I Broke the Internet’s Heart (HYPERBOLE)

NB: Evidently, you are supposed to label everything you write on the Internet according to its genre. No one wants to tell me what the labels are, but I’m guessing things like “fact,” “fiction,” “myth,” “satire,” “truthy” “pointless speculation,” “character assassination,” and so on. So I’ll try to keep up with the times. Everything below is true unless labeled otherwise.


Yesterday I woke up at the usual time, poured myself a cup of coffee, and browsed the NY Times. The plan was to work on an essay I’m writing about, and I must reiterate this is FACT, The Confidence-Man, Herman Melville’s strange and marvelous novel about a man aboard a steamboat who hoodwinks passengers by telling them exactly what they want to hear. But I got sidetracked by David Brooks’s confession that he smoked weed in high school, which was followed by a lecture about the swinishness of all those who did not, as he did, quickly recognize that it was an IQ-point-shaving, idiocy-inducing pastime that was bound to result in embarrassment and moral decay. (SLIGHT EXAGGERATION)

Now,  David Brooks has annoyed me before, but usually I swallow my bile along with my coffee and move on to stuff that’s important. There are exceptions, of course. I did write a pretty snarky review of his book The Social Animal for The Nation (called the book the love child of Malcolm Gladwell and Kilgore Trout), and I’ve mentioned him on this blog before, probably not to agree with him, and I think I’ve even tweeted about him, but usually I just let it go. David Brooks doesn’t care what I think about him, and I don’t blame him for that. And there are plenty of other people out there hating on him, and I don’t need to add to the  hating. So why bother?

But still, this column…what really got me, even more than his faux-social-science-based haranguing was his blithe confession to committing (and getting away with) what was in his (and my) day a real crime, the kind of thing that if you weren’t affluent and (usually) white, would ruin your life. And in many places that’s still the case. As the father of a 15-year-old who may smoke pot one day, and as the therapist to plenty of people dealing with this concern, and as the citizen of a country that arrests something like 700,000 (NOT FACT CHECKED, BUT CLOSE TO ACCURATE)  people every year for pot crimes, crimes that result in prison sentences, loss of jobs, loss of access to student loan money, expulsion from school and so on, I found this outrageous. So I thought about writing about it here on this blog. And then the voice in my head, the one that often gets me in trouble, said to me, “I smoked pot with David Brooks.” (FICTION; IRONIC INTENT; I NEVER SMOKED POT WITH DAVID BROOKS AND I AM GLAD FOR IT)

And then my other voice, the one that sounds a lot like my wife, said, “No, you can’t do that. It would be wrong.” And then my first voice said, “Yes, but it would be so much fun.” And then my other other voice said, “You have to write that Confidence-Man essay,” but then my first voice said, “Yeah, but the editor said you could have an extra few weeks on that,” and then all my voices said together, “Let’s do it.” (ENTIRE PARAGRAPH MADE UP, MOSTLY. THE VOICES ARE IMAGINARY, BUT NOT DELUSIONALLY SO. “IT WOULD BE WRONG” STOLEN FROM STANLEY ELKIN, WHO STOLE IT FROM RICHARD NIXON)

So I did. Then I emailed it to some friends and sent it out to my 300 fellow  magpies on twitter. (METAPHOR) Then I went outside and started dealing with the snow and cold. Then my snow plow wouldn’t work–the hydraulic oil had waxed up in the cold. Then my Bobcat wouldn’t start–battery couldn’t handle the cold. So I got down on my old tired knees (EXAGGERATION0, took off the plow, got the battery out of the skidsteer, and made for the store.

But events intervened. While I was working on the battery, my wife had come out to the garage to tell me that my old buddy Steve Silberman had called wanting to know if it was true. That was my first clue. I got the next when my phone, which I’d grabbed on the way out the door, began giving the little ding-ding it makes every time I get an email, and which a friend says is the sound of an angel getting its wings. God was evidently making lots of angels. I read some of the emails. Lots of them were from editors at leading journals, online and print. The Atlantic, salon.com, slate.com, gawker.com, HuffPo, the Washington Examiner, the Daily Caller (which will get its own entry eventually), and so on. Mostly, they wanted to know if they could cross-post the article. One of them offered me $250 if I’d let them do it RIGHT NOW, and when I didn’t get back for twenty minutes, my response went unanswered.

I was flattered, of course, but it occurred to me, given Steve’s phone call, that maybe they’d missed the irony (although I thought the scene with faux stoned David standing on top of his faux Mom’s Vista Cruiser waxing ecstatic about Edmund Burke was a dead giveaway, even if the story about Freaks and Lord Jim was not–not to mention that the piece including a “confession” that I smoke pot, which would be a really self-destructive thing to admit, since I don’t live in Colorado or Washington, have a kid, own property, and make my living as a licensed health care provider). So I got out of the truck, shucked off my shoes and coat, and wrote to the editors, “sure you can cross post, but you do realize this is satire, right?” (GENERALIZATION, SPECIFICS IN EACH EMAIL MAY HAVE VARIED, BUT NEVER ENOUGH TO OBSCURE THE FICTIVE NATURE OF THE BLOG POST) I was surprised when most of them said they did not, but not surprised when most of them then lost interest, sometimes without even bothering to respond. Nor more than a little disappointed–I didn’t write this thing with dreams of viral glory. I wrote it to entertain myself and whoever cared to read it, so if it wasn’t going to get the HuffPo seal of approval, who cares? Sic transit and all that.

Also somewhere in there, my web guy called (on the phone, so I knew it was urgent) and said I needed to moderate comments on my blog, which turns out to mean I had to  approve comments for posting. By then there were like 50 of them, so all I did was to make sure they weren’t spammers or scammers before checking the box. I did notice words in there like hoax and dirtbag, so I figured I’d hit a nerve. Plus which, when my web guy reassured me that the site was handling the traffic, that was a tipoff too.

But I didn’t have time to deal with this. I had machines to fix. I put my warm clothes back on and headed to the auto parts store, with my fifteen-year-old and my dead battery and my ceaselessly dinging phone. He read me the messages. I asked him to respond to a couple for me. “I’m not your fucking secretary,” he said.

“Amanuensis,” I replied.


“Amanuensis. You’re not not my fucking secretary. You’re not not my fucking amanuensis. And you swear too much.”

“What’s that?”

“Greek word. Means assistant and…”


So I let the emails pile up, until I got home around 1 pm. Then I disappointed a few more editors, had a really fun conversation with a guy named Zack Beauchamp, added a notice to my blog warning readers they were about to read satire, and went back out to the garage which is, thankfully, an Internet-free zone. (EXAGGERATION: YOU CAN GET A BAR  OF WIFI OUT THERE, AND A LITTLE BIT OF 3G AS WELL, BUT WHY BOTHER?)

What I didn’t know, and didn’t learn until Zack’s article came out, was that for like two hours (six centuries in Internet time) I was the talk of the Internet. People thought that Brooks’s former potsmoking buddy, resentful at being called a “full-on stoner” had come out swinging. I felt a little bad about that, mostly for the real full-on stoner, because now, if he wanted to take his potshot (INTENTIONAL PUN), he’d have all sorts of credibility problems, but also because it seemed like I’d put a lot of people to a lot of trouble for nothing. I mean, Ryan LIzza called David Brooks to find out if he knew me? Surely, those guys have better things to do. (And why didn’t he call me? The New Yorker has my contact information. I write for them from time to time, or at least I used to.)

I suppose that sounds stupid or naive or disingenuous or something like that, that I should have understood that this would happen, that in fact this is what I wanted all along–to get some publicity for myself by perpetrating a hoax. But–and I know you may not believe this, but this is FACT–I can’t see where the hoax is. Hoax implies fraud, fraud implies some intent to gain at others’ expense. What exactly did I set out to gain? Whom did I fleece of what? I thought the satire spoke for itself, the blog post was free, I didn’t get the $250, and anyone who asked got the truth right away. As for notoriety, or what the Internet calls “exposure,” this will all be forgotten by later today, as the next clusterfuck materializes out of the ether. (I will admit that I had a moment of thinking I might disappear for awhile, let the Internet sort it out, and of being irritated that by telling Silberman the truth so quickly, my wife had taken away that option, but that other voice prevailed.)

So who exactly got hurt? Brooks? He’d already confessed to smoking weed and, if I do say so myself, I made him sound like a pretty smart high schooler, especially for a (less than full-on) stoner. Who wouldn’t want to be remembered for connecting Lord Jim and Freaks as a senior in high school? The websites? They never did the cross-posting, because I told them the truth. The editors? Most of them asked the right question and moved on, as they should have; the rest I’ll address in the next post. The reading public? Now, that’s an interesting question, which I will answer with a story from my childhood that is FACT, as best as I can remember.

My paternal grandmother’s name was Dorothy. She was Hungarian, managed to get out in the 1920s, moved to a little town in the Alleghenies, then to another, where her husband became the proprietor of the Popular Store, a clothing and shoe store serving the coal miners and railroad men. They were the only Jews in town. My grandmother never learned to drive and had the immigrant’s natural wariness, so she didn’t get out much. But she was a smart woman, read all the time, including the newspaper. One day when we were visiting her, she read a column in the paper by Art Buchwald. (POSSIBLE CONFLATION. IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN BENNETT CERF BUT I’M PRETTY SURE IT WAS BUCHWALD) I don’t remember what it was about, and I won’t make it up, that being a sensitive spot right now, but it was some kind of satire. My grandmother came out of her bedroom clucking her tongue. “Lum,” she said (that was her nickname for my father), “I just read…” and proceeded to precis the column and deplore its content, whatever it was, as if it was true. It fell to my father to gently explain to her that Buchwald was only kidding. My grandmother was crestfallen and, I think, humiliated. No one likes to be fooled.

So I think that is what happened. There is something inescapably cruel about satire, at least good satire (which, I have to admit, I think mine was), and not only to its targets: it doesn’t work as satire unless the reader is trying to figure out if it’s true or not, unless you in some way play with his credulity. If the piece is too outlandish, it’s just farce, and if it’s too realistic it’s not funny. (I’d say it’s lame, but a correspondent has taken me to task for the “able-ism” of that word.) So it’s got to be plausible, funny, and focused. You have to think it’s possible that someone is actually proposing that the poor eat their young, and that this might make sense, for a Modest Proposal to work. But to the extent that the reader thinks it’s true, his generosity and trust are being abused. That doesn’t mean satire shouldn’t be written, but it does mean that you can expect people to get their feelings hurt. Add to that the fervent wish, expressed by many of my correspondents, that it was true, that David Brooks really was as a high schooler the same insufferable prig he is in his columns today, and that some former buddy of his was calling him on it in retribution for having been accused of having “sunk… into a pothead life,” and you have the grounds for some people to get upset and angry. In this small way, I broke their hearts.

Now, some of those people can take that in stride. Others want to claim that I have deliberately hurt them by hoaxing them. I can understand both perspectives. I’m more sympathetic to the first than to the second (and my emails and comments are running about 5:1 in favor of the striders [ESTIMATE]; I can’t figure out how to assess the twittersphere). If you can’t stand being challenged, I generally think, then stay out of the printed page. Besides, a little research, a little thought, a moment or two of reflection or inquiry, a second reading–these are all prophylactics against being fooled for more than a moment, or certainly would have been in this case. But it seems that I am obsolete in this respect. The Internet allows no time for any of that. Evidently, it’s no longer up to the reader to engage with what he or she is reading. Instead, it’s up to the writer to announce his intentions, although I have to say that seems to me to sort of take away the purpose of reading and writing. So I’m a little sorry for hurting their pride (which is why I apologized in the notice added to my blog post), but not overly so.

Next up: the editors.








5 Responses to “I Broke the Internet’s Heart (HYPERBOLE)”

  1. Mike McCarthy says:

    Your piece was brilliant. I wish you would lampoon evert Brooks column.

  2. John says:

    Oh, how much I wanted your recounting of Brooks’ youthful antics to be true. It was almost over the top but not quite there. Good writing.

    Are you sure it wasn’t true? Could you be an Accidental Biographer?

  3. Gary Ansorge says:

    I haven’t read your satirical post, so I’ve no idea what it was about however, as my Great GrandMa used to say (repeatedly,,,I think she was trying to ensure I’d never forget it),,,”Believe nothing of what you hear and only ten percent of what you read and you’ll PROBABLY be all right”…that was 2/3 of a century ago and most often I’ve found she was right. The hard part is keeping on top of that ten percent.

    Now, about the “37 people die of pot overdose in Colorado,,,”,,,I laughed so hard I expelled coffee from several orifices and yes, I have done some “research” on that subject over the last half century…Pot. The intoxicant of choice for really intelligent, creative people…and then, there are the dumb ones, who can’t figure out what to do with a mild psychedelic…so they give up.

  4. Eric says:

    I actually like this post just as well as the previous one, although it doesn’t make sense without it.

  5. I pissed my pants laughing while reading this. (MILD EXAGGERATION)

Leave a Reply