Dear Reader (Including those of you getting a bit too excited about photos of Trump getting arrested and the thought of him mastering the art of brewing toilet wine),
I’m sure you remember—because who could forget?—that great moment in American history when Sen. Cory Booker heroically took on the political system, risking everything in an audacious act of rebelliousness against a calcified and unresponsive establishment.
Or at least that’s the story he wanted people to believe.
The details are incredibly boring, so I’ll be brief. During the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, Booker released some documents about Kavanaugh that he claimed were supposed to be confidential under Senate rules. But the maverick just didn’t care! He was releasing them anyway, literally daring the Senate to expel him for his free-spirited ways while insisting to anybody who would listen, “I am breaking the rules!”
When Booker was informed that the forbidden documents had actually been cleared for release before he rebelled against The Powers that Be, he insisted that wasn’t true and bragged about releasing other, even more radioactive papers that changed exactly nobody’s mind about anything. Because he’s a rule breaker. A Byronic bad boy taking on the establishment.
At one point, Booker said, “This is about the closest I’ll probably ever have in my life to an ‘I am Spartacus’ moment.”
The lameness of all this prompted me at the time to write a “news”letter titled “None of You Idiots Is Spartacus.”
You see, he didn’t actually have a Spartacus moment. He didn’t even say he was having a Spartacus moment. He merely said that he was close to having one. He rode his super-tricked-out 3-speed bike to the hills on the outskirts of Spartacus Town. He wasn’t a rebel, but like a Members Only jacket with the sleeves rolled up, he was rebel-adjacent.
After all, running with safety-scissors is still running with scissors, man.
Down with the rebellion.
All of this comes to mind because I’m starting to feel guilty about making fun of Booker as much as I did. I mean, don’t get me wrong, his “I almost tore the mattress tag completely off” spiel was eminently mockable.
But what I failed to appreciate sufficiently is that he felt uncomfortable breaking the rules. Not only did he not know how to be a rebel, he didn’t know how to fake it convincingly.
And you know what? I think that’s something to be encouraged.
When everybody else is joining the orgy, it’s easy to make fun of the guy who refuses to take off his clothes and opts to stand in the corner playing Wordle on his phone. But some of those most quietly heroic moments in life are the ones where you refuse to join everyone else’s fun. We live in a culture where one of the most embarrassing things you can do is blush at the embarrassing behavior of others.
Call me a prude—even by analogy—but I think we need more people embarrassed by the orgy and fewer people pretending to be cool as they suck in their bellies, slather up with baby oil, and pop tetracycline like Tic Tacs.
So as Bill Clinton asked when he overheard this conversation, “Orgy? What orgy? Do I need to RSVP?”
Alas, I’m referring to the metaphorical orgy of fake rebelliousness, elite anti-elitism, the riot of exceedingly profitable and comfortable anti-establishmentarianism, suburban radicalism, and institutionalized transgressiveness.
I know I need to provide examples (it’s in my contract). The problem is it’s all examples. Looking for evidence of what I’m talking about is like looking for hay in a haystack. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is a temple to corporatized, homogenized, make-sure-to-get-your-parking-validated rebellion. Seemingly everyone in corporate America wants to be a “disruptor.” It feels like any time I make the mistake of watching an awards show, some Oscar recipient or presenter in a $10,000 dress or tux is explaining how committed the Academy is to questioning the status quo. And all the status quo beneficiaries in the audience applaud—for themselves.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. And to use the language of college application essays that defines so much of the “discourse” these days, my own painful experience challenging the establishment is dispositive because, ultimately, the personal is political and my authentic voice is the only voice that really matters.
Last night I was on a CNN panel where we talked briefly about West Texas A&M President Walter Wendler’s decision to cancel a drag show on campus. The other panelists all thought that this was an obviously silly and ignorant move. Who could have a problem with drag shows except for the ignorant and the bigoted?
And maybe it was a bad idea. I didn’t endorse the decision per se because, honestly, I didn’t care. But I thought Wendler’s controversial comparison of drag shows to blackface was ill-advised. Still, I defended the notion that presidents of universities can decide what kind of events are appropriate on their campus.
The reaction was remarkable. One panelist accused me of endorsing “cancel culture”—and maybe I am, depending what you mean by that. We can hash that out some other time.
But it was Joey Jackson’s response that I want to highlight (alas, I don’t have a transcript). A very charming and eloquent lawyer, Jackson went into a passionate monologue about how students need to be allowed to let their freak flags fly and indulge their passion for self-discovery or whatnot. Schools are “laboratories of learning,” he said several times. Who, he asked, is the president of a university to tell them otherwise? Who is Wendler to say how students should behave?
My answer: Um, he’s the president of the university.
Again, Wendler might be wrong to one extent or another. But Jackson’s position was that the very idea of a university president making decisions about the college experience of college students was somehow outrageous and contrary to the ideals of education and those “laboratories of learning.”
I said I thought that was ridiculous—because it is ridiculous. Actual laboratories have these things called “rules.” They’re mostly boring procedures, but they kinda matter. It’s okay to ask, “What would happen if I took this green stuff and set it on fire?” But you’re kinda supposed to know what the green stuff is. And you should wear goggles. And you should probably avoid setting it on fire while balancing it on your lap. The student who shouts at the professor, “You’re not the boss of me!” and just starts grabbing stuff off the shelves and mixing them together like the Swedish Chef making a salad isn’t doing science or even learning anything.
I don’t mean to single Jackson out, because he’s offering a very mainstream opinion—and that’s my [super-string of expletives deleted] point.
Elite institutions—starting with universities, but by no means ending there—teach “rebelliousness” as a form of conformity. They consider protest to be an unofficial academic requirement. In the application process, they do their best to filter out the weirdo, normie kids who just want to—you know—learn stuff and/or prepare for a career.
They ask kids in high school: Describe a time you defied authority, overcame bigotry, surmounted cis-heteropatriarchal expectations, or worked to change the system for the betterment of the disadvantaged. Two points about this. First, this kind of thing disproportionately benefits two kinds of people—the relative handful of kids who have legitimate stories to tell about these kinds of experiences and the much larger group of fairly privileged kids who have parents who can afford to curate their offspring’s adolescence to fit the job description. “I dealt with adversity when I went on my summer teen tour to Burundi and helped villagers put on the first staging of The Vagina Monologues in the Kirundi language…”
It reminds me of that scene in The Wild One where Marlon Brando is asked, “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?”
And Brando replies, “Whadda you got?”
Second, unless you’re Joan of Arc, odds are strong that if you’re a teenager you’re not a particularly significant rebel or martyr.
More importantly, why do the most exclusive and privileged institutions in America want you to think you are?
Now, you can call me a defender of “the establishment” if you like … no, wait! You can’t! Because I’m a defender of having an establishment that isn’t embarrassed to be the establishment. What good is an establishment that refuses to admit what it is, never mind defend itself? And I mean defend itself publicly. All of these institutions looking to ditch the SAT are doing it at least in part to protect their own power and authority, but none will say so.
Consider the American Library Association, which is once again trotting out its “Banned Book Week” propaganda. Virtually no books in America are banned. Nearly all of the “banned” books the ALA fights for are books that somebody complained about as being inappropriate for kids. “Challenging” a book is not some Orwellian prosecution of thought crimes. The whole enterprise is a marketing scheme—everyone loves to think they’re being a rebel when they buy a “banned book” during “Banned Book Week” at Barnes & Noble. Search Amazon.com—hardly a hidden den of samizdat peddlers—for “Banned Book Week” and you’ll find all manner of T-shirts celebrating your rebelliousness. You can even go to the “Banned Books” section of the largest bookseller in the world.
Now, I have no problem with librarians saying, “Hey, we’re librarians and we should decide what we offer because that’s our job.” (I also have no problem with parents and teachers and school boards saying, “It’s our job too” and having an argument.) But librarians, in their highly cultivated sense of being heroic rebels against the imagined forces of elite conformity, can’t own their own roles. They have to pretend that they’re persecuted and underappreciated outsiders fighting the forces of darkness. Get over yourselves.
But again, everyone’s gotta be an outsider. The stewards of universities, major media institutions, and even giant corporations all at least pretend that they are passionate about “transformative change” by posing as if they are arrayed against the institutional forces that rule America. And no one shouts back: “You morons, you are those institutional forces!” All of these “leaders” stand around in hot dog suits, passionately demanding to find out who crashed the giant frickin’ Wienermobiles they drive for a living (and make a nice living from in the process).
Every member of the elite is ashamed to admit they’re a member of the elite, even though they want all of the perks that elite status delivers. You can’t name a famous person who attacks “the elites” who is not a member of some elite faction. You know why? Because fame—more monetizable than ever—makes you an elite. But it doesn’t have to make you a hypocrite.
I hear very important and powerful people—self-described “thought leaders” and “influencers”—say, “Who are we to judge?” all the time. You know what I don’t hear them say? “I’m in the judging business.” But they literally are.
Everyone’s Luke Skywalker.
Of course, the best example of this is not our leading universities, it’s the most famously exclusive club in the world—the U.S. Senate.
How many senators —all of them millionaires—insist they are rebels? Not all of them. But if they’re running for office or talking into a camera—or if their names don’t rhyme with Smitch FliConnell—odds are strong they describe themselves as “outsiders.” Here’s the thing: You can’t be a member of the Senate and be an “outsider” because it doesn’t get more inside.
But it’s not just campaign rhetoric. On the right and left, senators talk like they scaled the walls of the Imperial Senate and are running around like Spartacus fighting for the people. Policy arguments are routinely framed as populist assaults on the government these people have been elected to run.
Ted Cruz, who is constantly inveighing against elites, took credit for DirectTV keeping Newsmax in its rotation. He boasted how, “I am the ranking member on the Senate Commerce Committee which has jurisdiction over about half of the US economy, including all of telecom and all of broadcast and all of big tech.” So far so good! He’s admitting that he actually has power as a member of the establishment! He continues: “And in that role I launched an investigation of DirectTV’s decision to deplatform Newsmax. And I made very clear to DirectTV that this investigation would keep going until the only acceptable outcome was allowing Newsmax back on air.” It was a “great victory,” he explained, for “free speech.”
Wait a second. The investigation started with the conclusion of what the outcome would be? How is that an “investigation”? What if he found that Newsmax—garbage network that it is—wasn’t “deplatformed” because it was bravely speaking truth to power against the corrupt establishment—as all of the politicians who like appearing on it claim—but instead because DirectTV made an entirely defensible apolitical decision to drop an unprofitable network from its lineup? Hell, even if it was politically motivated, since when is that an argument to force a business to do something it doesn’t want to do? DirectTV has the same free speech rights as Newsmax.
I’d have more respect for Cruz’s effort if he just admitted the obvious: “Look, I’m really powerful and I helped bully DirectTV into saving a friendly media outlet.”
It is a hallmark of youth to think that the “system” is keeping you down; that you can’t be your authentic self because the Man is out to get you. Your ideals make you a rebel and you don’t want to sell out. But another word for a lot of youthful thinking is “childishness.” And I can be forgiving of childishness in children.
The problem we have today is that we’ve reified, institutionalized, and monetized childishness. The loudest voices on the right and left have convinced themselves and their constituencies that the system is run by somebody else. Every Republican has to insist they will “take on the establishment.” Fine, that’s politics. Dumb politics, but probably necessary politics. But once in power, they don’t say, “I’m the establishment now, bitches!” They claim they’re still fighting some amorphous entity that’s preventing them from doing all the stuff they promised to do on the campaign trail. Compromising isn’t a necessary component of governing, it’s proof you sold out.
Most Democrats are little better. Every failure is the result of a special interest defying the will of the people or proof of the deep-seated bigotry or ignorance of the people.
Everyone is convinced they’re Spartacus while insisting that if they were Caesar everything would be awesome. Of course, there was no emperor under Spartacus. Rome was still a republic. And in a republic, leaders are supposed to be grown-ups who make adult decisions and adult sacrifices in order to hammer out what’s best for society. We don’t have a republic, we have a giant, squabbling mosh pit of excessive democracy, where being an adult is decried as elitist and authoritarian while childishness passes for heroism. And no one dares tell voters to put away their childish things.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: The beasts are thriving. The Fair Jessica handled treats this morning and finally caved to popular demand and gave Gracie her portion of the kill. Pippa is particularly joyous because she not only got some of my birthday pancakes, she also hacked my Amazon account. I’m a little late, but happy National Puppy Day!
And now, the weird stuff