Thursday, June 23, 2016

Dunk Tank



     Mark Twain said many clever things. So there is a tendency for the public to assign anything witty and not already identified with another author to Twain. Kurt Vonnegut gets the same treatment.
     With that in mind, I don't know if my former city editor, Don Hayner, actually said everything I credit to him, or just enough that I began connecting sharp lines to him, because I worked for Don longer than any other city editor in my nearly 30 years at the Chicago Sun-Times.
     He certainly gave the always useful advice, "Don't let him live in your head, rent-free," referring to one of my more odious colleagues. It doesn't always drive out whatever jerk is currently squatting in the back of the brain, snarling. But it helps nudge him toward the exit.
    And I'm fairly certain it was Don who explained the notion of the columnist as Dunk Tank Clown. We've all seen Dunk Tank Clowns, at county fairs and church picnics. A bum in crude face paint, sitting on a collapsible bench, usually smoking a cigarette, hectoring the passersby, goading them into investing a dollar or two or five for three bean bags or softballs to hurl toward a ring target—hit the target, the clown goes in the water.
     I admit, I do not often envision myself that way. Reality is a confusing whir and I'm trying to organize it, explain things, and bring readers places they didn't know were there. I try to run a classy shop. 
     But the Dunk Tank Clown aspect of my job is always lurking. You catcall the mob, they gather and put their money down, grumbling. A lanky lad winds up and throw. He misses, usually, you cackle. "Is that the best you can do?"
     Now and then, though, you end up in the tank, dropped into cold water. Such as when Friday's column on trying to buy a semi-automatic rifle ricochetted around the sphere of gun lovers, then echoed off into the reality distortion field of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. 
     Splash! Hundreds of emails and tweets. Maybe thousands, I lost count. All saying the same thing, more or less. I don't know why it was stressful: these people don't know me, don't have the facts. 
    But it was. Every single message reflected the Slasher Movie ethic that grips much of our country—identify a bad guy then go after the fiend with all the savagery you are supposedly condemning him for in the first place. And I understand that my critical view of guns in American removed me from the realm of humanity in their eyes and made me fair game. I brought this on myself, offered myself as someone they could gleefully abuse.  
     I won't quote any of it.  But I will observe that, if one person had a Christian thought that this supposed drunk and wife beater was also a human being who's been through difficulties and worked to redeem himself and thus, despite taking a dim view of high powered weaponry, might be deserving of some small sympathy, I missed it. Not a word. 
    That was not the worst part. As familiar as I am with the bottomless dishonesty of the right wing press, to see it in action was stunning. Rush Limbaugh's report was a babbling conflation of me and—wait for it—Kim Kardashian. He imagined that my boss forced me run the story -- the facts are exactly opposite. My editor suggested that I spike it, to spare myself. Smart guy. I would have listened, if I thought this avalanche would come down on me. But I'm a small potato, in a Midwestern field, with my familiar audience around me. I write for them. It never occurred to me I would be giving comfort and pleasure to the nation's bitter right wing, that I would give them reason to glory in themselves, damn me, and be more secure in their error. I could have crafted my argument better, to use what happened to open the question of who should buy guns. Instead I went for easy pyrotechnics. Maxon's reasons were so grossly unfair, in my view, dredging up this decade-old stuff, I eagerly put my arm into the cage. I never thought Fox Nation would take up the cause with a howl and claw at me.
     Fox molding this into a neat little tale, looking inside my brain and deciding I wanted to show how "easy" it was to buy a gun. Every conservative report echoes that word. Easy. The truth is just the opposite. Since a Philadelphia paper had bought a gun in seven minutes, there was no point in breaking that record. I told my boss we'd see what transpired, and made him promise that, if nothing worthwhile occurred, we'd swallow the money spent and run nothing. But it was indeed interesting. Illinois has a 24-hour waiting period for rifles, 72 for handguns. That seemed responsible. I signed up for a gun instructor. I went to Maxon because I had gone there before, three times, renting guns and shooting. I had written positively about Maxon. My central worry, as mentioned in the story, was that I would end up writing a valentine to guns in the wake of tragedy. I spoke with the clerk for an hour. This was no sting. If I was trying to scam a gun shop, I could have just left when they recognized me as a columnist, gone somewhere else, and bought my gun, as I can do perfectly legally — a fact lost in all this. A gun store can deny you for any reason, so yes, they can deny me for the reasons they stated. But nothing in my record requires I not be sold a gun.  I have a valid Firearm Owner's Identification Card. I have no convictions, no criminal background at all, no arrest record. The slurs the gun shop used were lifted off the Internet, including, in that note of horror that makes the nightmare complete, a quote from Carol Moseley Braun, who called me a drunk and  a wife beater on television in 2011 when I dared suggest in print that she would not defeat Rahm Emanuel.  
     The nuances of the story—a completely honest story that I stand by—were lost. If I could change anything, I would have recast that last graph, written after Maxon told the paper I was a danger to the community, after offering to let me rent the gun and shoot at their range instead of buying it. I shouldn't have snapped at their bait. 
     I'll be honest. As this enters into its ... geez ... ninth day, including researching the piece, it does grind me down. It's dispiriting, debilitating. I can feel it in my jaw, in my sternum. A misery, not about myself, though there is that, but for how my true self is distorted in the funhouse mirror of these hateful people, to see the jeering contempt in their eyes, licking their chops, delighted at their full permission to sink their teeth into this pathetic libtard. Me, apparently. 
    No, not me. That's just the straw man they've cobbled together with trash plucked from Fox News. I've got the real me right here. There's a beauty in knowing who you are. I'm proud of myself; my wife of 25 years is proud of me, every day, my family is proud of me, and actual people in my actual life tolerate me, more or less. I think it's far better to be a recovering alcoholic with an incident of domestic violence in my past than be some troll hanging around the internet, searching for stragglers from the herd. Half the time, when I looked at their IDs to see who was writing this stuff, they were some Aryan Nation sort bemoaning the brown faces they see at Walmart as a White Genocide. Of course they're aquiver to find someone lower than themselves.  
      Enough of this. I'm taking a few days off, not as a result of this tempest, but a trip planned weeks ago. I'll be back early next week. As with everything I write, this was educational. I continue to try to have sympathy, even for the terrible people who wrote to me so unkindly. I'll still shoot guns, now and then, because it's fun, but I will also still promote a more sensible gun policy than the insanity we have now.
     Okay. I'll go back to being as curmudgeonly as I pretend to be. Sometimes the cowboy hits the bullseye and you go into the water tank, and there's nothing to do but climb carefully out, maintaining whatever dripping dignity you can, settle your ass on the bench, find a dry cigarette and start the heckling anew.
     Hey, Reichmarshal! Don't you know when you've got "White Power" on your Twitter ID, it sort of takes the sting out of your comments? Here's an idea: if you actually accomplished something with your life, maybe you could be proud of it, instead of having to be proud of being white. You were BORN white, remember? It's not like you had to work hard to get it....


27 comments:

  1. Some issues are a real thorn in the side of civilization. This is definitely one of them.

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  2. Take this for what it's worth, if anything. This white, retired truck driver reads you every day. If I stumble across Limbaugh dialing down the radio, about thirty seconds of that blowhard is all I can stand. He could have just mailed in one of his crazy rants years ago and just changed the names periodically. This old "redneck" still learns from your columns. I can only shake my head at any credibility he seems to have.

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  3. Well said dear. Scary -the internet- these days. The scary trolls are always primed to pounce, watching for you in their slime pits just behind an innocent looking rock. You write in public for the public- and elements of that public are using the welcoming gestures of the likes of Limbaugh and Trump to think its ok now to crawl out, dripping slime, and hurl some if it at you. Just dont forget, there are many of us regulars/ admirers who enjoy you and your work.

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  4. Well said dear. Scary -the internet- these days. The scary trolls are always primed to pounce, watching for you in their slime pits just behind an innocent looking rock. You write in public for the public- and elements of that public are using the welcoming gestures of the likes of Limbaugh and Trump to think its ok now to crawl out, dripping slime, and hurl some if it at you. Just dont forget, there are many of us regulars/ admirers who enjoy you and your work.

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  5. "Don't let them live in your head rent free" good quote from that former editor but easier said than done. Sorry to hear of this upset. How about shutting down the twitter account? Look at it this way: you must have really rattled the rightwing nuts all over and pushed a button if the reaction went this far and wide. You did your job well then. The gun fanatics are bullies. But if you ever feel the need to do some target practice, go to another gunshop of course. Keep your chin up, NS. "This too shall pass..." At least the Dems are trying to make more of a point with the sit in. Perhaps someday MR. WP will wake up and realize he's a neo-Nazi and that will give him pause. Keep up the good work. Don't let the bastards them win.

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  6. Hopefully your blog readers, who generally seem to leave positive comments, help counter at least a little bit of the spite and hate you get elsewhere. Thanks for being so open.

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  7. I had been struck with the giddy venom of some of the comments on that column. Such a "gotcha" attitude, as if you'd been caught with your pants down, rather than continuing to be open about something you'd not been hiding. Sad.

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  8. It looks like the mighty Rush has fallen, into a state of being where reading comprehension does not exist. Here is a link to Rush's Tuesday afternoon's broadcast. I used to listen to him on occasion decades ago. He used to pride himself on the accuracy of his analysis, claiming over 99% accuracy. Part of his schtick was to read verbatim what someone in the "liberal mainstream media" said or wrote, followed by the relevant unedited recording of what actually occurred. Then having fun mocking their twisted point of view.
    Comparing what Neil wrote, versus Rush's take on the article, demonstrate his accuracy has dropped to approximately 1%. From the article "Had I ever been convicted on charges of domestic abuse? No.", this question is clearly asked on Form 4473, line 11i. Rush demonstrates cluelessness of the law, and if any fool thinks Rush is right, kindly provide the Cook County case docket number that would prove otherwise. A conversation with Maxon employee Sarah went as follows: "I wasn't rejected by the government? No." Yet the entire premise of Rush's soliloquy is based on Neil failing the background check. The rest of Rush's statements consist of a nonsensical glurge of ignorance.

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  9. Is everyone in moderation? I hope my comment wasn't lost to the ether.

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  10. No wonder the obit for your fellow journalist yesterday wasn't as celebratory as I expected. Selfishly I hope that your funk won't affect your daily chore of keeping your faithful readers well informed and magnificently entertained. I know you can't just quit reading your emails, but maybe you should either hire someone to toss the hateful ones for a while or better yet, devise a filter that would do the same. I bet there are some key words that appear in every nasty letter you get that would disqualify them from meriting even 2 seconds of your time.

    john

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  11. Twain said something to the effect that when receiving a hostile letter, he chose to regard it as coming from a poor uneducated ex slave, who couldn't possible know any better.

    john

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  12. "...though such poor writers as I are but beggars, no beggar is so poor but he can keep a cur, and no writer is so beggarly but he can keep a critic. I am far from giving the attacks of such people any honour." Alexander Pope to William Wycherley

    Nor need you. Have a nice few Goddamn days off.

    Tom Evans

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  13. Be strong, Neil. I found myself countering some of your trolls, and had to step away from those who disconnected facts from their raging fear of losing some of their firepower. My time, though not too valuable, is wasted on idiots who can only fight logic with personal assaults. You have been in the Trump campaign's face since early on (sometimes the singular voice of caution) and so his constituency is looking for an excuse to lambast you. I will try to remember your editor's remark.You were brave to resist the spike...because you knew. Bullies look for the weak spot...like flesh eating viruses. Cauterize and move on. They will continue to fester elsewhere. Have a lovely respite.

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  14. I'm getting ready to share both this and your original article on Facebook. I think it's important to keep the facts of all of this front and center to anyone's discussion of it. As horribly uncomfortable as the negative feedback has been, please know that intelligent folk of sense and balance appreciate your courage in writing all this. Stay brave--and thank you.

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  15. Stay safe-if the right is this upset, you are doing something right.

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  16. Wow - I am so sorry to hear that it turned out this way. I started following you recently because I appreciate your writing and point of view. I read the original article (I even read it again, aloud, to my husband) and did not assume that there reasons for denying you meant anything other than you had some troubles in the past. I expected that you would get a reaction, but since I don't live in the US I didn't see any of it. I know that I am just one far-away reader, but you enrich my days and mind, remember that. Thanks for what you think and write, and be kind to yourself.

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  17. Obviously Rush's former pain pill addiction addled his brain.

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  18. Thank you everybody for your support. It means the world to me, it really does. Apologies for the filter. Trust me, you don't want to see this stuff, even for a while. I hope to take it off as soon as I can and return to the freewheeling, immediate environment you expect.

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  19. I hope you enjoy your few days off and disconnect from media contacts as well. The lunatic fringe aren't worth your time, don't let them stress you out.

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  20. I really don't understand the basis for these attacks. You revealed to the world an ugly incident in your past, it was used against you unfairly by the gun shop owners, and this proves you guilty of...what exactly?

    Of course these people don't make sense. I gave up expecting them to long ago. Just take pride in the fact that you have several hundred times more brains and integrity than they do.

    Bitter Scribe

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  21. Neil, when you reveal your real self, as you have, bad, sick people will try to shoot you down. Evict them from your head. You are loved and respected by many. To hell with the trolls. And dump Twitter. Too many vile haters.

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  22. I sure wouldn't be reading your blog if Limbaugh ever had anything good to say about you. It's time to buy another one of your books, and perhaps make another donation to HRC. Enjoy your time off Neil.

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  23. Neil,

    Keep up the good fight.

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  24. Gives us an idea of how many people wrote you. Rush claims an audience of 26 million. How many Ditto's wrote you? Also when Rush does a story there seems to be a 30 right wing internet organizations that pick it up and blast away. Neil, Google "Neil Steinberg Chicago Sun Times" and look at the top 4 stories. The right may have no power in print or T.V. but they do O.K. on the internet.

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    1. This mostly exists on Twitter, and those were driven by the Blaze and other online sources. Rush did almost nothing. Fox News, a bit. Hard to quantify -- 500 or 1000 tweets. Filters screen out a lot of emails -- Twitter has a very crude filter that isn't that helpful. Maybe five phone calls.

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  25. You're in good company. Look at the verbal and social media abuse that President Obama has to put up with.

    One good political quote I saw on the bright side said: "There is something wrong with you if you think assault rifles are a right but healthcare isn't."

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  26. Belatedly offering my continued support and encouragement as well. Your straight-forward attitude about your past is one of the many things that makes you the strongest columnist writing in Chicago today, and surely one of the tops in the nation. The blog and twitterstream linking to it expose you to a much wider audience than you would ever get in print at the ST, or even in the awkward online edition. There's a downside to that, of course, but overall Ross is right that the publicity is good.

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