Fear the Beard

Justin Turner steps into the batter’s box and fusses with his gloves. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ third baseman has to tilt his head down to see them; the bird’s nest on his face would obscure his view otherwise. Turner’s stance is wide open. He’s practically facing the pitcher, as if acknowledging that he couldn’t see the pitch past his whiskers any other way.

Turner is not well-coiffed. On his chin he wears the exploded pelt of a golden lion tamarin killed with an unnecessarily large-caliber rifle. He looks like an orangutan that was bathed and tumble-dried without benefit of an anti-static-cling sheet. His beard is a kindergartener’s art assignment—a hand-outline Thanksgiving turkey shakily drawn in orange crayon.

The pitcher, Adam Wainright, leans in for the sign. He throws. Turner swings at one pitch, then another, then he takes a couple more. Finally, he sees something he likes and connects, gifting a fan in the left-field bleachers a souvenir. The beard wags as Turner trots around the basepaths, seemingly taunting the other team: You’re the Reds? I’m the Red. Remember me. It crosses home plate just ahead of the player to whom it is affixed.

Turner’s beard is not the menacing three-day growth Wainright sports to intimidate hitters on the days he pitches. Wainright’s stubble says, I might be crazy. Maybe I just crawled down from the hills and haven’t heard the war is over. Maybe I’ve been talking to myself too long and I don’t like people and now I’m gonna have to throw at you ‘cause you looked at me funny. By contrast, Turner’s beard is anything but anti-social. It is a fawning performance before an audience of Hollywood trendies. It is florid, garish, a crescendo at the end of the final coda of a Romantic symphony. You are supposed to applaud it. As with all stylistic affectations, it is slavishly conformist and self-referential.

It is also a sign of the times. Beards are in. Not the trimmed status symbol of the European academic (think Sigmund Freud), or the dangerous goatee (Vincent Price, evil Spock), or even a Musketeer’s Vandyke. No, today’s beard more closely resembles a tumbleweed blown by a parched Sonoran wind into the face of an unfortunate passerby.

The last time facial spurge was so in fashion—in the second half of the nineteenth century—it came to Europe on the haunted visages of British soldiers who grew their thatch to keep warm in the freezing winters of the Crimea. They were greeted as heroes back home, and their survival tactic became a fashion statement. Americans, always vacillating between reviling and admiring their European cousins, followed suit. Hirsuteness equated with virility, and—men being men—competition ensued. The most flamboyant styles had their own names: Dundreary whiskers (also called Piccadilly weepers), the chinstrap beard, mutton chops, walrus mustaches. Charles Dickens’s beard was called a “doorknocker,” although it looked more like a congealed lava flow. Alfred Lord Tennyson may or may not have had lips; who could tell? The less said about Union General Ambrose Burnside, the better.

Now here we are again. The current icon of men’s grooming standards is—brace yourself—Rutherford B. Hayes. Today’s trend, however, does not come to us courtesy of the Light Brigade, but rather as a result of the revenge of the nerds. Squishy young men who spend their days in dim rooms coding neglect their toilette to convince themselves that they resemble, however faintly, the medieval warriors they adopt as online avatars. In my high school these kids were social outcasts, but no more. They have built the world of the twenty-first century; the rest of us are just along for the ride. Their fluffiness is cool; their slovenliness now is high fashion.

Somewhere, the ghost of Karl Marx is laughing. It was he who said that history repeats itself—the first time as tragedy, the second time farce. (Marx himself bore a dense thicket in which a Grimm protagonist might easily have gotten lost and stumbled upon a gingerbread house.) Styles once copied from real soldiers return as the emulation of dreamy LARPers.  

Alas, it is not for me. For one thing, there is no surer way to kill a trend than for the parents of trendsetters to adopt it. By the time American Presidents were wearing beards on the regular, young men were already returning to their safety razors. (The advent of chemical warfare in World War I was the last straw. A good seal on a gas mask required a shaved face.) Like Chester Alan Arthur, I have reached that stage in life where young people look at me and see the death of the cool. Their slang sounds ridiculous in my mouth; their clothes look preposterous on me. A beard will not help. To my children’s immense relief, I will act my age.

For another—well, let’s just say there is a difference between that blend of salt and pepper that makes one The Most Interesting Man in the World and the snowy aspect of Father Time. The former look is in my rear view mirror, and the latter is upon me. Grizzled is hot. Talmudic is not.

Ah, but in my day . . . the college me rocked the Jeremiah Johnson look, then a shaggy goatee worthy of the Dude. For several years, I sported a thick black mustache that had flight attendants addressing me in Spanish. I was young once, and furry.

It’s okay. The young aspire to be older, and the old wish to be young again. A young man preens because his whiskers make him look and feel adult. I look in the mirror and see a jawline unsoftened by middle-aged decline and excess comfort. Long miles on the road keep my shorn face lean and my features sharp. I’ll take that.  

Besides, now that Ted Cruz and J.D. Vance are on the bandwagon, we have probably seen peak beard. Voters may be impossibly stupid, but they have little patience for pandering frauds. A beard does not turn a Yale education into the school of hard knocks.

Fads turn on a dime, and this one will too. Best call your broker and buy Gillette.

Stop the Steal

America, we need to talk.

Do you really believe that a forty-three-year-old man could outplay a twenty-five-year-old man who is so good that his team won the Super Bowl just last year?

Do you really believe that a team that was 7-9 last year could somehow improve so much by adding a couple of players they’d never worked with before that said 7-9 team could beat an opponent that had spent several years building a winner with a stable coaching staff and roster? Does that make sense to you?

Do you know how close Florida is to Communist Cuba? Or that Kansas City is smack dab in the heartland of America?

Isn’t it strange that no one really knows how the officiating crew was selected, or who operated the scoreboard? Reliable sources tell me that the stadium electronics, including the scoreboard, were routed through overseas servers that could have originated in Venezuela.

Do not let the NFL certify the results of this game. Just because one team accumulated more points than the other, that doesn’t mean the team with more points won. The Chiefs won this game, probably in a landslide. Stop the steal!

Every one of us has to fight for our right to have our team win, even if the “elites” think they “lost.” We have to fight hard, and dirty, and to the death, although I deplore violence and did not encourage you to storm the 7-11 for Doritos and beer. This is America. The team you think should have won had a right to win. If the rules of the game get in the way of that outcome, those rules have to go.

Let the Criminal Prosecutions Begin

What happened in Washington, D.C. yesterday does not “border on” sedition. It is sedition. Here is the language of the applicable statute, 28 United States Code section 2834, entitled “Seditious Conspiracy”:

If two or more persons in any State or Territory, or in any place subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them, or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof, they shall each be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both.

Every insurrectionist who forced their way into the Capitol is guilty of a crime. Many of them are easily identifiable, either through video of the event or through social media. Whether their leaders, including Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz, and Louie Gohmert, can be proved to have incited this violence is an open question. Gohmert is probably the most easily prosecutable of these three. Hawley’s raised fist in solidarity with the insurrectionists may not be enough to convict him, but it is grotesque and should end his political career.

It is less difficult than one might think to prosecute Donald Trump under this statute. He has repeatedly endorsed violence. He promised yesterday’s rally would be “wild.” There are reports that White House staff were “freaked out” yesterday when he showed enthusiasm for the storming of the Capitol because it meant certification of the election results would be derailed. He did nothing to try to restore order. In fact, he refused to activate the National Guard despite repeated requests; ultimately the Vice-President had to give the order. There is little doubt that Trump wanted this riot.

If there are no prosecutions—if we decide to “move on” because we can’t take any more of this—then we normalize political violence. If it is okay this time, it is okay next time. The rule of law means nothing if the law is not enforced. It means very little if only the lowest-ranking foot soldiers in this conspiracy are prosecuted. There must be a good-faith effort to identify the most powerful individuals against whom cases can be proven and bring them to the bar of justice. Their status as elected officials gives them no quarter. They are not above the law.

Unless we fail to act. Then they are above the law, and they will know it. Just as Trump learned from the result of his impeachment that he can get away with subverting the interest of the nation to his own political interest, the people who fomented this insurrection will be emboldened to try again. It won’t happen tomorrow, but it will happen. It may happen in 2022, when they refuse to accept their defeat at the polls. It will happen in 2024, when they again try to overturn the results of a free and fair election because they know there are no consequences for sedition.

Criminal prosecutions are not an option. They are a necessity. The preservation of the Republic depends on it.

Straight Talk About Section 230

Donald Trump and some of his conservative allies want to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. They say they want to do this because they are concerned that social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter censor conservative voices. Their actions would achieve the opposite of their stated aims. They know this. Let’s take a closer look:

Under traditional defamation law, someone who publishes or repeats defamatory material is just as liable for defamation as the one with whom the defamation originated. So if I decide to get back at X by telling the New York Times that X is a pedophile, and the Times prints that story, the Times is just as liable to X as I am for defamation.

In the early days of social media, plaintiffs who felt they had been defamed tried to use this legal theory against Facebook and Twitter. By allowing people to post defamatory material, plaintiffs claimed, Facebook and Twitter had published the material to the world, and thus were just as liable as the individual who posted it.

In response, social media companies appealed to Congress. “We can’t operate if everyone can sue us for anything anyone publishes on our platforms,” they said. “We’ll go out of business.” Congress passed Section 230, which says, in effect, that social media companies are not publishers of other people’s posts for purposes of defamation law. Problem solved.

Now ask yourself what would happen if Facebook and Twitter could be sued for everything people post. Assuming they could stay in business at all, would those companies censor people less, or more? Duh. They would censor everything in sight in order to avoid liability. Any content that might be remotely controversial would be banned.

Why, then, would Trump think repeal of section 230 would lead to less censorship of conservative voices? Answer: he doesn’t. He doesn’t care about that. He’s lying when he says he does.

Donald Trump has always used litigation, and the threat of litigation, to bludgeon his critics and business adversaries. He wants to repeal Section 230 not to protect conservative voices, but to silence liberal voices. He wants to sue Facebook and Twitter (especially Twitter) for every post and tweet critical of him. He is counting, as he always does, on his superior capacity for obstreperous conduct to give him an advantage over normal human beings who do not feed on revenge and destruction, as he does.

If Section 230 is repealed, Trump will spend the rest of his life suing Facebook and Twitter for every perceived slight and imagined grievance he can attribute to any user anywhere. He’ll lose a lot more than he’ll win, but that won’t matter. His self-pity is infinite. His persecution complex is boundless. It will never end.

The Power of Me

Today it was announced that my former boss will be nominated to be Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. My boss before him is going to be Vice-President. My boss before her went on to his third and fourth terms as California governor. Do we see a pattern here? People who associate themselves with me do very, very well. Take note.

Thanksgiving 2020

Thirty years ago, Linda and I made our first Thanksgiving dinner in her small Oakland cottage. We invited her parents and mine, and a couple of friends. Linda’s father seated himself at the table, smiled and said, “Well, this is a sea change.” In that moment, a torch was passed. Our house became the designated gathering place for holiday meals. When we moved to a larger house to accommodate our growing family, we had room to put up guests from out of town. They came from Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Washington, D.C.—even Stockholm, Sweden. Good food, good wine, extended visits from grandparents and aunts and uncles and step-siblings and cousins. Stories and jokes with friends. Treasured memories for our kids.

So it has gone every year until the present. This year, for the first time since the Administration of Bush the Elder, we will set a table for two. We’ll do a family Zoom call tomorrow, but that is cold comfort. Our kids are spending the holiday with each other, and that would warm the cockles of my heart if I knew what a cockle is, but they aren’t here. We will have our turkey and stuffing and sides and pie, but it ain’t the same. Linda and I have each other—and that’s more than so many people have—but it will be a sad and hollow Thanksgiving nonetheless.

I know we sacrifice this year so that we may all gather in good health the next. I know the circumstances in which we find ourselves are not the fault of any politician. I know this is only one day, and our relationships endure. It all sucks anyway. We will spend this holiday reminiscing about Thanksgivings past and anticipating Thanksgivings yet to come. We hold in our hearts all those from whom we are separated this year.

Our best wishes to friends and loved ones, here and elsewhere, however you are spending this most unusual and fraught holiday season.

Play Ball

Linda and I agreed to re-up today. Talent scout that I am, I originally signed her to a long-term contract, but that expired many years ago. Because I’m a cagey bastard, I included a reserve clause that enables me to renew the original terms every year if negotiations on a new contract break down—and I always make sure they do. No arbitration, no free agency. It’s indentured servitude, really. Sucks to be her, I suppose. Sue me.

The original terms included bonuses based on performance and durability, and she meets them every year. Plus, this spring she reported to camp in The Best Shape of Her Life and showed all the rooks how it’s done. She shows up every day, and she always brings her “A” game.

Sometimes I think she thinks I’m looking for a reason to cut her. I get it; youth is prized in this business. Every veteran looks over her shoulder at the kid who thinks she’s the next big thing. Maybe that gives Linda an edge. She doesn’t see how I’ve come to rely on her steadiness in the clutch. I don’t need to coddle her like some wide-eyed youngster who’s never felt the pressure of the big time. She’s the one I want on the field when everything’s on the line and someone has to win the day.

So I’ll bring her back for another year. Same terms.

She’s a gamer. I like that in a woman.

About Last Night

Did you watch the debate last night? I did, and by the end I was halfway through a full-blown anxiety attack. There were times early on when Joe Biden started to stutter, and I couldn’t deal. It wasn’t bad, but it was there. I sat there with my head in my hands, trying not to cry. I asked Linda, “Did you see him stuttering?” She hadn’t noticed. But I couldn’t not notice.

I don’t know at what point in my childhood I started to stutter. I just know that it was bad—bad enough that my parents sent me to speech therapy. (Is that even a thing anymore? Do kids still get speech therapy for stuttering?) Mom says I was improving until the day I was called out of class in junior high school for therapy. It was announced over the school loudspeaker: “WILL JEFF STEELE PLEASE REPORT TO THE OFFICE FOR SPEECH THERAPY?” Because public humiliation always helps. After that, Mom says, I was back to square one and therapy was useless. 

At some point in my tween years, I decided I wanted to be a trial lawyer. Imagine that: a kid who couldn’t get words out of his mouth was going to make a career in public speaking. It was insane. But I decided that this was a thing I wanted, and no handicap was going to stop me. If I stuttered, people would have to listen harder. They would have to lean in and focus on what I said, not how I said it. I wasn’t going to be deterred. I have no idea where that self-possession came from. 

I didn’t date in high school. There were a lot of reasons for that, but one was an absolute terror of talking on the phone. There were no cell phones in those days, so no texting. You wanted to talk to a girl, you had to call her. I couldn’t. My stutter got worse when I was nervous so, unlike normal people, I couldn’t hide my nerves. All a girl had by which to judge me was my voice on the telephone line, and it sputtered like a ’57 Chevy. The date wasn’t worth the humiliation if the date ever happened, which it wouldn’t because who would want to go out with such a goober? 

To this day I don’t answer the phone. I make my wife do it. I don’t need that kind of stress. 

Things got better. I discovered alcohol in college, and it helped. I got laid. I became more social, and therefore more relaxed, and thus I stuttered less. I learned how to control my breathing in ways that mitigated the stutter. Then law school, and trial practice classes. I developed a pretty tough skin. No, I did more than that. I became an accomplished public speaker. I gave closing arguments and won significant cases. I argued before courts of appeal. Some political types suggested I consider running for Congress. (Um, no.) I made speeches to a couple of hundred people in my congregation at holidays, including one time when I got to the podium only to discover that my printer had only printed every other page and I had to wing it. No one ever knew. I was good in my time.

But after every legal argument or speech, that suit went to the cleaners because it was drenched in flop sweat. I was simultaneously wound up and exhausted, every time. My nerves were shot. I drank and went to bed. 

It never goes away completely. Sometimes I can tell when the words aren’t going to come out right, and I can search for alternative words or phrases so quickly you don’t know I’ve done it. Sometimes it catches me by surprise. Sometimes there are no alternatives. You know one phrase that trips me up? My own damned name. That’s right; I stutter when saying my name. I’ll be called upon to introduce myself, and I’ll insert an “ah” or “um” between my first and last names so I don’t trip over it, and everyone will laugh—“Having trouble remembering your name? HAR HAR HAR HAR.” Then I am ten years old again, embarrassed and seething.

Have you seen the clip in which Joe Biden comforts the kid who stutters? Have you seen where he puts his forehead against the boy’s forehead and tells him it’s going to be okay, and that there will always be bullies but he doesn’t have to let them win? Today I want to do that for Joe. I want to tell him that I noticed last night, and it’s okay. I listened, and I heard what he said without regard to how he said it. There will always be bullies, and he doesn’t have to let them win. I want to say that, but I would cry if I ever did. And it wouldn’t come out right, because I would stutter.  

I am a sixty-year-old man. Holy fucking hell, why am I never over it?

Addendum: My mom saw this post and reminded me of important facts that the mists of time had obscured for me. My folks never put me in speech therapy. My schools did that twice without consulting or informing them. When Mom got wind of it in elementary school, she stopped it because her research had indicated that the best way to treat a stutter was to leave it alone and not make the child self-conscious. Sure enough, I got steadily better on my own—until my junior high school again put me in therapy without consulting Mom, and used the public address system to call me out of class. She stopped that, too, but the damage was done.

And Now, The Rest of the Story

Something happened in last night’s Presidential debate that most people probably missed, but that is crucial to understanding what happens after November 3.

Pennsylvania is moving away from Trump and toward Biden. Fivethirtyeight.com’s models now show that Biden wins the state 79 times out of 100. If you look at the electoral map, Pennsylvania is the ballgame. Here’s why:

The states of the upper Midwest—Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—all have similar demographics and similar economics. This was the “blue wall” that Hillary Clinton famously and erroneously counted on in 2016. Biden leads in every one of those states, but it’s closest in Pennsylvania. That means that if Biden wins Pennsylvania, he probably wins the others as well. If that happens, Biden does not need to win a single swing state to win the election. He doesn’t need Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Iowa, Georgia, or even Arizona (where he currently leads).

Trump needs to win every swing state and take one or more of the upper Midwest states. Pennsylvania is his best shot, and it’s slipping away from him.

Early voting has already started in Pennsylvania. Last night Trump claimed that his poll watchers were excluded from polling places in Philadelphia because “bad things happen in Philadelphia.” That’s false. In fact, there are no polling places open. Trump’s poll watchers were refused entry to the offices of election staff because they are not registered as poll watchers. Nothing inappropriate happened.

Not that that matters. Trump is laying the groundwork for disputing the election results in Pennsylvania. He is teeing up the argument that he lost the state because shady things happened in Philadelphia, and the “proof” of that is the fact that his non-registered poll watchers were denied access to election staff. The fact that it’s all hooey doesn’t matter. What matters is that he has just given us a preview of the justification he will assert for refusing to accept the results of the election.

Step Right Up

In the wake of revelations that Donald Trump told Bob Woodward that he, Trump, had deliberately misled the American people about the dangers of Covid-19, White House officials reportedly are scrambling to assign blame. Aides are pointing fingers at each other, asking whose stupid idea it was to have Trump talk to Woodward in the first place.

The truth is, they couldn’t have stopped him.

Once upon a time I was a criminal prosecutor. It occasionally happened that I would find myself in trial on a case that looked far better on paper than it did when testimony was given in open court. Many was the time when I said, “Your Honor, the People rest,” and thought to myself, This case is a piece of crap. I’m gonna lose. Then the defendant would take the stand and lose the case right back to me. He’d say things that proved his guilt, or were so terrible that they made the jurors want to convict him as fast as they could. I’d win. Afterward, I’d think, Why did the defense put on a case at all? Why didn’t the attorney just rest right after I rested, and then argue to the jury that I hadn’t proved much of anything—certainly not enough to send a person to prison?

It took me a while to figure it out. The answer was that the defendant wanted to testify. Crooks tend to be people who have spent their lives pulling a fast one on family, friends, and acquaintances. They peddle bullshit, and over the course of time they hone their craft to the point that they think they will always be able to bullshit their way out of trouble. Then they get to court and it doesn’t work on strangers, and off to prison they go.

Their attorneys let them do this because it’s less hassle. If the attorney keeps the defendant off the stand and the jury convicts, the defendant is mad at his lawyer. If the defendant testifies and convinces the jury to convict him, he has no one to blame but himself. The attorney got paid up front, so who cares? Let the clown testify and convict himself.

Now think about how many decades Donald Trump has been peddling bullshit.

Trump is P.T. Barnum. He doesn’t worry about whether what he says is true. He is only concerned with whether what he says is useful. Life is all about—and only about—making a buck. If saying a thing makes him a buck, it’s right to say that thing. He thinks all the handwringing over the falsity of his statements is funny. He thinks you’re a loser and a sucker for thinking truth matters.

Trump thinks (wrongly) that his utilitarian view of language serves him well because he thinks (wrongly) that he is a successful businessman, and that lying has been one of the engines of his (illusory) success. So why wouldn’t he talk to Woodward? Trump didn’t talk to him for his last book, Fear: Trump in the White House, and the result was an unflattering portrait. Not this time. No sirree. This time, Trump the con artist was going to bullshit Woodward into writing a paean to the greatest President ever to appear under the Big Top.

No one in Trump’s orbit was ever going to stop him. It would be an affront to Trump’s ego to suggest that he couldn’t put one over on Woodward. Affronts to this President’s ego are not well-received. Why put your head on that chopping block? Let the clown testify and convict himself.

It is mildly interesting, I suppose, to wonder whether Trump understands the mistake he made. Does he know how badly he screwed up, or is he confused about all the fuss? If it’s the latter, he has come to believe his own bullshit. If it’s the former, he will never admit it. Either way, we can expect him to lash out soon at some unrelated target in an attempt to change the subject. The key to sleight of hand, after all, is to distract the mark while the con takes place just out of view. Come one, come all: the circus is in town.