Thursday, June 23, 2016
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....