NOTE: The ultimate inspiration for this essay, Matt Taibbi, went on Twitter and called it”one of the dumbest things he’s ever read,” which kicked off a whole thing!
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I had just been cast in my first high-school musical–in the lead role! I was thrilled.
All I had to do was figure out who the heck “Li’l Abner” was.
Abner Yokum, as I’d soon learn, was the title character of a legendary newspaper comic that ran from 1934 to 1977. Its cast of ignorant and impoverished hillbillies makes the whole thing look like a joke at Appalachia’s expense. But cartoonist Al Capp’s strip didn’t punch down on the simple folk of Dogpatch, Kentucky; he jabbed at an American society that both exploited and ignored them.
pity this unfo’tunate, mizz’able critter. Yes, that’s actually me
Capp, who lost a leg at age nine, was an outspoken advocate for the disabled. He was also a lifelong opponent of racism and homophobia, and a big fan of women’s liberation. Every “Sadie Hawkins Dance,” where girls ask out the boys they like (and not the other way around), is a Li’l Abner reference. The strip was filled with what modern comics readers might call Strong Female Characters, and Capp pressured the National Cartoonists Society to admit women–even resigning in protest when Hilda Terry was excluded.
A newspaper comic that satirized blowhard politicians and greedy industrialists, and was ahead of the curve on social-justice issues? It quickly became The Simpsons of its day. By the musical’s 1956 Broadway debut, the strip had something like 90 million readers. Capp became a pretty big deal himself, often appearing on both news and entertainment talk shows–even getting his own network specials. He was a regular on the college lecture circuit, and in election years he’d campaign for liberal politicians on campuses around the country.
So why hadn’t I ever heard of him?
It turns out that stumping for LBJ in 1964 had exposed Capp to a new strain of humanity he absolutely could not stand: woke college students. He’d dedicated much of his public and private life to helping people like him get a leg up (pun intended). But by the mid-1960s, he was a middle-aged entertainment mogul–and for some reason, he couldn’t didn’t connect with young progressives anymore.
As biographer Michael Schumacher explained, “[Capp] had no patience for what he felt were privileged kids attending college on their parents’ money, raising hell and showing disrespect toward all authority figures, talking like know-it-alls when they actually were very limited in experience, and so on.”
Capp started throwing his satirical punches leftward, and the anti-society darkness at the edges of his work became an anti-social darkness at the heart of it. He seemed to age as quickly as his humor, expressing disgust at anything Kids These Days were into and befriending the likes of Richard Nixon.*
Just before my high school’s production of the show went up, my future father-in-law handed me a collection of Li’l Abner strips. In it, Capp is quoted as saying that he didn’t turn conservative–he stayed exactly the same, and it was society that had changed around him.
That’s what I thought of when I read “Notes on a Friday Night,” a subscriber-only Substack post by Matt Taibbi. Penned from a hotel bar on Christmas Eve, Taibbi apologizes for having slacked on his duties as a father, columnist, and podcast partner while delving deep into “The Twitter Files.”
This passage took my breath away:
Sometime in the last decade, many people — I was one — began to feel robbed of their sense of normalcy by something we couldn’t define. Increasingly glued to our phones, we saw that the version of the world that was spat out at us from them seemed distorted. The public’s reactions to various news events seemed off-kilter, being either way too intense, not intense enough, or simply unbelievable. You’d read that seemingly everyone in the world was in agreement that a certain thing was true, except it seemed ridiculous to you, which put you in an awkward place with friends, family, others. Should you say something? Are you the crazy one?
I can’t have been the only person to have struggled psychologically during this time. This is why these Twitter files have been such a balm. This is the reality they stole from us! It’s repulsive, horrifying, and dystopian, a gruesome history of a world run by anti-people, but I’ll take it any day over the vile and insulting facsimile of truth they’ve been selling. Personally, once I saw that these lurid files could be used as a road map back to something like reality — I wasn’t sure until this week — I relaxed for the first time in probably seven or eight years.
Just beneath this post are 820 comments expressing their joyous gratitude to Taibbi for naming the same feelings they’ve been feeling–and, often, rolling right into right-wing diatribes or whackjob conspiracy theories. Taibbi still mocks anyone who calls him a “conservative,” but by his own admission he’s forsaken everything to try and prove that Twitter SJWs had a fascist death grip on American culture. That woke college students and broke journalists were “[robbing us] of [our] sense of normalcy.”
That Taibbi believes he’s found what he’s looking for? That he thinks bog-standard emails between Twitter content mods prove that people under 40 aren’t nearly as radical or influential as the Internet makes it seem? That it’s easier for him to think all his family and friends were, what, tricked by the FBI into believing trans women are women (???) than accept that times change, young people grew up in a different world than he did, and the fight to make our society better doesn’t stop when you get comfortable? That’s not a balm to me. That’s terrifying.
I was introduced to Taibbi’s work in 2005, when he wrote a blazing takedown of exactly the kind of middlebrow, middle-aged, middle-of-the-road observational punditry produced by people who’ve ceased being able to see the world from any perspective but their own. That that writer has turned into this one scares the shit out of me.
How long do I have until I stop fighting for justice and start fighting for stasis?
I was already my full height of five-foot-nine-on-a-tall-day when I played Abner, who canonically is a 6‘3” Adonis. Abner was desperate to avoid marriage and fatherhood; I started dating my future wife during rehearsals for that show and we had three kids by age 27. I was an untrained baritone squeaking my way up to a first-tenor part, and I’m sure my nasally mid-Michigan accent often honked its way out of my affected Southern drawl. We seemingly have nothing in common.
But I connected to Abner’s earnestness and sincerity. I’d experienced his constant internal battle between Doing The Right Thing and doing nothing at all. I got to sing a whole solo about just wanting the free time and space to be myself--which resonates as strongly with me now as it did then, for different reasons. Abner’s not smart, but he approaches the world with wonder and curiosity.
I think, and I’ve been told, that I’m much the same. All my inclinations to analyze and statistify come from a place of gosh-wow interest: How do flowers grow tall? I can only hope that keeping my curious eyes and ears open to new perspectives, new stories, and new people will keep me from ossifying into an Old White Man who only cares about the world, and my place in it, staying the same.
At one performance, a woman who must have been in her 70s stopped me and told me I was doing a wonderful job with Abner. That swell of pride stuck with me forever.
I hope my values do, too.
\Oh, and if you wondered whether a guy who made his main character a physically idealized self-insert immune to the charms of the many gorgeous women who constantly threw themselves at him might be a sex pest?* Harassing and allegedly assaulting quite a few of the young college women at which he was so angry? You called it.
My holiday break was a couple weeks longer than I meant it to be, so I’ve got quite the backlog. Let’s dig into it:
“Ode to a Grocery Store Sandwich,” by Meg Elison for Stone Soup
Meg is a tremendous writer whose work has been nominated for and/or won practically all the awards. She’s also, by the way, excellent at TikTok in a way many authors aren’t. Watch her and take notes.
But in this essay, part of the “Personal Canons Cookbook” series commissioned by Stone Soup editor Sarah Gailey, Elison offers an unfiltered, unblinking look at her own hunger, need, shame, guilt, labor–and satisfaction, as found in a deli roast beef sandwich.
It also offers a recipe for a darn tasty-looking deli roast beef sandwich!
“The Critical Role Cast Supports Independent Creators and New Systems,” by Linda Codega for Gizmodo
I’m using this link as both a placeholder for the full interview video, which Codega says will drop soon on both Gizmodo’s site and YouTube channel, and a proxy for the stream of incredible journalism Codega’s been doing over the last couple of weeks around the disastrous launch of Dungeons & Dragons’ revised Open Gaming License. Seriously, it’s all worth reading. I won’t rehash the whole kerfuffle here. But Critical Role’s Matt Mercer and Marisha Ray are among the most visible and influential people in the creative TTRPG movement responsible for D&D’s resurgence over the last few years, and I’ve been curious to see how the big creatives potentially put in legal crosshairs by Wizards of the Coast will respond. This teaser has some promising quotes, and I can’t wait for the rest.
“Doing EA Better,” by a group of concerned Effective Altruists at EffectiveAltruism.org
NFL safety Damar Hamlin’s small hometown toy drive received $8.6 million in donations after he suffered a mid-game cardiac arrest. That’s amazing–but it’s also a demonstration of why philanthropy isn’t usually the best way to solve problems. Hamlin and his representatives are scrambling to make what would seem like appropriate use of the money, yet Hamlin’s earned less than 1/5th that amount while playing just two years in the NFL–a career that, presuming it’s over, was not long enough to earn a pension or ongoing health care.
Effective Altruism began as a movement to reallocate resources in a way that does the most good for the most people, using logic and math. But it didn’t take long to get co-opted by technofascists and cryptobros, and now the movement’s closely associated with our society’s wealthiest and least-ethical weirdoes. This incredibly long #longread is a fascinating rundown of everything that’s gone wrong with EA, and everything that could still go right.
“Me Recommending Final Fantasy Games,” a Seinfeld meme by Alex Fraioli on Twitter
This was just way too good. Fraioli, who owns a game store in Japan and co-hosts the “No More Whoppers” podcast, recommends Final Fantasy games exactly the way I do (save XIV, which I am often assured is worth the time I haven’t yet sunk into it):
“Self Published Book Launch A-Z,” by Travis Baldree on Medium
Baldree’s longform fiction debut Legends & Lattes got everything right, from the low-stakes coffeehouse fantasy vibe to the cover that perfectly captured it. A full-time audiobook narrator, Baldree self-published this book, the first novel draft he’d ever finished–and it went viral all over everywhere, got picked up by Tor for traditional re-publication, and won a grip of awards.
Baldree wrote this really thorough how-I-did-it post just after launch. But I missed it the first time, and was thrilled to get hipped to it last week. Your results almost certainly will vary, but there’s plenty to learn from in here!