Some of The Dumbest Things I Ever Wrote
In honor of my retirement from “takes,” here are a few of my worst.
Last week, in my final column for Medium’s GEN magazine, I made a big production of announcing that after 25 years writing opinion columns and “think pieces,” I am never, ever, ever, ever doing another one.
While the sentiment was sincere, the fanfare was a bit tongue-in-cheek. Just as I’ve long suspected that society was not holding its collective breath waiting for my “take” on the cultural kerfuffle du jour, I was pretty sure the earth would not dislodge itself from its axis upon hearing the news that my opinions would be out of regular circulation. What I didn’t count on was the number of people who responded with some version of: “Great! Tell many of your opinion-having colleagues to do the same!”
It’s not like there aren’t some truly sensational opinions out there, many of them put forth by virtuosic columnists and bloggers whose pontifications you wait for with trembling anticipation of waiting for the new iPhone. But as I said to Aryeh Cohen-Wade recently on his Bloggingheads podcast, one of the biggest problems with the op-ed racket is that the kind of gig everyone wants — a regularly scheduled column with regularly scheduled payment — is ultimately the thing that makes that gig unsustainable over the long term. At least it’s the thing that makes it impossible to do great work all the time.
That’s because being obligated to say something often means resorting to saying anything. And saying anything often leads to saying stuff you don’t even really believe. This is formally known in the business as “pulling something out of your ass.”
Over the years, I’ve been haunted by at least a handful of deadline-driven arguments that I published yet didn’t really mean (or, barring that, were just really stupid). So, to mark the occasion of never, ever, ever, ever writing another think piece, I decided to dig up some of my worst — or at least most pointless — takes.
Here are a few, in no particular order.
Okay, it wasn’t a crush as much as begrudging admiration. Levi Johnston, as you probably don’t recall, was a figure from the early Sarah Palin era. He was the boyfriend of Bristol Palin, Sarah’s teenaged daughter who was discovered to be pregnant during the time Palin was the Republican vice presidential nominee, alongside John McCain, in 2008. About a year after that ticket lost the election, Johnston had ditched the Palin family (though was presumably being a responsible father to the baby, Tripp) and was making media rounds sharing gossip about them. To me, there was a guilty pleasure in this that I compared to popping a zit.
This is high level columnizing.
Even though I was, as always, trying to “make a larger point,” I was flooded with reader mail calling me a cougar for supposedly lusting after a 19-year-old. Let the record show I never lusted after Levi Johnston. I was, however, somewhat stirred by the news last year that the Palins were divorcing.
This is not a column so much as a verbal contortion. Again, what I remember most were the incensed letters and reader comments. As it usually went with anything Obama-related, people on the political left were angry because I’d criticized Michelle Obama in any way and people on the right were angry because I’d given her any credence whatsoever. In reading the column now, I see that I had absolutely no idea what to say so I essentially took a lot of micro-observations — baby boomers have a weird definition of pride, Obama’s parents are not boomers, also “coddling,” also “narrative!” — and snarled them into an 831-word knot. Another day at the office.
Check out the lede here! I literally spend the first two paragraphs talking about how there’s nothing in the news worth talking about. It’s notable that Levi Johnston is again invoked. In my defense, I actually think this isn’t so much a bad column as a decent one dressed up as a clunker. As you might see, I’m actually making a fairly Nuanced Point™ about the outrage cycle in the news media (this was back in 2009, when such points were sort of novel).
For what it’s worth, this column landed me a guest spot on The O’Reilly Factor. Bill O’Reilly’s line of questioning (and subsequent yelling at me) suggested he’d totally misunderstood what I was trying to say, which I guess is fair enough. I did the interview in an empty Fox News studio while looking into a darkened camera. There was no television monitor on which I could see myself, no camera operator, no one else in the room. At the risk of inviting people to go looking for this mortification, I will say that the experience amounted to the hardest lesson in know you’re on split screen and do not look around and fidget while the other person is talking: you’re not on the radio, you fucking moron! that I think anyone has ever been taught. I never made that mistake again. Nor was I asked back.
Something About A New Trend In Lying
In 1999 and 2000 or thereabouts, I was a regular contributor to the religion and spirituality site Beliefnet. I’m expert in neither religion nor spirituality but the site was new at the time (all digital media sites were new at the time) and somehow I got talked into writing a column about morality. I remember next to nothing of what I wrote in these dispatches and none appear to be online anymore. But a search turned up something I apparently wrote called “How The Bald Faced Lie Has Replaced ‘None of Your Business.’” An alternate headline could have been “I Cannot Think Of A Topic And This Was Due Yesterday.”
When you click on the link for this article, you get taken to the current iteration of Beliefnet, specifically a page featuring stories called “6 Things Jesus Wants from You This Christmas” and “5 Ways Satan Is Manipulating You.” Now that I might have had something to say about.
Woe is this one. It was published in GEN last February. I’m not sure what I was doing that week other than bracing myself to turn 50, but it must have been a really bad moment — and not just because I was obviously deliriously hard up for a column topic. With nowhere else to turn, I resorted to expanding on an observation I’d made during a rather melancholy conversation with a friend. I’d said something to the effect of “I can’t listen to my iTunes anymore because there isn’t a single track that doesn’t conjure a memory from the past that makes me feel some sense of inconsolable sadness or loss. All I do is skip to the next one, hoping for something I can tolerate. But it never comes, which I why I listen almost exclusively to podcasts now.”
This sentiment is heartbreaking in many ways, but what’s even more heartbreaking is that for nearly a year this piece has made me cringe. For months afterwards, I berated myself for dumping this bit of darkness onto the reading public. Why couldn’t I have kept it to myself? Even if not an abjectly bad piece, it was surely a “bad take.”
But in writing up this post, I screwed up the courage to read the piece again. To my surprise, I was moved by it. Moreover, I realized that even though the headline oversimplified what I was saying, as headlines usually do, I had in fact meant what I said. But what I was saying was complicated, strange, and personal. I wasn’t making an intellectual argument. I was trying to articulate a complex cluster of emotions. It wasn’t a think piece. It was a personal essay, an offering. It wasn’t a take. It was a give.
And that is something I can continue to do. I just can’t promise not to write about Levi Johnston.