The Maskless Run Amuck in Fort Lauderdale

They’ve thrown temper tantrums in stores. They’ve congregated in indoor rallies while donning red MAGA caps. Even when people among them die — such as the late Herman Cain weeks after Tulsa — they insist that the COVID protection is all a conspiracy — even after every scientific authority has insisted that the mask is the best way to protect yourself and others against the virus. They believe that any edict urging them to wear a facemask during a pandemic is an assault on their basic freedom.

So it was only a matter of time before they would start hitting the big box stores, adopting the ancient flashmob format — the finest social gathering format that 2005 had to offer.

A video of maskless demonstrators running amuck in a Fort Lauderdale Target went viral in the last two days. They walked into the store on September 15, 2020 wearing masks. Then they blasted the music. Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Going to Take It.” A man ripped off his facemask and shouted, “Alright! We’re tired of shopping with masks on. And now we’re taking the masks off. You guys, we’re done with it!”

“Fucking idiots,” replied one of the people videotaping the incident.

The protesters ran like crazed proselytizers through the red decor of Target, urging all and sundry to “take their masks off.”

“That’s the only way it’s going to work! Is if we all unite!” shouted one woman.

They were allowed to do this for at least five minutes. One Target employee aloofly tried to intervene, not knowing what to do and mumbling something about having a nice day. But one of the agitators cried back, “Hey, you have a nice day, man!”

The Huffington Post‘s Jenna Amatulli was one of the first on the story. One of the protesters told her, “Don’t force me to wear a mask. Because it’s my right not to wear one!”

This was clearly the beginning of a makeshift movement. Cristina Gomez was one of the protesters. In a video that Gomez posted to Facebook (mirrored above), a man standing on the bed of a truck in a parking lot, shouted, “How is it that when their mask is working that I have to wear one too? And here’s the bottom line, okay? We’ve been using the medical exceptions. We’ve been using the religious exceptions. And that’s all fine and good. But no more exceptions! No more any of this!”

Gomez then pans her camera to a group of kids and shouts, “Can we get the kids? The cool kids? These are the cool kids. These are the future real men. Grown future grown men [sic] that are not wearing a mask.” Preying upon the innocence and vulnerability of kids is very much a part of this operation.

In the video, a young man by the name of John Gustavo, who claims on his Facebook page to be an “honest journalist,” then proceeds to interview this rowdy bunch — much in the manner of a Daily Caller reporter embedded within a Trump rally. What’s important is that these protesters look as if they could be taken seriously. And if that means using a flashmob format that appears to have emerged from an action plan or looking important enough to attract illusory “media attention,” this too is part of the deal.

At no point in any of the footage that I have reviewed do these protesters consider their maskless activity to be dangerous or infectious. And as I was to learn in a phone call on late Wednesday afternoon that I had with a Fort Lauderdale assistant police chief, the concern for public health clearly wasn’t shared by the authorities.

I wanted to know what Target planned to do about this. Because this incident seemed to me a baleful escalation of all the other maskless rallies. I was able to get in touch with Target’s Danielle Schumann by telephone. She pledged that she would provide me with a specific statement on how Target planned to respond to the incident. (As of Wednesday evening, despite a followup phone call to Schumann giving Target an opportunity to respond, I was not in receipt of any such statement. Nor has the company’s Twitter feed produced any statement condemning the maskless flashmob.)

[UPDATE: Schumann did send along Target’s statement not long after I filed this piece. Here it is below:

We shared earlier this summer that Target requires guests to wear masks whenever they’re shopping in our stores. Our priority remains the health and safety of our team and guests and we communicate our mask requirement through signs in our stores, overhead announcements and reminders from team members at the front of our stores. 

We’re aware of the group of guests who came into the store last night and we asked them to leave after they removed their masks and became disruptive and rude to other shoppers.]

Schumann was very nice, but did not answer numerous questions that I put forth to her about how Target would contend with unruly shoppers without masks in the future or even how they had coordinated with the police. She did confirm with me that Target had a nationwide ban in place that went into effect on August 1, 2020. But that was all that I was able to get out of her.

I made calls to the City of Fort Lauderdale to determine if they planned to shift their policy after this incident. My calls were not returned.

Interim Assistant Chief Frank Sousa of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department was nice enough to get in touch with me. Given the tendency of protesters of any stripe to push their shenanigans further, I had many questions about how the police was enforcing Executive Order 20-21 from the Broward County Administrator, which specifically prohibited people from entering establishments without a mask.

Sousa told me that the police had arrived at the Target, but the protesters had disappeared. They had only spoken with the store’s loss prevention officer. There was some talk of a guy in a T-shirt.

“There was no further action taken,” wrote Sousa to me in an email. “I do not know if you are aware but the individuals in the video originally complied with the E.O. issued by the County by entering the store with their mask on.”

I wrote back: “Are you basically saying that if someone were to go into a store with a mask on, that the executive order would not be enforceable?”

There was some back-and-forth. The emails got longer. Finally, Sousa telephoned me. I tried to lighten the tension from our feisty email exchange by joking about how we had both lucked out by being on the right coast, given the orange skies on the Pacific. He laughed.

Sousa informed me that, despite the executive order, walking around without a mask was not a crime. The only consequences were a civil fine.

Well, how do you expect people to comply with the executive order?

“We educate.”

How?

Sousa declined to say, but he suggested to me that there wasn’t rampant non-compliance in Broward County.

“They’re there to make a statement,” said Sousa of the Target group. “It’s the First Amendment.”

But doesn’t putting other people’s health at risk belie free speech?

“It’s not the police’s position to be the opinion police.”

I suggested that there were some situations that transcended mere opinions. I asked Sousa repeatedly if he would consider shifting this policy. I asked him if he considered walking into a store without a mask and endangering other people’s health to be riskier than, say, protesting outdoors without a mask.

He said he didn’t have an opinion.

Sousa suggested that there had been some enforcement of people not wearing masks indoors. Citations as well as fines. But he told me that he couldn’t offer me a precise answer because he didn’t have the stats in front of him. Which was a completely reasonable answer. But ultimately he believed that the Target incident was a free speech issue.

“They have their First Amendment rights. There is a county order.”

I liked Sousa. He seemed like the kind of man I could probably have a beer with, but only if he left his gun and his billy club at the station. Still, there was a growing tension to our exchange, one that I was able to gauge through the increased number of surly “Sirs” he barked at me over the phone as I carried on with my questions. I respectfully pressed Sousa on hypothetical changes to this policy, especially if the infection rate or the number of cases went up in the Fort Lauderdale area. But he declined to answer.

The takeaway here is that, if you are in the Florida area and choose to lead a maskless rebellion within the expansive confines of an indoor shopping mall, you will probably not be arrested by the police. The Fort Lauderdale Police, for one, certainly isn’t going to press you with additional charges. Especially if you have the foresight to leave the premises before the police arrive.

If you happen to be one of those people who sees masks as an affront to your freedom rather than an essential tool that will help flatten the curve, then, hey, sky’s the limit! Nobody will stand in your way. Not Target. Not the police. And certainly not the mayors and the governors who refuse to evoke protective regulations that can decrease COVID cases and save lives.

SEPTEMBER 16, 2020 8:30 PM UPDATE: I just received a statement from Target. I’ve added it to the story.

Bob Woodward’s Rage: Not a Barnbuster, But Still Vital

RAGE
by Bob Woodward
Simon and Schuster, 480 pages

It goes without saying that, contrary to Trump’s maddeningly megalomaniacal claim that his signature is now worth $10,000 on eBay, most of the universe would sleep easier if this walking disaster would swiftly disappear. And because this state of affairs is the norm, backed up by polls showing that the current President can barely squeak past 40% in the polls against Biden, it does make reading the latest Trump tell-all an act of masochism.

Most of us know that Trump has mangled the pandemic and permanently uprooted millions of Americans now facing grief, eviction, and unemployment. Most of us intuitively understand that nearly 200,000 Americans are dead because of Trump’s arrogance, cruelty, and ineptitude. Why then would one want to read another book exposing this pernicious sociopath?

Well, when it’s Bob Woodward, you do. Rage, Woodward’s followup to Fury, is different from his previous Trump volume because, this time around, he actually talked with Agent Orange, landing eighteen interviews with the monster between December 2019 and July 21, 2020 — the last on the very day his manuscript was due. It is different because we’ve been in the prepublication position of listening to the tapes. Trump clearly knew how deadly the virus was and he lied to the American public about it. Just as he lied about calling McCain and military veterans “losers” and “suckers” — as recently as last night in a town hall appearance on ABC. This disparity between the private and the public represents the very reason why we need journalists to dig up the details.

The book arrived last night. I stayed up until 5 AM reading it. The volume is by no means a barnbuster and will probably not change too many minds, but it does offer an even-handed narrative that serves as a necessary reminder of just what we’ve come to accept from the executive branch and why this simply cannot be the norm of American politics.

The book’s first half is largely a summary of the political hellscape that we’ve come to accept, with some new context. We see former secretary of state Rex Tillerson and former secretary of defense Jim Mattis enter into a Faustaian bargain with Trump under what now seems to be a dowdy ideal of patriotism and loyalty, no matter how bungling and dangerous the Commander-in-Chief may be. “How can you work for that man?” asks Mattis’s mother. “Ma, last time I checked, I work for the Constitution,” replied Mattis. Tillerson asks for numerous reassurances (being able to pick his own staff, asking Trump to refrain from a public dispute) before uneasily accepting the job. Tillerson, like many former Trump staffers, would be swiftly betrayed and have his conditions vitiated.

Mattis would find himself in a madhouse, contending with an easily distracted maniac who refused to countenance the facts. Here’s a stunning Mattis quote from the Woodward book:

It is very difficult to have a discussion with the president. If an intel briefer was going to start a discussion with the president, they were only a couple sentences in and it would go off on what I kind of irreverently call those Seattle freeway off-ramps to nowhere. Shoot off onto another subject. So it was not where you could take him to 30,000 feet. You could try, but then something that had been said on Fox News or something was more salient to him. So you had to deal with it. He’d been voted in. And our job was not to take a political or partisan position. It was, how do you govern this country and try to keep this experiment alive for one more year?

We see Senator Lindsey Graham — a man who, only five years ago, denounced Trump as “a race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot” on CNN — cozy up to Trump on the golf course, even willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt when evidence of Russian collusion was stacked against him. “Listen,” said Graham to Trump, “if you actually did this, even though it was before you were president, you cannot serve.” Trump responded, “I’ve done a lot of bad things, but I didn’t do this.”

In other words, the new loyalty among those who worked with Trump meant accepting blanket statements at face value, never corroborating these against the facts and, above all, never fighting a pernicious leader who was committed to magical thinking when he wasn’t abdicating his duties altogether. This is one of the key takeaways from Woodward’s book, one that eluded Alexander Nazaryan at the Los Angeles Times.1

What Trump has effectively accomplished over the last four years is to create a political environment in which believing in tangible and objective facts is now partisan. Much as empathy and taking care of a suffering population has become partisan. For there is no other way to explain why so many of the people who endured Trump over the long haul altered their command of the facts.

One of the book’s more shocking revelations involves Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the director of the CDC. Here is the man who ostensibly exists to protect the national health. When he first learned of the virus, Redfield nimbly cracked the whip and gathered his team — on New Year’s Eve, no less — and produced a three-page memo, the first of many detailed daily reports. But as we see in the book, even Redfield could be corrupted.

In late February, Redfield had information that there was “a big problem in New York.” There were cases of people from Italy who had been infected with the virus. At this point, Redfield was well aware just how fast the virus could spread. But he fell in with the Trump line, telling the commonweal, “The American public needs to go on with their normal lives. Okay?”

If Woodward doesn’t quite answer the question of how ostensible scientists like Redfield could abdicate the very scientific method in favor of Trump loyalty and propaganda, Woodward’s conversations with Trump, which constitute the book’s second half, are of considerable importance in understanding how we have permitted such a beast to get away with anything. The episodes involving Kim Jung-un reveal not only how Trump could be easily manipulated with targeted flattery (Kim always referred to Trump as “Your Excellency” in “love letters” obtained by Woodward), but of how flexible Trump could be in humanizing clear human rights abusers. When Woodward asks how he could have cozy relationships with monstrous men, Trump replies, “It’s funny, the relationships I have, the tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them. You know? Explain that to me someday, okay?”

Moreover, there is a creepy womanizing approach that Trump applies to diplomacy, one that makes the victims of Trump’s abuse and harassment even more necessary to not brush under the carpet. Here is Trump describing meeting Kim:

“You meet a woman. In one second, you know whether or not it’s all going to happen. It doesn’t take you 10 minutes, and it doesn’t take you six weeks. It’s like, whoa. Okay. You know? It takes somewhat less than a second.

Woodward also offers definitive evidence of just what a blundering credit taker Trump has been, particularly in relation to the virus. Five people – Dr. Anthony Fauci, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, the aforementioned Redfield, and security advisers Robert C. O’Brien and Matthew Pottinger — urged Trump to initiate travel restrictions on China. On deep background, Woodward paints a picture of a man merely telling the room, “Are you guys okay with this?” rather than, contrary to his own myth-making, being the sole voice to demand a flight ban. (Moreover, it is Fauci himself who suggests that stranded Americans be given the opportunity to return home.)

Jared Kushner tells Woodward that one of Trump’s great skills is “figuring out how to trigger the other side by picking fights with them where he makes them take stupid positions.” This quality may also explain why guys like Redfield and Mattis eventually gave up the ghost and allowed Trump to beat them down into tacit acceptance of the counterfactual.

And maybe that’s the rage of the title that we’re meant to feel here. Righteous indignation that was once so easily summoned and used to take out the politically corrupt, but that has been deadened over the last four years — save perhaps for the valiant efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement, which may very well be our only remaining hope. Because Trump is the new normal. And we’re all so busy trying to survive a pandemic, climate change on the West Coast, and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

A Sport and a Pandemic

You both dance behind digital feathers. That white ostrich plumage avatar you plucked from Instagram and placed over your best bits when you weren’t depositing the cotton mask on your visage. Something barer if both of you were feeling bold. Anything biting away at the loneliness.

These tugs at the phone are the new hugs. Inexact. Incorporeal. Immaterial. Gray matter leaving a deep imprint. Nerves reconfigured. You wonder if you’ll ever feel the frisson in the way you did before.

The preliminary call makes your first dance resemble a job interview. Tidy and inoffensive questions meant to be tendered in person, just squeaking through at this intermediary stage, this quick fix for your appetite. Hello. Heavy breathing. Portentous gasps. Disembodied voices nestling into the pink chaise longue. Because no one else had been occupying the ruffled fringes other than your grumpy cat, who has grown fatigued from your one-sided conversations and who now merely wants you to give her a tasty chicken Temptation. From him: A joke just funny enough to sustain mystique but just inoffensive enough to keep the minnow hanging on the line. From her: An answer just sexy enough to feed his ego but just opaque enough to disguise her intellect.

Neither of you know just how hard the virus rages outside. Both of you could breathe it in if you meet, gasping away in a gulf of heavy coughs, perhaps dying in a way that future scholars may consider romantic. It’s best to be delicate, which is better than being dead. To seek answers that feel anecdotal but that reveal your true commitment to public health.

There’s never an exact formula, but you both want the same thing. You’re setting yourself up for disappointment. One flub on either of your part could tilt the train over.

We talked, of course. Just as Rilke instructed us to do. One should not believe too easily in a hookup that can vanish on a vagary.

The lifespan of our sordid pretext is more delicate in this epoch. So much frolicking we did in the days before. Before they closed the bars and the restaurants and even the gyms and all the places where we practiced trivialities. As we got to know each other, we both imagined the places in which we could toss our hungering and languorous forms, clambering and shaking as we shuddered tables that used to be nooks where you could sit down and take a fork and pick at a Denver omelette. Exhibitionistic thrills now as lost as time. These were some of the topics we discussed. Where to do it. How to do it. How often we could do it if we worked up the nerve to meet. Shuttered diners that we could break into if the looting happened again. Just to do it. Again and again. Thundering and thrusting on the abandoned furniture as we watched the rats scurry past our lumbering and languid bodies. Even our dirtiest thoughts glittered with a coruscating joy against the dying sun.

But before we could begin to inhabit such a hypothetical place, we shifted from our iPhones to Zoom. Her face added to the steamy whispers. She came to life with a soft burst of unreliable pixels, a Dachshund leaping from a burning building.

She was an out-of-work real estate broker, a part-time novelist who leaned heavily on similes. He was an unemployed bartender. We talked of the babies we could make. Our contribution to the forthcoming boom of unhappy couples domiciled together to burn away the depression and the solitude. We realized we could never know each other that well. We had ideas about summer. And France was too far away.

We unmatched from each other and I walked alone under an orange firmament. 120 degrees on the other side of the world. Bright fires lapping away at all that was left of the very real need we could never summon the effrontery to confirm. I’ll remember her all my life. Until the app chirps back with another match in about twenty minutes.

The City in History (Modern Library Nonfiction #76)

(This is the twenty-fourth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Battle Cry of Freedom.)

I’ve been a city man all my life. Certainly all of my adult life. At the age of twenty, I escaped from the dour doldrums of suburban Sacramento — the kind of hideous Flintstones-style recurring backdrop that seems to encourage broken dreams, angry tears, and rampant abuse behind model home replica doors — for the bright foggy beauty and the joyful pastels of San Francisco.

That gorgeous place from the not so distant past — with the co-op movie theatres playing weirdass indie flicks you couldn’t find on video or teevee, the cafes pattering with political idealism and the streets rattling with the chatty pugnacious jingle of strange conceptual punks, the crumbling encyclopedic bookstores and the boldly strange dive bars of the Tenderloin, and the wonderful mariachi players serenading Valencia Street taquerias for a quick buck, a Mexicoke, and a smile — was exactly the urban realm I needed at the time. Only real souls committed to an increasingly rarefied inclusiveness like Michelle Tea and William T. Vollmann knew how to capture these meat-and-potatoes freak-friendly details in their novels. What I didn’t know, as San Francisco became an unaffordable playground invaded by elitist and not especially perspicacious techbro affluents, was that this coastal metropolis was no longer a place for weirdos like me. I was outpriced and outmatched, like so many who bolted to Oakland, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. It was an all-too-common tale of gentrification and migration, of a city permanently regurgitating its most promising inhabitants and falling victim to an influx of wealth that forever altered its essence. Like any foolish romantic, I fell in love with someone who was absolutely wrong for me and became seduced by the Brooklyn brownstones, the skyscrapers spiring along the rivers, and the giddy pace of a megacity demanding all of its inhabitants to make something of themselves. I’ve been in New York City now for fourteen years — most of my thirties and all of my forties. I hope to continue to live here. But like anything in life, it’s largely the luck of the draw, hoping that the law of averages will work out in your favor. Especially in this age of mass unemployment and pandemic uncertainties and anybody who doesn’t make more than $200,000 a year left in the cold and declared the enemy.

I mention these bona-fides in advance of my thoughts on the great Lewis Mumford to give you a sense of why his amazing book, The City in History, took me much longer to read than I anticipated. The problem with an encyclopedic smartypants like Mumford is that he’ll drop a casual reference that is supremely interesting if you are even remotely curious. One paragraph will send you down an Internet rabbit hole. The next thing you know, you’ve just spent hours of your life trying to find any information on the ancient Greek artisans who hustled their goods in the agora and why slavery was simply accepted as a part of city life for centuries. An email correspondent, learning that I was taking a deep dive into Mumford, urged me to plunge into the four volumes kick-started by Technics and Civilization. And I have to say, given the many months I spent not so much reading The City in History but taking in the many references orbiting its scholarship, I will probably have to wait until perhaps my seventies — should I live that long — for such an enormous undertaking. I could easily see myself as an old bachelor on a beach — filling in crossword puzzles, tendering stories about my misspent youth to any sympathetic ear, respectfully flirting with any lingering divorcé with the decency to not see me as invisible, and carrying along the four Mumford volumes with me (along with whatever will then pass for a tablet to look up all the references) in a satchel.

This is my roundabout way of saying that Lewis Mumford’s The City in History is a wonderfully robust and often grumbly tome from a dude who spent most of his years considering how cities thrive through technological and architectural development. One of the book’s charms is seeing Mumford gradually becoming more pissed off as he gets closer to the modern age. It’s almost as if he resents what the city transformed into in the twentieth century. For example, in a weird aside, Mumford complains about the increased number of windows in residential buildings after the seventeenth century, bemoaning the lack of privacy with a touch of principle rarely remembered by people who grew up with nothing but the Internet’s exhibitionistic cadences. He also has a healthy aversion to the “often disruptive and self-defeating” nature of constant growth. It is, after all, possible for a city or a small town to develop too much. Once cities ditched their walls, there were no longer any physical boundaries to how far any teeming area could spread while arguably become lesser the further it rolled along. (See, for example, the anarchic sprawl of Texas today. Everyone from the likes of the Manhattan Institute’s Michael Hendrix to James Howard Kuntsler has spoken, in varying degrees of horror, about this endless expansion.) On this point, Mumford pushes back against the myth of the medieval town as a place of static boredom. He points to religious edifices somehow transforming these clusters where, for the first time in history, “the majority of the inhabitants of a city were free men.” Even when mercantile centers dried up as trade died, Mumfurod points to the limitless evolution of the countryside. Feudalism subsided for a stabler and more available food supply and new forms of home-spun industry that made many of these smaller villages special. Textile industries flourished in northern Italy and not only resulted in innovations such as the spinning wheel, but some healthy revolutionary pushback against tyrants — such as the weavers rebelling against the ruling elite in 1370-1371. In short, Mumford argues that a reasonably confined city was capable of nearly anything.

But what of the modern metropolis? The cities that called to people like me as a young man? Mumford’s view was that the enormity of a place like Paris or Rome or London or New York City wasn’t merely the result of technological progress. As he argues:

…the metropolitan phase became universal only when the technical means of congestion had become adequate — and their use profitable to those who manufactured or employed them. The modern metropolis is, rather, an outstanding example of a peculiar cultural lag within the realm of technics itself: namely, the continuation by highly advanced technical means of the obsolete forms and ends of a socially retarded civilization.

Well, that doesn’t sound too nice. So the punks who I jammed with in Mission District warrens and the scrappy filmmakers piecing together stories and the bizarre theatre we were putting on while eating ramen and Red Vines were cultural atavists? Gee, thanks, Lewis! Would Mumford apply this same disparaging tone to the CBGB punk crowd and artists who flourished in the East Village and arguably altered the trajectory of popular music? Or, for that matter, the 1990s hip-hop artists who flourished in Bed-Stuy and Compton? This is where Mumford and I part ways. Who are any of us to dictate what constitutes cultural lag? In my experience, obsolete forms tend to square dance with current mediums and that’s usually how the beat rolls on. Small wonder that Jane Jacobs and Mumford would get involved in a philosophical brawl that lasted a good four decades.

It’s frustrating that, for all the right criticism Mumford offers, he can be a bit of a dowdy square. He’s so good at showing us how the office building, as we still know it today, initiated in Florence thanks to Giorgio Vasari. It turns out that this amazing Italian Renaissance man wasn’t just committed to corridors. He designed an interior with an open-floor loggia — those reception areas that can now be found in every damned bureaucratic entity. We now have someone to blame for them! Mumford offers us little details — such as the tendency of early cities to repave streets over the layers of trash that had been thrown over the past twenty years. This resulted in developments such as doorways increasingly becoming lower — often submerged beneath the grade entirely — as history carried on. There are very useful asides in Mumford’s book on the history of multistory buildings. We learn how Roman baths and gymnasiums did make efforts to accommodate the rabble, despite the rampant exploitation of humans. Calvino was only scratching the surface. As long as cities have been around, humans have created new structures and new innovations. For all we know, the Coronavirus pandemic could very well lead to some urban advancement that humankind had hitherto never considered.

Because of all this, I can’t square Mumford’s elitism with the beautiful idealism that he lays down here:

The final mission of the city is to further man’s cautious participation in the cosmic and the historic process. Through its own complex and enduring structure, the city vastly augments man’s ability to interpret these processes and take an active, formative part in them, so that every phase of the drama it stages shall have, to the highest degree possible, the illumination of consciousness, the stamp of purpose, the color of love. That magnification of all the dimensions of life, through emotional communion, rational communication, technological mastery, and, above, all, dramatic representation, has been the supreme office of the city in history. And it remains the chief reason for the city’s continued existence.

Who determines the active and formative development of the city? Do we leave it to anarchy? Do we acknowledge the numerous forces duking it out over who determines the topography? I can certainly get behind Mumford railing against mercantilism. But who establishes the ideal? One of the most underrated volumes contending with such a struggle between social community and the kind of “high-minded” conservative finger-wagging that Mumford too often espouses is Samuel R. Delany’s excellent book, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, a brilliant portrait of the undeniable “color of love” practiced in the Times Square adult movie theatres through the mid-1990s — until Mayor Giuliani declared war on what he deemed unseemly. In a sidebar, Delany, buttressing Jane Jacobs, observes that the problem here is that this sort of idealism assumes two conditions: (1) that cities are fundamentally repugnant places and that we must therefore hide the poor and the underprivileged and (2) the city is defined by the big and the monumental.

The sheer amount of suffering undergone by the impoverished is something that Mumford, to his credit, does broach — particularly the unsanitary conditions that those in London and New York lived in as these cities expanded. (For more on the working stiffs and those who struggled, especially in New York, I highly recommend Luc Sante’s excellent book Low Life.) But while Mumford is willing to go all in on the question of bigness, he’s a little too detached and diffident on the issue of how the have nots contribute to urban growth, although he does note how “the proletariat had their unpremeditated revenge” on the haves as New York increasingly crammed people like sardines into airless cloisters. And, as such, I found myself pulling out my Jane Jacobs books, rereading passages, and saying, with my best Mortal Kombat announcer voice, “Finish him!”

But maybe I’m being a little too hard on Mumford. The guy wasn’t a fan of architect Leon Battista Alberti’s great rush for suburban development, with this funny aside: “one must ask how much he left for the early twentieth-century architect to invent.” Mumford had it in for Le Corbusier and his tower-centric approach to urban planning (which is perhaps best observed in Chandigarh, India — a place where Le Corbusier was given free reign), but he was also a huge fan of Ebeneezer Howard and his “Garden City” movement, whereby Howard suggested that some combination of city and country represented the best living conditions. Even if you side with Jane Jacobs, as I do, on the whole Garden City question, believing that there can be some real beauty in staggering and urban density, you can’t help but smile at his prickliness:

For the successor of the paleotechnic town has created instruments and conditions potentially far more lethal than those which wiped out so many lives in the town of Donora, Pennsylvania, through a concentration of toxic gases, or that which in December 1952 killed in one week an estimated five thousand extra of London’s inhabitants.

Oh, Mumford! With endearingly bleak observations like this, why couldn’t you be more on the side of the people?

Next Up: Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory!

Battle Cry of Freedom (Modern Library Nonfiction #77)

(This is the twenty-third entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Why We Can’t Wait.)

In his 1966 essay “The White Man’s Guilt,” James Baldwin — never a man to mince words or to refrain from expressing searing clarity — declared that white Americans were incapable of facing the deep wounds suppurating in the national fabric because of their refusal to acknowledge their complicity in abusive history. Pointing to the repugnant privilege that, even today, hinders many white people from altering their lives, their attitudes, and the baleful bigotry summoned by their nascent advantages, much less their relationships to people of color, Baldwin noted:

For history, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.

Fifty-four years after Baldwin, America now finds itself enmired within its most seminal (and long delayed) civil rights movement in decades, awakened from its somnambulistic malaise through the neck-stomping snap of systemic racism casually and ignobly practiced by crooked cops who are afforded impunity rather than significant consequences. The institution of slavery has been replaced by the indignities of racial profiling, income disparity, wanton brutality, constant belittlement, and a crass cabal of Karens who are more than eager to rat out people of color so that they can scarf down their soy milk lattes and avocado toast, rarely deviating from the hideous cues that a culture — one that prioritizes discrimination first and equality last — rewards with all the perfunctory mechanics of a slot machine jackpot.

Thus, one must approach James McPherson’s mighty and incredibly impressive Civil War volume with mindfulness and assiduity. It is not, as Baldwin says, a book that can merely be read — even though it is something of a miracle that McPherson has packed as much detail and as many considerations as he has within more than 900 pages. McPherson’s volume is an invaluable start for anyone hoping to move beyond mere reading, to significantly considering the palpable legacy of how the hideous shadow of white supremacy and belittlement still plagues us in the present. Why does the Confederate flag still fly? Why do imperialist statues — especially monuments that celebrate a failed and racist breakaway coalition of upstart states rightly starved and humiliated and destroyed by Grant and Sherman — still stand? Battle Cry of Freedom beckons us to pay careful attention to the unjust and bestial influences that erupted before the war and that flickered afterwards. It is thankfully not just a compilation of battle summaries — although it does do much to mark the moments in which the North was on the run and geography and weather and lack of supplies often stood in its way. The book pays welcome scrutiny to the underlying environment that inspired the South to secede and required a newly inaugurated Lincoln to call for 75,000 volunteers a little more than a month after he had been sworn in as President and just after the South Carolina militia had attacked Fort Sumter.

* * *

It was technological innovation in the 1840s and the 1850s — the new machines putting out watches and furniture and bolts and damn near anything into the market at a rapid clip previously unseen — that helped sow the seeds of labor unrest. To use the new tools, a worker had to go to a factory rather than operating out of his home. To turn the most profit possible and sustain his venal wealth, the aspiring robber baron had to exploit the worker at subhuman wages. The South was more willing to enslave people. A barbaric racist of that era ranting in a saloon could, much like one of Trump’s acolytes today, point to the dip in the agricultural labor force from 1800 to 1860. In the North, 70% of labor was in agriculture, but this fell to 40%. But in the South, the rate remained steady at 80%. But this, of course, was an artificial win built on the backs of Black lives.

You had increasing territory in the West annexed to the United States and, with this, vivacious crusaders who were feeling bolder about their causes. David Wilmot, a freshman Congressional Representative, saw the Mexican War as an opportunity to lay down a proviso on August 8, 1846. “[N]either slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory” were the words that Wilmot added to an appropriations bill amendment. Like any politician, Wilmot was interested in settling scores. The Wilmot Proviso was as much the result of long pent-up frustration among a cluster of Northern Democrats who cared more about holding onto power than pushing forward abolition. The proviso kept being reintroduced and the Democratic Party of the time — much of it composed of racists from the South — began to splinter.

Northern Democrats shifted their support from the Wilmot Proviso to an idea known as popular sovereignity, which placed the decision on whether to sustain or abolish slavery into the hands of settlers moving into the new territories. But Wilmot’s more universal abolition approach still had the enthusiastic support of northern Whigs. The Whigs, for those who may not recall, were essentially middle-class conservatives living it large. They represented the alternative to Democrats before the Republican Party was created in 1854. The Whigs emerged from the ashes of the Nullification Crisis of 1832 — which you may recall me getting into when I was tackling Herbert Croly a few years ago. Yes, Andrew Jackson was responsible for (a) destroying the national bank, thus creating an economically volatile environment and (b) creating enough fury for Henry Clay and company to form an anti-Jackson opposition party. What’s most interesting here is that opposing Jackson also meant opposing one of his pet causes: slavery. And, mind you, these were pro-business conservatives who wanted to live the good life. This is a bit like day trading bros dolled up in Brooks Brothers suits suddenly announcing that they want universal healthcare. Politics may make strange bedfellows, but sometimes a searing laser directed at an enemy who has jilted you in the boudoir creates an entirely unexpected bloc.

Many of the “liberals” of that era, especially in the South, were very much in favor of keeping slavery going. (This historical fact has regrettably caused many Republicans to chirp “Party of Lincoln!” in an attempt to excuse the more fascistic and racist overtures that these same smug burghers wallow in today.) Much like Black Lives Matter today and the Occupy Wall Street movement nine years ago, a significant plurality of the Whigs, who resented the fact that their slave-owning presidential candidate Zachary Taylor refused to take a position on the Wilmot Proviso, were able to create a broad coalition at the Free Soil convention of 1848. Slavery then became one of the 1848 presidential election’s major issues.

In Battle Cry, McPherson nimbly points to how all of these developments led to a great deal of political unrest that made the Civil War inevitable. Prominent Republican William H. Seward (later Lincoln’s Secretary of State) came out swinging against slavery, claiming that compromise on the issue was impossible. “You cannot roll back the tide of social progress,” he said. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act (authored by Stephen Douglas) repealed the Missouri Compromise, which in turn led to “Bleeding Kansas” — a series of armed and violent struggles over the legality of slavery that carried on for the next seven years. (Curiously, McPheron downplays Daniel Webster’s 1850 turncoat “Seventh of March” speech, which signaled Webster’s willingness to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and forever altered his base and political career.) And while all this was happening, cotton prices in the South were rising and a dying faction of Southern unionists led the Southern states to increasingly consider secession. The maps of 1860 reveal the inescapable problem:

* * *

The Whigs were crumbling. Enter Lincoln, speaking eloquently on a Peroria stage on October 16, 1854, and representing the future of the newly minted Republican Party:

When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government — that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that “all men are created equal;” and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.

Enter the Know Nothings, a third party filling a niche left by the eroding Whigs and the increasingly splintered Democratic Party. The Know Nothings were arguably the Proud Boys of their time. They ushered in a wave of nationalism and xenophobia that was thoughtfully considered by the Smithsonian‘s Lorraine Boissoneault. What killed the Know Nothings was their failure to take a stand on slavery. You couldn’t afford to stay silent on the issue when the likes of Dred Scott and John Brown were in the newspapers. The Know Nothings further scattered political difference to the winds, giving Lincoln the opportunity to unite numerous strands under the new Republican Party and win the Presidency during the 1860 election, despite not being on the ballot in ten Southern states.

With Lincoln’s win, seven slave states seceded from the union. And the beginnings of the Confederacy began. Historians have been arguing for years over the precise reasons for this disunion. If you’re a bit of a wonk like me, I highly recommend this 2011 panel in which three historians offer entirely different takeaways. McPherson, to his credit, allows the events to unfold and refrains from too much editorializing. Although throughout the book, McPherson does speak from the perspective of the Union.

* * *

As I noted when I tackled John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, one of my failings as an all-encompassing dilettante resides with military history, which I find about as pleasurable to read as sprawling myself naked, sans hat or suntan lotion, upon some burning metal bed on a Brooklyn rooftop during a hot August afternoon — watching tar congeal over my epidermis until I transform into some ugly onyx crust while various spectators, saddled with boredom and the need to make a quick buck, film me with their phones and later email me demands to pay up in Bitcoin, lest my mindless frolicking be publicly uploaded to the Internet and distributed to every pornographic website from here to Helsinki.

That’s definitely laying it on thicker than you need to hear. But it is essential that you understand just how much military history rankles me.

Anyway, despite my great reluctance to don a tricorne of any sort, McPherson’s descriptions of battles (along with the accompanying illustrations) did somehow jolt me out of my aversion and make me care. Little details — such as P.G.T. Beauregard designing a new Confederate battle flag after troops could not distinguish between the Confederate “stars and bars” banner from the Union flag in the fog of battle — helped to clarify the specific innovations brought about by the Civil War. It also had never occurred to me how much the history of ironclad vessels began with the Civil War, thanks in part to the eccentric marine engineer John Ericsson, who designed the famed USS Monitor, designed as a counterpoint to the formidable Confederate vessel Virginia, which had been created to hit the Union blockade at Ronoake Island. What was especially amazing about Ericsson’s ship was that it was built and launched rapidly — without testing. After two hours of fighting, the Monitor finally breached the Virginia‘s hull with a 175-pound shot, operating with barely functioning engines. For whatever reason, McPherson’s vivid description of this sea battle reminded me of the Mutara Nebula battle at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

But even for all of McPherson’s synthesizing legerdemain, the one serious thing I have to ding him on is his failure to describe the horrors of slavery in any form. Even William L. Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich devoted significant passages to depicting what was happening in the Holocaust death camps. Despite my high regard for McPherson’s ability to find just the right events to highlight in the Civil War timeline, and his brilliantly subtle way of depicting the shifting fortunes of the North and the South, can one really accept a volume about the Civil War without a description of slavery? McPherson devotes more time to covering Andersonville’s brutal statistics (prisoner mortality was 29% and so forth) before closing his paragraph with this sentence:

The treatment of prisoners during the Civil War was something that neither side could be proud of.

But what of the treatment of Black people? Why does this not merit so much as a paragraph? McPherson is so good at details — such as emphasizing the fact that Grant’s pleas to have all prisoners exchanged — white and Black — in the cartel actually came a year after negotiations had stopped. He’s good enough to show us how southern historians have perceived events (often questionably). Why then would he shy away from the conditions of slavery?

The other major flaw: Why would McPherson skim over the Battle of Gettysburg in just under twenty pages? This was, after all, the decisive battle of the war. McPherson seems to devote more time, for example, on the Confederate raids in 1862. And while all this is useful to understanding the War, it’s still inexplicable to me.

But these are significant nitpicks for a book that was published in 1988 and that is otherwise a masterpiece. Still, I’m not the only one out here kvetching about this problem. The time has come for a new historian — ideally someone who isn’t a white male — to step up to the challenge and outdo both Ken Burns and James McPherson (and Shelby Foote, who I’ll be getting to when we hit MLNF #15 in perhaps a decade or so) and fully convey the evils and brutality of slavery and why this war both altered American life and exacerbated the problems we are still facing today.

Next Up: Lewis Mumford’s The City in History!

Not My Friends

The kid pinged me in the middle of the day — a fan of “The Gray Zone.” Sure, he got the title of my audio drama wrong. We corresponded over social media for about a month. He insisted I made great radio. He told me one of his family members had died. I reached out and I wished him well and I said that he could get in touch with me directly if he needed to. Then he blocked me.

That’s usually the way it happens. It’s been like this for over fifteen years. Some reader stumbles upon an old essay I wrote or an interview I did and thinks I’m brilliant. For about a month, I’m “a genius.” (I am honored by the praise, but I assure you that I am anything but this and have the middling track record to prove this.) I ask about the reader. Because I’m interested in people and I try to be polite. Then the fan backtracks and drops me, sometimes with a curt and nasty goodbye.

I won’t name the person who was inspired to start an entire literary operation from scratch, the person who looked up to me in person and elsewhere, and then declared that he was better than me and stopped talking. He may very well be better than me. That’s not for me to judge. I’m too busy being competitive with myself. But abandonment does hurt. Especially after you go out of your way to help someone.

A few months ago, I had to end a friendship of many years after the friend, who borrowed one of the microphones I used for The Bat Segundo Show to make a podcast, completely disrespected me as a person. When did the disrespect start? You guessed it. The minute that he started making podcasts. I patiently listened to him in a bar as he denigrated my craft and insulted the very art I made. He demeaned my love of genre as “Rick and Morty shit.” I made the mistake of thinking that this was loving derision. Maybe he was going through a stage where he needed to denigrate me in order to live. I try to be patient with people. But I soon saw the truth after many months of this, confronted him about this, received a condescending response back, and then dropped him.

By contrast, I informed another friend how I felt about the way she diminished a painful experience in my life. And she was nothing but kind and apologetic, while still holding her ground and telling me the truth and pointing out how I overreacted. (She was right.) This is what real friends do.

The people who read your work are not your friends. Even when they think you are.

Yesterday, I received twenty-three death threats because of a pugilistic piece I wrote. A new record of hate. Many of these came from journalists. Apparently, my piece had made the rounds in a few private circles. These people have read me for years and continue to keep tabs, despite vowing “never to read Ed again. ” I’ve never met any of them, but they seem to think that they know everything about me when there’s a lot that I do and that I haven’t actually found the stones to write about. They seem to think that the man on the other end of the screen is running around Brooklyn with an axe, shouting obscenities at the top of his lungs. In the past, I’ve telephoned these people and put on a performance so they could leave me alone. The regular version of me is quiet and kind, when he’s not passionate and exuberant. And if they’re going to get me wrong, they may as well get me more wrong.

Besides I’m a novelty act anyway. I’m that man you’re so dazzled with at the party but who you never get to know. I was talking with a friend just the other night about the dreadful phrase “You’re a snack” and how I’ve never liked it because it denigrates people. (I dated a woman who said “You’re a snack.” I replied, “Well, baby, you’re a three-course dinner!” We weren’t dating two weeks later.) The point I’m trying to make here is that most writers are seen as snacks. It never occurs to the reader that there is a soul beyond the words. You write a vituperative essay and you’re declared nothing but vituperative. You sing a song about loneliness and the audience remarks upon how the guitar player is always sad. This superficial impression is, incidentally, what allows so many sociopathic writers to be hailed as nice guys. Some of them have even won the Pulitzer Prize.

But something else happens when a fan starts making art and knows you. It is almost always held in comparison to yours — much in the way, I suppose, that young men used to retype pages of Hemingway — and used as a yardstick. Suddenly, something you spent so much time putting together so that it would read or sound seamless is “easy.” And you end up being denigrated or dumped.

And the illusion still holds with these people.

I’ve had people who went out of their way to spread hate and misinformation about me send me fan letters years later. As if I don’t have a record and a memory of how they hurt me. As if I couldn’t possibly have feelings. As if I couldn’t possibly be human.

I’m not here to argue my case for being human. You’ve already made up your mind. But if you and I aren’t true friends, I can guarantee that you’re very wrong about me. And that’s fine. As the old saying goes, it’s your loss, not mine.

Zack Budryk: Is There a More Deplorable, Thieving, and Mooncalfed Pillock “Reporting” on Politics Today?

[9/11/2020 UPDATE: It wasn’t enough for Zack Budryk to send his peers after me on Twitter to try and get my account suspended. Yesterday, I received more than two dozen death threats by email and by comments because of this piece — with IP addresses that traced back in many cases to New York. I’ve never received so many death threats in my life on anything I’ve written — and I’ve written some wild and crazy stuff over the years. It’s pretty apparent that Budryk incited members of the New York media to preserve his position. One journalist who left a comment here before on an article sent me a death threat under a false name and it tracked to the same IP address. These continued threats and efforts to defame my character have been collected and, should the death threats continue, I will report this to the police and the employers of these journalists. I’m not going to be silenced or intimidated by Budryk and his thugs.]

In Which I Encounter a Wildly Arrogant, Remarkably Stupid, Instantly Punchable, and Otiose Bastard in the Wild

On the morning of September 9, 2020, I had no idea who in the fuck Zack Budryk was. Less than three hours after my regrettable discovery of this talentless hack, I would despise the man with every fiber of my being.

It all started when I ran into an irresponsibly “reported” article (archive) at The Hill — written by the diseased dunderhead in question — claiming salmon to be a a danger to America because, in Budryk’s own words, “the novel coronavirus may linger on chilled salmon for more than a week.” Having read up on this very issue months earlier (by a strange twist of fate, this was a subject matter dear to my heart — I happen to love baking salmon — there are six pounds of fish in my freezer as I write this), I knew that Budryk was spreading false information or, to put it another way a few paragraphs before I lay down the real old school invective, his hopelessly blockaded intestinal tract was packed tighter with the larder’s dregs than the infinitely nobler stretch of the late great Maxwell Roach’s snare drum. In other words, this free-wheeling doofus couldn’t bebop even if you bopped him over the head every five minutes with a formidable chinook.

As reported in The Los Angeles Times, you could kill off SARS (a viral cousin of COVID) at 56 to 85 degrees Celsius. Which basically means that, if you bake salmon at 450 for about twenty minutes, any viral threat is removed. Because a well-done salmon is comfortably beneath any deadly threshold. (Just to be clear on this fact — because I do like to practice what I preach — I called the New York State Department of Health on Wednesday afternoon and, not long after I got a live human and sang an improvised version of Dire Straits’s “Industrial Disease” (I couldn’t remember all the lyrics) to make sure she had a fun and memorable day, I was able to confirm with a doctor that, yes, indeed, you aren’t going to catch COVID from salmon. This, folks, is actual journalism — albeit eccentrically practiced. I try to be a fun guy on the phone. We need all the joy we can get in these parlous times.) You can check your salmon with a meat thermometer if you want to get in touch with your inner Howard Hughes. Moreover, COVID is a respiratory virus, not a virus delivered through the stomach. This, incidentally, is why we wear masks in public rather than rubbing our bellies on the streets with hyperbolic Buddha performance art. As Dr. Stephen Berger told the Los Angeles Times, not only have there been no cases of COVID-19 associated with eating food, but the likelihood of COVID spreading through dinner was “rarely, if ever” — and that’s including the extremely slim possibility that you somehow breathed in food through the larynx. (Hope someone adjacent knows the Heimlich!)

I was, in short, deeply outraged that any alleged journalist would wallow in easily debunked malarkey, particularly one who made the choice (the choice!) to be as otiose and as stupid as Budryk to promulgate such deliberate misinformation — especially during a pandemic. The article in question was shared more than 4,500 times by the time I found it. That meant that Budryk was largely responsible for spreading lies and panic and — well, let’s take the gloves off — a steaming heap of bullshit to a reading public that needed facts and reliable information. In an age of wanton lies by our government and biased and lazy garbage promulgated by hucksters like Budryk — all of which have contributed in their own way to the needless deaths of nearly 200,000 Americans — I truly do not have any more energy to devote to this bullshit Faustian bargain whereby we have to accept lies and outright misinformation as the truth and we have to accept lazy and mediocre white guys like Budryk as our “reporters.” No. Fuck these amoral and unpardonable marsupials. They deserve our most stinging vitriol. “No mercy,” to quote Cobra Kai. Languorous lemurs like Budryk are evil fuckwits who tarnish the trade with their cavalier indolence. In a just world, they would be shamed out of practice.

Naturally, I called the dude out on Twitter.

Budryk has since deleted his tweets back to me. This is because Budryk is a cowardly and cocky bastard — the kind of entitled and diseased and dishonorable cuck who would run away from a fight easily resolved through discourse — a dipstick who is more weak-kneed and indecent than Mike McQueary, if you can believe it. And I very much can. There isn’t an ounce of decency in this awful man, He is smug about his fraudulent approach to the facts. (In an attempt to be somewhat objective in a piece that is otherwise designed to mercilessly torch an arrogant and disrespectful asshole well beneath his dermis, I should point out that Budryk did, to his credit, commend a simile I used.) As I proceeded to point out further errors in his “journalism,” it took less than an hour for Budryk to whip up his journalistic peers — including dishonorable Vox contributor Constance Grady (I made numerous phone calls with old contacts on Wednesday afternoon in an effort to get a feel for the current media landscape — I am, after all, quite fucking busy editing a goofball audio drama with a small but deeply appreciative cult audience (one fan was even nice enough to bake me a cake! isn’t that amazing?) — many of Grady’s colleagues, who knew damn well just what I was up to, informed me off the record that they don’t know a single New York media person who hadn’t been stabbed in the back by her at some point — so much for honor among content thieves — and this at an even higher clip than the wonted rate of duplicity and betrayal you come to expect among solipsistic New York media types who would sell your children out if it meant landing a Sunday New York Times Magazine cover story — the upshot of my findings is this: you cannot trust Grady; don’t ever confess your blood type to her — she’ll sell it at bargain basement prices to the vampires) — to smear my reputation rather than respond to my claims. Soon, Budryk was telling the New York media world that I was “a genuinely scary maniac” rather than responding to my findings. Later, in an abuse of his reportorial power, Budryk whipped up his followers to falsely report my makeshift Twitter account so that it would be thrown in Twitter jail (even though I never broke the rules) and silenced.

I don’t take such rampant acts of hubris and stupidity and unfounded assaults on my character lying down.

Not only is Zack Budryk one of the most wildly arrogant little fuckfaces I’ve had the misfortune to encounter over the years — the kind of rabid dog that Fess Parker used to shoot in the head at the end of a wholesome Disney film — but as seen by the image accompanying this story, this malingering noodlehead can’t even pull off the leather jacket look. Which is astonishing. Because 90% of the population knows how to wear a leather jacket. And even if they can’t wear a leather jacket, they’re usually decent enough to capitulate on this front. But arrogant fuckwits like Zack Budryk cannot. They are too busy wallowing in their own hubris to consider the greater good. Honestly, the slicked back hair — the botched greaser look — did have me howling. I have long suspected that full-bore moral probity was beyond my reach and my uncontrolled guffaws concerning the jacket and the hair only confirmed my thesis. This fashion-challenged fool — who cannot comprehend that the combo of studded leather and a plaid shirt is a no-no — is my nemesis? Jesus Christ. I’m not sure what infuriates me more. Budryk’s offense on the leather jacket front. (It’s clear to me that Budryk may just be tolerable-looking in a long wool coat. Why isn’t his wife giving this hapless bungler tips on how to dress? Or maybe she has and Pigheaded Budryk lacks the perspicacity to accept the truth? Or is this a metaphor? A sign that Budryk is fated to permanently have his chirrupy noggin up his own obdurate orifice?) Or his arrogance when called out on his journalistic malpractice. But let’s dwell on the latter. Because that’s clearly more important.

My research into Budryk’s work reveals that he may be one of the worst hack journalists operating today. He bangs out endless content for The Hill — anywhere from eight to twelve articles a day — and regularly commits factual errors, exudes a smarmy bias, never performs journalistic rigor, steals from other sources, and commits wholesale plagiarism — all for an algorithm carefully tailored for Google.

This investigation isn’t just me settling a score with some pompous pencilneck — although, let me be honest, it is in part that. Opprobrious oafs like Budryk represent the kind of entitled fuckwits I used to get into brawls with in junior high school and who I would fight in the streets to this very day. There are, after all, standards of decency and human inclusiveness to maintain. Still, there are larger stakes. Because this is also an exposé of The Hill — presently under the editorial leadership of Bob Cusack, a scumbag who openly shirks his duties and runs an operation driven by lassitude. This piece reveals just what a content farm this awful rag has turned into and why you should trust outlets like Politico and The Washington Post over The Hill. Real news outlets do the kind of invaluable long-form reporting that grifters like Budryk pluck from and attempt to pass off as their own. As seen through Budruk’s halitotic efforts, and as sanctioned by his fellow “journalists” on Twitter, The Hill is doing real journalism a disservice. And anybody who holds this content-pilfering mouthpiece up as the real deal should be considered highly suspect or ideally run out of town.

What follows is a detailed collection — just from the last four days or so — outlining why Zack Budryk is one of the slimiest and most unreliable hack journalists working today and why he and The Hill cannot be trusted. Twenty-seven disgracreful and unpardonable affronts upon journalism. In my younger days, I would have tallied more. But, honestly, I value my emotional wellbeing more than I did ten years ago. So I hope you can pardon me.

I have archived every single one of his stories in the event that The Hill pulls or modifies his ineluctable missteps.

I want to be clear that, should Budryk change his ways, I will be the first to welcome him back into the proper graces of journalism. But I don’t see that happening soon. The man is an amoral content thief — the kind of casual criminal who walks into your house, steals the billfold out of your wallet, and then claims it as his. He is a hopeless bungler and a pox upon journalism, a menace to anybody who values the consideration of facts or the careful cultivation of sources. The hell of it is that I never would have gone to all this trouble had Budryk not gone out of his pusillanimous way to tar and feather and silence me. But then deplorable dickwads like Budryk only know how to play dirty. Budryk’s gaffes proved to be so disgraceful and intolerable that I was forced to holler like a starved dog out my window, to which my neighbor replied, “Another hack journalist?” “Yeah,” I said. “Why don’t you write it out?” “Okay.” And so I did.

Factual Errors

1. in a September 9, 2020 article (archive), Budryk claimed that New York Rep. Max Rose “defeat[ed] Rep. Dan Donovan (R-N.Y.) by just under 4 points.” This is incorrect. According to the certified election results, Rose beat Donovan on November 6, 2018 by 101,823 votes to Donovan’s 89,441 — or 53% to Rose’s 46.6%. That’s seven points. (More details on Rose at Ballotpedia.)

2. In a September 8, 2020 article (archive), Budryk cannot get the facts or the timeline right for a story on Michel Cohen and Jerry Falwell, Jr. Falwell resigned from Liberty University on the evening of August 24, 2020. Cohen offered quotes to CNN on August 27, 2020. A year before this, the Wall Street Journal reported on Cohen’s recording on April 2019. Here is how Budryk “reported” it and mangled the factual details:

Earlier this year after the recording was released, Cohen said “there is absolutely no connection between the photos and my personal request to the Falwells to assist the Trump campaign.”

Falwell resigned his presidency at Liberty University in August after a business associate, Giancarlo Granda, claimed he had an affair with Falwell’s wife Becki Falwell with her husband’s knowledge and consent.

This is incorrect. The recording was released in 2019, not “earlier this year.” Budryk falsely offers the impression that Falwell resigned after Coehn’s statement. But it was clear that he did so before.

3. In this September 6, 2020 article, Budryk reveals that he’s an inept and inaccurate transcriber. He quotes Symone Sanders as saying, ““I just think we have to think about the pain that the working families across this country are experiencing right now,” But upon reviewing the actual video, Sanders says, “I just really think we have to think about the pain of the working families across this country are experiencing right now.” This is a pedantic point — and I’m sure that Budryk would probably claim that he was “synthesizing” or “aggregating” the quote in question. But he also smears Sanders in his piece by claiming, “Sanders responded but did not definitively say whether the former vice president would get vaccinated.” What Budryk completely omitted in his piece was Sanders stating twice, “We all want a vaccine.” He also failed to note that Sanders expressed worries about the distribution of a hypothetical vaccine: “Will working families across this country — I just talked about the folks who work at cashier, who are working check cashing counters and working grocery stores, and folks who are truck drivers — will they have the ability to get this vaccine? We know that African-American and Latino folks in this country are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Will those neighborhoods and communities across the country have the opportunity to receive the vaccine? That is the question.”

It is worth noting that, when Sanders mentioned this, even the right-leaning FOX News cut to B roll of blue-collar workers toiling. That FOX News would show more journalistic responsibility than Budryk truly reveals his bias and his ineptitude.

Journalistic Bias/Willful Exclusion of Key Facts

1. Budryk refers to “so-called straw donor schemes” (archive) in this aloof article on Louis Dejoy, almost as if a straw donor scheme were a colloquial term of art rather than something expressly illegal under 52 U.S.C. § 3012. This is a convenient way for Budryk to fail to refer to such straw donor convicts as Dinesh D’Souza in 2014 (pardoned by Trump) and Jeffrey E. Thompson in 2016. It’s clear that this hopeless kid has no real understanding of political corruption and creates a biased article that significantly underplays Dejoy’s criminal behavior.

2. In a September 7, 2020 article (archive), Budryk’s unpardonable failure to include vital reporting by The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg and Reuters make it appear that Joe Biden is merely calling Trump names over the issue of whether the President called soldiers “suckers” and “losers.” This unpardonable elision fails to buttress the facts. The article contains the sentence:

“Trump has strenuously denied making the remarks.”

But a more careful and objectively reported article would have contained this sentence:

“Trump has strenuously denied making the remarks, which were reported by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and the Associated Press.”

3. In a September 7, 2020 article (archive) that appears to have been banged out in seven minutes, Budryk completely bungled a story concerning Amazon purchasing a 16% stake in Deliveroo and running against the regulatory exigencies of the CMA, an authority in the UK. Budryk suggests that Amazon “missed a deadline to provide documents” and was fined the equivalent of $72,000, suggesting this to be a case of oppressive government. What Budryk omits here is that, according to Reuters, Amazon failed to file 189 documents in a timely manner, causing the CMA to have delays to properly investigate the purchase. Why is this important? Because what Budryk has done is softened the necessary investigation a monopolistic giant expanding its territory into UK delivery. By failing to report this detail — which is in every other news story about this — Budryk paints the CM as a pesky bureaucratic authority rather than a governmental mechanism designed to safeguard businesses. Who knows? Maybe Budryk sided with Amazon because he is, fundamentally, a content thief who lives to exploit the words and findings of other journalists.

4. Much as Budryk did with his Joe Biden story, Budryk’s September 5, 2020 piece (Archive) paints Nancy Pelosi as someone who “politicizes a deal,” even as Budryk fails to note that the Senator who suggested this also called Pelosi “Cruella de Vil” in the same interview. Note how Budryk pins the blame on (a) a Democrat and (b) a woman. The omission is so despicable here that it’s almost as if Budryk has some misogynistic issues that he needs to work out.

5. (I have done my best to organize Budryk’s failings, which are considerable. But I urge you to revisit Factual Errors, Entry 5, concerning Symone Sanders. It’s truly a disgraceful and tendentious elision.)

6. In a September 6, 2020 article, Budryk once again paints Nancy Pelosi as the figure holding up coverage. A review of the actual Steven Mnuchin interview reveals a slightly nuanced quote. I have bolded what Budryk has deliberately left out:

Well, I think you know in my discussions with the Speaker, where we’re really stuck is both on certain policy issues, but more importantly on the top line. The Spaker has refused to sit down and negotiate unless we agree to something like a $2.5 trillion-dollar deal in advance.”

The point here is that even Mnuchin started out his answer with a more realistic assessment of the stalled stimulus talks. But Budryk, more interested in painting Pelosi as some Democratic harpie, deliberately overlooked this.

7. It is an undisputed fact that 93% of Black Lives Matters protests have been peaceful. (And, by all means, please dispute the data. But the fact of the matter is that you can’t.) But dispute the overwhelmingly peaceful nature of the protests, this didn’t stop the vulpine Budryk from seizing upon a report (archive) suggesting that protesters were in the habit of regularly throwing firebombs. In his “objective” story, Budryk quote-tweets the Portland Police. But he never even considers tweeting a Portland protester or a journalist who was actually there on the scene. He continues to paint the Portland protesters as baleful, ranging from citing an “unlawful assembly” to a fatal shooting. In short, Budryk is a pusillanimous chickenhead on the side of the right. He is no more objective than a Jehovah’s Witness.

8. As was pointed out in Point 2, why would Budryk cheapen Reuters or The Atlantic in their reporting of Trump’s disparagement of the military? But, you see, Budryk is a closeted right-winger who summons FOX News as an authority (archive) before any other outlet:

Fox News and The Washington Post have since matched parts of The Atlantic’s reporting.

9. Budryk is an anti-science asshole (Archive). Here is Budryk, claiming that objective science is merely an opinion:

The scientific adviser for the Trump administration similarly said “I’m out” if a scenario arises in which an Emergency Use Authorization he disagreed with was issued for an inoculation.

I cannot even begin to register my disgust for the loathsome anti-intellectual “take” that fuckwads like Budryk have gone to the mat for here. To understand why Budryk’s framing is so vile, let me put forth a proposition. Let’s say the FDA approved mercury, which is poisonous to humans, as a remedy for COVID. If you proffered science, demonstrating why this is bad, would it be an “opinion”? Or would it be a scientific fact? Honestly, if Budryk is to be punched in the face for anything, it is with this venal legerdemain. He clearly isn’t a journalist. He’s a partisan anti-science asshole. Opportunists like Constance Grady may very well bob their mouths up and down on Budryk’s throbbing member. But unlike Grady, I know that I can sleep easy, knowing that I am on the side of science.

Lack of Journalistic Rigor

1. In this September 8, 2020 article on the DC Metro (archive), Budryk lacks the reading comprehension skills (or maybe the time) to read a PDF properly. He writes, “[The audit] also found incidents of managers threatening controllers who questioned orders that violated existing rules.” But it fails to note the more important details from the report, which was managers threatening controllers with arrest and termination if they didn’t do their job. If Budryk were an actual journalist, he might have reached out to the ROCC for a statement on this. He might have persuaded transit operators to speak to him anonymously. This is what any decent journalist does. She pushes forward the story. But Budryk is incapable of doing so. He doesn’t actually do any work here. The Hill‘s strategy is to hijack the algorithm — whereby an incompetent hack like Budryk gets into the top search results and a reported story falls by the wayside.

2. While he was banging together a September 7, 2020 “article” (archive) on disgraced Minnesota priest Michel Mulloy that was largely cut and pasted from two articles from the Associated Press, it never occurred to Budryk that the very subject of his article (or, rather, the “article” that he was assembling from various other bits like Dr. Frankenstein on a bender) had a history of abusing minors in the 1980s.

3. It’s clear that Budryk will never pick up the phone for these stories. Even so, let’s compare Budryk’s appallingly simplistic story from September 6, 2020 concerning OMB crackdowns on free speech against a story in Politico. Note how Politico writer Michael Stratford is committed to historical context while Budryk flails around in the dark like some frat boy trying to find the light switch.

Budryk: “It is unclear to what extent, if at all, such programs are in place at the agencies, with the OMB citing ‘press reports.'”

Stratford: “It is not clear how the Trump administration could make good on such a threat since longstanding federal law prohibits the Education Department from exercising “any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum” of the nation’s schools.”

As we continue to see here, Budryk is clearly stretched too thin and too willing to cut corners to provide such essential context.

4. To get a real sense of how dopey Budryk is, look no further than this September 6, 2020 article, which relied heavily on a paragraph uttered by North Carolina State Board of Elections Executive Director Karen Brinson Bell on Meet the Press. You can compare it against the transcript — specifically the paragraph I have highlighted below, which serves as the basis for the article. Budryk doesn’t have any real news. So, being the good hack that he is, he stretches out sentences from this paragraph to pad out his piece. I have observed high-schoolers with more inventive ways of turning in their homework at the last minute.

Failing to Attribute Sources

1. On September 5, 2019, Smithsonian reported on the Met’s developments to hire a full-time curator of Native American Art. Because Smithsonian‘s Brigit Katz is an honorable journalist, she dutifully linked to a statement issued by the Art of Native America as well as a Shannon O’Loughlin interview with Art Newspaper so that anybody following the story could follow the leads. Unfortunately, since Budryk is a dishonorable thief who does not credit, he simply plucked this information from Katz without credit and pasted them into his September 9, 2020 story (archive) without attribution.

Plagiarism

When I pressed Budryk on his tendency to plagiarize entire articles from other news sites for The Hill, he claimed (in a now deleted tweet) that he was “aggregating” his content. But his “aggregation” is often far too close to the original sources, as the numerous examples below will attest. (I switched over to Desklib from Copyleaks. I truly did not expect to blow through my free uses so fast. But then Budryk surprised me with his nimble and prolific thievery!)

1. (Source) (Budryk) (Budryk Archive):

2. (Source) (Budryk) (Archive)

3. (Source) (Budryk) (Archive)

4. (Source) (Budryk) (Archive)

5. (Source) (Budryk) (Archive)

6. (Source) (Budryk) (Archive)

7. (Source) (Budryk) (Archive)

8. (Source) (Budryk) (Archive)

9. (Source) (Budryk) (Archive)

10. (Source) (Budryk) (Archive)

11. (Source) (Budryk) (Archive)

Audio Drama: “Unfound Door”

Today, we released “Unfound Door.” This is the furth chapter of our massive epic, “Paths Not Taken,” which takes place from 1994 through 2023 in two parallel universes. This seven part story is part of the second season of The Gray Area. You can follow the overarching story through this episode guide.

This is the most ambitious story we have ever told. It takes place in two parallel universes and follows numerous characters between 1994 and 2023. “Unfound Door” is the fourth chapter of an exciting seven part epic that involves parallel universes, lost love, identity, forgiveness, compassion, fate, fortune tellers, mysterious Englishmen, strange interdimensional creatures named Chester, a wildly exuberant alien fond of hot dogs and Tony Danza, and life choices.

You can listen to the first chapter here, the second chapter here, and the third chapter here.

Here are a number of useful links: (The Gray Area website) (the iTunes feed) (the Libsyn RSS feed) (the Podchaser feed)

For listeners who don’t want to wait two weeks for the next chapter, we also have all seven parts (as well as a great deal of behind-the-scenes material) available for Season 2 subscribers at grayareapod.podbean.com.

Here’s the synopsis for Chapter Three:

Confronted with surprise revelations and the need to reconcile two parallel universes, Chelsea faces the hard truths about what sustaining a relationship really means while cleaning up a cosmic disturbance that no human being could have ever predicted. Meanwhile, a Melissa Etheridge T-shirt proves to be an invaluable remedy as our heroes contend with a giant heart that beats to the rhythm of time. (Running time: 31 minutes)

Written, produced, and directed by Edward Champion

CAST:

Chelsea: Katrina Clairvoyant
Maya: Tanja Milojevic
Alicia: Elizabeth Rimar
Scarlett: Jessica Cuesta
and Zack Glassman as The Receptionist

Creature Voices by Samantha Cooper and Rachel Baird

Sound design, editing, engineering, and mastering by a bald man in Brooklyn who once sang “Piano Man” in a karaoke bar with a harmonica and got the entire crowd to sing along.

The “Paths Not Taken” songs were written and performed by Edward Champion

Incidental music licensed through Neosounds and MusicFox.

Image licensed through Getty.

Thank you for listening!

If you’d like to support this independent audio production and learn more about how we made it, for only $20, you can become a Season 2 Subscriber! You’ll get instant access to all episodes as we finish them — months before release. Plus, you’ll get access to exclusive interviews and more than 400 minutes of behind-the-scenes commentary! Here are some behind-the-scenes photos and videos pertaining to this episode that we made during the more than two years of production we put into the second season.

Behind the Scenes:

Audio Drama: “Same Age Inside”

On August 25, 2020, we released “Same Age Inside.” This is the third chapter of our massive epic, “Paths Not Taken,” which takes place from 1994 through 2023 in two parallel universes. This seven part story is part of the second season of The Gray Area. You can follow the overarching story through this episode guide.

This is the most ambitious story we have ever told. It takes place in two parallel universes and follows numerous characters between 1994 and 2023. “The First Illusion” is the second chapter of an exciting seven part epic that involves parallel universes, lost love, identity, forgiveness, compassion, fate, fortune tellers, mysterious Englishmen, strange interdimensional creatures named Chester, a wildly exuberant alien fond of hot dogs and Tony Danza, and life choices.

You can listen to the first chapter here and the second chapter here.

Here are a number of useful links: (The Gray Area website) (the iTunes feed) (the Libsyn RSS feed) (the Podchaser feed)

For listeners who don’t want to wait two weeks for the next chapter, we also have all seven parts (as well as a great deal of behind-the-scenes material) available for Season 2 subscribers at grayareapod.podbean.com.

Here’s the synopsis for Chapter Three:

While on the run from a wild interdimensional beast named Chester, Chelsea learns of electromatter, the surprising ubiquity of Tony Danza, and the multiverse. But the alarming differences she discovers about the universe she’s become part of threaten to topple her efforts to reconnect with Maya and Alicia. (Running time: 26 minutes, 25 seconds)

Written, produced, and directed by Edward Champion

CAST:

Chelsea: Katrina Clairvoyant
Alicia: Elizabeth Rimar
Maya: Tanja Milojevic
Jill Swanson: Ingeborg Reidmeier
and Zack Glassman appeared as The Receptionist

Background Voices by Alexander Bill, Brandon P. Jenkins, and Tal Minear
Creature Voices by Samantha Cooper and Rachel Baird

Sound design, editing, engineering, and mastering by a bald man in Brooklyn who once grew a mustache and shaved it off two weeks later because he looked preposterous.

The “Paths Not Taken” songs were written and performed by Edward Chmpion

Incidental music licensed through Neosounds and MusicFox.

Image licensed by Getty.

Thank you for listening!

If you’d like to support this independent audio production and learn more about how we made it, for only $20, you can become a Season 2 Subscriber! You’ll get instant access to all episodes as we finish them — months before release. Plus, you’ll get access to exclusive interviews and more than 400 minutes of behind-the-scenes commentary! Here are some behind-the-scenes photos and videos pertaining to this episode that we made during the more than two years of production we put into the second season.

Behind the Scenes:

An earlier version of the Part 3 song (with slide):