I have long been a fan of comedian Norm Macdonald, but it was not until a few years ago that I knew he could write. A product of the Canadian education system, he was literate, of course, but his public persona suggested to me that he might not have much use for or facility with the written word. Norm disabused me of that false notion nearly four years ago, however, when his first article appeared on Bill Simmons’ late website, Grantland. Macdonald’s tenure with that site was, by funded internet website standards, brief, consisting roughly of the first four weeks of 2013. In that time, he wrote six articles: two on golf, one on hockey, and three volumes in an aborted series entitled “Norm Macdonald’s Keeping Resolutions.” My favorite of the lot was the hockey article. When it was published, right after the latest NHL lockout ended, I wrote:
Norm Macdonald’s latest article is a short story in two parts– two short stories, really– with some light humor, of course, but more compellingly, real, emotional, suspenseful, rising action conveyed in absolutely compelling fashion with two lovely turns of phrase, one for each part.
The “Resolutions” series was a first-person, semi-autobiographical story about sports gambling and a trip through the Nevada desert with Norm’s real-life friend, Adam Eget, “sober now for over a year but nonetheless still somewhat interesting.”
Constituting the largest body of his published writing until now, Macdonald’s Grantland articles, presented with little fanfare at the time and seemingly little remembered now, provide more than a little foreshadowing (and, for the author, source material) for some of the subjects and devices in his 2016 comedic novel, Based on a True Story: A Memoir. Anyone who read Norm’s 2013 articles had no reason to be surprised that he could and would produce such an excellent and wide-ranging piece of literature.
A note on genre classification: Based on a True Story is identified, right there on the cover, as “A Memoir.” Anyone who reads it will recognize it not as a memoir but as a comedic novel written very loosely in the style of a memoir. Most book sellers these days do not read the books they sell before displaying them in their stores, meaning that Macdonald’s book typically appears in the nonfiction section. This misclassification, flowing from a fundamental misunderstanding of the book, seemed to genuinely upset the author, who made it a central subject of his comments in media appearances in support of the book’s release and in his own online comments.
Surprise is an element of comedy, but there is plenty of new ground in Based on a True Story, such that it will truly entertain even the biggest Norm fans. I think it always has been difficult, and, I suspect this is true in today’s media age more than ever, to write a book that will make its readers feel real emotion. Sadness. Laughter especially. Yet Macdonald, with this book, concocts emotional moments alongside real, laugh-out-loud moments, woven through metacontent, 1970s country music, and a sports-gambling-driven journey through the Nevada desert with Adam Eget. This is one of the very few books I ever have wanted to read a second time.
In the foreword, Louis C.K. writes that “a lot of comics over the years have been compared to Mark Twain, but I think Norm is the only one who actually matches the guy in terms of his voice and ability.” With Based on a True Story, Macdonald has provided the comedic novel for a generation.
When they enter voting booths tomorrow, some Atlanta-area residents will see this question on their ballots:
This is why you study for tests. Good lucky, everybody.
Two weeks ago, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the first musician to claim that award. Yesterday morning, I heard him tell a knock-knock joke:
Knockin’ on the door, I say, “Who is it and where are you from?”
Man says, “Freddy!” I say, “Freddy who?” He says, “Freddy or not here I come.”
Bob Dylan, Po’ Boy, on Love and Theft (Columbia Records 2001).
Nominally, anyway, this website is supposed to be about asking questions. Here is one: did the New York Times publish my favorite New York Times article earlier this month? I have been asking myself that question since September 8, when the paper ran an article entitled, “‘What Is Aleppo?’ Gary Johnson Asks, in an Interview Stumble.”
Before September 8, Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s 2016 presidential candidate, had been having a difficult time attracting national, mainstream media attention. By third-party standards, he was polling well, though, and, in early September, he was making a big push to force the hand of the Commission on Presidential Debates to include him in the then-upcoming first presidential debate.
Part of that push included an appearance on an MSNBC morning talk show that day. During the appearance, one of the hosts asked him, “What would you do, if you were elected, about Aleppo?” Johnson responded by attempting to clarify the question: “About?” The host: “Aleppo.” Johnson: “What is Aleppo?”
The internet exploded. A candidate the primary-party adherents previously refused to acknowledge existed rapidly was called out for widespread rebuke, deemed an unserious candidate, and declared unworthy of the presidency (one politically attentive friend wrote that this made Johnson less fit to occupy the White House than Donald Trump). The unstated assumption, of course, was that everybody knows what Aleppo is, and if Johnson is ignorant of such a basic thing (“What is Philadelphia?”), he must be a fool indeed.
News websites rushed to capitalize on the sudden spike in critical attention to the Johnson campaign, and the New York Times, by way of the above-linked article, was no exception. It soon became clear, however, that Johnson was not the only purported policy expert asking “What is Aleppo?” By the end of the day, two corrections appeared at the bottom of the Times’ viral content piece, which they published in their Politics section as part of their Election 2016 coverage:
In this political age of internet journalism, that is the definition of perfection, and I have little more to add than to answer my question above in the affirmative.
(Regarding the coverage of the moment more generally, it almost certainly goes without saying that it ended with the “What is Aleppo?” question and ignored Johnson’s recovery and substantive answer when he realized he was being asked about Syria.)
This presidential campaign has been relatively gaffe-free, at least by conventional (e.g., Joe Biden) standards. Many regard Trump’s entire campaign as one long-running gaffe, or worse, though, and it likely has warped our understanding of what it is for a presidential candidate to “gaffe” during a campaign.
As Trump’s campaign gained steam, writers took aim, laboring to describe just how terrible and unpresidential they believed Trump was. In one sense, the task was easy. Trump provided– and is continuing to provide– plenty of examples, any one of which seemingly would have been enough to sink a candidate’s chances in previous elections. (Maybe part of the reason people have been so quick to pounce on Johnson after his Aleppo gaffe, as well as the more recent one (details; response), is because it allows them to slide back into normal campaign territory. Johnson is more of a conventional presidential candidate than Trump, and, as such, he has made some seemingly typical candidate blunders.)
In another sense, though, the task of describing and contextualizing Candidate Trump has proven increasingly difficult, because, even before Trump emerged as a viable politician, we were doing a poor job of allocating our extreme adjective resources. The danger of describing everything as “incredible” is that, when something actually incredible (unbelievable, terrible, etc.) happens, the dilution of the word’s meaning makes it difficult to contextualize just how extreme the occurrence was. Maybe Trump really is an unimaginably extreme candidate; more likely, I think, he is exactly as extreme a candidate as we used to consider our politicians (“war criminal!” “savior!”).
Johnson’s gaffes may facilitate the termination of any practical viability present in his campaign. They probably could not have come at a worse time for him. They also offer a lens through which to view the campaigns of the primary parties’ candidates, as well as the media’s coverage of the campaign as a whole.
More than anything, though, I keep coming back to that New York Times article, which, if little else, serves as a needed lesson in humility and a (perfect, humorous) reminder that we all might not be the experts we think we are.
This week, according to sludgebait website Awful Announcing, “Everyone Is Losing Their [sic] Minds Over Colin Kaepernick.” During a preseason NFL game, television cameras caught the San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback sitting during the traditional pregame playing of the national anthem. Kaepernick addressed the subject in a postgame interview:
His team promptly issued the following statement:
The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony. It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.
Kaepernick’s former teammate, Alex Boone, also was quick to react, and his critical comments reflected those of many who were displeased with Kaepernick’s display:
You should have some f—ing respect for people who served, especially people that lost their life to protect our freedom. We’re out here playing a game, making millions of dollars. People are losing their life, and you don’t have the common courtesy to do that. That just drove me nuts. . . . There’s a time and a place. Show some respect.
I haven’t been alive every year America, or its flag, has, but I have the following senses: 1) the American flag long has been a symbol of great reverence for the nation’s military, for obvious reasons; 2) the flag was not always the exclusive symbolic property of any particular political or social faction, however; 3) as it had during prior times of national crisis, the flag’s symbolic energy increased during the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks; and 4) during that time, and as the nation’s response to those attacks eventually became a matter of partisan and public controversy, the flag, as a symbol, traveled with that response and its proponents such that, in the following years, many wore or displayed the flag as a symbolic endorsement of the growing War on Terror and the political and military leaders of that war, to the exclusion of other people and groups, including those who questioned or opposed those actions.
The American flag belongs to all Americans, however, including those who want to fly it in support of a particular political regime; those who want to fly it in opposition to a particular political regime, as a reminder of values for which it stands that they feel that regime is disregarding; those who want to reject it; those who want to burn it; those who want to ignore it; and anyone else.
Kaepernick’s protest raises serious and immediate practical concerns. The discourse his protest initiated also highlighted the reality that many view the flag and other national symbols as the exclusive property of some, but not all. That is worrisome, but it also provides an opportunity to examine and reverse the trajectory of the flag as a captured, proprietary national symbol.
Last month, in response to indications that the Democratic National Convention drafting committee’s party platform policy decisions appeared to portend movement by the Democratic Party closer to the Republican Party, if not any meaningful sense of “the center,” I wrote that a functioning democracy needs a national political environment that features at least two political parties, and that, right now, it looks like America’s may be collapsing down to one.
The Democrats, of course, are not the only group shying away from their ostensible policy goals. In the lead up to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, reports surfaced that, despite Ohio’s status as an open-carry state, “No guns will be allowed in the convention center where Trump will speak — nor in the tightest security zone immediately around it.”
The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, has stated a general opposition to gun-free zones, however, and it is a position many in his Party share. One of the principles underlying this belief is that, had they lawfully been permitted to bear arms, “good” people would be able to fight back, by use of firearms, against “bad” people committing violent acts in places like schools and movie theaters.
The statistical rarity of this occurrence– ten times in the last nineteen years or so, by one careful count— only reinforces the pro-gun position. After all, had more honest citizens been allowed to carry firearms in public, they could have arrested even more violent criminal behavior.
Yet, a gathering of, presumably, the most ardent adherents to this thesis, taking place against a legal background that otherwise would have authorized such armament, guns were not allowed. If not at the RNC, then where?
The best thing for America might not be a powerful political faction that favors the proliferation of deadly weapons; nevertheless, the nation needs policy makers who adhere in practice to the policy positions they espouse. For a policy maker to do otherwise is to be dishonest with his or her constituents, an act both more inimical of and, unfortunately, likely more prevalent across this republic.
A common refrain of politically dissatisfied Americans is that the United States is in need of a multiparty system akin to the parliamentary arrangements that populate Europe. During the last presidential election cycle, I wrote in defense of casting a vote for a third-party presidential candidate. That post included a favorable discussion of our two-party system:
There is much to be commended about the two-party system as it exists in the U.S. today. The conglomerate, dynamic nature of the parties means that the they evolve by competing with each other to attempt to absorb new movements and the votes that come with them. (Cf. Democrats and Greens with Republicans and Tea Partiers. The question of what happens once that absorption takes place– the assimilation– is a subject for another post.) It really is not so dissimilar from multiparty, parliamentary-style democracies, the difference being that those systems wait until after an election to form a coalition government, while the American system forms would-be governing coalitions before the election.
That, at least, is how a successful two-party system ought to operate. If party platform decisions made by the Democratic National Convention drafting committee this month stick, though, that may be an indication we are moving closer to a one-party system than any sort of multiparty arrangement:
There is some nuance missing here (e.g., the rejection of the $15 minimum wage amendment leaves in place a minimum wage at that amount but will not index the amount to the inflation rate, as some wanted), and the platform is not final, but these policy decisions– as well as others not noted, including the rejection of a proposal opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement— appear to portend movement by the Democratic Party closer to the Republican Party, if not any meaningful sense of “the center.”
A functioning democracy needs a national political environment that features at least two political parties. Right now, it looks like America’s may be collapsing down to one.