I don’t write a ton of stuff on literary craft here. (I haven’t blogged a whole lot period in the last couple of months, I know.) But the Twitter chat I had with Ann B. Gelder, who spends a lot more time blogging about craft than I do, should prove of some interest to those who make the enormous life mistake of choosing novel-writing as a career. (Seriously, read her blog. It’s full of good stuff.)
Larry Dahlke and I recorded this for The Missouri Review‘s Audio Contest. He plays the interviewer. I play actor Jack Renner, star of one of the worst movies of the 1960s, who tells the story of why a young, black actor couldn’t come to the premiere of a movie they’d done together. I think it turned out all right, so I thought I’d share. Enjoy
Last year, much to my surprise, Donald Trump, in all his appalling ignorance, taught me what may be the most important lesson I could’ve learned in 2016. You see, throughout that campaign, I took it as read that Trump could never be elected President because he was such an obvious con artist. No way, I thought, could a guy who’s basically a gold plated Angel Martin from The Rockford Files ever get to 50%+1. There just aren’t enough stupid people in the United States to make that happen. After the November 8th horror, I had to rethink this, and I remembered something crucial.
The success of a scam depends not on the skill of the grifter but on the greed and fear of the marks.
This is what con artists will tell you about their victims, that there’s no way they could have stung them if they weren’t consumed with some combination of avarice and paranoia. Greed and fear are extraordinary motivators, and the person who can manipulate them, however crudely, can take power others. He can get them to invest in fake companies. He can get them to buy worthless information. He can get them to vote for him for President.
Now I and 65 million others weren’t taken in by Trump’s con, and I while I think that’s to our credit, I don’t think it’s because we’re significantly smarter than Trump voters. Instead, I think it’s because our fears and desires don’t match up with Trump’s pitch at all. I don’t fear or hate immigrants, refugees, liberals, or racial minorities. I’m not afraid of women. I’m not worried about someone shipping my job overseas. I’m not aching for an upper-class tax cut or the deregulation of my business. I don’t worry that my health insurance premiums are too high. I don’t worry about someone taking my guns. I don’t see myself as a temporarily embarrassed rich person who’d get my villa and Maserati if only Washington bureaucrats would get out of my way. I’m not a fundamentalist Christian who can’t handle gays getting married or women getting their contraception paid for by their health insurance. Trump could pitch at me all day and get nothing back but my hostility.
But Trump’s voters are afflicted by at least some, if not all, of those fears and desires. They feel them in different combinations and different levels of intensity, but as long as Trump hit on each of these in turn, any given Trump voters could rationalize supporting him. Hey, I may not like the racism, but he sounds like he’s really going to stick it to those Washington bureaucrats and get me my Maserati. Or You know, the whole immigrant thing bothers me, but I don’t think he’ll really hurt them, and I really want a Supreme Court justice who’ll make women carry babies to term. Or Maybe I don’t need that upper class tax cut, but I love how he puts blacks in their place and drives the liberals crazy.
Sadly, the people with the most reasonable fears, those afraid of losing their jobs to automation or overseas competition and those sweating their health insurance premiums, are the ones Trump’ll sting the hardest. Even if he cared about helping them–and since he was hoping to sign a bill that would strip them of their health care entirely, it’s obvious he doesn’t–he has no clue what to do for them. Trump’s a thief, not an economist or public policy expert. They’d have better odds of getting their share of a Nigerian Prince’s fortune. The people driven by pure greed or fear, greed for upper class tax cuts, fear of women or minorities, will probably get something to make them happy. Trump’s a con man, but he’s a genuine bigot and misogynist, and he’ll endorse any scheme that inflicts pain on those that he hates or that makes them pay his taxes for him.
The depressing part of this is that it’ll be nigh impossible to argue Trump supporters out of their choice. Since most people find nothing more embarrassing than admitting they’ve been had, they’ll instead concoct elaborate rationalizations to explain away Trump’s behavior. They’ll try to shift responsibility by saying they wouldn’t have voted for Trump if coastal elites weren’t always calling them bigots. (So you voted for a bigot just to prove you’re not a bigot? I guess you showed me.) The more time they’ve put in to supporting Trump, the harder they’ll be to talk out of it. And the smarter Trump supporters will be hardest of all because smart people build better rationalizations. However much he hurts them, most of them will stick with him. This doesn’t owe to any special talent on Trump’s part, but rather his supporters terrible willingness to suspend their disbelief.
For a bit more context on this, here’s Laurence Rees on Hitler, describing a similar dynamic between Hitler and his followers.
After much hype over Bill Maher’s invitation to host Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos on his show “Real Time” on Friday, the two got along famously, bonding over their shared love of free speech and the unifying power of humor in a one-on-one conversation. It seemed that Yiannopoulos had found a warm embrace on Maher’s set — but then the broadcast ended and Yiannopoulos sat down with Maher’s other panelists for the post-show “Overtime” segment, which airs on YouTube. Two of those guests told the far-right prince what they’d like to see him do to himself. (Hint: It rhymes with “cuck.”)
And during that, this was said.
Maher said he didn’t see it that way. At the start of his conversation with Yiannopoulos, the host explained: “I think you’re colossally wrong. But if I banned everyone from my show who I thought was colossally wrong, I’d be talking to myself.”
Maher’s guest agreed, saying, “If you don’t show up to debate, you lose.”
The question of debate, and whether we should be debating someone like Milo Yiannopoulos, is one of only two interesting questions that he right-wing public bigot raises. The other is what it is about our culture that let’s someone as deeply banal as Yiannopoulos get so far in life when he has so little to offer.
We like to think of debate as a forum in which we calmly discuss rational proposals and through learned discourse arrive at sensible conclusions. This is easy to believe until you actually watch a debate. Debates are seldom won by reason, or evidence, or learned discourse. They’re often won by whoever can rattle off enough unexpected falsehoods to throw their opponent off balance. (This explains a lot about how Ted Cruz became a champion debater in college.) And Milo Yiannopoulos is, whatever else he is, a fount of falsehood. Before a TV host or panelist can start debunking his first lie, he’s already on to his third, and on television, where seconds count, this is the debating equivalent of the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique.
Further, debating someone like Yiannopoulos is inherently problematic because the mere act of doing so says that his “ideas” are still worthwhile debate topics among reasonable people. What are his ideas?
For his shopping trip to Gieves & Hawkes, Yiannopoulos calls for an Uber. The driver is a man, possibly because Uber’s algorithm has learned that Yiannopoulos rejects female drivers. Women, he says, have been scientifically proven to be worse at spatial relations, as have Asians. “It’s the only thing Saudi Arabia gets right,” he says about the country’s ban on female drivers. “Behind every racist joke is a scientific fact.”
He says he disapproves of all Muslims—except his boyfriend of 10 years. But it’s feminists who rile him most. During Gamergate, he targeted game developer Brianna Wu. Her address was posted on Reddit, and she received so many rape and death threats that she moved out of her home for a while and hired a bodyguard. “When you’ve faced difficulties in your life—growing up gay, being a minority, suffering from physical illness—you have two paths in front of you,” Wu says about Yiannopoulos. “Some people develop a fierce sense of empathy. The other side that’s available is to become something very dark. You can look at some of his poetry, when he was an adolescent, and it’s very clear he was hurting. He’s channeled that pain into hurting a lot of people and justifying it.”
So Yiannopoulos hates women and has contempt for non-whites. Are we supposed to be debating whether these are good ideas, sensible notions for a happier world? Are we supposed to hold a symposium titled, “Resolved: Behind every racist joke lies a scientific fact”, or does it lend racism a patina of intellectual legitimacy that it doesn’t merit because of its repeated and demonstrated failure as a way of looking at human beings? Racists like Yiannopoulos have been making the same fundamental errors for five centuries now. They’ve caused extraordinary harm. We know that. We can’t unknow it. Debating them is like debating people who think the Sun goes around the Earth or that Aristotle was more right about the descent rate of falling objects than Galileo was.
But what about Yiannopoulos’s feelings about free speech, the very reason Maher invited him on his show? Surely he has some thoughts of interest about that, right?
For one thing, Yiannopoulos has not had his free speech rights violated. Never. Not once. At no time has any government–federal, state, or local–enacted a law, ordinance, or rule that prohibited him from expressing himself. Milo Yiannopoulos is, by any measurable standard, freer to speak than anyone I know. Simon and Schuster gave him $250,000 for his upcoming book. He gets invitations to banter and chatter on national talk shows. Major magazines interview him all the time. Hollywood stars have to shell out big bucks to publicists to be featured in the media as often as our supposed poster boy for censored speech.
What has happened is that at times when he’s been invited to speak, people who disliked what he said, mainly because they were the targets of his and his fans’ abuse, have talked back. Guess what? That’s free speech too. Occasionally, those protests have turned violent, and that is a shame. But it’s not a violation of his right to free speech. Yiannopoulos is free to speak. The public that hears what he says is free to react. And there’s no law that requires their reaction to be polite, so long as no one gets hurt.
For another, if free speech is a topic you want to discuss, there are many more qualified people to expound on it: journalists, lawyers, judges, historians. Yiannopoulos is none of these. He’s a brain stem attached to a keyboard (sometimes, when his interns aren’t doing his writing for him). He has nothing of interest to bring to the conversation. So why talk to him?
Why has our culture let someone like Yiannopoulos get this far? What happened? Are we all this easily conned? Well, yeah. Yiannopoulos has found a way of hacking into our culture, bypassing what should otherwise be robust bullshit detectors.
Our culture has a fetish for putting old wine in new bottles. We reboot old TV and movie franchises, comic books, games, everything. We crave both novelty and familiarity, and like to get both at the same time if we can. Yiannopoulos is that in spades. If he presented himself as a cranky Public Access TV host, ranting at us with an American flag behind him, or as a Klansman on the Jerry Springer show wearing his sheet and yelling “White Power” as the studio audience boos, no one would give a shit about him. Instead, Yiannopoulos says everything the racist, homophobic, sexist uncle you dread talking to at Thanksgiving says, but he wears eyeliner and pearls. Wild! Different! What can we make of it? If J.J. Abrams were to reboot the worst of five centuries of western civilization–and I’m not for a moment suggesting he would or should–he’d have created Milo Yiannopoulos.
We should probably rethink our affection for newly bottled old wines going forward. The past is full of rancid ideas unfit for modern human consumption, and the world is full of opportunists all too eager to be the their trendy new face.
UPDATE: I neglected to add Advocate In Favor Of Pedophilia to Yiannopoulos’s list of titles. I became aware of it only after hitting Publish. Here’s the video. Anyone feel like this is one of those topics worthy of debate?
Trump voters are sad that people are mad at their support for the Orange Menace. From the New York Times:
“We’re backed into a corner,” said Mr. Medford, 46, whose business teaches people to be filmmakers. “There are at least some things about Trump I find to be defensible. But they are saying: ‘Agree with us 100 percent or you are morally bankrupt. You’re an idiot if you support any part of Trump.’ ”
He added: “I didn’t choose a side. They put me on one.”
Others claim that they’ve been denied dates or that the sight of protests upsets them. It’s enough to make you weep, I know. If I weren’t in a cold sweat about families being broken up by deportation squads or my own health insurance going into the shredder, I might spare a thought for their woes.
But you know what really frosts my shorts, Trump voters? This “I didn’t choose a side” garbage.
You fucking well did, and you know it.
For irony’s sake, I’m going to drag out a shopworn phrase from your side of the political divide: “personal responsibility”. You have agency in life, my orange-president-cult worshipping friends. You voted for a racist, sexist criminal fraud because you wanted to vote for a racist, sexist criminal fraud. You looked at Trump in all his cartoonish awfulness, assessed him, and concluded he was preferable to a dedicated center-left public servant. Your choice. You weren’t duped by him. You sure as hell weren’t forced by us.
But it is interesting that the reaction of others to your vote distresses you so. If, a few years ago, I said on Twitter that I voted for Obama and some troll said something nasty about it, I blocked the motherfucker and went on with my life. It didn’t bother me that I’d annoyed him. It didn’t make me happy either. My vote wasn’t about him. I was comfortable with my choice and didn’t give a damn what he or anyone else thought of it. I’m tempted to think of your comparative angst and shame as a sign of consciousness of guilt. You know who feels consciousness of guilt? The guilty.
So, Trump voters who feel shitty right now, own up. You voted for Trump not because of the media, or your annoying liberal Facebook friend, or that person on Tinder who sees you in your Make America Great Again hat and swipes left. You voted for him because you wanted to. And maybe you now feel some guilt about it because you know he’s going to hurt a lot of people and that suffering is partly your doing. But if you keep supporting him, you’re reaffirming that you’re fine with families being torn apart and people dying sooner or going broke because they lack health insurance. If that’s the case, don’t blame Meryl Streep, or CNN, or me because your friends and neighbors look at your choices and decide they mean you’re an asshole.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I kept waiting for the irony to kick in.
As I read stories of one white, straight, male, European protagonist after another, I kept waiting for the joke that would make the book’s title pay off. I confess I may have missed it. By the sixth story, I was getting antsy. But if the ironic twist was in there somwhere, I never saw it. Which means I had to take the title and the book as sincere and proceed from the assumption that David Szalay thought he’d truly found something universal about the life of men on Earth, and that the best way he could think of to report his discovery through a fantastically narrow range of characters.
I don’t think he has. The book’s title writes a check that the stories, taken collectively, can’t cash. It fails even to capture All That European Men Are. Not all European men are white, for one thing. And, for another, not all European men treat women as nothing but sex objects. (Also, not all European women are as one dimensional as Szalay’s.) To be fair, the last story does have a gay, or bi, protagonist. His sexuality comes into play only insofar as its revelation cost him his marriage, but he’s still a relief after eight straight straight guys. If only there’d been more like him.
All That Man Is contains a great deal fine writing. The stories, on a line-by-line level, are well crafted, with considerable wit, humor, and pathos. It’s just that the overall project strikes me as so ill-conceived that I can’t recommend it.
Emma Green, whose job at The Atlantic involves taking religion seriously, wonders why Democrats don’t take religion serious and don’t talk to the 81% of evangelical voters who voted for Donald Trump.
I understand that it can be a mystery why some people voted for Donald Trump, particularly if you’re one of those people who don’t think racism or sexism are things. (We have those in The Left’s whiter, more male neighborhood, and a fuckton of them in the online atheist community, sad to say.) Certainly, if you’ve met a working class Trump voter who voted for Trump believing that he cares about people like them and would never ever repeal the Affordable Care Act, you have a right to wonder what the hell this person was thinking and why the Democrats didn’t craft a better message to reach this person.
But the voting habits of white evangelical voters aren’t mysterious. Their relationship with the GOP is transactional, and has been since the 1980s, when the Moral Majority (ask your parents) helped elect a Hollywood divorcee over one of their own because he’d restrict abortion, squish the feminists, and crush the gays. The people under threat of being squished or crushed looked to the Democrats, just as African Americans did when the GOP embraced Goldwaterism sixteen years earlier. If I were a white evangelical, I’d probably have voted for Trump because his administration is more likely to give me what I want: the right to deny services to the LGBTQ community, the further ruin of women’s health clinics, the assertion of patriarchal control over women’s bodies, and so on. Would a change in religious rhetoric have swayed parallel-universe-Jim-with-a-beard-religious-me?
I doubt it.
After all, do I suddenly think better of Republicans when they quote John Kennedy or FDR? No. What if they started quoting Bertrand Russell or Voltaire? No. I know who Republicans are. I know what they’ll do, and since it’ll cost me and mine, I know I don’t want them to do it. I have things I want out of government–among them services to help me afford what the market has trouble providing, and the freedom to live, work, create, and interact with a marketplace that doesn’t get to assess my skin color or ask me what my religion is or who I fuck before selling me goods and services. I know which party is more likely to give me what I want, and I vote for its candidates (unless they’re well and truly awful).
I never ask why a racist would vote for Donald Trump. He’s a racist too. Now Donald Trump’s lifestyle looks pretty messed up from the white evangelical point of view–as did Ronald Reagan’s, back in the day–but he picked Pence, and he promised to deliver what they want, so they’ll vote for him.
I, on the other hand, wouldn’t vote for a party that promised to give white evangelicals what they want. Most Democrats feel the same way. Elected Democrats, by and large, are aware of this, and that’s why Democrats don’t try to craft appeals to white evangelicals. The Democrats may need a new strategy to win more elections going forward, but one-vote-gained-one-lost probably isn’t it.
The solution to this mystery is that there’s no mystery.