when you got cold, a thing that turned me on, but which I would never admit to you.

One night, we would have settled on the couch and I’d suggest we watch something by noted film actor Edward Norton.

“Oh, we should watch Keeping the Faith, the one where he plays a priest,” you would have said. “That’s his best role.”

“Wait a minute,” I would have said. “Clearly, Ed Norton was best in Fight Club.”

“Fight Club is flaming garbage,” you would have said. “Who wants to pay money to watch a cinematic ode to white male rage?”

“I do,” I would have said. “I enjoy the film’s commentary on the perils of rampant consumerism, I never see the surprise ending coming, and I also believe Meat Loaf is excellent in it,” I would have said.

“The surprise ending?” you would have yelped. “The idea that one person is actually two people is one of the oldest literary devices in history. Have you ever read Dostoevsky’s ‘The Double?’ Were you aware that in medieval times, seeing one’s double was a sign of impending death? Your ‘surprise’ ending is about as old as the discovery of gunpowder.”

“I was just saying Ed Norton is wonderful as the neurotic narrator,” I would have said.

“Ed Norton isn’t really that great,” you would have said.

“What?” I would have said. “Ed Norton is one of the finest actors of the past two decades,” I would have cried.

“He is fine in Rounders,” you would have said. “And passable in The Illusionist.”

“He was the best Hulk – way better than Mark Ruffalo,” I would have said. “And, of course, that doesn’t even account for his three Oscar Nominations, one for Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), one for American History X, and one for 1996’s Primal Fear.”

“He lost to that goofball Italian guy in the Holocaust movie in 1999,” you would have said. “He was just nominated for American History X because he put on so much weight.”

“You’re putting on a lot of weight and I have yet to see you give an acceptance speech,” I would have said.

“You’re an asshole,” you would have said.

“How can you not enjoy the everyday charm of Ed Norton!” I would have pleaded. “He was so endearing in Grand Budapest Hotel. And as the voice of Rex the dog in Isle of Dogs!”

“Do NOT act like he is Meryl Streep!” you would yell. “He was in Death to Smoochy for the love of Christ!”

“That is it!” I would have screamed. “I will not stand here and listen to America’s most relatable and versatile acting talent be disparaged in such a manner! You are even forgetting his comedic turns in 2012’s The Dictator and as Sammy Bagel Jr. in the groundbreaking animated film Sausage Party! You must leave!”

Over the next few weeks, the issue of Edward Norton’s merits as an actor would continue to burn inside you as you begun to slowly poison my food. When I was finally rendered incapacitated, you would saw off my arms, legs, and head, put them all in a garbage bag, and drive them out to a marsh to bury my detached body.

Rather than haunt you for eternity (you were right about me being lazy), my ghost would have avenged my death simply by turning you in to the local police, at which point you would be arrested without incident. After weeks of testimony, you would have been sent to prison on a light sentence from a sympathetic judge who was ambivalent about Edward Norton’s performance as a scoutmaster in Moonrise Kingdom.

Upon release from prison, the only job you would have been able to procure would be at a local drive-in theater selling popcorn and hot dogs. One night, the theater would have showed Fight Club, at which point you would have realized that Ed Norton is, indeed, one of the finest film actors of our day and that I was completely right.

And as I said before, COVID-19 has robbed you of the glory of this realization.

And for that, I am so sorry.

In 2020, Leave No Good Deed Unpunished

Last Thursday afternoon, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was handed a small index card, peered through his glasses while reading its contents, and set it aside.

“The presiding officer declines to read the question as submitted,” Roberts said.

It was the second time Senator Rand Paul had submitted a similar question to the Chief Justice, who was presiding over the question-and-answer portion of the Senate trial to remove President Donald Trump. Paul was hoping Roberts was like Ron Burgundy reading from a teleprompter – that he would read aloud, on television, anything put before him.

In this case, Paul was trying to get Roberts to read the name of the intelligence-based whistleblower whose report of Trump trading military aid to Ukraine in exchange for domestic campaign assistance started the whole impeachment imbroglio. On Wednesday, Roberts had said he would not “out” the whistleblower. But Paul tried again Thursday.

Of course, by that point, the identity and motives of the whistleblower were completely irrelevant to determining Trump’s guilt. The whistleblower could be Michael Moore disguised as a tray of cold cuts in a CIA conference room and it wouldn’t change the facts of the case.

No, the only reason to announce the name of the whistleblower would be to exact vengeance for the temerity he or she demonstrated in reporting Trump’s wrongdoing. The message is clear: Do the right thing, and you will pay for it.

Other Senators followed Paul’s lead in filling Justice Roberts’ mouth with a bouillabaisse of nonsense. Subsequent index cards were sent to Roberts containing statements rather than questions, accusing former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter of corruption.

This, too, is a distraction – if anything, Joe Biden was trying to root out corruption. As Vice President, Biden actively sought to remove Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin from his position investigating the oil and natural gas company Burisma, on whose board his son sat. Biden believed Shokin was ineffective at fighting corruption – a position held by many U.S. allies at the time.

The reward for Biden’s trouble? Being smeared in an impeachment trial that has nothing to do with him.

No matter how pure one’s motives, simply crossing Trump is enough to earn you social media humiliation, or even worse, a meeting in a tiny room where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yells at you to point at an unmarked map.

Ironically, Trump and his allies’ strategy of trying to drag people for doing the right thing is borrowed straight from the Wokeness Blueprint, where cabals of the theatrically aggrieved take to social media to condemn the insufficiently pure.

On Thursday, tech billionaire Jack Ma donated $14.5 million to help develop a vaccine for coronavirus, which has killed at least 170 people and sickened over 7,700. Website Gizmodo snarkily condemned Ma, pointing out that the donation amounted to an equivalent of about $33 for the average U.S. family.

The website also rapped Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos for recently donating $690,000 to fight the out-of-control wildfires in Australia, noting that the contribution was less than a dollar when compared to the average American income.

“How generous, coming from a guy who says he doesn’t know how to spend his money,” Gizmodo cracked.

Naturally, there would be one way for both Bezos and Ma to avoid the scorn heaped on them by social media warriors: Don’t give any money at all. You’re better off staying quiet and avoiding the risk to your business. The social media axe never swings in the direction of those who decline to present their necks.

Earlier in the week, actor and sporadic cartoon giraffe David Schwimmer waded into the political correctness thorn bush wearing only his underwear. In an effort to preach the values of diversity and condemn his “privilege as a heterosexual white male,” Schwimmer suggested there should be an “all black” or “all Asian” version of his hit show “Friends.”

Woke TV enthusiasts quickly reminded Schwimmer of the presence of the show “Living Single,” which featured six African-American actors and predated “Friends” by a full year.

“Apparently, David Schwimmer has no idea he was on a white reboot of ‘Living Single,’” tweeted Michael Harriot of The Root. Schwimmer quickly tweeted a response to the criticism he had received, saying me meant “no disrespect” to the show.

Also playing The Game That Can’t Be Won is presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who on Wednesday tweeted that we need a president “whose vision was shaped by the American Heartland rather than the ineffective Washington politics we’ve come to know and expect.”

That brought a quick response from Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Ava Duvernay, who questioned whether Buttigieg had the right people in mind.

“Respectfully, where is the American Heartland located exactly in your mind as you write this tweet?,” Duvernay wrote. “Does it include Compton and other places like it? Because us folks from those places would like a president shaped by our vision too. Serious question. Would love an answer.”

This week also saw the cancellation of the much-anticipated book “American Dirt,” which promised to take an uncompromising look at the plight of Mexican immigrants at America’s border. The problem? The book’s author, Jeanine Cummins, is white.

This week, Flatiron books, canceled 13 remaining book tour stops to allegedly ensure Cummins’ safety. Hispanic groups outraged over “cultural appropriation” have objected to Cummins’ book, raising questions of whether a white woman should be allowed to share the experiences of Mexican immigrants.

Every one of these examples features a person staking out an upstanding, moral position and paying a price for it. If you think you can sate the mob, think again – the more you feed the Scylla and Charbidis of outrage and piety, the hungrier they get.

This even applies to dead people who can’t defend themselves. As the helicopter crash that tragically killed basketball star Kobe Bryant and eight others on Sunday still smoldered, a Washington Post reporter tweeted a story pertaining to the sexual assault lawsuit Bryant had settled in 2003.

By all accounts, Bryant had turned his life around and became a dedicated husband and father, devout Catholic, and successful businessman. But to some, none of this mattered – no matter how much he good he did in the ensuing years, he would always be known primarily for the worst thing he ever did.

Whether it’s a government whistleblower, a politician seeking racial justice, or an author wanting to bring attention to a moral cause, the lesson is written in neon letters: Don’t even try.

Whether Republican or Democrat, the purity police is coming for you. Your good deeds cannot purchase you a place in the good graces of the moral gatekeepers – that is solely their bailiwick.

And the consequence to our culture will be obvious: Nobody will miss the opportunity to do nothing.

(IMAGE: YouTube)

A Letter From the Battlefield

Digging through some of my great-grandfather’s old personal belongings, I found the following note:

December 17, 1918

My dearest Mabel:

I hope this letter finds you in good spirits. For nearly a year here on the Western front, I have longed to once again gaze upon your honeyed visage. As the nights fall to below freezing in our fetid trench, my memories of you are all I have to warm my heart. And I cannot say how long that will be enough to keep me alive during this, the greatest of all wars.

As we continue to pound away at the German lines, the unmistakable specter of death has us surrounded. The food we are being fed isn’t for consumption by any living thing. My company loses a dozen men a day from German cannon fire, sniper attacks, disease, or from the cold. The only positive thing to happen in the past month was the time a barely-clothed woman leapt from our trench and defeated an entire German battalion by herself armed with only a shield, a sword, and some bullet-resistant arm cuffs.

Otherwise, the smell of corpses is beginning to overwhelm our trench. Desperation has taken hold of our men – even late at night, we can still hear the cries of our brothers left wounded on the battlefield, begging for their mothers and wives. Their final pleadings are close enough to hear, yet they are too far to attend to. It is almost enough for some healthy men to wish for a swift death themselves, rather than having to endure another day in this nightmare.

Perhaps I should provide some more clarification about my previous reference to the comely, near-naked woman who ended up killing hundreds of Germans by herself. It was a very curious event; she shed her jacket, then walked straight into no-man’s land while donning a glittering crown and some very alluring boots, all while defending herself against thousands of bullets being sprayed her way. Having drawn the attention of the Hun, we were able to then attack and defeat their heavily fortified line, providing the Allied powers with a rare victory indeed.

Yet despite this temporary victory, few men have hopes of ever winning the war. The Germans will stop at nothing to crush France, Britain and the United States on their path to world domination. To many, this was a war begun by the assassination of a worthless archduke nephew of an equally worthless emperor; and yet troops are seeing their best mates cut down in the prime of their lives. We can only hope that the Lord blesses our mission with his divine grace to stop the barbarism being inflicted on Europe by the Kaiser.

The weird thing is, why were the Germans shooting at the most beautiful woman in the world while she was completely unarmed? I mean, she’s twice as hot as any of the flamethrowers they’ve been using on us. If you looked hard enough, you could see a pretty solid side-boob – why would an entire battalion rain all their gunfire on this glorious figure while completely ignoring the hundreds of Allied troops carrying their own guns and rushing towards the German trench?

Anyway, I may have gotten sidetracked there for a moment. It is a question left only for the history books. Hopefully future volumes will tell of the heroism of the men fighting in the Great War and the blood they have shed to free the world from the shackles of imperialism. I am willing to die for our cause – with God on our side, what glory awaits!

My pencil is getting dull, so one final note – once the war is complete, my commander has commissioned me and several of my comrades on a mission to Themyscira, an island that is…um… evidently very dangerous and is of vital strategic importance. As it is the birthplace of this wondrous woman, it must be defended at all costs, as there are no men on the entire island. It is a mission of such prestige, literally every man in my battalion has volunteered for service! What a brave sacrifice we are all willing to make!

I must leave you now, dear Mabel. Please do not weep if you do not hear from me again. In my remaining days, my mind will be busy thinking of you, my own mortality, the morality of war, and what it would be like to perform battlefield CPR on literally the most unbelievable woman in the world.

U.S. Corporal S. Schneider

Veld, France

Time to Put the “Social” Back in “Social Media”

A couple years back, a liberal writer friend of mine suggested we work together on a project: we’d take a cross country trip and keep a journal of our discussions. His elevator pitch: “What would a conservative and liberal talk about in the car on a road trip?”

I told him I presumed I would talk about the usual things I discuss with my liberal friends. Sports, movies, music, sandwiches, girls, work, funny drinking stories, how I got the scars I have, why dogs are great, mustaches, World War I, Twitter, Harley Davidson motorcycles, what animals you think you can beat in a fight, etc.  All the usual stuff.

In short, everything but politics.

(Also, this “cross country, cross-ideology road trip” idea was the conceit behind Michael Ian Black and Meghan McCain’s book, “America, You Sexy Bitch,” which I keep on hand in the event I ever plunge into depression thinking nobody will ever publish my book.)

The lesson, of course, is that as regular people moving around in the world, we all have interests that may overlap or diverge, but that have nothing to do with political affiliation. It’s find to have an ideology, but honestly – people who identify themselves politically before everything else are a total bore.

I was just thinking about this in the wake of rock star Chris Cornell’s shocking and saddening suicide last week. On social media, Cornell’s fans began to emerge to express their sadness and pay tribute – and it crossed ideological and cultural lines in way few things on Twitter or Facebook do.

I was particularly struck by an ode to Cornell written by conservative Weekly Standard writer Mark Hemingway, who I’ve always enjoyed following on Twitter. On most things we align politically, but sometimes we don’t.

But aside from politics, who knew Hemingway played in a rock band in Seattle in the early 1990s, or that he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of grunge music? How many conservative writers can painstakingly break down the unique time signatures of Soundgarden’s biggest hits?

As a lifelong Cornell fan, I immediately felt a kinship with Hemingway in a way I never had before. And the same goes with progressives that began popping up on my social media timelines telling their stories about their Chris Cornell fandom. I’ve reached out to some of them and been able to talk about a common interest I never expected to share with them. (In 1992, I saw Soundgarden in Milwaukee when they shared a bill with Blind Melon and Neil Young; it was just after Cornell shaved off his famous long locks of hair, and thinking he looked awesome, I went right home and did the same thing. He looked like a badass – I looked like an eraser.)

That’s what makes Twitter and other social media venues such an odd thing; people are so desperate to lord their moral superiority over others, we miss out on the things we actually have in common. How many of the same people out there that are quick to slam my politics would have fun sitting and talking about how I think Pee Wee’s Great Adventure is the pinnacle of American movie making? Or my theories about how one day plastic surgery is going to be so good, we won’t be able to tell the young from the old, and people who look like teenagers are just going to start dropping dead in the streets? (That one’s kind of a thinker.)

I mean, I’m proud of being a libertarian-leaning conservative; but it’s really a small part of the things that comprise my brain. It seems we spend most of our time fighting over a small percentage of who we are, and we’re missing out on all the other connective tissue that makes us a society. We’re neglecting the “social” part of “social media.”

Of course, there are no people more irritating than the “can’t we all get along” hippies that complain about gridlock. It is incumbent on people who have ideas about government to fight for their convictions, and conflict is an important part of the system of checks and balances. As the saying goes, if you think government runs too slow, wait ’til you see the damage done by one that acts too fast.

But for too many people, politics is now all we know about them, and it makes them far easier to dismiss. Cardboard cutouts are easy to knock down – if you think people aren’t interested in your thoughts about culture or movies or music, you’re wrong. And you might be missing and important connection with someone who shares your thoughts, as weird as they may be. We’re all riding in cars of our own ideologies, never slowing down to meet the other travelers on the road to ask what they’re listening to.

In the early days of the internet, scientists marveled at its potential to bring people together; instead, it has fractured us over political lines. Or, as David Burge put it in a profound set of tweets in January, “10-15 years ago, the internet connected me with best friends I never knew; now it’s the least pleasant thing in my life.”

As Burge correctly counseled, “Shared politics are shitty basis for a friendship.” So stand up and fight for what you believe in, but always remember – literally the least interesting thing about you is your politics.

The Perils of Being “Almost Famous”

Almost_Famous

The first Sunday I appeared on television as a political commentator, I was also scheduled to attend a Milwaukee Brewers baseball game later in the day.  It was March of 2008, and the show was on in the morning, while the game was in the afternoon.

Before the game started, I wondered whether anyone would actually recognize me from the show – it was, after all, on one of the four major networks in the Milwaukee TV market.  What if I said something someone didn’t like and they took a swing at me?  What if people wanted to talk to me about politics?  I briefly considered wearing some sort of disguise.

When I got to the game, in looking for my seats, I walked from one end of the stadium to the other.  I received not a single look, not a comment.  I then retraced my steps, walking the length of the stadium and back again.  Still nothing.  It appears my instant fame had somehow gone missing.

I would soon join a small, but interesting subset of people in the media: those who work in the public eye, but aren’t actually “famous.”

Humorist John Hodgman describes himself as a “minor celebrity.”  This is apt – he has a small, but intensely loyal following (among which I count myself).  But on the rungs of fame, there are people who are even below “minor.”  They are the people who live normal lives, who have regular jobs, but whose faces are in public from time to time.  They aren’t “famous,” they are merely “recognizable.”

Until last week, I hadn’t even been in the “hey, you’re that guy from that thing” crowd.  But a dad at my daughter’s basketball game started pointing at me and saying my name over and over.  It was the first time I had ever been recognized in public, and I pray that it’s the last.

I’ve had friends point out that complaining about being noticed in public is a “humblebrag.”  But being a marginally notable person is frequently unsettling.  Before people meet you, they often have preconceived notions of what you’re like and how you think.  I’ve had total strangers recite back personal facts I’ve written in my blogs that I had forgotten I long ago disclosed.

For the few people who know who you are, your public persona always precedes you – and you never know who might admire your work and who can’t stand you.  But they’re out there in the public, walking among us, and it’s impossible to tell who they are.

I’ve had local TV reporter friends tell me horrifying stories of people approaching them in the grocery store, commenting on their appearance or on-air demeanor.  Lisa Manna, who used to be a morning anchor in Green Bay, told me she once received a manila envelope filled with pornographic pictures.  The eyes were scribbled out and her name was written on the women.  The pictures were accompanied by a letter detailing the things this man would do to her, which earned her a police escort to work. And of course, this is all for a job that doesn’t pay a great deal – working in TV news isn’t exactly a license to print money.  Stations know there’s always someone else coming up the ranks willing to do your job for cheaper.

One female reporter who does frequent live reports from downtown told me there are some people who will watch the broadcast, then rush over to where she is to confront her about something she reported.  The most annoying thing, she said, is being recognized when she’s in an awkward place – like, sick at the doctor or at the gym after working out.

And, of course, in my line of work, not everyone is favorably inclined to your work.  Small cadres of anonymous critics frequently whip up online fiction in an attempt to demean me.  The comments sections on my stories are always full of people thinking I’m corrupt, or bought and sold by this group or that group.

Would they say that to my face?  Do I actually unknowingly talk to any of these people on a regular basis in real life?  It’s entirely possible – I’ve had creepy anonymous commenters say they’ve known me from working with me in the past, before they rip me in their diatribes.  Did I ever actually really know that person? I’ll never know – but they’re using our alleged interactions to bolster their supposed knowledge of how I “really” am.

These are the times when I think it would be nice to have a job that wasn’t so public.  I’ve often dreamed of a life just making sandwiches at Cousin’s Subs, where people wouldn’t flock to the internet to deride my hoagie making skills.  Would be nice to be able to accomplish something at work without being accused of being under the influence of Big Mustard.

Typically, being a notable person is seen as a trade-off; you put up with people recognizing you in exchange for wealth or influence.  But trust me, the marginally recognizable enjoy neither of these advantages.  Surely, Leonardo DiCaprio has his critics – but he can blow them off by spending a weekend churning through a private island stocked with super models.  The merely notable are resigned to having a drink, rolling up in a blanket, and watching Leonardo DiCaprio movies, helping him in his quest to buy an extra island.

I do have several advantages, however.  The picture that accompanies my photo in the newspaper was taken before I needed glasses.  And as Superman has taught us, throw on a pair of thick rims and literally nobody – not even your love interests – can recognize you any more.  Also, I am frequently unshaven, looking as if I was off to do some modeling for the “JC Penney for Hobos” catalog.  (I also look like a lot of other people – if I ever got any public comment, I assume it would be someone saying, “man, Keanu’s really let himself go.”)

Oddly, enough, ancillary stardom is something more and more people now seek.  Young women armed with only cell phones now become “Instagram models,” which seems a little bit like being a “Twitter comedian” or “Facebook novelist.”  It used to be that one would create something worthy of notoriety, then benefit from that exposure.  Now, more people seem to believe fame is an end in itself.  Not for me.

Of course, none of this is enough to keep me from doing what I love for a living.  But being someone that other people form public opinions about is something I’m still getting used to – maybe I never will.  Until then, I’ll keep being a walking contradiction – a newspaper columnist that doesn’t particularly like attention.

Why I Love Being Old

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“Youth,” Oscar Wilde once said, “is the one thing worth having.”

As I exited my youth and aged into my thirties, and now forties, I felt much the same.  How nice it would be to once again get out of bed without my ankles shooting pain through my legs.  My belly button has begun to flee my abdomen as if it had just robbed a bank.  At age 42, a good bit of every day is devoted simply to being a human in the world – exercising, trying to eat well, finding new places I need to shave – all things one takes for granted in the prime of youth.  I feel like they should build a statue of me outside my house every time I successfully get my socks on.

But while most of our culture is geared towards making me feel terrible about succumbing to the horrors of aging, I’m starting to feel good about getting old.  In fact, I wouldn’t swap being 42 for being 21 for anything in the world.

So I thought I’d jot down some of the benefits of being a near-senior citizen.  Y’know, before I forget them all.

Having Money

Most of my early 20’s were spent with all my possessions in the back of my car, and all my money paper-clipped together in an envelope.  I worked primarily as a waiter, stuffing dollar bills in my back pocket after a shift.  I had no credit, no bank account, and couldn’t afford to pay attention.  The extent of my money management skills was knowing it was better to bounce one big check rather than a series of smaller checks, since you only have to pay the one-time bad check fee.

When you’re old, those days have passed – you typically have savings, can afford to eat, and can pay for a stable roof over your head.  I can buy the car I want, rather than my dad paying the neighbors $200 for a rusted-out 1981 Chevette with a bumper sticker that says “I Brake for Unicorns.”

And, of course, having money leads to…

Drinking Better Alcohol

There’s a reason I perfected the art of bonging cheap beer in college – because it was typically terrible, and I wanted to get it in my stomach with as little interaction with my taste buds as possible.
But when you’re old, you have no time for bad alcohol.  (That is, unless you are trying to be an Ironic Drinker, in which case the worse the beer, the higher your stature.)

The secret of “old drinking” is that the more expensive the booze you buy, the less of a hangover you end up with.  Drink all the 12-year old scotch you want – a couple of ibuprofen before you go to bed, and you wake up ready to wrestle an alligator.  If college students figured this out, it would bankrupt them all.

Old drinking is also preferable because people don’t judge you nearly as much for engaging in it.  If you drink a lot when you’re young, people worry about its long-term effects; it could cost you jobs, relationships, and keep you from reaching your potential.

However, once everyone sees you’ve pretty much maxed out on the potential scale, you’re free to pickle yourself as you see fit.  When you’re young, you drink to make new memories.  When you’re old, you drink to forget the memories you’ve made.

Once you hit 40, drinking at home isn’t a sign of loneliness, it’s an adorable personality quirk that doesn’t really hurt anyone.  People aren’t like, “aw, now poor Christian’s never going to be an astronaut,” they’re more like, “yeah, seems about right.”

Aristotle once said that “young people are in a condition like permanent intoxication.”  Clearly he said that before he turned 40 and he was in a state of actual permanent intoxication.

Knowing Things

Whenever I go back and read a column I wrote just a week earlier, I think of all the things I learned in the days since it was published.  And it feels like someone else entirely wrote the column.  I picture myself just a week earlier, being naïve about how the world works and not really knowing what I was talking about.

Now multiply this by a thousand weeks, and you get a sense of how much I feel I’ve learned in the past 20 years.  Would I give up all the things I’ve seen, all the events I’ve experienced, and the books I’ve read just to be young again?  Of course not.  To surrender my experiences would be to entirely change who I am now, which is way too risky of a proposition.

That’s not to suggest young people don’t know things.  I’m just partial to the things that I know.

The Wooderson Effect

Everyone remember the famous Wooderson line from Dazed and Confused – “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man – I get older, they stay the same age.”

What Matthew McConaughey’s creepy-but-still-cool character doesn’t realize at the time is that his own perception of the opposite sex will change as he gets older.

When you’re a young man, you’re obviously attracted to girls your own age – older women seem out of reach. (This seems different for young women, who are more open to dating older men.)  If you’re a 25 year old guy who prefers 40-year old women, you’re viewed as kind of a weirdo. But as you age, you begin to find women your own age attractive – your preferences grow older along with you.

So when you get to your 40s, more people are attractive.  Younger women are attractive, older women are attractive. Part of it is, the older you get and the more flaws you recognize in yourself, the more accepting of other peoples’ flaws you become.  Plus, who wouldn’t want to live in a world where “My Cousin Vinny” Marisa Tomei and “The Wrestler” Marisa Tomei can exist in harmony?

No Wasting Time

In my 20s, I spent a lot of time experimenting with things out of my comfort zone.  I listened to all the music I could get my hands on, no matter how avant garde; at one point in college, I found myself listening to a CD of a German band who made music by banging on shopping carts with spoons.

When you’re old, you no longer need to pretend to be into things you’re not.  You are free to do what you wish with the few remaining years you have on this earth.  If all your young hipster friends demand that you like The National, you just shrug, and say “not for me” and move on.  Your time left on this mortal coil is too valuable to dabble in ephemera.  And especially not when “The Bachelor” is on.

Kids

When you’re older, you get to have children.  And the wonder of having kids narrowly cancels out the glory of not having them.

People generally think that having and raising children is a selfless act.  But it’s the exact opposite – having children is the ultimate act of vanity.  For old people, making children is the eternal selfie; you’re cementing your legacy for eternity with little people who look just like you.

Further, having kids immediately brings clarity and focus to your life.  No matter how disjointed or scattered your life was up to that point, once a child emerges, you know exactly what the purpose of your life is.  From then on, you cease to be the author of your own biography – your life story is being written by a 10-pound human.  And your only reason for existing is to take care of that mini-you.  You could pay a life coach a million dollars and they wouldn’t convince you to get your shit together like a baby does.

Feigning Ignorance of Technology

Even if you’re old and technologically savvy, you can always use your age to get you out of uncomfortable situations.  If someone from work texts you with immediate instructions, take your time – you can always say something like, “all these blinking lights confuse me!” or “what’s this internet I read about in the newspaper?”

People Listen to You

For some reason,  when you’re old, people automatically assume you know what you’re talking about.
It is true, that when you age, you have perspective.  If any one emotion characterizes youth, it is the belief that one is the axis upon which the universe turns.  But the older you get, the more you see the world around you and grasp your relative insignificance.  It’s nice knowing that fads will come and go, and the world will not cease to exist.  You just sip your expensive alcohol and enjoy the ride.

Connection to a Specific Time

Perhaps this one is more personal, but not only do I like being old, I like being old exactly at this time in history.  It means I got to be in college during a revolutionary era in popular entertainment – the “grunge” era – when artistry and skill was actually valued.  I wouldn’t trade the experience of being body passed to Jane’s Addiction at the first Lollapalooza for Mumford, his Sons, or his Grandsons.

I love that I grew up before the internet, so I know what it’s like to not have to feel like I’m missing out on every news story, joke or meme.  I can find my way to places without using GPS, and I can have arguments without having to dive into my iPhone for information to back me up.  I love that when I was ten, my parents would kick me out of the house with instructions only to be back by dinner time – a practice that led to a great deal of tree climbing, garter snake handling, fort building, and basketball shooting.

Christopher Hitchens wrote that “A melancholy lesson of advancing years is the realisation that you can’t make old friends.”  It is true, nobody will know you like the friends that you had when you were kids.  They’ve seen you at your best and your worst, and kept you around for all of it.

But being older and having a strong connection to a specific era with someone else is actually a pretty decent stand-in for long-term friendship.  Meeting someone your age and realizing they, too, thought Pearl Jam was overrated is a solid foundation for future friendship; and the older you are, the more cultural touchstones you are able to share with other people.

So yeah, being old is good, but being old in 2016 is even better.

George Bernard Shaw is often credited with saying something along the lines of, “youth is wasted on the young.”  But I, for one, refuse to accept this as my fate.  The young can have their youth – I have my memories. If only I could remember them.

Book End: Imagine a World Without the Printed Page

booksA few days ago, I stood in the local big box electronics store for 20 minutes, gazing at the array of e-book readers lined up on the counter. I felt myself aging ten years per second as I navigated between Nooks and Kindles, gigabytes and dual core processers. In the end, I decided I couldn’t take part in euthanizing the book industry, in which I one day hope to be a participant.

My stolid on-site review of these devices led to an instantaneous reflection on the role of good, old-fashioned books in our lives. The cultural influence of the printed page is impossible to measure; once ink becomes a relic, the unintended consequences could be severe.

Consider, for example, the obvious physical footprint books have on our topography. Some of our largest, most ornate buildings exist solely to house books; at some point, these libraries, bookstores and archives will simply serve as empty, cavernous remnants of the pre-digital era.

When books vanish, no longer will you be able to dazzle dinner guests with your imposing bookshelves full of mahogany-bound Russian poetry. A computer hard drive is a much less exciting conversation piece, and certainly a more difficult item about which to brag. (I always keep a book of poetry in my car, in hopes that if I die in a car accident, the headline will read “Area Man, Lover of Yeats, Decapitated in Horrible Flaming Wreck.”)

On a personal level, many readers will miss the tactile sensation of leafing through books. Devout bibliophiles even like the pain they feel in their necks after perusing bookstore shelves with their heads cranked to the side in order to read the vertically oriented spines. They buy books they will never read, but feel better about having them on their shelves at home. They relish finding hidden treasures left in used books, whether they’re notes scribbled in the margins or clues to the previous book’s owner on a slip of paper used as a bookmark.

The move towards digital books will also likely bring about the same type of information egalitarianism we’ve seen with the internet. In the days of the printed word, publishing was more or less a meritocracy; if a publisher was willing to back a book with the type of cash it takes to print a few thousand copies, it meant it was at least a professional product. (Those that want to point out that a publisher actually issued a book penned by The Jersey Shore’s “Snooki” may have their say at this point.) It will be much more difficult sorting through texts that don’t bear a publisher’s imprimatur, since all one needs to be considered an “author” now is to be able to turn on a computer.

Perhaps most importantly, physical books also provide a cultural permanency that would go missing if everything were stored on digital files. Right now, it doesn’t matter how arcane the issue is about which one might want to learn; somewhere, there’s a physical book that contains that information. Sometimes, the value of certain texts aren’t apparent within the same decade they are written. Yet if the value of historical information was left up to the capriciousness of e-book readers, it could all vanish with a few keystrokes. (Undoubtedly, had the U.S. Constitution been written on an iPad, it would have contained a few more references to Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video.)

Similarly, physical books grant authors eternal life. The literary world is replete with names of writers who received lukewarm reviews during their lives (Nietzsche, Blake, Thoreau), but who became posthumously indispensable. Emily Dickinson’s first compilation of works wasn’t published until four years after her death, when her sister found her secret stash of nearly 1,800 poems. Yet authors in the digital age are just a few “delete” button presses away from eternal extinction.

It seems unlikely that there will be a day where books disappear completely. As long as there are wealthy people, rare books will be sold as commodities and held as investments. Middlebrow texts will become the realm of book fetishists, much as vinyl records are today. But once our cultural mores are untethered from the book standard, we could be set adrift in an age when everything is possible, but nothing is real.

Of course, the primary beneficiaries of the new digital age are the stately trees and critters that live amongst them, who will not be sacrificed to the paper mills. But next time you see a squirrel, see if he can get Tom Wolfe to sign your Kindle.

-April 16, 2012

Hiding Behind the Kids: Citing family, too many pols duck electoral duty

Last August, Congressman Paul Ryan announced for the 43rd time that he would not run for president. He’s always maintained that the ages of his children — three kids between the ages of 6 and 9 — are a factor in his decision. His standard line? “My head isn’t big enough, and my kids are too small.”

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels begged off, saying he didn’t want to subject his family to the scrutiny of a presidential campaign. “In the end, I was able to resolve every competing consideration,” he said, except for the most important consideration of all — “the interests and wishes of my family.” And when irascible New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie bowed out of the race, he deemed it a “family decision.”

All of these family considerations have left Republican presidential voters with a choice of C-list emetics for candidates. Mitt Romney is a Republican when he deems it necessary to win Republican elections. Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry all flamed out before the primaries were even held. Newt Gingrich is so toxic, he should wear a Mr. Yuk sticker on his lapel. (Poor Mitch Daniels: He hesitated to run because his wife once left him and returned to remarry him. Yet GOP voters warmed up to Gingrich, who changes wives more often than he flosses.)

And while “do it for the kids” is an aphorism in politics, more and more politicians are deciding not to do it for the kids. They want to protect their children from the Palin-ization of presidential politics, where every offspring’s missteps could translate into blogging frenzy.

But exactly how many of these kids are pleading with their parents to eschew a run for president? Think any politician’s 10-year-old-son wouldn’t love to say, “Hey, Dad, I’m having trouble with my footwork — can you call Peyton Manning and have him come over and show me the three-step drop?” You think “My dad is president” might be a good icebreaker with the ladies at high school parties?

The whole “I want to spend more time with my family” excuse is worn out and meaningless. Ambitious men have always run for office to get away from their families — generally, they only rediscover their progeny when it seems like they can’t win again. But that’s the beauty of being president — you get to take your whole family with you and live in the same house.

Furthermore, blaming the family when you decide not to run is a bit unseemly. Suddenly, your kids become impediments to the realization of America’s greatness. Suppose you spend all your time talking about how America is going to implode without changes to its entitlement programs — and then decide not to change those programs because you might miss some T-ball games?

How does that sound to military families, who have to do without fathers and mothers for extended periods of time (and sometimes forever) to preserve the American idea?

Sasha and Malia. The Bush daughters. Chelsea Clinton. All of us would be proud to have children as happy and well-adjusted as these kids — and every one has lived through the apparent horrors of growing up in the coolest house in America. We know politicians love their kids — but so do hundreds of millions of other American families that are looking for visionary and inspiring presidential candidates. We’ll chip in for baby-sitting, we promise.

“9-9-9” Hits the Heartland

Cain“Who here has heard of the ‘9-9-9’ plan?”

Virtually every one of the 150 hands in Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan’s Thursday town hall meeting shot into the air.

All day, Ryan had been peppered with questions about Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain’s economic plan, which replaces the current federal tax structure with a 9 percent personal-income tax, a 9 percent corporate-income tax, and a 9 percent federal sales tax. Milwaukee radio talk show host Charlie Sykes began the questioning in the morning. Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, answered another gauntlet of questions about 9-9-9 in a morning town hall meeting in Muskego. And now the residents of Oak Creek wanted to see if the plan had earned the imprimatur of Congress’ premier fiscal wonk.

Ironically, it was Ryan himself who took to the road last April to promote his own budget plan, which had recently passed through the House of Representatives. All across America, members of Congress were challenged on the details of Ryan’s budget at their town hall meetings. And many had trouble navigating their avalanche of charts and graphs with Ryan’s legendary alacrity. Now, he was being forced to explain someone else’s plan in the same way others had to defend his House budget in April.

Critics of 9-9-9 believe the plan’s regressivity render it dead in the water. (Cain addresses this problem in part by offering tax rebates to low income individuals.) They say the plan constitutes a large tax break for the rich, that it won’t raise the revenue it promises, and that it creates new taxes that Congress could more easily raise in the near future.

Yet Cain’s plan is an overwhelming victory in terms of marketing. Stunningly, in mere weeks, it appears Cain’s plan has saturated Ryan’s constituency. 9-9-9 has clearly piqued the interest of both conservative voters and enthusiasts of saying the same number three times in succession. (It is unclear as to whether former NBA star Moses Malone, who in 1983 boasted that the 76ers would sweep through the playoffs “fo, fo, fo,” is serving as Cain’s chief economic adviser.)

Ryan’s association with 9-9-9 began last week, when a headline in the Daily Caller breathlessly declared that “Paul Ryan ‘loves’ the idea of Herman Cain’s tax plan.” Ryan says the article didn’t get his position on Cain’s plan exactly right – while he “loves” the idea of candidates putting bold plans on the table, he wouldn’t sign on to all the details of 9-9-9. Specifically, he disagrees with layering a nine percent sales tax on top of a nine percent income tax, as many governments in Europe do.

When asked whether he thinks Cain’s numbers add up, Ryan says that while the plan hasn’t been officially “scored,” he believes it more or less raises enough money. “As someone who has been criticized for putting out a bold plan, I can understand what it’s like,” Ryan told me in between town hall meetings, adding that picking apart Cain’s plan was the job of the other presidential primary candidates, not his.

While 9-9-9 may have helped Cain surge to legitimacy in the GOP presidential primary, it also may be the only thing keeping his campaign afloat. Recently he has had trouble articulating his “phone a friend” foreign policy, in which he simply promises to be briefed often by really smart people. On CNN, he struggled to answer a fairly standard question from interviewer Piers Morgan on abortion, saying it was “not the government’s role, or anybody’s role to make that decision.” (He has since issued a statement saying his is “100% pro-life.”)

Meanwhile, members of Congress that spread throughout the country to talk about their accomplishments are likely to find that the star of their town halls is someone who isn’t even there. He is a frontrunning presidential candidate who, when a number of one poll’s respondents were asked to describe him in one word, used the word “pizza.” (Not since Herbert Hoover promised “a fourteen inch sausage-mushroom-and-onion in every pot” has the pizza rating been so high for a candidate.)

Other candidates are slated to roll out their economic plans over the next few weeks. But few will get the traction that Herman Cain has garnered through showmanship alone. It will be seen as to whether he can cash this goodwill into votes.

-October 24, 2011

Manhood in a Bottle

If you’re a sports fan, your weekends are likely wallpapered with television advertisements that purport to explain what being a “man” is all about.  One’s masculinity, according to ad writers, is currently derived from your choice of satellite television company, what kind of body wash you use, and most of all, what kind of beer you drink.  In fact, Miller Lite will actually declare you to be more of a man if you drink their beer from a “vortex” bottle, which is aerodynamically engineered to fire beer down your throat with the velocity of a Blunderbuss hand cannon.

Of course, nobody expects a beer commercial to be an Aesop-style morality tale.  Women have been insulted in beer ads for decades; men are simply catching up.  Miller just recently ended a slew of particularly obnoxious commercials that consistently featured men being jerks to pretty women – a puzzling situation to which no man can actually relate.

But the current “MAN UP!” meme is particularly grating, given the ubiquity of the ads.  They generally feature some doofus engaging in an effeminate act, while simultaneously enjoying a drink that is not Miller Lite.  They are then publicly ridiculed for both transgressions by their a-hole friends, who also happen to have a comely woman draped on each arm.  According to the Miller ad people, Winston Churchill would be considered a pansy because he chose to shower his liver with God’s gift of Johnnie Walker Black his entire life – and not a more “masculine” lite beer.

Of course, challenging one’s manhood by calling them a girl isn’t exactly a new phenomenon.  During the Civil War, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a poem excoriating the “sweet little men” who dodged military duty:

“Bring him the buttonless garment of a woman!

Cover his face lest it freckle and tan;

Muster the Apron-string Guards on the Common,-

That is the corps for the sweet little man!”

In other words: “MAN UP!”

But within the world of television advertising, the only deed that matters is what product you use.  Men are almost uniformly depicted as simplistic baboons, barely able to function in society.  Mom leaves town?  Dad can’t do anything in the kitchen, so he better call for a pizza!  Need to clean the house because your husband is a pig?  Get a Roomba!  Be careful letting dad play with the kids – he might injure himself!  Things have to be so simple, even cavemen can do them.

One only needs to watch 15 minutes of the TLC Network show “Say Yes to the Dress” to be disavowed of any notion that women are more evolved than men.  The show involves a full hour of nothing but women trying on wedding dresses while their bridesmaids roll their eyes and cluck at their gaudy fashion transgressions.  And if watching that show doesn’t improve your relative impression of males, take comedian Adam Corolla’s advice and “go down to the patent office… and see all the innovations women didn’t come up with.”

Yet even if “manhood” is considered a desirable thing, your masculinity is now apparently dependent on your choice of booze.  You’ll never see an ad praising a man for doing truly manly things, like reading to his kids, or taking care of his elderly parents, or working tirelessly on a cure for Alzheimer’s.  If Einstein had been in college in 2011, his theory of relativity would instead read “Beer Before Liquor = Never Sicker.”

All I really want is to be able to watch inhuman amounts of sports on the weekend without being subjected to a commercial threatening to revoke my “man card” every seven minutes.  (Apparently you need one as identification to get into any d-bag convention held around the country.)  It’s gotten so bad, I actually brought it up at my Twilight discussion group last week.

That Presidential Look: The 2012 GOP Presidential Crowd Gets a Makeover

combOn Nov. 2, Marco Rubio hadn’t yet been declared the winner of his Florida Senate race before the pundits began speculating on his move up the political ladder.

Some penciled him in as a vice presidential candidate in 2012; others thought he could actually be the GOP’s presidential nominee. The Fox News commentators fumed that it was an injustice that a new coin hadn’t already been released featuring the new senator’s visage. (Coming soon — the 15-cent Rubio.)

What would warrant Rubio’s instantaneous inclusion on a list of presidential candidates?

A look at the GOP’s presumed 2012 challengers gives us a hint. For one, this is one darn good-looking crowd. Close your eyes and think of the 2008 Republican presidential debates. The stage closely resembled the cantina in Star Wars. (“Sen. Greedo, the next question is for you.”)

The Republican stage in 2012 will look a lot better. Supernova Sarah Palin is the best example of the GOP’s aesthetic upgrade. Her folksiness has struck a chord with people who feel they’ve been left out of politics, but she’s also given voice to all those smoking-hot women who, tragically, have been ignored by society. (Thanks to Palin, you’re likely to hear questions like, “Sen. Brown, we know you have a sound deficit reduction plan, but have you ever wrestled a grizzly bear?”)

Mitt Romney will be back, he of the chin forged of a futuristic titanium alloy. It seems America could send Romney’s chin alone into Afghanistan and it would come back with Osama bin Laden in handcuffs.

And then there are the GOP’s up-and-comers — Thune, Bobby Jindal and Tim Pawlenty. All are under 50, fit and energetic. (Rumor has it Julian Assange was going to post a picture of Pawlenty’s former mullet, but figured it was just too embarrassing for the guy.)

Mike Huckabee will be in the mix, and granted, he’s not going to be named “Sexiest Man Alive” anytime soon. (Or even “Sexiest Ex-Arkansas governor.”) But even Huckabee recognized that he had to lose about 100 pounds — about two Pelosis — to be a plausible candidate in 2008.

Of course, it seems silly to pick our presidents based so heavily on superficial qualities. Yet as any student of history knows, characteristics unrelated to governing — looks, charisma, erudition — often play important roles in elections.

John Kennedy rode his movie-star looks to the White House. Even before he was elected, Ronald Reagan looked like he should be on Mount Rushmore. And who can forget the molten hot sexuality of Warren G. Harding?

In fact, only two years ago we witnessed what happens when aesthetics trumps qualifications. With only two years’ experience, the handsome Sen. Barack Obama descended from the mount to run for president. He spoke in a buttery baritone that exuded reassurance and seemed worthy, journalists thought, of being inscribed on scrolls made from the pulp of redwood trees.

Yet even with the stern voter rebuke of Obama’s first two years in office last November, the messianic fervor for the president continued unabated.

On Nov. 22, Newsweek portrayed Barack Obama as the six-armed Hindu god Shiva, deeming the president the “God of All Things.” They neglected to show his seventh arm, which would have been in your back pocket stealing all your Rubios.

Unfortunately, somewhere in America there’s a candidate who will never get a chance because he’s too fat, too swarthy or has a bad comb-over. Or maybe she’s a Mama Grizzly who actually resembles a mama grizzly.

Someday, we’ll elect someone cranky and irascible, who has a terrible hairpiece or bulbous nose, but a brilliant vision for America.

Until then, the GOP will have to make do with candidates who could easily be in the “Men and Women of Sound Monetary Policy 2012” calendar. Perhaps for aesthetic reasons alone, it’s best that neither the scrawny Paul Ryan nor the Rubenesque Chris Christie has any intention of running for president. (Standing on a stage together, they’d form the number 10.)

In the first debate, one can already anticipate Jim Lehrer’s opening questions:

“What is your policy regarding North Korea?”

“What needs to be done to keep Social Security solvent?”

“Can I touch your abs?”

The Wisconsin Public Union Protest Dictionary

dictionaryAs is the case with any extended crisis, the Wisconsin stalemate has begun to create its own vernacular. Previously familiar terms and phrases are used in foreign contexts. Words garner new meaning.

So when listening to politicians debate Governor Scott Walker’s plan to force greater public sector union contributions to their own health and pension benefits, it may be getting hard to understand – and not just because of the funny Wisconsin accents.

So as a service to the nation, here is a dictionary of many of the terms you are likely to hear as the Wisconsin showdown enters its third week:

“Workers” – Refers to any one of the 356,284 individuals in the state who receives a paycheck from any level of government. When a Democrat refers to the “workers” of Wisconsin, it is these people they are referencing. The remaining 86.6% of the Wisconsin population is to be met with suspicion, and is likely employed by the Koch brothers. (See also, “worker, hard.”)

“Democracy” – Traditionally described the process of people electing individuals to office, and those officials voting on their constituents’ behalf in the state legislature. Now refers to elected officials fleeing the state in order to avoid voting.

In order to test the veracity of this new definition, you are encouraged to sit on your couch all weekend with a sign that says “this is what mowing the lawn looks like.” If your wife agrees, she is likely in the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda holding up a sign.

“Hosni Mubarak” – Little known dictator of some country somewhere in the Middle East. But his thugs beat up Anderson Cooper just a couple of weeks ago, so that’s probably enough to compare him to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

“Debate” – The process by which people who disagree get together, voice their differences, and compare each other to Hitler while wearing fanny packs. Wisconsin protesters have drawn inspiration from the historical Lincoln-Douglas debates, when Lincoln famously dressed up like a gorilla and banged a drum for eleven days to annoy Douglas into submission.

“Attacking” – Asking state and local employees to pay more of their health insurance premiums and to begin paying into their own pension accounts, which they will then recoup upon retirement. However, if the cost of government increases and taxpayers are forced to pay more, it is impermissible to consider it an “attack.” (See also: assaulting, strangling, pummeling, mauling, decapitating, disemboweling.)

“Interest Group” – Any collection of individuals that uses their own money to influence a public debate is known as an “interest group.” But be careful – if a similar group uses taxpayer money boosted through dues to do the same thing, it is known as a “grassroots organization.”

“Free Speech” – Commonly afforded individuals to express their political beliefs, “free speech” is now afforded to anyone who doesn’t work for Fox News, is interviewed by Fox News, has ever watched Fox News, or has ever admired the work of Michael J. Fox.

“Dictator” – Refers to either a genocidal despot or a duly elected governor acting in concert with elected members of two houses to affect changes in the law. The two are interchangeable.

“Middle Class” –Walker’s budget repair bill is a concerted effort to destroy Wisconsin’s middle class, as it is comprised entirely of individuals who work for government. Needless to say, it will be devastating to the state’s economy to ask more of the middle class – most notably, University of Wisconsin Madison professors who make $111,000 for working nine months out of the year.

“Stifling Debate” – The parliamentary procedure of allowing testimony of 900 citizens over the span of 17 hours, then letting the minority party members that haven’t fled the state talk for over 60 hours straight in order to hold up a bill’s passage.

“Doctor” – Traditionally, a “doctor” examined a patient, made a diagnosis, and treated their malady. In Wisconsin, that process is deemed unnecessary as long as the patient is beset by a rapidly growing pension contribution. (Common side effect: chanting “Hey Hey, Ho Ho” for four straight days.)

“God-Given Right” – Any law change beneficial to Wisconsin government workers granted after 1959. In most cases, these rights are not granted to federal workers living in Wisconsin, so it appears many of them need to spend more time in church.

Unfortunately, the one term nobody will be using any time soon in the state senate is “the ayes have it.” As a result, a lot of government workers will soon be learning what “unemployment compensation” is.

-February 28, 2011

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