Cup of Coffee: March 18, 2021
Fake crowd noise, fake investigations, fake integrity, fake neutrality, and yes, I have some thoughts about the shitheads to whom Substack has given advances.
Good morning! And welcome to Free Thursday! If you’re a once-a-week reader or a new visitor to Cup of Coffee, may I interest you in a subscription?
At the very least, it’d be good of you to share:
Today we’re talking about fake stuff.
Fake crowd noise and, perhaps, a fake investigation into Mickey Callaway. Also: the fake outrage from anyone who thinks that J.D. Vance has just now become problematic, and a lot of words about the troubling fact that this platform — Substack — is helping shitheads find an audience and using a fake justification for doing so. Beyond that are a couple of things that are realer than real: (a) the boys boppin’; and (b) law enforcement’s blindness when it comes to white supremacy and misogyny.
The Daily Briefing
There will still be fake crowd noise
JJ Cooper of Baseball America reported yesterday afternoon that clubs will be required to play fake crowd noise for any games where there is less than 25 percent capacity crowds. Fake crowd noise will be optional if crowds are at more than 25 percent of capacity. Given that a lot of teams — including all of the California teams — are going to be capped at 20% capacity in the early going, we’re gonna have a lot of that 2020-style fake roar of the crowd.
Players last year said they preferred the fake noise to the eerie quiet, which makes a lot of sense. Broadcasters likely prefer it too. For my part, I found it weird when watching games on TV due to the disconnect between the sound and the visuals, but that it was no issue at all on radio.
Speaking of sound and vision, subscriber Kevin Neudecker wrote me yesterday to tell me of the idea he had last year that MLB should commission the great Brian Eno to create an ambient album called “Music for Ballparks” and use it instead of pumping in fake crowd noise. His friend Ron Kretsch put together and image of what that media might look like:
Welcome to week seven of the Mickey Callaway investigation
On February 1, in a report in The Athletic, five women in sports media accused Angels pitching coach Mickey Callaway of lewd behavior. Callaway is alleged to have “aggressively pursued” these women, sending inappropriate photographs and requesting naked photos in return, thrusting his crotch in a reporter’s face while she interviewed him and telling another woman he’d provide information about the Mets, which he then managed, if she got drunk with him.
Callaway’s behavior, which was characterized as “the worst-kept secret in sports,” caused the Angels to suspend him pending an “immediate” MLB investigation, to use MLB’s words. That was 45 days ago. Which means that we’re now into week seven of Major League Baseball’s “immediate” probe.
There has been complete radio silence from MLB during that time. There have also been no leaks of any kind regarding the investigation, which is itself unusual. I’m old enough to remember the Mitchell Report, the Biogenesis Investigation, the Tyler Skaggs investigation, the sign-stealing investigation, and virtually every other investigation into a serious matter by the league, and every single one of them featured stories from the game’s top reporters with bits of information from inside the probe. Nothing here. Bupkis.
My suspicion — and what else can we do but speculate in this information vacuum? — is that the reason there has been zero said about this is that the investigation is revealing that a hell of a lot of people, including people in positions of authority with the three clubs for which Callaway worked over the five-plus years the allegations cover, knew that Callaway was a pig. That the implausible denials on the part of the couple of executives who have issued public statements notwithstanding, the claim that Callaway’s behavior was baseball’s worst-kept secret is true.
MLB will usually leak from its investigations to cast the target of its investigation in a bad light and telegraph its intentions with respect to him. They may very well have leaked here if the idea was to cast Callaway as a singular bad actor, because isolating singular bad actors and concluding that no one else was involved is basically the entire point of MLB investigations. I suspect they have not done so here, however, because there are a lot of people implicated. A lot of people who at least knew of Callaway’s behavior and turned a blind eye to it, and now MLB needs a way to issue a report and some discipline on this which allows them to banish Callaway to a distant star while not taking down a bunch of other men inside the game. At the very least, it means that there are a lot of interviews of a lot of witnesses because this is something pretty big. Bigger than being about just Mickey Callaway.
The origin story of the “Boys Boppin” t-shirt
You’ve probably seen this iconic photo of Dave Parker from back in the day:
If you know your Parliament/Funkadelic, you know that is adapted from a line in “Mothership Connection.” But there’s a reason Parker had that shirt on that day in 1976, and Michael Clair of MLB.com has that story.
Um . . .
At some point MLB’s compulsion to sell merch and basic aesthetic coherence come into conflict. A conflict which threatens to consume all of baseball:
“What in the world?”
On Friday evening I’m taking part in a venerable event at the (virtual) SXSW: “20x2” which involves twenty speakers being given one very vague question and two minutes in which to answer it any way they’d like. This year’s question: “What in the world?”
There are no rules. A lot of the other 19 people taking part in this are likely way smarter and way more creative than me so I expect sculptures, songs, visual arts extravaganzas, and better spoken word things than I’m likely to come up with. And I say that mostly because I’m still working on mine. Mostly because I’m finding that two minutes is a not a lot of time when you can say literally anything you want. The left-brained Craig tends to need more guidance. Some limiting principle, of which there is none here by design.
So, yeah, check it out maybe and watch me flail. Should be a hoot.
“A bad day”
"It was a really bad day for him and this is what he did . . .”
That’s how the Cherokee County (Georgia) Sheriff described Tuesday’s murder spree by a white gunman that left eight people, six of whom were Asians, seven of whom were women, dead. As if the toxic misogyny and racism that manifestly motivated this killer’s actions was not the real issue but, rather, a series of bummers that, hey, could happen to anyone.
Worth noting that the police are the last people whose word you should take as gospel regarding what is and what is not a racially-motivated shooting because of, you know, the entire historical record of police shootings, almost none of which, in the eyes of police, have been racially motivated. More specifically, it only takes about a second to grok the notion that a “sexual addiction” of a white man centering on Asian women is rooted in sexualized stereotypes of submissive Asian women. It’s an age-old trope that is, by definition, rooted in and animated by white supremacy.
The reason this remains a racist, male-dominated, and misogynistic society is because power excuses and rationalizes the violent actions of white men, normalizing their violence as some sort of understandable and relatable baseline or something that happens to them by virtue of circumstance as opposed to holding them responsible. And then, on top of that, power bends over backwards to edit out racism as a factor as if its very existence depends on it.
Probably because it does.
On J.D. Vance’s “heartbreaking turn”
Anti-Trump conservative talking heads decided that yesterday was the day to begin mourning J.D. Vance’s turn toward Trumpism, as embodied by his backing by Peter Thiel, the Mercer Family, and saying increasingly Trumpy things on his social media accounts as he gears up to run for the U.S. Senate, which I discussed on Tuesday. To wit: here’s a column from Mona Charen about how Vance has “joined the jackals.” Here’s David Frum linking it, referring to Vance’s stance as a “heartbreaking turn.”
I’d argue that none of this is new or unexpected. Indeed, there have long been seeds of Trumpism in Vance’s work and that, above all else, his book and all the stuff that people said about it back in 2016 represented perhaps the strongest and most putatively respectable effort of many to whitewash the inherent white supremacy of the Trump movement.
Specifically, “Hillbilly Elegy’s” out-of-hand dismissal of basic racism as a huge factor which contributed to the white underclass’ hatred of Barack Obama and its embrace a of man in Donald Trump who was, quite obviously, a white nationalist candidate, looked to me an awful lot like an effort to excuse racism as the animating factor in resentment of Obama. A resentment which Trump used as the means of his rise to political relevance. Get this passage, discussing Obama, from page 191 of “Hillbilly Elegy”:
“Many of my new friends blame racism for this perception of the president. But the president feels like an alien to many Midletonians for reasons that have nothing to do with skin color.
Recall that not a single one of my classmates attended an Ivy League school. Barack Obama attended two of them and excelled at both. He’s brilliant, wealthy, and speaks like a constitutional law professor – which, of course, he is. Nothing about him bears any resemblance to the the people I admired growing up: his accent – clean, perfect, neutral – is foreign; his credentials are so impressive that they’re frightening; he made his life in Chicago, a dense metropolis; and he conducts himself with a confidence that comes from knowing that the modern American meritocracy is built for him. Of course, Obama overcame adversity in his own right – adversity familiar to many of us – but that was long before any of us knew him … Barack Obama strikes at the heart of our deepest insecurities.”
As I wrote back in 2016, this is unmitigated bullshit. Apart from skin color, there is absolutely nothing Vance’s generation of “hillbillies” had in common with any president in Vance’s lifetime.
Reagan was a Hollywood actor. The Bushes are inner-circle members of Patrician society – eastern blue bloods with inherited fortunes and more ivy league degrees than you can shake a stick at — George W. Bush’s phony Texas drawl notwithstanding. Bill Clinton’s childhood may have been roughly relatable to Vance’s, but he went to an Ivy League school, Georgetown and Oxford and was a millionaire many times over before anyone in Middletown, Ohio or rural Kentucky had ever heard of Obama. This is to say nothing of other candidates Vance’s friends gladly support like Mitt Romney, Rand Paul and the various state and local officials who represent southern Ohio and eastern Kentucky.
The people Vance describes in his book may not have liked Bill Clinton much, but they never turned on him as personally or vehemently as they did Obama. They never questioned his legitimacy as a president or a human being. They never questioned his heritage or religion. They never circulated the vile propaganda they circulated about Obama. They likewise did not flock to Trump because he’s somehow relatable in ways that Obama isn’t. That is, unless I missed the part of the book where Vance explained how much in common a self-proclaimed billionaire/lifelong New Yorker who, if he had wanted to, never would’ve had to work a single day in his life has with the people Vance knew growing up.
All of which is to say that it’s complete horseshit to deny the fact that the movement that led to Trump was based on a white nationalist appeal. It began with Trump’s questioning of Obama’s citizenship, casting him as some African interloper, ramped up dramatically in response to Trump’s demonization of immigrants, and was galvanized by Trump’s politics of resentment and grievance, all of which found its most ardent backers in groups like the Proud Boys and the still-current rock solid 65% of the Republican Party who remain diehard Trump supporters.
Most people completely missed this stuff in Vance’s work five years ago as they rushed to praise him for being some sort of truth-teller. He’s always been like this, though. Eager to serve as a smiling and respectable face for some really ugly shit, be it racist Obama resentment, revanchist cultural politics or, fuck-the-poor policies that aim to serve the billionaire class that has provided him his primary source or income for his entire adult life.
He’s a fraud. He’s always been a fraud. To the extent people haven’t figured that out before now it’s probably because the fraud he was perpetrating served them well or made them feel better about themselves. Either way, they shouldn’t act surprised.
Steven Spurrier (not the football coach): 1941-2021
If you know or have read a little bit about wine, you have probably heard about the Judgment of Paris. That’s the name — inspired by the Greek myth — of a wine competition which took place in Paris on May 24, 1976 in which French judges carried out two blind tasting comparisons: one of top-quality Chardonnays and another of Cabernets. The wines picked included world-renowned French wines and some California wines, which at that time, the wine world didn’t think all that much of. The California wines won in both categories, shocking the wine world and putting Napa Valley on the map.
That competition was put together by a British wine merchant based in Paris named Steven Spurrier, who would be portrayed by the great Alan Rickman in the movie about The Judgment of Paris, “Bottle Shock.” Spurrier died on March 9 at the age 79. His New York Times obituary is an interesting read, both about him, the 1976 wine competition, and everything that surrounded it.
First the Verizon “Can you hear me now?” guy switched sides to shill for Sprint. Now the “I’m a Mac” guy is out there pitching PCs.
Dave Chappelle had it right:
The shitheads on Substack
Last week Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie sent out a post about something called Substack Pro, which is a program where writers get paid an upfront sum from Substack to cover their first year on the platform. It’s a means of enticing people with an advance, basically, in exchange for 90% of first year revenues, after which it flips back to the normal model of Substack taking a 10% cut. If you come out ahead on that, great. If you don’t, and your first year didn’t result in you getting enough subscribers to make it worth your while, no worries. Keep your advance and stop publishing if you want.1
Substack Pro is something that a lot of people knew about before last week — I did, but as I sit here I can’t remember how I knew about it — but McKenzie’s post was the first official acknowledgment of it. I suppose he made it public because it was starting to get around that Substack Pro had enticed a number of fairly well-known professional writer types to the platform and people were starting to talk. And not positively, in part because it had an air of secrecy to it, given the company’s policy of leaving it up to the writers who took part in it to decide if they want to reveal their involvement in the program.
The backlash is not just a function of the secrecy surrounding Substack Pro, of course. The backlash is also based on the idea that the highest profile writers who are thus far known to have taken advantage of it are, well, total shitheads.
As Jude Ellison Sady Doyle wrote in the leading response piece, the list includes writers like Freddie de Boer, Matt Yglesias, Glenn Greenwald, and Jesse Singal (UPDATE: Since this was published Singal and Greenwald have told me on Twitter he is not part of Substack Pro) some of whom have trafficked in transphobia or have otherwise engaged in some pretty objectionable discourse. Doyle is leaving Substack because they give money to these people. So too is Anaïs Escobar Mathers. I’m sure there are others. I’m also sure that there are shitheads on par with the guys I mentioned of whom I am not aware.
I completely understand why someone would not want the money they earn, part of which is sent to the company, to go to underwrite advances to said shitheads and thus I understand why they would leave Substack. For what it’s worth, yesterday afternoon McKenzie, in attempting to address these concerns, said that Substack’s cut of other authors’ revenues are not paying the shithead advances. I hear what he’s trying to say, but money is fungible my dude, so that’s not really a sufficient response. Indeed, I suspect it’s a response that will make this worse for Substack.
All of this is complicated business. And I’m not 100% sure what to think about it, so I’m going to talk my way through it here and try to get someplace with it.
At the outset I’d like to push back against one idea I’ve seen floating around out there: that Substack Pro is some sort of “scam” or some sort of grand deception by the company aimed at misrepresenting its product or whatnot. I think that’s overstating things, because it’s not like Substack invented the model of offering advances to attract big named writers, shitheads included. This is the book publishing model, right? This is like Simon & Schuster or Penguin Random House or any of the other big five publishing houses, offering advances to Donald Trump Jr., Laura Loomer, Dinesh D'Souza, John Bolton, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Michele Malkin, and any number of other shitheads like that. All of the Big Five publishers have all done that with a comparable lineup of shitheads. Those authors were all wooed in the same way Substack wooed their roster of shitheads: via an advance, underwritten by revenues from books by other authors.
To be sure, none of this is to defend Substack, or the Big Five publishers, for reaching out to shitheads (more on that below). It’s just to say that it’s a pretty old damn model. A model that is not properly characterized as a scam or a deception, I don’t think. But it is a model that pretty much flies in the face of Substack’s claim — an already tenuous one — that it is not a publisher but rather, just some totally neutral platform.
We’ve heard that “we’re just a platform” claim from Facebook and Twitter and various other companies in the past, and the fact that those platforms often put their finger on the scale in favor of the shitheads puts lie to it. I think Substack has at least a moderately better claim to it than, say, Facebook, as it does not appear to drive readers to certain newsletters at the expense of others or otherwise game things in order to cater to certain points of view — and contrary to Annalee Newitz’s claim, some of us are making a good living at this with no assistance from Substack — but by giving advances they are making it more likely that the work created by those who get them reach more people by simple virtue of supporting the writers of that work financially. Again, like book publishers.
I do not believe that Substack has some specific political agenda or is advancing some grand plot to promote a specific, shithead point of view. But I do not accept Substack’s “we’re just a platform” fiction. Like Simon & Shuster, it has made decisions, particularly with respect to the Substack Pro program, that have made it easier for hatred and bigotry to make it into the world. And it has done so because it thinks it can make some money on that stuff. Substack can say it has not looked at the content of the writers to whom it gives advances put out, but not looking at it — not taking a stand with respect to it — is itself a choice. True neutrality may be impossible, but even arguable neutrality would require Substack to refrain from underwriting the first year of that kind of work and letting it sink or swim on its own.
So where does that leave me? Good question.
Do I decline a book deal with Simon and Schuster — or tear one up if I have one already — because they gave Dinesh D’Souza a bigger book deal? Maybe! Maybe I limit myself to deals with small presses whose work I have found to be ethically defensible, like Belt Publishing, which is where I happen to have a book deal right now. And which is run by a woman named Anne Trubek who, actually, is the one who put this Substack/book publishing analogy in my mind in the first place. But, while it'd be ideal to leave a publishing platform that also publishes the work of objectionable people, I’m not sure how that’s in any way workable for someone like me who relies on the platform to make a living.
Yes, my subscriber list is portable and I could pick up and move, but there are some big costs associated with doing so, ranging from business disruption to potential subscriber loss, to simply ending up at another platform that, very soon, will find itself under fire for making similar choices as Substack has. If I was just posting weekly movie reviews on here I might pull the plug and put it all up at WordPress, but this newsletter is paying my mortgage and will hopefully be putting my kids though college, so I can’t make rash moves like that any more than I could quit NBC in protest when they hired Megyn Fucking Kelly a few years ago. And even if I did, I don’t think it does any more to harm the shitheads than my quitting NBC would’ve harmed Megyn Kelly.
But yes, I find myself in a pretty profound state of disappointment with Substack. A disappointment that I cannot very easily act on by yanking my business away from it in protest, but a disappointment that at least has me considering the possibility of one day picking up and moving to a different platform.
In the end, there is nothing that says you have to be maximally profitable and that you cannot leave any money on the table. I would hope that Substack takes that idea to heart and considers the possibility that there is some business it can and should leave for someone else.
Have a great day, everyone.
For the record, I am not a part of Substack Pro. I started this newsletter on my own initiative and I was not enticed with cash-in-advance or anything else. It was not until the day after I launched that anyone at Substack knew who I was, I think, as that’s when McKenzie sent me a note congratulating me on starting up. After that I had a telephone call with McKenzie, during which he asked me to let him know if there was anything I needed, but Substack has never offered me a thing.