Volume 3, Issue 88: Misunderstood
"There's something there that you can't find, honest when you're tellin' a lie."
Here is a button where you can subscribe to this newsletter now, if you have not previously done so. I do hope that you enjoy it.
Thirteen years ago, then-candidate for the Democratic nomination for President Barack Obama gave a speech at a fundraiser in San Francisco. This was a closed-door fundraiser, which, back in 2008, meant that Obama assumed he could more specifically cater his speech to his current audience without having to be concerned that his comments would reach the outside world. This assumption is obviously now absurd. It is foolish, moving forward, to assume that any conversation, whether you’re a Presidential candidate or just a person talking to someone at school pickup, will ever remain private. (I now move forward with the presumption that if I tell a dog to “sit,” this instruction will find its way onto social media within the hour. “Watch This Defiant Dog Eviscerate This Mansplainer.”) Obama was asked a question about the then-fairly-new phenomenon of many rural Americans growing reactionary in their politics, in ways that, particularly to San Franciscans, seemed racist and retrograde, and potentially dangerous. Obama’s response was expansive, empathetic and also a little lecturing, which is to say, it is exactly what you would expect Barack Obama to say.
You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
I grew up in one of these towns and have seen those jobs slowly evaporate over the last 30 years. I’ve watched a once-proud downtown deteriorate as all the commerce floated out to the Wal-Mart out by the interstate, a trend that has only accelerated in the 13 years since Obama made those comments. What Obama said was not only correct, it was even a little bit ahead of its time. “Those small towns in Pennsylvania” and “a lot of small towns in the Midwest” (and, as a Senator from Illinois, one of those towns he was talking about very well might have been mine) have become the central political story of our time in the age of Trump. The divide that Obama was describing has, in the 13 years since—eight of which featured Obama as President, of course—has become a chasm. I remember, when I first heard the full context of those comments, thinking, “this is exactly right. No one has helped these people, across multiple administrations from both parties. What are they supposed to do?”
But no one cared about the full context of those comments. The only word anyone paid attention to was “cling.” It became a massive attack ad, immediately, a way to paint Obama as “out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans.” If you read the entire comment, if you took the time to understand what Obama was saying, it was obvious to anyone operating in good faith that he was attempting to address those very concerns, put them in their historical perspective and try to find a solution to help bridge that expanding divide. One can disagree with his potential diagnoses, but it wasn’t difficult to figure out what he saying. Claiming that he’d somehow “blasted” people who lived in small towns was only possible if you made a special effort to ignore the first part of the statement and only look at the second part. The only way you could misunderstand it was by purposely attempting to.
Which was, of course, what everyone did.
“Obama Angers Midwestern Voters With Guns and Religion Remark,” read one major headline, in a piece that claimed Obama was “caught in an uncharacteristic moment of loose language.” (The piece quotes exactly zero angry Midwestern voters.) Immediately, everyone ran with the story that Obama had made some sort of “gaffe,” though, again, all you had to do to understand what he was saying was just read the whole statement. But if you think it was mean old-right-wingers, the Tucker Carlsons of 2008, who willfully and giddily misconstrued Obama’s words, the strongest statement came from Hillary Clinton, who said, “I was taken aback by the demeaning remarks Senator Obama made about people in small-town America. His remarks are elitist and out of touch.” (She would of course have the same thing happen to her eight years later with her far more tone-deaf, but still not wrong, “basket of deplorables” remark.) Obama, briefly pretending he was living in a different media environment then than he was, initially stood by his statement—because he meant it, and because he was true—before, after two ugly news cycles, he ultimately walked it back, saying, “I didn’t say it as well as I should have.” He would be careful not to make the mistake of trusting people to actually listen to the words he was saying again.
What mattered was not what Obama said, or what he was trying to express, but instead what people decided he said. To this day, no one remembers the beginning of Obama’s statement. They only remember the “cling” part. Eventually even Obama himself bowed to this reality. (He wrote in his Promised Land memoir that the “cling” remark was one of his biggest regrets.)
And now we all are stuck in that reality forever.
This week, while doing a test show for the upcoming “The Long Game With LZ and Leitch” podcast—launching this Wednesday!—we were discussing the Houston Astros and their cheating scandal from 2017, now back in the news because they’re playing the Atlanta Braves in the World Series. Personally, I’ve always found the scandal a bit overblown—the big technological advantage everyone was so angry about was the high-tech innovation of banging on a trash can—but I understand that many baseball fans are more moralistic about the sport than I am, so I’ll cede a bit to that anger; just because I’m not offended by it doesn’t mean others are wrong to be. But of all the Astros villains to come out of the scandal, the brunt of the anger has landed on Jose Altuve, the five-foot-six MVP who, as I witnessed last night at Truist Park, has tens of thousands of people screaming CHEATER! CHEATER! at him every time he steps to the plate.
Someone has to take the brunt, I suppose—it’s not easy to boo a computer, or a trash can, though it’s funny to watch people try—but the problem with the person being Altuve is that it’s overtly clear at this point that he had nothing to do with the scheme. According to every report, including the one given out by Major League Baseball (a flawed report largely because of its anonymity, to be sure), Altuve specifically requested not to be a part of the trash can banging, saying it messed up his timing. (Something the evidence supports; according to Tony Adams’ exhausting research at SignStealingScandal.com, the banging was present less for Altuve’s at-bats than any other player, by a wide margin. This backs up Carlos Correa’s claims that Altuve was regularly arguing with his teammates about the scheme.)
Tony Adams @adams_atOne thing in Andy Martino’s book that I didn’t know is Astros players told *MLB investigators* during their interviews that Jose Altuve “didn’t want the pitches” and “would sometimes become angry when teammates gave them during his at-bats.” Here’s an Altuve at-bat with a bang. https://t.co/CjAQB0QkZ9
(Watch that above video. You can actually see Altuve yelling at the dugout to knock off the banging.)
Early Twitter pseudo-sleuthings that claimed Altuve had some sort of “buzzer” under his uniform have been thoroughly debunked, as has the theory that he somehow refused to take his jersey off to hide it. There really isn’t a shred of evidence that Altuve had anything to do with the banging scheme at all; if anything, he was the one Astro fighting against it. One can be angry at the Astros and want them to lose the World Series; I might be rooting for that myself. But the idea that Altuve—who is putting together a Hall of Fame career but might well not make it to Cooperstown because of this scandal—wasn’t just involved but is in fact the Astro most worthy of scorn, the public face of the scandal, is flat wrong. It does not require much research to figure this out. You don’t have to look very hard at all.
I attempted to bring all this up on the test show with LZ, but LZ is smarter and wiser than I am. “Yeah, don’t nobody care about all that,” he said. “He’s just the cheater.”
And he’s right, of course. What actually happened is beside the point. What matters is what people believe happened. In this age of conspiracies and living inside our own social media silos, there is much discussion of the toxic tendency for people to put more stock in their beliefs than actual facts and science, particularly when, you know, there’s a pandemic going on. But this is true for all of us, all the time. Our lives are all really busy, and stressful—the burdens and drains of just being human walking around the planet are exhausting enough on their own. Who has the time to dig deep into the true facts on everything? Did Obama really say people in small towns were stupid for “clinging” to religion? Did Jose Altuve cheat? Do all those vaccine breakthrough cases mean the vaccines don’t really work? Why are my gas prices suddenly so high? Why is it taking so long to get stuff shipped to me? What the hell is this Meta shit about?
There are answers to all these questions. But who has the time? We’re all just trying to keep our heads above water over here.
I suppose this has always been true. Our understandings of history are constantly skewed and incorrect. (Did you know there was never a single person burned at the Salem witch trials? Where’d we come up with that?) But, as a journalist, as a constant reader and, frankly, as a bit of a pedant, I often find this one of the most difficult parts of getting older, realizing that we haven’t gotten any better at this—we’ve just gotten worse. You can do everything you can to try to figure out the right answer, to do the right thing, to make the most informed decision you can … and in the end, the only thing that really matters is what people believe. I’d get frustrated with other people for doing this, but I do it all the time myself. We all do. There is, alas, no agree-upon series of facts that we can all fall back on, and there never has been. There is only what we react emotionally to, and how it registers as part of our understanding of the world. I don’t want this to be the case. But it is nonetheless. And I’m sure it always will be. It doesn’t matter why people are booing Jose Altuve. Don’t nobody care about all that. It only matters that they are.
Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality.
Either Quit Facebook, or Don’t, Medium. This is a neat encapsulation of my thoughts on the big news story of the week.
My Annual World Series Player Draft With Mike Petriello, MLB.com. I always look dumber standing next to Mike, but I get to look a little smarter just by the fact that I get to stand next to him at all.
Five Questions Facing New Cardinals Manager Oliver Marmol, MLB.com. Not sure how I feel about a Cardinals manager who is literally more than a decade younger than me.
I Have an Interview With David Freese in the World Series Program, You Should Buy One, MLB Productions. You can probably guess what this is tied to the 10th anniversary of.
The Aggrieved World Series, New York. Two fanbases that have circled the wagons.
I Wrote MLB’s Morning Lineup Newsletter All Week, and Here’s the First One, Previewing the Series That Has Now Started, MLB.com. It is super hard to write just 400 words! I cough 400 words.
Game Three World Series Recap, MLB.com. Hey, I just wrote this late last night! Well, early this morning, actually.
What’s Going on With America’s Churches? Medium. Tried to work through some stuff with this one.
A Preview of the Crowd in Smyrna For Game Three, MLB.com. Go Smyrna Braves!
The Mt. Rushmore of This Week’s Newsworthy Humans, Medium. I really like this series, but I’m not sure this is a popular sentiment.
Game Two World Series Recap, MLB.com. Remember this game?
Game One World Series Recap, MLB.com. How about this one? (This was the one where Charlie Morton broke his leg.)
Grierson & Leitch, discussing “Dune,” “The French Dispatch” and “Contact.”
Waitin' Since Last Saturday, we previewed the Florida game.
LONG STORY YOU SHOULD READ THIS MORNING … OF THE WEEK
“The Evangelical Church Is Breaking Apart,” Peter Wehner, The Atlantic. This was the subject of one of my Medium pieces this week, and every single bit of it tracks with the experience of just about everyone I know involved with the church. It’s horrible. And probably inevitable.
GREAT MOVIE THAT’S NOT AVAILABLE ON STREAMING
The Girlfriend Experience, directed by Steven Soderbergh. One of the great underrated Soderbergh movies, and one of the best movies about the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis. From my original review: What’s the room look like when all the air is let out but no one has started choking yet?
ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!
These are all headed your way, if you’ve been waiting for one, finally.
Write me at:
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603
CURRENTLY LISTENING TO
“The Hardest Cut,” Spoon. Spoon is absolutely one of those bands that I appreciate a little more every year (as I get older, and so do they), Spoon announced Thursday that they’ve got a new album coming out in February. I’m sure it will be like all their others: About 46 minutes of just low-key fantastic songs before they go hibernate and make another one in five years. I’ve grown to appreciate rock consistency as I descend into middle age, and no one represents that better than Spoon. I’ve never seen them in concert, but this next tour, I’m gonna. And at this concert, I will very lightly rock!
Remember to listen to The Official Will Leitch Newsletter Spotify Playlist, featuring every song ever mentioned in this section.
Oh, hey, half-marathon went great last week, I can finally feel some of my extremities again.
In one week, there will be no more baseball until next year (hopefully). That’s sad.
Have a great weekend, all.