The Prettiest Sight

In The Philadelphia Story, a lowly reporter played by James Stewart scornfully intones, “The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges.”  For one week on Martha’s Vineyard earlier this summer, that’s exactly what I was doing.  And oh, what a pretty sight it was.

Certainly, the Vineyard—regularly ranked among the priciest vacation spots in America—screams “privilege” in any season, from its private beaches and golf courses to its posh restaurants and hotels to its A-list clientele.

In my case, however, the fact that I was among New England’s most well-heeled (albeit in a budget-friendly rental unit with no room service) was ancillary to the real privilege I enjoyed for eight days and seven nights on this triangular island seven miles off Cape Cod:  The privilege to not care what was happening in the universe beyond the shore.  The privilege to disconnect from current events and suffer no consequences whatsoever.

See, in my normal, landlubber life, I’m plugged into the global newsfeed about as deeply as any good American should be, monitoring Twitter and the New York Times with freakish regularity to ensure I am always in the loop about whatever unholy nonsense the president has gotten himself into today (among other things).

But while on vacation, I made a deliberate effort to disengage from the minute-by-minute deluge of copy that otherwise scrolls across my transom, and just try to relax for a change.  By and large, I succeeded.

To be clear, this did not entail a total 24/7 news blackout.  Rather, it meant checking Facebook two or three times per day instead of the usual thirty.  It meant scanning Boston Globe headlines without necessarily reading the articles underneath them.  It meant not watching a single segment of cable or network television.

Most significantly, it meant absolute abstention from Twitter, and all the nauseating, petty political catfighting contained therein.

It meant, in effect, that I still had a vague, general sense of what was happening across the seven continents, but without the fuss of getting bogged down in the details.

What I took away from this experiment—this voluntary, temporary withdrawal from the media-industrial complex—was how precious little I was missing.  How trivial such seemingly earth-shaking stories really are when viewed in proper perspective.  How oddly pleasant it was not to be waist-deep in the muck of political tomfoolery at every hour of every day.  And how much I dreaded returning to my usual routine in the real world—which, of course, I did with all deliberate speed.

It begged the question:  What’s so great about the real world, anyway?  Why do I burden myself with the minutiae of global happenings when I could just as well spend my free time going for long walks and plowing through the collected works of Agatha Christie?

Keeping on top of the news may make me conscientious and informed, but does it really make me happy?  Would I be any worse off, as a person, were I to harness the laid-back habits I picked up on the Vineyard and maintain them until the end of my natural life?

In all likelihood I would not be, and that, in so many words, is the true meaning of privilege in 2019 America.  It’s not a question of wealth or fame (of which I have none).  Rather, it’s about the ability to tune out.  To be mentally on vacation for as long as one’s heart desires.  To ignore such unpleasantries as war, famine, global warming and the Trump administration and be affected by them not one whit.

Deep down, of course, this is just white privilege by another name, since to be white in America is to know that, however bad things may get, there will always be a spot for you on the lifeboat.  And to be a white man, all the better.

Naturally, as a bleeding heart liberal (or social justice warrior, or whatever we’re supposed to call ourselves now), I can hear the angel on my shoulder gently reminding me that the role of the Woke White Person in Trump’s America is to support and agitate on behalf of the downtrodden—immigrants, Muslims, and pretty much anyone else who isn’t Caucasian and/or male and doesn’t have the luxury to take a mental health break from reality—which requires paying close attention to what is being inflicted upon one’s fellow countrymen—and aspiring countrymen—on our watch, in our name.

On refection, it seems like a fair price to pay for someone whose life is sufficiently charmed as to be able to spend a week of every June on a place like Martha’s Vineyard, watching the sun rise over Edgartown Harbor and guzzling beer and clam chowder without a care in the world.

After all, there is some happiness to be found in simply being involved—however meekly—in the national discourse, particularly when Election Day rolls around, as it is wont to do every now and again.  That’s to say nothing for the lowly blogger, who will sooner or later need to write about something other than lobster rolls and how to avoid being eaten by a shark.

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All That Is Written

“All that is thought should not be said, all that is said should not be written, all that is written should not be published, and all that is published should not be read.”

Those words were coined by a Polish rabbi named Menachem Mendel of Kotz in the middle of the 19th century.  Surely they have never been more urgently needed than in the United States in 2019.

Just the other day, for instance, the venerable Boston Globe published an online op-ed by Luke O’Neil, a freelance columnist, expressing his rather pointed thoughts about the recently-sacked homeland security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen.  Its throat-clearing opening line:  “One of the biggest regrets of my life is not pissing in Bill Kristol’s salmon.”  (Kristol, you’ll recall, was a leading cheerleader for the Iraq War.)

The rest of the column continued in the same vein, castigating Nielsen for her complicity in President Trump’s policy of separating children from their parents at the Mexican border, and advocating for a general shunning of Nielsen from polite society, up to and including doing unsavory things to her food whenever she turns up at a fancy restaurant.

Following a small uproar among its readers, the Globe subsequently re-wrote parts of O’Neil’s piece—cutting out the word “pissing,” among other things—before ultimately removing it from its webpages entirely.  (It never appeared in print in any form.)  All that currently remains of the thing is an editor’s note explaining that the column “did not receive sufficient editorial oversight and did not meet Globe standards,” adding, rather gratuitously, “O’Neil is not on staff.”

Locally, much has been said and written about the Globe’s (lack of) judgment in ever believing an op-ed about poisoning a public official’s dinner—however cheeky—was fit to publish in the first place.  For all of its obvious liberal biases, the Globe opinion page is a fundamentally grown-up, establishmentarian space, suggesting this episode was a bizarre, one-off aberration and nothing more.

The deeper question, however, is what brings an uncommonly thoughtful and clever writer to put such infantile thoughts to paper in the first place.

And I’m not just talking about Luke O’Neil.

Let’s not delude ourselves:  Ever since Secretary Nielsen was hounded from a Mexican restaurant last summer in response to her department’s repugnant immigration policies, every liberal in America has had a moment of silent contemplation about what he or she would do or say to Nielsen given the chance.  That’s to say nothing of her former boss, the president, and innumerable other members of this wretched administration.

Indeed, plumb the deepest, darkest thoughts of your average politically-aware American consumer, and you’re bound to emerge so covered in sludge that you may spend the rest of your life trying to wash it off.

This is why we differentiate thoughts from actions—morally and legally—and why the concept of “thought crime” is so inherently problematic.  Outside of the confessional, no one truly cares what goes on inside your own head so long as it remains there, and most of us have the good sense to understand which thoughts are worth expressing and which are not.

Except when we don’t, and in the age of Trump—with a major assist from social media platforms whose names I needn’t mention—an increasing number of us don’t.

Because it is now possible for any of us to instantaneously broadcast our basest and most uninformed impressions on any subject to the entire world, we have collectively decided—however implicitly—that there needn’t be any filter between one’s mind and one’s keyboard, and that no opinion is more or less valid than any other.  In the Twitterverse, “Let’s expand health insurance coverage” and “Let’s defecate in Kirstjen Nielsen’s salad” carry equal intellectual weight.

As a free speech near-absolutist, I can’t deny the perverse appeal in having no meaningful restrictions to what one can say in the public square.  With political correctness exploding like a cannonball from America’s ideological extremes, it’s heartening to know that reports of the death of the First Amendment have been greatly exaggerated, indeed.

Or it would be—until, say, a newly-elected congresswoman from Minnesota tells a group of supporters, “We’re gonna go in there and we’re gonna impeach the motherfucker,” and suddenly discretion seems very much the better part of valor.

Among the many truisms that life under the Trump regime has clarified is the fact that just because something can be done, it doesn’t mean it should be done.  And the same is true—or ought to be—about how each of us expresses ourselves to the wider world.

I don’t mean to sound like a total prude.  After all, I’m the guy who wrote a column in mid-November 2016 calling the newly-elected president a selfish, narcissistic, vindictive prick, and who tried to cheer my readers up the day after the election by noting that Trump could drop dead on a moment’s notice.

With two-and-a-half years of hindsight, I’m not sure I should’ve written either of those things, not to mention a few other snide clauses and ironic asides here and there ever since.  They weren’t necessary to make my larger points, and like the opening quip in Luke O’Neil’s Globe column, their rank immaturity and meanness only served to cheapen whatever it was I was trying to say.

As someone who claims to be a writer, I try to choose my words carefully and with at least a small degree of charity.  With great powerin this case, the power of wordscomes great responsibility.  And that includes leaving Kirstjen Nielsen’s salmon alone.

Unplugged

I recently returned from a week-long trip to paradise—Martha’s Vineyard, to be exact—and while I was there, I did something that, for me, was both unthinkable and unprecedented.

I kept away from social media and the news.

That’s right.  From the moment our ferry cast off from shore, I ceased all contact with my Twitter feed and didn’t reconnect until after returning to the mainland.  For good measure, I also generally avoided Facebook, the New York Times and cable news, opting to remain as ignorant as possible about what was going on in the parts of the universe not directly in front of my nose.  For perhaps the first time in my adult life, I just didn’t want to know.

Now, maybe tuning the world out is the sort of thing most normal people do to relax at their favorite summer getaways.  But as a prototypical millennial news junkie, I can scarcely imagine being walled off from current events for more than a few hours at a time, vacation or no vacation.  Since acquiring my first Droid in the summer of 2010, I’m not sure I’ve gone a single day without checking my social media apps at least once.  You know:  Just to make sure I’m not missing anything.

Having lived under the tyranny of Zuckerberg and Bezos for so long, I’ve realized with ever-growing acuity that I am every bit as addicted to the little computer in my pocket—and the bottomless information it contains—as the good-for-nothing Generation Z teenagers I’m supposed to feel superior to.  More and more, I recall Jean Twenge’s terrifying recent Atlantic story, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” and I wonder whether any of us—of any age group—are going to emerge from this era better citizens and human beings than when we entered it.

So it was that, on the occasion of my annual sojourn to my favorite summer retreat—an island I’ve visited annually since before I was born—I decided I needed to find out whether I’m capable of cutting myself off from the GoogleTube cold turkey.  Whether—if only for a week—I can bring myself to live as I did for the first 23 years of my life:  Without constant, hysterical, up-to-the-second news flashes from every corner of the globe and, with them, the instantaneous expert (and non-expert) analysis of What It All Means and Where We Go From Here.

Mostly, of course, I just wanted a week without Donald Trump.

Did I succeed?

Kind of.

Yes, I still read the Boston Sunday Globe (mostly for the arts pages).  Yes, I still listened to my favorite NPR podcast while riding my bike.  Yes, I still posted pictures on Facebook before going to bed.  And yes, I still allowed my cable-obsessed bunkmate to watch a few minutes of Morning Joe before we headed out to breakfast each day.

All of that aside, I nonetheless fulfilled my core objective of not actively following world events closely—if at all—and believing, to my core, that nothing in life was of greater concern than which ice cream flavor to order at Mad Martha’s and whether to wear jeans or shorts while hiking at Menemsha Hills.  (The answers, respectively, were butter crunch and jeans.)

So I didn’t get the blow-by-blow of President Trump’s meeting in Singapore with Kim Jong-un.  I didn’t hear the early reports of children being snatched from their parents at the Mexican border.  And I didn’t see that raccoon scaling the UBS Tower in St. Paul, Minnesota.

What’s more, I noticed that as the week progressed, I grew increasingly less bothered by how out-of-the-loop I was in my little self-imposed cone of radio silence, and it got me wondering whether I couldn’t keep up this stunt indefinitely.  Whether, in effect, I could become a beta version of Erik Hagerman—the Ohio man, recently profiled in the New York Times, who severed all ties with society on November 9, 2016, and hasn’t looked back since.  Dubbing him “the most ignorant man in America,” the story left little doubt that Hagerman, in his calculated obliviousness, is probably a happier and more well-rounded individual than three-quarters of his fellow countrymen.

Of course, Hagerman is also extremely white—not to mention extremely male and extremely upper middle class—and there is no avoiding the uncomfortable fact that choosing to ignore the daily machinations of the Trump administration is a direct function of white privilege (as countless Times readers pointedly noted at the time).  To be white is to be insulated from Trump’s cruelest and most outrageous policies; thus, there is little-to-no risk in not keeping a close eye on them every now and again.

“The prettiest sight in this fine, pretty world is the privileged class enjoying its privileges,” said Jimmy Stewart, with great scorn, in The Philadelphia Story in 1940.  As a member of the privileged class—in my whiteness and maleness, if not my disposable income—I recognize the profound moral failing of even thinking of mentally tuning out an American society in which virtually every racial, ethnic and cultural minority finds itself under threat.  Silence is complicity, and I very much doubt I could live in happy ignorance knowing, deep down, that a great deal of preventable suffering is occurring just beyond my immediate line of sight.

But it sure was nice while it lasted.

Trump Goes to Korea

So what happens if Donald Trump solves North Korea?  What happens if the economy continues to hum along without crashing?  What happens if Robert Mueller’s investigation returns no smoking gun?

What happens, in other words, if Donald Trump wins?  And what happens—heaven forbid!—if America wins along with him?

It’s a thought few liberals have deigned to contemplate seriously for any length of time, having convinced themselves Trump is the most singularly bumbling, ineffectual chief executive in recent decades—a man whose modus operandi remains (to quote Benjamin Wittes) “malevolence tempered by incompetence.”

After 15 months on the job, the incompetence speaks for itself—on a daily basis, in increasingly jaw-dropping ways—as, for that matter, does the malevolence, be it through Trump’s contempt for institutions like the press and the Justice Department or through executive actions against Muslims, immigrants or planet Earth itself.

What the left (and much of the right) hasn’t counted on, however, is the prospect that, in between all the bloopers, boners and practical jokes, Trump would stumble his way into some genuine achievements, succeeding both despite and because of the character traits that made him so undesirable—and unelectable—in the first place.

It’s easy enough to call President Trump a liar and a crook—not to mention an adulterer, a racist and a third-rate conman.  Just ask Michelle Wolf.

Far more compelling than Trump’s obvious faults are his less-than-obvious strengths, of which the most pertinent—at the moment, anyway—is his ability to so freak out America’s enemies that they decide bargaining with him might be preferable to war.

Such appears to be the case with Kim Jong-un, the murderous dictator of North Korea who surprised just about everybody this month by meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, during which the two leaders floated the idea of formally ending the Korean War, among other extremely promising developments.

This came shortly after Kim’s equally-surprising overture to Trump, who, with nary a moment’s hesitation, agreed to a similarly bilateral summit at some point in the near future, presumably to reconcile Kim’s nuclear ambitions with Trump’s threats to obliterate North Korea—“with fire and fury like the world has never seen”—should those ambitions be realized.

At this tentative juncture, we cannot help but wonder:  Did Trump’s bluster lure Kim to the negotiating table, as no previous U.S. strategy did?  Was this all a modern-day version of Richard Nixon’s “madman theory” at work—an elaborate game of “good cop, bad cop” with Trump playing both roles?  Will these extraordinary meetings produce a durable, long-term settlement that all sides can live with?  And if so, will Trump deserve credit as a great—albeit unorthodox—statesman and peacemaker?

Admittedly, by asking these sorts of questions, we are anticipating future events that may never materialize, with a cockeyed optimism that may be entirely without merit.  Amidst all the positive activity on the Korean Peninsula, we should never forget Donald Trump’s bottomless, lifelong capacity to get in his own way, coupled with his rank inexperience in all manner of foreign policy.  And that’s before factoring in Kim Jong-un, who presumably has his own nefarious agenda and may well be playing Trump and Moon for fools.

And yet—and yet, I say!—there has undoubtedly been enough forward movement with North Korea to give us a modicum of hope that a nuclear exchange is not the imminent danger it was during, say, the summer of 2017.  We owe it to ourselves—and to civilization as a whole—to root for some kind of accommodation that averts war and establishes a relatively stable relationship between the Kim regime and the rest of the world.  I haven’t the slightest idea what that deal might look like—nor, it would appear, does anyone else—but then history often hinges on moments that seem impossible until they suddenly become inevitable.  Just ask President Hillary Clinton.

Supposing the Korean standoff ends well and Trump emerges as the grand dealmaker he’s always claimed himself to be, what, pray tell, are American liberals to do with themselves?  More broadly, what would a truly empowered—and truly successful—President Trump mean for America as a whole?

Most likely, in my estimation, it would mean Nixon 2.0.:  A profound scumbag who, through luck and pluck, lodges several major policy breakthroughs but nonetheless remains a scumbag and is eventually brought down by the weight of his own corruption.

It certainly has a nice, odd symmetry to it:  Nixon goes to China, Trump goes to Korea.  Nixon is investigated for covering up interference in a presidential election, Trump is investigated for the same.  Nixon is forced to resign after the discovery of incriminating tape recordings.  And Trump…well, we’ll always have Twitter.

The essential thing, in any case, is to keep a sufficiently open mind to be able to hold two opposing ideas in your head at the same time—in this case, the idea that Donald Trump is both a wretched human being and, potentially—indeed, perhaps only on this one occasion—the right man in the right place at the right time.

In other words, we must be prepared to give credit where credit is due, knowing all the while there will always be a fresh new pile of blame just around the corner.

Caught With His Pants Down

What if the president just told the truth about Stormy Daniels?

Daniels—as possibly you’ve heard—is the porn star who claims to have had a sexual encounter with Donald Trump in 2006 and been paid $130,000 in hush money by Trump’s lawyer shortly before the 2016 election.

While Daniels maintained her silence through the campaign and the first year of Trump’s presidency, she has been singing like a canary as of late, divulging enough details about their Lake Tahoe tryst to keep comedy writers busy for months and provoking a rare silence from the perpetually pugilistic commander-in-chief.  Curiously, Trump hasn’t tweeted a single word about this story since it first broke on January 12.

Naturally, the president’s press secretary and legal team have disputed Daniels’s account on Trump’s behalf, claiming the alleged affair didn’t occur, while admitting the $130,000 payment—and an accompanying nondisclosure agreement—did.  The two parties have been suing each other ever since.

Legal maneuverings aside, deep down, every American knows Stormy Daniels is telling the truth.  First, because presidential candidates tend not to pay beautiful women six figures for sex they did not have.  Second, because the particulars of Daniels’s chronicle bear striking similarities to those of Karen McDougal, the Playboy model who has asserted a yearlong affair with Trump around the same time as Daniels’s.

Finally—and, by far, most importantly—we believe Trump had sex with a porn star one year into his third marriage because that’s exactly the sort of thing he would do.  There is nothing we have gleaned from his character—or his public statements—that is inconsistent with anything Daniels told Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes last Sunday night, and in other interviews.  For his entire adult life—from “best sex I’ve ever had” to “grab ’em by the pussy”—Trump has proudly branded himself a boorish horndog of the highest order, and we have no reason to believe he has reformed himself since becoming the most powerful man on Earth.

So why not say so?  If you’re Trump, why go through the charade of pretending Daniels is part of some nefarious conspiracy—or is simply a lone wolf liar—when the truth is so much easier—and so much cheaper—to come by?  With Robert Mueller on the march and all the usual chaos enveloping the West Wing on a daily basis, is Stormy Daniels really a battle worth fighting—and, presumably, losing?

It was almost exactly 20 years ago when another skirt-chasing president stood in front of a phalanx of TV cameras and categorically denied accusations of a sexual dalliance with a White House intern.  Seven months—and several million dollars in legal fees—later, Bill Clinton reappeared in a prime time address to admit that, in fact, he’d been lying the whole time and Monica Lewinsky was telling the truth.  Whoops.

What prodded Clinton’s belated confession, you’ll recall, was not a sudden attack of conscience or a pang of moral responsibility as leader of the free world.  Rather, it was a grand jury deposition and a stained blue dress—two factors he was too arrogant to anticipate but which eventually proved a near-existential threat to his presidency.  He’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar with no good options for getting it out, and in the meantime, the entire country had to endure a full year of pointless political melodrama—complete with a special prosecutor—culminating in an equally pointless impeachment from which both Clinton and his antagonists emerged thoroughly embarrassed and without anything positive to show for it.

And all rooted in a single presidential lie that didn’t need to be told in the first place.

Is this the future Donald Trump wants for himself?  Does he believe he can improvise his way through this crisis as he has with every crisis that has come before?  Has he convinced himself that by telling a bald-faced lie with enough frequency, he can bend reality to his will and carry a hefty minority of the public along with him, up to and including re-election in 2020?

Perhaps he has, and perhaps he can.  Certainly Trump has proved more adept at conning his way up the success ladder than any political figure of our time.

And yet the world of depositions—where “truthful exaggeration” is called “perjury”—is different from the world of electoral politics, as Bill Clinton so salaciously discovered in 1998.  Trump, who has been involved in more than 3,500 lawsuits, presumably understands this distinction and, for all his supposed mental depreciation, possesses the wherewithal to find an escape hatch before this particular legal squabble reaches the point of no return.

Here’s a scenario for you:  Trump calls a press conference sometime in the near future and says to the American public, “It’s true that I had sexual relations with Stormy Daniels in 2006, and that my attorney paid her $130,000 to keep quiet.  I’d like to apologize to Melania for breaking the bonds of our marriage, and to the public for setting a poor example for our children.  I will try to be a better man and a better husband in the future, and will not waste the public’s time with petty litigation with Ms. Daniels, to whom I also apologize and wish all the best in her future endeavors.  I hope the American people can forgive me, and that we can now move on to the important business of making America great again.”

Does Donald Trump have it in him to make such a statement and mean it?  Isn’t it pretty to think so?

A Nation of Hypocrites

“I watched the Super Bowl again this year.  Why?  ’Cause I’m an idiot.”

That was Lewis Black in 2001, and the sentiment has held up well in the intervening 17 years for both America and yours truly.

As a native New Englander, I haven’t fully invested myself in a professional sporting event since the 2007 World Series—the Red Sox’s second championship in four years—and haven’t given much of a damn about the Vince Lombardi Trophy since the Patriots effectively leased the thing at the beginning of the previous decade.  To coin a phrase:  I got tired of all the winning.

All the same, I have faithfully tuned in to every minute of every Super Bowl since discovering football in the late 1990s and will probably continue tuning in for the rest of my natural life.  To be sure, like every halfway-ethical American, I have been appalled by the NFL’s ongoing complicity in the epidemic of brain damage and suicide among current, former and (presumably) future players.  Intellectually, I know full well that by watching even one NFL game per year (my current average), I make myself complicit in this monstrous conspiracy and thereby become Part of the Problem.

Yet I watch the Big Game anyway, happily and without apology.  Why?  Easy:  Because I’m a hypocrite.

Yes, I suppose I could attempt to reconcile my shameful viewing habits by whipping up some half-baked rationalization—say, about how the NFL is finally taking the concussion issue seriously, or how supporting the Super Bowl is a way to support the economy and/or the troops.

But who am I kidding?  I relish the Super Bowl because I enjoy football and all manner of grand spectacle, and if the game’s continued existence shaves a few decades off the lives of its main participants, well, who ever thought running full speed into another human being was a risk-free endeavor in the first place?

 “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  While there is nothing especially intelligent about watching professional football players pummel each other for three-and-a-half hours, the glaring contradiction of endorsing an activity you know to be despicable is perfectly emblematic of Donald Trump’s America—a culture in which no double standard is too flagrant and moral shamelessness knows no bounds.

In the age of Trump, hypocrisy is the new black.

That’s not to say that Donald Trump is necessarily to blame for this sorry state of affairs.  As with most other American flaws, the 45th president is less a cause than a symptom.  Trump may well be the single greatest hypocrite on planet Earth, but he is ultimately a mere reflection of the people who voted for him—and, equally, of those who didn’t.

Case in point:  While it’s true—as a cheeky Twitter parlor game has shown—that President Trump has said and done virtually everything he previously deplored in President Obama, who amongst us has not engaged in similarly disingenuous moral recalibrating during this abrupt shift in political leadership?

How many of us ding the president for his excessive golf habit but never gave it a second thought during the previous administration?  How many of us applaud congressional Democrats for refusing to compromise with Trump, despite spending eight years criticizing Republicans for refusing to compromise with Obama?  How many of us have condemned Trump’s history of philandering and sexual assault after excusing Bill Clinton’s for 20 years running?  How many of us were driven mad by the FBI’s investigation into Bill and Hillary’s business dealings but are delighted by its investigation into Donald’s?

Such is the corrosive effect of allowing raw political partisanship to inform one’s entire worldview—a fact Americans seem never to learn for more than a few minutes at a time.

The truth is that we are all guilty of practicing what we do not preach when it becomes convenient, and this goes far beyond party politics:  It’s also the smug environmentalists who luxuriate in 60 degree temperatures in December, or the self-proclaimed feminists who continue to patronize the work of sexually malignant artists and entrepreneurs.  It’s the health freaks who scarf burgers and brownies when no one’s looking, or the bleeding heart Robin Hoods who never seem to have spare change when they pass by a homeless person on the street.

Speaking as all of the above, I would never begrudge my fellow citizens the little duplicities that get them through their day.  When it comes to hypocrisy in 2018, the point isn’t to eradicate all of one’s moral inconsistencies.  Rather, it is to admit that those inconsistencies exist and not presume to be purer than one’s fellow man and woman.

Let him who is without hypocrisy cast the first stone.  Everyone else can watch the Super Bowl.

The End of Comedy

Should today’s comedians tailor their material for people with no sense of humor?

Obviously the answer is no.  But you’d never know it from the past few weeks, in which far too many humorless rubes have had far too much say—and sway—over what cheeky, intelligent comics are allowed to say.

Increasingly, we are becoming a society in which every public statement—be it serious or in jest—must be understood by the dumbest, most literal-minded person in the room, and in which irony and sophistication are punished and looked upon with scorn.

It’s a form of cultural suicide.  Shame on us for doing so little to stop it.

We could look just about anywhere for examples, but at this moment, we might as well begin with Trevor Noah.

A stand-up comedian by trade, Noah was unknown to most Americans until the fateful moment two weeks ago when he was given the job of a lifetime:  Successor to Jon Stewart as host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central.

Naturally, this announcement led Daily Show viewers to plumb the Internet for clues about who the heck Trevor Noah is.  As it turns out, he is an uncommonly deft and sneakily subversive 31-year-old from South Africa who found great success in his country of birth—in radio, television and onstage—before wafting over to the United States in 2011.

He is also an extremely active presence on Twitter.  Since joining in 2009, he has issued nearly 9,000 tweets in all.  (That’s roughly four per day, in case you didn’t want to do the math.)

Like the rest of us, Noah tweets pretty much every half-clever thought that pops into his head, and because he tells jokes for a living, the entirety of his Twitter output covers an awful lot of ground.

By itself, this fact is not especially interesting—and certainly not “newsworthy”—but then the world made a horrifying discovery from which it has not yet recovered:  Some of those 9,000 tweets were politically incorrect.

The horror.

I confess that I have not personally read all six years’ worth of brain droppings from an entertainer who’s been culturally relevant for 15 days.  However, many people apparently have, because within hours of Noah’s hire, they produced the aforementioned damning tweets, about which two facts stand out:  First, none of them is less than three years old.  And second, you can count them on the fingers of one hand.

What is their content, you ask?  Which 140-character quips are so horrible—so appallingly beyond the pale—that their existence is germane to us several years after the fact, and are possibly grounds for dismissal for the man who quipped them?

They were, in no particular order:  A putdown of Nazi Germany.  A mild critique of Israel.  An observation about the scarcity of white women with curves.  And a musing about the value of alcohol for women with a few too many curves.

And.  That’s.  About.  It.

At this juncture, we could go further into depth, if we were so inclined.  We could follow the lead of Noah’s critics, attempting to connect a handful of disparate tweets to the inner workings of Noah’s soul.

Or we could choose option B:  Grow up, get a life and stop throwing a tantrum every time someone says something that makes us uncomfortable.

I’ll keep it simple:  If a biracial comedian’s cracks about white women are too much for you to handle, then you have no business watching Comedy Central.  If you cannot stomach the notion of an émigré from South Africa having a critical view of Israel—a country that tacitly supported the former’s apartheid government until the bitter end—then you’d better steer clear of any newspaper or magazine that crosses your desk, because it just might give you a heart attack.

Sorry to break the news, but one of the consequences of living in a country with freedom of speech is that people will occasionally speak freely, and you might not agree with all of them.

Or, in this case, even understand what they’re saying.

My fear, you see, is not just that free expression itself is under attack, but that a great deal of this offense-taking is based on misapprehensions.  That smart people cannot say anything in public without worrying how their words might be interpreted by idiots.

Case in point:  Note the stupidity surrounding Bill Maher’s recent throwaway gag about how Zayn Malik, the now-ex-member of One Direction, bears a passing resemblance to Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Juvenile, yes.  But the logic could not have been more obvious:  Person A looks like Person B, end of joke.  It’s funny (or not) because one is evil while the other is an innocuous pop star, and that’s what irony is all about.

No one could possibly have understood the joke in any other way.  And so, of course, everyone did.

OK, not everyone.  But there were enough complaints about Maher “comparing” Malik to Tsarnaev—paired with the fact that Malik is Muslim, which no one outside the One Direction fan club would have known—for this to become a news story in many major publications.  For a solid few days, an HBO talk show host was compelled to explain the comedic concept of implying that one famous person looks a little bit like another famous person.

Has America really become that intellectually infantile?  Is this the level to which our public discourse has plunged?  How long will our best and brightest continue to shoulder this burden before everyone else finally wises up?

Certainly, it’s not a new phenomenon that an entire culture can get dragged down by its lowest-hanging fruit—our so-called “bad apples.”  Just look at how a handful of corrupt, racist cops have single-handedly tarnished the image of their entire profession, even as 90-something percent of their colleagues are doing their jobs exactly as they should.

But it’s even trickier when it comes to the militant enforcement of political correctness, because unlike killing unarmed black people, being offended by a joke as a result of your own ignorance is not against the law.  As my eighth grade history teacher said, “In this country, you’re allowed to be stupid.”

And it’s not just about jokes.  The tendency to lazily misinterpret a sophisticated public statement has consequences for our political leaders, too.  And, indeed, for the very language we speak.

I am reminded, for instance, of candidate Mitt Romney touting his family’s support for civil rights by saying, “I saw my father march with Martin Luther King.”  George Romney was, indeed, a strong ally of the Civil Rights Movement, consistently supporting Dr. King’s efforts and even leading a Michigan march (as the state’s governor) to protest the police brutality in Selma, Alabama in 1965. However, according to newspaper reports, Romney and Dr. King never literally appeared at the same event on the same day.  This led the media to tar Mitt Romney as a liar for implying that they had.

In one sense, the media were right to call Romney out for saying something that was technically untrue.  However, considering the full context of Romney’s statement—namely, the fact that his father was a champion of black civil rights, despite being a white Republican—we can accept the words “march with” as a rhetorical device in service to a broader truth, rather than as a bald-faced fabrication.

Except that we don’t accept such things anymore, because we’re too busy setting mousetraps for our public servants to get caught in.  Thanks to the wonders of the interwebs, we live in an age in which every statement is maniacally fact-checked and a politician can’t get away with anything.

For the most part, this is a good thing, because it means that true deceptions get exposed within minutes of being uttered and our leaders are kept relatively honest.

However, this instinct toward righteous, ruthless truth-seeking can be taken too far, leading us to take down politicians for transcendently silly reasons, and possibly dissuading future leaders from ever entering the arena.

So long as our public figures have reason to worry that everything they say will be taken literally—including words and phrases that are self-evidently figurative—they will have no choice but to dumb down their oratory and rhetoric until all the poetic flourishes are gone—and, with it, any hint of inspiration or linguistic flair.

That’s how our future is looking, so you’d better prepare yourself.  At long last, we are fulfilling the prophesy of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, who remarked one week after 9/11, “It’s the end of the age of irony.”

It took 13 years, but we’ve finally achieved a culture in which no one is allowed to be funny.

That is, unless one of two things happens:  Either the dolts who can’t take a joke suddenly acquire the powers of subtlety, or the rest of us stop giving them the time of day.  I don’t know about you, but I have a pretty good idea about which of those scenarios is more likely to occur in our lifetime.

If history has taught us anything, it’s that stupidity cannot be eradicated.  It can only be marginalized, ridiculed and ultimately ignored.