So, Will Leitch wrote a thing.
I'm going to say something now, and it's something that hasn't been said often enough or loud enough but is completely true: Will Leitch sucks.
I could do the thing here where I link to a whole bunch of execrable and predictable Leitch columns and count upon everyone to read those things and recognize for themselves that he's a dopey Sports Guy-lite hack who makes his living reaping the low-hanging fruit in a way that overlaps not-coincidentally with the exact kind of weak-sauce pandering that keeps Mike & Mike in free $5 foot longs. There are ample examples. Even as I type this sentence my mind is hungrily scrolling through a mental catalogue. No. I musn't.
Okay, here's one.
It's not so much that he sucks that bothers me, although it does bother me, and in no small part because he's getting paid good money to write those awful columns while I'm taking Sertraline and clutching the endmost weathered tatters of the life I'd hoped to have while a strong wind whisks it off to God knows where. No, it's the particular way Leitch sucks that really just bothers the shit out of me. It's a problem, guys. A problem for everyone.
A while back, the great Erin Gloria Ryan of Jezebel wrote this provocative column, in which she calls upon women and those who claim to care about women to boycott the NFL, in recognition of the NFL's abysmal record of not even being able to pretend with a straight face that they give a shit about women at all. (Before we go any further on this, let me first acknowledge what you are all already desperately sick of hearing me talk about, which is that I stopped watching the NFL and hope everyone else will, too. God, I'm annoying.) Her column is forceful and passionate and I admire it, even while I feel like her feelings about the issue and mine diverge in some small but meaningful ways. For example, I think boycotting the NFL over their handling of domestic violence assumes that there is a right way for the NFL to punish players for off-the-field transgressions, and that's not an assumption I buy at all.
That's really neither here nor there. Her big point was that you can't give money and positive attention to an entity with such a stark track record of disrespecting women and credibly claim any serious alliance with women and the plight of women to scratch out the respect and opportunities they deserve in a society that manifestly thinks less of them. And that point obviously hit a nerve with, well, all NFL fans.
Three things are guaranteed to happen whenever a woman writer steps out and tells the rest of us how we're fucking up, especially when it happens on Jezebel: a huge number of people will say legitimately awful things on social media - stuff like get back in the kitchen or cunt or even rape threats; some huger number of people will roll their eyes and say things that imply that this is just Jezebel being Jezebel, shouting an impossibly overstated rhetorical line from deep down some cave of culturally obsolete navel-gazing; some even huger number of people will find such an accusation - in this case, that they don't care enough about women - ridiculous and offensive, and will, in short order, become like the middle group, using this insult as another brushstroke, among many to come, in a growing picture of Jezebel (and feminism) as a hopelessly misbegotten and wayward expression of something useless.
And so that's what happened. The column came and went and certainly no significant number of people have boycotted the NFL. Twitter filled up with cranky jokes and smirking dismissals, and there was a brief but searing hot flash of hurt feelings. Who is this person to say whether or not I care about women?
Here's where this gets uncomfortable: it is possible to care about women while also caring less about women than, say, oh, just for the sake of comparison, Erin Gloria Ryan does. It is possible to care about women while caring less about women than your own wellbeing. It is possible to care about women while caring less about women than your child or spouse or sibling or parent. It is even possible to care about women while caring less about women than, yes, your relationship with the NFL. This is a difficult thing to confront, and unflattering, but there it is.
I'm not trying to make Erin Gloria Ryan's case here. I'm not sure she made her case, I'm not sure the case is there to be made. But her column, and the response to it, illuminated spectacularly a particularly unhelpful American-if-not-human tendency, and it's the tendency to insist upon telling ourselves and the world a version of who we are, both as individuals and in groups, that is different in important ways from the truth.
We're all familiar with this thing. That coworker who starts sentences with I'm not racist, but... is telling you and himself a thing that is not true. The truth is both uncomfortable and wildly socially unacceptable, but America has taught itself over time that there is almost nothing worse that a white person can be than racist, and certainly identifying as racist is many orders of magnitude worse than simply saying things that are racist. And so we are surrounded on all sides by white people who think and say racist things and benefit outrageously from institutional racism and white privilege and neither say nor do anything to stop it but are allowed to assert of themselves that they are not racist. It suits them as individuals, of course, but it also suits us as a group to act as though we do not allow and therefore do not have racists among us. By accepting and ingraining the lie, we can get back to the business of being fucking assholes all of the time.
And so goes the ugly truth, that there are people among us, many of them, perhaps even most of them, and perhaps I am among them, who care about women, care about them a lot, and much of the time, too, but not as much as we care about getting through our day in one piece. Do I care about sweat-shops, child labor, oppressive regimes around the world, globalization, a runaway pharmaceutical industry, animal cruelty? Sure. Have I checked the tags of my shirt, my shorts, my shoes? Do I know where that Sertraline came from, who made it, and how, and whether they're running roughshod over developing nations? Am I driving out to the humane farm for my meat?
I care about those things, but, look, the truth is, I don't care about them very much. I care about them less than I do the cost of my clothes and the availability of my psych meds and the convenience and fat-marbled deliciousness of my steaks. It's an ugly, uncomfortable, unflattering truth, but it is also the truth, whether I want to think of myself as unassailably virtuous or not. Why not face it? Why not have a world in which I am forced to confront and identify with what is true of my real self? Why can't we have that truth all the time?
I suspect the answer is that confronting and identifying with those truths will necessarily lead to a reassessment of our personal and common priorities and will thereafter require significant and inconvenient change. Maybe not. At any rate, living in the false screen-written version of the world is made a lot easier by writers like Will Leitch. In Leitch's world and in his writing, if a case can be articulated from start to finish and protected behind a glistening impenetrable clear coat of smarm, it can be made dogmatically into a truth that suits us, or some of us, or him, or his latest column. And this behavior in his writing, seriously, guys, it makes me fucking sick.
I linked to today's column, about the so-called Beltway rivalry, because, first of all, right there on its face it's geographically ignorant and embarrassing. I happen to live here at the point of an isosceles triangle that has DC and Baltimore as the other points, and so I am happy to tell Mr. Leitch and anyone else that the two metro areas do not at all share a Beltway. DC lies within the Capitol Beltway, whereas Baltimore lies within 695, a completely different highway that is separated from the Capitol Beltway by an hour's drive. It's one thing to refer to interleague meetings between the two teams as Beltway series and the geographic proximity and overlap of their fan-bases as a Beltway rivalry, but to say that a so-called Beltway World Series would be the dream of a common metro area is just not true. DC and Baltimore do not share a metro area.
This is obviously not my main gripe with the column, although it illuminates the degree to which Leitch is happy to deconstruct the truth and fit only the pieces that suit his narrative into his work. If that were the point of the column - that the imaginary DC/Baltimore supercity would be pumped as balls to host a World Series - it would be stupid and embarrassing but otherwise harmless and I would go back to gagging over Leitch's work but generally not losing my cool. The rest of the column, though, is about how DC is not especially interested in supporting the Nationals, even after a 96-win regular season. In support of this conclusion Leitch offers up the sentiments of Buffalo-native Wolf Blitzer, and suggests many ominous political reasons why national politics lifers and so-called Beltway Insiders may or may not have any sort of political use for expressing fandom of Washington's baseball team. His case seems to be that the federal government's political infrastructure is missing out on baseball for political reasons and thus denying the Nationals of the kind of robust local support enjoyed by the rest of baseball's field of legitimate World Series contenders.
Notably absent from his column, entitled Can America Root for a Town That Can't Root for Its Team: any attendance data at all, and even the remotest knowledge of or respect for the actual human makeup of the city of Washington, DC.
Here I could blast you over the head with attendance data. And so I will. The Nationals were 12th in baseball in total attendance during the 2014 regular season. The Nationals were also 12th in baseball in average attendance during the 2014 regular season. They came in 11th in percent of capacity during the 2014 regular season. Interestingly (and, importantly, not mentioned in Leitch's piece in which he argues that DC can't root for its team), among playoff teams, 4 of the 5 teams ahead of the Nats in total and average attendance play in cities with larger populations, and all of the teams below them have smaller populations. Only St. Louis jumped in line. Pat yourself on the back, you wet-eyed Cards fan who isn't even from St. Louis.
So, obviously those numbers don't exactly support the notion that DC can't root for its own team. Among playoff teams, the Nats are snugly in their place, drawing an appropriate number of fans per game given the size of the population of the city in which they play, that population's relative position among playoff teams, and the size of their stadium. And while that ought to have been enough to send this particular goddamn piece of shit Leitch column into the fucking trash, it's not the worst part of it, not by a long shot.
The case he makes, if it can be said that he makes a case at all without projectile vomiting one's organs all over the room in a spectacular fountain of gore, is that DC's resident population of politicians seems to have abandoned the Nats, and that this abandonment is significant to understanding where the Nats stand as a baseball team within a specific American city. He's got quotes from Wolf Blitzer, AP reporter Fred Frommer, and Luke Russert, all of which amount to a more or less paint-by-numbers depiction of a Beltway climate that is suffering under the destructive weight of hoary old political partisanship. Yawn, right? Well, yes and no.
Yes, because Christ that's a tired story. OMG politicians are so bad and the federal government is so divided what ever shall we DOOOOOOOOOOO? shut the fuck up. No, though, because this depiction of Washington DC, as a cesspool overfilled with the stinking algae-like bloom of government insiders, while it may be deliciously scandalous, or alternately, reassuringly hopeless in the way that knowing is better than wondering for everyone else around the world, is completely fucking inaccurate.
Washington DC, the actual, real city, is an actual real place where actual real people live and work. Its population is, by and large, working class. According to the last census, about 51% of DC's population is black, another 9% is Latino. DC is overwhelmingly a town of working class ethnic minorities. Whatever you have heard to the contrary is very, very false.
And here's where we get to the part where Leitch's persistent habit of depicting the world the way he wants it instead of the way it is matters and sucks and is offensive and bad: while America maintains the occasionally politically and psychologically useful misrepresentation of DC as just an accumulation of federal government buildings, the actual human citizens of DC are treated, in a very real way that ought to matter to everyone, like a whole new bottommost economic and political class of Americans, a breathing flesh-colored carpet into which the worst residue of our toxic two-party government is ground in earnest by, well, everyone else. Did you know DC's voting public is granted only limited home rule? Did you know conservative law-makers will not grant the citizens of the nation's capital full representation in Congress unless reliably-red Utah is arbitrarily granted comparable extra representation? Did you know a conservative prick son of a bitch congressman from Maryland put a poison pill into legislation that would have allowed DC's residents to decide for themselves on the criminalization of marijuana? Did you know this exact type of thing happens all the time? Did you know DC license plates say Taxation Without Representation? Do you know why?
Did you know Will Leitch didn't speak to a single born-and-raised, non-white, working-class DC resident before painting the city as a broken political cesspool?
Never mind, his depiction of the city and its relationship with its baseball team will fit much more neatly into an ongoing political narrative in which team loyalty is first of all a virtue but second of all (and more to the point) a virtue whose expression is seen more profoundly the farther one gets from that nasty self-serving hellhole that is Washington DC.
There is not a point in Leitch's column that is accurate, unless the point of it genuinely is that representatives to our federal government, who are from other places and mostly live in those other places, don't care much for the Nationals. And if that is his point, that useless tidbit that's so completely unworthy of even thinking about let alone saying aloud, he should still be kicked in the balls so hard he flies into orbit and stays there.
The point of all this, I suppose, is this: there is a world around us, and we are people in it, and that world and we the people are real things with real truths, and those truths matter. We can choose to confront those truths and live with them and thereby gain the perspective and wherewithal to act upon them in meaningful ways, or we can insist upon the other world, in which we are defined most by what we can get away with saying we are. When it suits our self-told narrative, we can be non-racists and care deeply about women, symbolically remake whole cities into something that fits our aesthetic preferences. A writer can actually get away with congratulating America, with total sincerity, for a disgusting corporate monolith suspending a player for an off-the-field transgression in response to negative publicity. Then that same writer can don a cynically conceived and utterly self-serving aw-shucks voice-of-the-people personality, sprinkle that personality and its associated goo liberally all over everything he writes, and we can all go right back to having the world we want but not the one we have and never the one we need.
It's appropriate to say that Will Leitch is out of touch. He is, of course. My God is he. But it's that he's as out of touch as he is and is also so popular, and it's the latter that makes the former troubling, even while the former makes the latter possible. Will Leitch is popular only to the extent that he is constantly telling America a version of the world that broadly suits our aesthetic preferences. It's an obnoxious mix of Bill Simmons goofy fanboy crap and Rick Reilly mushy feel-goodness, and when he does step out it's always on exactly the fundamentally safe well-trod holloway of popular sentiment. Screw that. Deal with the real world, and have something useful to say, for a change. It's why I brought up the Jezebel piece - there's seeing the real world and calling it like you see it and confronting it in a meaningful way and risking everything that comes from that, and then there's Will Leitch, steadfastly aw-shucks-ing his way through one completely useless column after another, putting us all to sleep with another meaningless lullaby.
So, ahem, what I'm saying is, Will Leitch sucks, and he always sucks, and he sucks in a way that matters, unless, of course, you'd just prefer that it not.