"Go Get Your Fuckin' Shinebox", "wiseguys", Anti-Hero, biography, Catherine Scorsese, Corruption, Crime, Film, film review, Gangsters, Goodfellas, Hastings, Henry Hill, history, Individual Will, Jimmy Conway, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, lufthansa heist, Martin Scorsese, masculinity, Masculinity Studies, morality, Pulp Fiction, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, violence, Working Class Men
There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow men. True nobility lies in being superior to your former self. –Ernest Hemingway
As far back as I can remember, personally, I always wanted to be Chewbacca from STAR WARS. The reason for that was largely simple, nobody ever really fucked with Chewie. Han Solo was the guy all the boys on the playground wanted to be, and I was often regulated to playing Chewie. I didn’t mind this so much because Chewbacca was tall like I was, covered in hair which became more and more true with each passing year, and nobody in the movies ever beat Chewie in a one on one fight. He pretty much just walked around doing whatever he wanted to because who’s going to tell a Wookie what he can and can’t do?
I suppose in this way Ray Liotta and I have something in common, because his character Henry Hill (based upon an actual person) from Martin Scorsese’s opus Goodfellas, expresses more-or-less the same sentiment about being a gangster. The film opens with these lines after Joe Pesci has stabbed a mobster a dozen times with a butcher knife in Henry’s trunk and Robert de Niro has shot the man four times (I counted):
Henry Hill: [narrating] For as long as I can remember I always wanted to be a gangster. To me that was better than being president of the United States. To be a gangster was to own the world.
There was a time in my life when I could watch the movie Goodfellas over and over again and never seem to get bored or bothered by it. Part of this was the fact that I was a teenage boy and a high school loser to boot. When you’re the weird kid, and your perceive yourself as the weird kid, and that perception only further influences your dress, behavior, and attitude, and people around you perceive it, and puberty is happening to you like a sledgehammer to the scrotum, darkness tends to be something you gravitate towards you. Then again, I’ve always found morbid topics interesting. Being a kid I would look at horror movie covers and memorize the names of killers because there was something cool about being close to that darkness. I think this is the best explanation of why Goodfellas, and Pulp Fiction before it, appealed so much to me.
On one side note I find it bothersome that Pulp Fiction is one of the films that changed my life and I still haven’t gotten around to reviewing it yet.
Goodfellas didn’t stumble into my life, it was handed to me by my tenth-grade English teacher. She and I would usually talk before class because she was funny, she had great insight, and I guess she saw something in me. She originally introduced me to Stephen King, giving me her water-damaged copy of The Green Mile, which lead me to other works by King and secured my desire to become a writer. But at some other point she told me to find a copy of a movie called Pulp Fiction. I rented a copy of the movie from Hastings (#restinpeace) and watching Tarantino movies I started also trying to find interviews with the man and a name kept popping up: Martin Scorsese.
Goodfellas wasn’t the first Scorsese film I saw, I believe the first one I watched was either Mean Streets or Taxi Driver. But Goodfellas kept popping up, usually alongside Raging Bull as Marin Scorsese’s supreme cinematic achievement. Not long thereafter my parents gave me a copy of Goodfellas and Braveheart for Easter and I watched it and disappeared.
I have yet to watch a Scorsese film that is not good. Even his first major film Mean Streets, which is obviously rough since it’s his first full movie, is extraordinarily good. Scorsese as a director was brought up under a documentarian tradition and so whenever he makes his films he tries to simply capture the human being’s honest behavior. Rather than tell a narrative emotionally or personally, he allows the characters and people to perform their own arcs, and Goodfellas is probably his best demonstration of this outside Raging Bull. The story is about a man named Henry Hill, the child of an Irish/Italian marriage and that lineage is important. He grows up in a poor neighborhood watching the cab-stand across the street where the “wiseguys” or gangsters hang out wanting to join their world. He eventually makes his way into the organization and the rest of the film follows him living the life of a gangster until he eventually has to leave the life for the sake of his survival.
The movie, while it follows multiple characters, centers on Henry and he narrates his life and thoughts first person as if analyzing his behavior for the audience. Part of the miracle of the film is that this structure could feel obvious or overdone, but it never does. The film sucks you in and holds you close to the material while Henry observes the realities of Gangster life. He notes early in the film about the benefits of such a system:
Henry Hill: [narrating] For us to live any other way was nuts. Uh, to us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills, were dead. I mean, they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something, we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.
In an earlier scene he mentions something similar:
Henry Hill: [narrating] One day some of the kids from the neighborhood carried my mother’s groceries all the way home. You know why? It was outta respect.
Henry eventually is caught for drug trafficking and has to sell out his friends Paulie and Jimmy Conway, and the final scene offers Henry’s summation of everything he learned from the experience, and the final conclusion is as revealing as it is disturbing:
Henry Hill: [narrating] Anything I wanted was a phone call away. Free cars. The keys to a dozen hideout flats all over the city. I bet twenty, thirty grand over a weekend and then I’d either blow the winnings in a week or go to the sharks to pay back the bookies.
[Henry leaves the witness stand and speaks directly to the camera]
Henry Hill: Didn’t matter. It didn’t mean anything. When I was broke, I’d go out and rob some more. We ran everything. We paid off cops. We paid off lawyers. We paid off judges. Everybody had their hands out. Everything was for the taking. And now it’s all over.
Henry Hill: And that’s the hardest part. Today everything is different; there’s no action… have to wait around like everyone else. Can’t even get decent food – right after I got here, I ordered some spaghetti with marinara sauce, and I got egg noodles and ketchup. I’m an average nobody… get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.
Henry’s final speech reveals a bit of Scorsese’s ultimate aesthetic goal which is to get the viewer to observe how the Goodfella lifestyle has infected Henry and how, even after everything he’s seen and done, he still longs for a life of crime because the benefits of such a life seem far better than the average day-to-day lifestyle of real people. Now this isn’t a novel observation, dozens of critics have noted that part of the success of the movie is this very realization about Henry, and many have noted that the appeal of the film is the way the characters suck you into the reality and world almost making you want to stay inside that world yourself. Almost every person would love to live a life where they don’t have to work, they can take anything they want, and just generally live and behave without worrying about reprisal.
With this being the case there doesn’t appear to be much room for me to come in and offer up any new material, my reader would note, but as always I have to disagree.
The reason I must contest my reader is because there was a time when Goodfellas was a movie I loved to watch, but over the last few years I’ve stopped watching it as much. It’s not that I no longer love the film, I still consider it one my favorite movies of all time, and, to be honest, I’d watch it before just about most of the films currently being released. But since I’ve started maturing emotionally, and puberty no longer holds my gonads like a vice, the appeal of that world and reality has dimmed.
I lead a very privileged life, but the desire to work and contribute something to my world and community is what drives me more than anything, and watching Goodfellas again recently I was struck by how narcissistic each of the characters was. Whether it was Mauri always bitching about nobody paying him, or Henry as a kid noting that he didn’t want to go to school because the Gangster life was far more lucrative. Even Karen observes how this selfishness comes to become, in her own words, normal:
Karen: [narrating] After awhile, it got to be all normal. None of it seemed like crime. It was more like Henry was enterprising, and that he and the guys were making a few bucks hustling, while all the other guys were sitting on their asses, waiting for handouts. Our husbands weren’t brain surgeons, they were blue-collar guys. The only way they could make extra money, real extra money, was to go out and cut a few corners.
[Cuts to Henry and Tommy hijacking a truck]
Goodfellas is a wonderful film about the real gangster lifestyle, and throughout the movie there are plenty of opportunities for Martin Scorsese to bring in his brilliance for making iconic shots and scenes, and also remind the viewer that he owns virtually every Rolling Stone record. On a side note, Scorsese is the only director I know who can ever effectively use the song Gimme Shelter in a film and make it sound even more amazing than it already does. But I think if you push deeper into the film the entire movie becomes one long documentary and meditation on the impulse of selfishness.
Every character wants to enjoy the riches and agency that being a mobster, or being related to a mobster, brings them. While the characters like Jimmy, Tommy, Henry, Paulie, Karen, and Maurie are driven by their selfishness, Scorsese demonstrates that they live in a system which perpetuates that selfishness and thus reinforces it into a sick kind of normality. It becomes okay to steal, murder, and beat-up innocent people because you have a license to do it.
As Tommy is being led to the house to become a Made man Henry notes this subtly:
Henry Hill: [narrating] You know, we always called each other good fellas. Like you said to, uh, somebody, “You’re gonna like this guy. He’s all right. He’s a good fella. He’s one of us.” You understand? We were good fellas. Wiseguys. But Jimmy and I could never be made because we had Irish blood. It didn’t even matter that my mother was Sicilian. To become a member of a crew you’ve got to be one hundred per cent Italian so they can trace all your relatives back to the old country. See, it’s the highest honor they can give you. It means you belong to a family and crew. It means that nobody can fuck around with you. It also means you could fuck around with anybody just as long as they aren’t also a member. It’s like a license to steal. It’s a license to do anything. As far as Jimmy was concerned with Tommy being made, it was like we were all being made. We would now have one of our own as a member.
People crave to be part of a system or tribe by nature, and if one exists that can benefit them dramatically then they’ll react violently. If I can offer one last quote as justification, Henry observes in the film, shortly after Tommy kills the Made-man Billy Batts (with his infamous “Shine-box” line), that this is the case:
Henry Hill: [narrating] If you’re part of a crew, nobody ever tells you that they’re going to kill you, doesn’t happen that way. There weren’t any arguments or curses like in the movies. See, your murderers come with smiles, they come as your friends, the people who’ve cared for you all of your life. And they always seem to come at a time that you’re at your weakest and most in need of their help.
The easiest attack made against Goodfellas as a work of art is the fact that there is so much violence in the movie, but that violence has tended to obscure the real art that is behind it. The same goes for the first-hand narrative structure of the movie which has been reproduced ad nauseum in far too many movies that are trying to be clever or else just bad rip-offs of Scorsese’s work. Goodfellas, as it exists, tries to show how the gangster lifestyle can infect people and lead them down a path of self destruction. Henry, from the time he’s thirteen, sees the gangsters and their “freedom” as more of an opportunity than participation in society. Instead of trying to find a job, work hard, and make something of himself, he chooses crime, and while he succeeds for a while, it’s ultimately his undoing and he almost winds up whacked because of it.
Scorsese’s genius is showing these people, these characters, and getting the viewer to ask themselves are we really seduced by this freedom, or after watching this film do we stop and realize that there’s nothing truly glamourous about it. It’s a violent, narcissistic society that feigns community for the sake of personal gain. And apart from the great music, it almost always ends in disaster.
I still love Goodfellas, and I still love watching Goodfellas. What’s changed is that I no longer see these characters as any kind of anti-heroes. They’re just selfish-bastards dressed up in nice suits. Though this last point does make me reconsider being a gangster only because it’s hard as fuck to find a decent tailor.
I didn’t get a chance to mention it in the essay, but part of the appeal of Goodfellas for me is seeing Martin Scorsese’s mother play Tommy’s mother. It’s impressive to watch the woman not only handle her own alongside actors like Pesci, De Niro, and Liotta and not even bat an eye, but also, if you watch the scene carefully, steal the entire scene.
And if you don’t believe me here’s the actual scene:
And Scorsese himself talking about it:
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Africa, African History, Apartheid, biography, Biography as Craft, Book Review, Born a Crime, Born a Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood, Father-Son Relationship, fathers, Feminism, history, Hitch-22, Humor, Jim Henson: A Life, Jon Stewart, library card, Masculinity Studies, memoir, mothers, Politics, race, racism, Racism is not logical, Satire, sex, Sexual politics, Sexual Rhetoric, South Africa, The Daily Show, Tolstoy, Trevor Noah, Tyler Public Library, violence, What Mothers Give Their Children
I’m pretty sure my mother is using me for my library card.
Ever since I started working for the Tyler Public Library my eyes have opened to the pettiness of local government, and the pain that can sometimes be public service. The Tyler Library is a significant one: we have one of the few full time Genealogy/Local History rooms that is open full time in East Texas. Along with that we serve a wide variety of people who come in looking for books, DVDs, access to computers and the internet, and a regular series of public speaking events in which people come to listen and watch professionals talk on topics ranging from Rose growing to the future of Nuclear Arsenal Diplomacy on the international stage. The problem with the library, like almost every library I’m sure, is funding. Because only the city of Tyler’s taxes go to fund us, people who live within the county but not the city have to pay a membership fee. My reader may be wondering what this has to do with my mother or Trevor Noah’s wonderful autobiography Born a Crime. I’m sorry, I like to talk, but I’m getting to it.
My mother lives in Smith county but she lives in a small town called Noonday which barely caps 400 people. She then, like many people in Smith county, complain about the fact that their tax dollars are being taken but they still have to pay to use the library. In her defense, she understands the money situation since I’ve explained it to her, but often I have to smile and carefully explain to patrons that the county refuses to pay us and therefore we have to charge a fee to stay in the black. Few people really understand this because of the unspoken maxim that I agree with in principle: Libraries should be free.*
But my mother likes to read and I like my mother, she’s got good taste in music and pays my cell phone bill, so I decided to arrange a system in which I would check out books that she wants to read and loan them to her. The system has worked so far, but as I noted from the start I think she’s enjoying this arrangement because every time I see her she’s asking for another book.
This little anecdote though does serve a purpose because as I noted before this essay is my response to Trevor Noah’s autobiography Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. I didn’t know about Trevor Noah at all until he got in trouble for an offensive tweet, and to be fair that was really only because he was taking over for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and people were looking to disrupt the institution at this supposed moment of weakness. Stewart left, Noah began, I stopped watching for a while. It wasn’t that he wasn’t funny, it just that he was new and I’m one of those obnoxious people who has to settle into things slowly. Still I enjoy The Daily Show and Noah himself has begun to really demonstrate that he’s made The Daily Show into his own and so I’ve become a regular watcher again, and in fact, in the last few months I’ve come to adore Trevor Noah as a comedian, and even more as a writer and Born a Crime is largely responsible.
I checked the book out from the library (my desk is literally right next to the New Books area) and read the first two chapters knowing instantly that my mother would love this book. I know it sounds ridiculous or absurd to suggest that I have anything in common with a celebrity (especially one who’s seemed to have a far more interesting and eventful life than I have), but reading these first two chapters I realized that Trevor Noah and his mother had a relationship that mirrored the relationship my mother and I have. A strange closeness that fortunately isn’t Oedipal.
I told her to read just the first two chapters.
I didn’t get the book back for a week.
Noah’s biography took me completely by surprise because I’ve read the autobiographies of comedians before, and most of them, if I’m being charitable, aren’t worth reading. It’s not that they aren’t funny, it’s just that most of them are just opportunities to track their individual development and show where they’ve come from. I know there’s merit and real humanity in such works, but the problem is too often these books are also just a chance to rap and ramble about everything and anything that comes into their heads. Noah’s book is different however, because his story chronicles not just his awkward puberty and childhood, it also tackles the issues of race, political corruption, domestic violence, crime, and poverty while still managing to be entertaining and well written. Trevor Noah’s very existence was a crime because, growing up in South Africa during apartheid, being the child of a black woman and a white man, he was a crime against the state.
Noah’s book often explores the sheer absurdity of apartheid in small segments between the chapters of the book. One passage which is one of my mother’s favorites, discusses the labeling of Chinese South Africans as black. He explains:
Apartheid, for all it’s power, had fatal flaws baked in, starting with the fact that it never made any sense. Racism is not logical. Consider this: Chinese people were classified as black in South Africa. I don’t mean that they were running around acting black. They were still Chinese. But unlike Indians, there weren’t enough Chinese people to warrant devising a whole separate classification. Apartheid, despite its intricacies and precision, didn’t know what to do with them, so the government said, “Eh, we’ll just call ‘em black. It’s simpler that way.”
Interestingly, at the same tie, Japanese people were labeled as white. The reason for this was that the South African government wanted to establish good relations with the Japanese in order to import their fancy cars and electronics. So Japanese people were given the honorary white status while Chinese people stayed black. (75).
I still can’t read this passage without cracking up. The stupidity is just mind-boggling. Then again the United States Constitution originally labeled black people as three fifths of a human being so I suppose it’s important to remember that racism is a worldly stupidity rather than just a regional one.
One of the joys of reading Noah’s biography is the fact that, as a comedian, his retelling of one of the most truly despicable institutionalized race segregationist policies never becomes dramatic, hyperbolic, or soul-crushingly depressing. Instead of levelling on and on about the atrocities of apartheid, Noah tries constantly to present the small absurdities in his life while observing how they would relate to the wider national community. And in this right, I would argue, Noah succeeds far better in demonstrating the ineffectiveness of apartheid, because while concerted political efforts were what ultimately brought down such an odious system, it’s the power of subverting the institution through laughter that a real victory is achieved.
If you can laugh at something, it’s difficult to take it too seriously.
There so many levels to Noah’s biography in terms of race. One of the most prominent is also one of the hilarious and tragic scenes in the book. Noah describes his early infancy when his mother and biological father tried to take Noah outside for activity.
Where most children are proof of their parent’s love I was the proof of their criminality. The only time I could be with my father was indoors. If we left the house, he’d half to walk across the street from us. My mom and I used to go to Joubert Park all the time. It’s the Central Park of Johannesburg—beautiful gardens a zoo, a giant chess-board with human-sized pieces that people would play. My mother tells me that once, when I was a toddler, my dad tried to go with us, and I ran after him, screaming, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” People started. He panicked and ran away. I thought it was a game and kept chasing him. (27).
This passage is funny upon first reading, but by the second or third time I’m reading it I wonder (while still laughing) the pain of not being able to even be seen in public with your child.
Before I start the maudlin crap though I really do want to acknowledge how well written this biography is. I’ve observed before that it can be difficult to find truly great biographies. A.N. Wilson’s Tolstoy is always the first that comes to mind, Che: A Revolutionary Life by Jo Lee Anderson comes next, Jim Henson: A Life by Brian Jay Jones (Also look up his George Lucas), Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens, I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, and recently I’ve begun Life by Keith Richards. This list may seem to contradict my statement before about the scarcity of truly great biographies but in fact it only reinforces it. These books are products of a careful craft (pardon the alliteration) that tries to leave the reader with a real sense of the person under discussion, and rather than try to chronicle every detail of a person’s existence, it instead tries to offer the heart and personality in all its beauty and flaws.
Reading Born a Crime I feel like I know Trevor Noah’s personality, rather than just his facts.
And if I can offer one last sentiment, what is beautiful about the book for me is how much I come to recognize that the pair of us do have one thing in common: we grew up under strong women. The impression of Born a Crime that lingers for me is how Patricia Noah helped shape Trevor into the man he became. One quote is enough to see this because I return to it over and over again:
I grew up in a world of violence, but I myself was never violent at all. Yes, I played pranks and set fires and broke windows, but I never attacked people. I never hit anyone. I was never angry. I just didn’t see myself that way. My mother had exposed me to the books she never got to read. She took me to the schools that she never got to go to. I immersed myself in those worlds and I came back looking at the world a different way. I saw the futility of violence, the cycle that just repeats itself, the damage that’s inflicted on people that they in turn inflict upon others.
I saw, more than anything, that relationships are not sustained by violence but by love. Love is a creative act. When you love someone you create a new world for them. My mother did that for me, and with the progress I made and the things I learned, I came back and created a new world and a new understanding for her. After that she never raised her hand to her children again. Unfortunately, by the time she stopped Abel had started. (262).
This passage is beautiful to me because it perfectly summarizes the home I was raised in, or at least the philosophy that governed it. Both of my parents grew up in homes where physical abuse was not controversial, it was just a common means of discipline. I was raised by parents who disagreed with that idea, who instead wanted their children to see that violence doesn’t check anything, all it does is inspire more of itself. Violence becomes a kind of cancer eating at the people who perform it and suffer from it until there’s nothing left. If anything, this passage seems like the most important in the entire book because ultimately this biography centers on Noah and his mother.
The relationships between mothers and sons can be complicated, because if men profess too much admiration or devotion to them the accusation of Oedipus complex becomes a loud prison sentence. Anyone who needs much evidence of this simply look to the “Martha” controversy of Batman Vs Superman. But mothers are important for a young man’s development because she becomes the first relationship. Mothers, the good ones anyway, teach their sons emotional strength and then eventually how to interact with the world. They teach them the proper ways to speak and act towards women. They teach them about the importance of family. They teach their sons love, and what that word really means against the supposed images and representations of it that crowd the media. This last lesson is important, the most important, because as Noah’s biography demonstrates that love is what helps develop people into the individuals they are and instills in them their ideals and moral constructions.
I had a wonderful mother who encouraged me to create and love rather than destroy. That guidance has led me to where I am today. Likewise, Noah had a loving mother who suffered and endured a pain that would break most people, but through it all endured and taught her son that essential quality.
Born a Crime isn’t just a story about racism, it’s a testament to a mother’s love for her son. And his success is only further proof that she probably deserves some kind of official “Mom of the Year” award, because you don’t get shot in the head and live through that and not receive any kind of accommodation. Spoilers.
Since writing this essay one of the library staff explained, rather effectively, that nothing in life is “free,” and in fact if you look at the way libraries work since their founding, they are most certainly not free. Books, internet access, and DVDs don’t magically appear from thin air and so libraries have to receive fuding of some kind, usually from taxes and grant funding. I’m writing this out because this attitude of “Libraries should be free” is bullshit and it needs to stop being perpetuated.
All quotes from Born a Crime were taken from the Spiegel & Grau First edition hardback copy.
For the record I don’t mind if my mother uses my library card. Shegave birth me and continues to support me financially, philosophically, emotionally, intellectually, etc., and reads whatever I write here. She also, from time to time, recommends great books. So thanks Mom, you rock. Love you.
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I owe John Stewart everything.
Like many people of my generation I looked to Jon Stewart to provide an insight or analysis of a problem that nobody else could offer. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust the news, it’s just that many of the voices on the news were either relentlessly pedantic, or else the people reporting were trying too hard to be television personalities rather than actually trying to be journalists. PBS Evening News and BBC News seemed like the only reliable sources, but they only came on once a day and usually at the same time and usually during the evening when I needed to be doing homework. Being a night owl that usually afforded me the chance to watch some television in the evenings before bed, but of course, rather than watch Anderson Cooper 360, I switched it over to Comedy Central hoping for a few reruns of South Park or Ugly Americans. I remember watching the show sporadically at first. Sometimes every night week after week, and then I’d stop for a month or two and try to focus on learning how to play the guitar. I was going to be a rock star you see, which, for the record, never panned out. I could never learn how to do the jump kicks that David Lee Roth did which was important for rock you see. Eventually I settled back in to watching Jon Stewart and one night he hosted an interview with a man I had never met but who I instantly wanted to learn more about. He spoke with a British accent and was promoting his memoir Hitch-22. A new world opened to me as I devoured Christopher Hitchens’s writings, and when I finally sat down and read god is not Great, I was never the same.
So like I said, I owe Jon Stewart everything.
That’s why after I had one of my “Coffee with Jammer” sessions with a friend and was walking around Barnes & Noble looking at books (that great temptation) I saw The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests and I snatched it up ignoring the paltry sums of money in my pocket.
The Daily Show (The Book) doesn’t follow the pattern of previous Daily Show books such as America or Earth, where there isn’t a central narrative and the larger aesthetic goal is just to provide a series of laughs and visual comedy gags. The book is exactly what the subtitle suggests, an oral history of how The Daily Show became the institution that it is, how it changed over time, how Jon Stewart helped shape and mold the program into something relevant in the public discourse, and how it jump started the careers of dozens of individuals acting in show business today. Rather than just have Jon Stewart reciting lists and events however the book is narrated in snippets by everyone who was ever involved with the show or played some crucial role. This includes the correspondents such as Al Madrigal, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Larry Wilmore, Olivia Munn, and Kristin Schaal just to name a few, while also including guests of the program such as Senator John McCain, Anderson Cooper, Ta Nahesi Coates, and Paul Rudd.
Before I even begin this though I can already hear some objections from my reader. The Daily Show was nothing but Liberal claptrap and Jon Stewart was just a snowflake stooge trying to push an agenda. How does this book possess any kind of real cultural merit? It sounds more like a chance for Stewart to squeeze a little more juice out of the fact that he’s a celebrity. Why should I waste my time or money on this book?
My contester is a little more political today than they usually are, and I should address the last point first. You could try checking the book out from your local library, if they don’t have it try an Inter Library Loan. That way it’s free and if you don’t like it you can simply return it. Libraries exist for a reason you know.
As for the first points I’m afraid that my contester are themselves plagued by the bias they’re suggesting of Stewart. The man himself doesn’t try to hide that his political positions tend to push towards the left, but any seasoned fan of Stewart has seen and recognized that he can be just as critical of Democrats. It’s easy to look at Stewart’s dialogues and criticisms and observe a liberal bias, but digging a little deeper the ultimate goal of the program really seemed to be about discourse.
At one point Dag Vega, a liaison of the Obama Administration, talks about the President’s interview with Stewart:
The President sat down for interviews with Diane Sawyer, Brian Williams, and Scott Pelley, and afterward I remember we compared those three interviews with Jon’s interview, and Jon’s was the most policy driven of the four. The other three were much more focused on the political news of the day. His interview was tougher than the three network news anchors’. (331).
This may not be enough for some to understand what I believe is Stewart’s gift of discourse and so an earlier passage, when he’s discussing his second interview with former President of Pakistan Pervez Musharraf not long after Osama Bin Laden was killed. Stewart received some criticism for hosting the man, but Stewart’s argument speaks volumes about what he wanted the Daily Show to be:
I can’t tell you how many times I was asked, “Why would you have that guy on the show?” Whether it was Musharraf or O’Reilly. My feeling is always, “Why would you not take an opportunity to find, within someone’s humanity, some understandings of why they’ve done what they’ve done, or why you want to two-dimensionalize people that have odious opinions, but maybe it’ a little more complicated than that. (285).
This quote to me stands as the ultimate reason why my reader should bother with this book. It’s become rather easy to “other” another human being, though perhaps I’m being charitable. Perhaps it’s always been easy and it only “feels” like things have changed over the course of the last decade. But that impulse to transform another person into an “other” is dangerously simple because of the world we live in. Economics and social interaction are dramatically different and now we live in a world where we can create bubbles around ourselves, and when individuals appear who seem to contradict our statements or personal philosophies we can simply cut them out. Being the kind of person I am I struggle with this system because, unless you’re a Nazi or part of the KKK, I generally try to give everybody the opportunity to explain themselves and I actually really enjoy hard conversations. Thus, stands the appeal of Stewart for me.
Jon Stewart transformed The Daily Show into something new and important because as time progressed I was always far more interested in what he was going to say about an issue, or what joke he would say about a political figure. And part of the reason for that was 9/11 and the war on terror.
The book essentially begins with the rise of the Bush Administration and Stewart gives a keen insight into that:
When we were first doing jokes about the war, the country was scared and wanted to believe what had happened on September 11 had sobered our politics and our media. And what it did was it lent a weight and consequence to criticism and dissent. Dissent was now seen as not just snarky but unpatriotic . We had never gotten death threats before. (116).
Trump being in the White House it’s hard to imagine that such hostility could have actually existed before the election season of 2016. Thinking back to this I vaguely recall the attitude toward critics of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, largely because I was around 12 years old and thought that President Bush was a wise and intelligent man. That changed. Growing up in East Texas though there was this solid rhetoric that was spun around me that if you were critical of the Bush administration that you weren’t just a terrible person, you hated America. That attitude was taken by many of my friends, fellow students, teachers, and casual acquaintances and I won’t try to assume like I held a different opinion from the masses. September 11th was scary, and the thought that this could happen again was terrifying. But as I grew, and puberty really started to kick in there was a rebellion against such a system, not just because authority said I needed to trust the government, but because I began to distrust the rhetoric.
I don’t mind someone loving their country, or being patriotic. For god’s sake I write these essays in front of a damn American Flag and I won’t shut the fuck up about “Republic! Republic!” Obviously I have no problem with patriotism, but blind devotion always leads to tragedy and problems and so in hindsight the atmosphere of the Bush administration is something I have never forgotten (though I would most certainly take it over the current administration).
This reflection though is another reminder of the lasting value of this book. While reading I suddenly remembered the names and faces of that Presidency, and reading about the staff’s mocking of the government, and the media that reported on it, it was a way of connecting to that previous atmosphere, because The Daily Show always managed to capture some of that Zeitgeist.
Stephen Colbert sums it up perfectly in a passage just beneath the previous quote:
There was a demanded uniformity of opinion in what you could write or what you could say about the war. There was a reasonable and expected honoring and elevation of the sacrifice of the troops, that turned into a shillelagh to hit anybody who dissented. We were a dumb little show and could still get under the radar at that time.
Steve Badow said it to me best, which is, “I don’t think we’re anti-Bush, I think we’re anti-Bullshit.” (116).
I recognize that there is nothing so pretentious as someone claiming their work is satire, largely because nobody ever really seems to have a good explanation for what satire actually is. To be fair I have a master’s degree in English and I still don’t have a great definition. But I pulled this quote, not just to remind the reader of Jon Stewart’s last speech Bullshit is Everywhere, but to lay out plainly what was so important to me growing up and watching The Daily Show.
Jon Stewart was funny, but watching him I became engaged with the political processes of my country. The Daily Show parodied the bullshit that was always present in the discourse in a way that no other television broadcast, or written journalism piece, ever could have. Jon managed to simplify whatever material was going on in the world, which the powers-that-be were always trying to complicate, and because he delivered a show about the torture taking place in Abu Gahraib, or efforts to slash funding to Planned Parenthood, and managed to deliver the explanation with a few well-placed cock jokes I discovered something terribly important: I played as much of a role in democracy as the President.
This was an important discovery because it meant so much more for individual civics. I suspect the reason many people fail to at least follow politics is because so much of it is delivered either in combative tones or else in language so dry and dull many would prefer to set their genitals on a power sander rather than be forced to listen to it. I realize that I’ve repeated myself several times and I’ll probably repeat myself again, but Jon Stewart and The Daily Show allowed me to stay somewhat informed as to what was happening in my world, and what the powerful were trying to do, and how the media was reporting on it. The show was silly (there was an episode using a wheel of fortune capped with a dildo for god’s sake) but that silliness and irreverence allowed the audience, allowed me, the chance to laugh at the powerful and there is nothing so great as the ability to shake off power.
Senator John McCain, who was a regular guest before he and Stewart had a fight and near falling-out, provides in my mind the ultimate summation:
Jon and I had our disagreements. But look, when we focus on that one bad interview I had with Jon—I was so grateful later when he supported me on the issue of torture. That’s far more important, frankly, than any real or imagined slight that I might’ve had from him. I was very grateful for that, because that’s a seminal issue about what America’s all about. It meant a lot to me, and he wasn’t just talking about me. Jon was explaining to these young Americans why torture was such an important issue. That’s what I really appreciated.
He is like Mark Twain or Will Rogers. He is a modern-day humorist of that genre, of that level.
Absolutely, I took the gift bag every time I was on the show. Absolutely. It was one of the nicest bribes I ever got. (293-94).
The Daily Show (The Book) is not solely about Jon Stewart, and I’ve done a rather shit job of explaining the merits of the book, but I’d like to think that my reflections here have provided enough impetus to explain why a book like this matters. People like Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Larry Wilmore, Trevor Noah, and Seth Meyers owe their popularity either directly because of John Stewart or else because of the model he helped to develop. News and public discourse has been forever altered because whenever Jon Stewart would discuss a topic he would reconstruct the topic, and those who were responsible for discussing it in public were eventually forced to acknowledge Stewart in some form or fashion. There are few comedians who ever exert that kind of power and influence, and apart from medieval court jesters, there aren’t any humorists that can demonstrate such an influence upon the public consciousness.
If it hadn’t been for Jon Stewart I never would have read anything by Christopher Hitchens or Fareed Zakaria. I would have no idea who Malala Youzafzai was. I would never know or care who Travor Noah was. And of course, I probably wouldn’t have been so much of a fan of Neil Degrasse Tyson if he had never come on the show.
The Daily Show(The Book) is most assuredly the first in several books to come that explores the cultural impact of the comedy journalist. A new generation is entering the discourse with the advantage of having had someone like Jon Stewart lay the foundation for future comedy journalists who will, in their own way, inform the public about what is taking place in their world. It’s unlikely that anyone will have the same impact as Stewart did, but The Daily Show (The Book) at least offers a glimpse into the time before people had The Daily Show.
Such a book is precious, and also a great opportunity to find some wonderful cock jokes.
All passages from The Daily Show(The Book) came from the hardback, first edition Grand Central Publishing copy.
I’ve included a link to a review by the New York Times about The Daily Show (The Book). If the reader is at all interested simply follow the link below:
I didn’t get a chance to put this in, but one of my favorite passages from the book was a brief quote by Neil Degrasse Tyson:
When I came on to talk about Space Chronicles, I needed a tennis serve to send back Jon’s way if he got the better if me in an exchange. But the interview was a lovefest, and I thought, “I’ve got to bring this up anyway.” I waited until the very end, and I said, “Oh by the way, the earth in your opening credits is spinning backward” He picked up the book with both hands, slammed it on the desk, and said, “Son of a bitch!” and then it fades to black.
Oh, yeah, we laughed about it when we went to commercial. But he never did change the rotation. I’m told by the Daily Show staff that when Jon takes questions from the audience, every single time someone asks, “When are you going to switch the earth?” So it haunted him, surely, for the rest of the show. (288).
biography, Book List, Corruption, David Simon, Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore?, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Essay, free speech, Freedom, history, Ida Tarbell, Informed Democracy, Isabel Allende, J.D. Rockefeller, journalism, McClure's, Politics, President of the United States, Pulitzer Prize, Railroad Companies, Reporters, Republic, Sam McClure, Standard Oil, Ted, The Bully Pulpit, The Stories of Eva Luna, Theodore Roosevelt, Totalitarianism, White Tower Musings Stands with the Free Press, Writing
My little sister and I have this joke.
I’ll send her a text that usually has a long opening, and after that I will simply have to show you how it goes. I’ll think about the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, and the man who helped establish the Teddy Bear into the cultural consciousness. There’s actually a rather fascinating story behind that but I’ll have to put it in later. Because my little sister is a historian, and in fact because several of my good friends are historians, I usually try to learn a little history so that I have something to talk to them about; the fact that Roosevelt is one of her favorite Presidents is also a way for us to bond as siblings. But anyway I think about his administration and what he accomplished or failed at and then I send her a text that could read, “Hey! Who has two thumbs, and pushed for legislation that would eventually lead to the Clean Food Act thus ensuring the health of the American consumer of meat products and ignoring the larger abuse of labor issues affecting numerous amounts of immigrant peoples working in the meat factories of Chicago?” After this I will usually send a photograph of Theodore Roosevelt smiling a wide toothy grin, and then finally send one last text that reads, “THIS GUY!!!”
Obviously the pair of us are nerds to the level of Super Nintendo Boss Battles, but we have fun and that’s what counts.
This personal joke, which as I write it out loud is in fact no longer personal, reveals part of the reason why I picked up the heavy brick that is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book The Bully Pulpit, and why I bothered to finish it. Now to be honest I probably would have gotten around to it anyway because the book received a Pulitzer Prize not long after it was published, and having read the book it’s safe to admit that it certainly earned it. Part of the way I’ve found the books is that I have often simply Google searched “Pulitzer Prize winning books,” or “Nobel Prize winning books,” and making notes of the names and authors on these lists I usually go hunting to my local bookstore to find these books that somebody somewhere felt should receive an award. On of the one hand I suspect this impulse is some ego-driven mania to appear educated and sophisticated, but if I can give myself some credit here I also simply like to read great books. And if a book receives a Pulitzer Prize it’s either because it’s brilliant, or else because some author knew where the judge that year went to visit his mistress…or gay lover…or tranfestite prostitute…the point is these lists have pointed me towards some great books.
The Bully Pulpit was at first an opportunity to read and learn about Theodore Roosevelt, but after starting the book twice, putting it down for six months, and starting it up again to have something to read between the grueling snippets of Infinite Jest, I began to focus less and less time on the Presidents Roosevelt and Taft, and more time on the staff of McClure’s magazine.
To my reader who has no idea what I’m talking about let me give a brief synopsis. The Bully Pulpit is a biography, however to be more exact it is a chronicle of the lives of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and a man by the name of S.S. McClure who began a magazine, sometimes periodical if you prefer a fancy-pants term with your tea and pretentiousness, called McClure’s which was in vein of contemporary magazines like The New Yorker, Esquire, Playboy, Ms., and Harpers. However rather than simply create an internal culture McClure’s in its time became a Journalistic hub that, while it published the works of great literary figures, impacted the United States’ political landscape in ways that really couldn’t be dreamed of in today’s media environment.
This isn’t just mawkishness on my part, it’s just a legitimate observation. I wrote in a previous article about three contemporary pieces of journalism that noted the current fate of newspapers and in one of them, Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore? by David Simon the reader gets an insiders impression of what most casual viewers already know:
In Baltimore, the newspaper now has 300 newsroom staffers, and it is run by some fellows in Chicago who think that number sufficient to the task. And the locally run company that was once willing to pay for a 500-reporter newsroom, to moderate its own profits in some basic regard and put money back into the product? Turns out it wasn’t willing to do so to build a great newspaper, but merely to clear the field of rivals, to make Baltimore safe for Gremlins and Pacers. And at no point in the transition from one to the other did anyone seriously consider the true cost of building something comprehensive, essential and great.
And now, no profits. No advertising. No new readers. Now, the great gray ladies are reduced to throwing what’s left of their best stuff out there on the Web, unable to charge enough for online advertising, or anything at all for the journalism itself.
Simons article can be gloomy, assuming you give a rat’s ass about newspapers, but I quote it here to note that while newspapers today are largely viewed as anachronisms even a century ago their social functions came under fire. The Bully Pulpit follows the Presidency of Taft and Roosevelt the latter of whom accidently created the bias of newspapers as “muckrakers,” and while I was reading one reporter continually held my attention. Sam McClure, the founder of McClure’s magazine was an ambitious man who acquired a top-notch staff and was continually coming up with idea for news stories and themes to explore. One of his writers, a woman by the name of Ida Tarbell proved herself rather quickly writing in-depth articles about Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon Bonaparte. McClure, eager to pursue a new topic, decided to focus his attention on Standard Oil, a large trust (today we might call it a monopoly though it’s not necessarily the same thing) operated by John D. Rockefeller which was one of, if not the, largest company in the United States at that time.
Goodwin explains McClure’s motivation for the piece and then offers an insight into Tarbell’s motivation:
The story of the world’s wealthiest man would beguile the public into the more complicated exposition of his corporation and the hitherto esoteric question of the trusts. No one, McClure perceived, was better situated to engage that subject than Ida Tarbell, who “had lived for years in the heart of the oil region”
Tarbell initially hesitated, though no subject so captured her imagination. As a child, she had witnessed the anguish the “big trust” had caused in its early development, and “the unfairness of the situation” had troubled her deeply. […] If she hoped to write a work of history rather than a propaganda, she would now have to “comprehend the point of view of the other side.” She recognized the difficulties, even hazards, this undertaking would present, for Standard Oil officials were notoriously close-mouthed. Even in her hometown she found that men and women were unwilling to talk, featuring “the all-seeing eye and the all-powerful reach of the ruler of the oil industry” […] Her own father tried to dissuade her “Don’t do it, Ida,” he admonished; “they will ruin the magazine.” Finally, she was tantalized by “the audacity of the thing”—just as when McClure had challenged her to complete the first installment of Napoleon’s life in one month’s time. (330).
I may have given off the wrong impression as I opened this article, for an avid fan of Theodore Roosevelt may be wondering when I’ll get past Miss Tarbell’s Oil reporting’s and get to the meat of the man’s presidency. I will have to disappoint this reader for my effort from the start was to explore the idea of the history of reporting and observe what is the legacy of the reporter in the United States. If you hate me and think I should jump in a dry pit of farts…I think you might have a possible career in politics or else in poetry.
I believe in a free working press and the power it has to influence the citizenry of a republic. This isn’t just flag waving, chest beating, U-S-A chanting patriotism on my part, but simply a real understanding that in order for people to make informed choices about their life they need to actually be informed, so a newspaper’s job becomes absolutely essential when picking someone to vote for. The Bully Pulpit as a history book is not just a biography of Taft, Roosevelt, and Sam McClure, it’s a study on the issue of power and how those who have attained have used it, attempted to hold onto it, and then ultimately lost it. Both Roosevelt and Taft ultimately lost their executive authority to Woodrow Wilson, and McClures plummeted after Sam McClure’s personal erratic behavior chased away most of his reporters including Ida Tarbell. The idea of a bully pulpit is that it is an opportunity to exert influence and ultimately power is fleeting in a healthy democracy because power and influence can only last so long.
To put it in a way most people would recognize I’ll go with a brilliant quote from the movie Ted:
Narrator: No matter how big a splash you make in this world whether you’re Corey Feldman, Frankie Muniz, Justin Bieber or a talking teddy bear, eventually, nobody gives a shit.
For Tarbell her prominence came to be after publishing her six part investigation into the behavior of Standard Oil, listing and analyzing its multifaceted series of abuses upon the communities it supposedly served and worked alongside. Goodwin succeeds in presenting Tarbell as a woman of ambition, and reading the passages dedicated to Tarbell’s investigation one almost feels a romantic connection to All the President’s men.
Goodwin describes Tarbell’s beginning:
For Ida Tarbell, McClure’s directive to approach a narrative history of Standard Oil proved that “one hundredth idea”—a true stroke of genius. Her investigations were fortuitously timed. In an era of heightened, yet unfocused, public concern over increasing corporate consolidation, the growth of the first great industrial monopoly provided a dramati blueprint for comprehending how “a particular industry passes from the control of the man to that of the few.” (333).
This quote anticipates my contester who interrupts to ask the question, “why should I read a dense 700 page book just because there’s a few snippets about the Oil Trusts during the 1800s. We’re living in the new Information age and those problems are no longer applicable, so why should I give a shit?”
This is a fair question and worth considering. My review here only covers one chapter of the book because if I tried to write about everything this essay could be in the range of 20,000 words or more and nobody on the internet is going to read that (not that they do now anyway). But the answer to my contester is contained several pages on as Goodwin notes Tarbell’s conclusion after analyzing the business practices of Rockefeller’s industry:
Most important, Rockefeller now had the power to control prices. Rather than use this domination and the efficiencies of scale to reduce costs, Standard Oil sought to maximize profits. Wherever competition was extinguished, Tarbell maintained, the consumer paid more. Under investigative duress Stabdard would temporarily reduee prices, only to jack them up in the same area once the scrutiny ceased. “Humman experience long ago taught us,” [Tarbell] warned, “that if we allow a man or a group of men autocratic powers in government or church, they use that power to oppress and defraud the public.” (338).
I’ll admit part of this essay is largely because of President Trump. Yes he is the President and yes typing that leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I find myself hating Facebook mostly because I’m thinking about it all the damn time, which can be frustrating especially because I’m reading The Stories of Eva Luna by Isabel Allende right now and it’s frustrating not being able to focus on all the sensual women while you’re busy thinking about what [X] said about the fascists at the women’s march on Washington, or how your friend [Y] is starting the #NotMYPresident which is just as galling. And before the reader thinks this is going to be an Anti-Trump piece I promise you that it isn’t, not entirely. The most troublesome aspect of the 2016 election is not just the results which are already raising problems about women’s health, climate change, and LGBTQ rights, it’s the fact there is now a power structure which is working to reduce the ethos of the press and leave the citizens of a democracy doubtful about whether or not they can trust the news they’re reading.
When the press, who’s job it is to monitor power, is labeled opposition and leaders paint themselves as the font of all real truth and fact that is the origin of totalitarianism and dictatorship.
To put it simpler, you need a free oppositional press to call out a leader’s bullshit.
A Bully Pulpit, a term coined by Theodore Roosevelt, is a platform from which one can push or advocate an agenda. It’s this idea that Goodwin writes about and demonstrates the humanity of these historical figures, and it’s this idea that’s been more and more present in my mind lately. Every person assumes some kind of political position, and even those who profess to have no politics are in fact arguing their own brand of politics. Each person then approaches government with their own philosophy concerning how power should work and operate, and the press exists along this power structure in order to ensure that no leader is not held accountable for their actions.
Through her reporting Ida Tarbell used the Bully Pulpit she had to report that Rockefeller’s businesses were hurting Americans and benefitting only a small handful of people. And such determination is still relevant to this day. Looking at the dedication of her research is enough to see this. Goodwin writes:
Such vigorous inquiry soon revealed that critical memos and reports had vanished from the record. Informed that Standard had destroyed them, Tarbell refused to give up, convinced that if a document had been printed, it would eventually “turn up.” Usually she was right. In the archives of the New York Public Library, she found the sole remaining report of an obscure thirty-year-old investigation; all the other copies had curiously disappeared. […] “Her sources of information,” McClure proudly noted, “were open to any student who had the industry and patience to study them.” (333).
I hoped that when I wrote this I would be able to find a more poetic statement than simply re-stating that “Journalists matter,” but looking at those words in this new era I find myself in that statement assumes its own weight. The fact that I even have to write it speaks volumes. Journalism is corrupted by capitalist interest and bias, and in many ways journalists have always been susceptible to this impulse. But at the same time that makes the job of individual citizens more important than ever, and also the reason why a book like the Bully Pulpit such an important read.
Goodwin chronicles two presidents and a handful of reporters who managed through their own efforts to capture a Bully Pulpit and use it in ways that, often, tried to benefit to citizenry of the United States. These people were not without fault, and in the end many saw some of their achievements quashed or undone, but looking at Ida Tarbell alone there is a real sense about the relevance of journalism.
Power isn’t going anywhere, and when corrupt people acquire their own Bully Pulpits it’s more important than ever to make sure journalists have their own to keep the bullshit from passing by unnoticed.
So, as my sister explains it, Theodore Roosevelt actually hated the name “Teddy” in public because it was actually a private name given to him by his sisters after he “saved” a bear, when in fact all he did was refuse to shoot it.
All quotes from The Bully Pulpit were taken from the Simon & Shuster First Edition Hardback. All quotes from Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore? was taken from the article published in the web archives of The Washington Post. If you would like to read Simon’s article for yourself you can by following the link posted below: