Shooting The Conversational Rapids
A free-flowing discussion with an old friend, Jay Nordlinger
Several days ago, my old amigo, Jay Nordlinger, a senior editor at National Review, asked if I’d do a Q&A with him. Being my old amigo, he knows my aversion to all things podcast, so he extended the additional kindness of offering to conduct our conversation in print. I eagerly accepted. I’ve known Jay since the mid ‘90s, when we worked together at The Weekly Standard, before he abandoned us for the furs, jewelry, fast cars, and faster women that come as part of the benefits package when you hang your hat at NR.
If you don’t read Jay, you’re cheating yourself. For one thing, his brain works like a walking Wikipedia. No detail escapes his attention, and he has the single best memory of any person I know. (While I can’t even remember 1997, he can recreate entire lunch conversations from that time, verbatim.) He is a genuine Renaissance man with boundless interests who writes with authority about every subject he tackles – and he pretty much tackles every subject - from music to golf to politics to human rights the world over (a particular hobbyhorse of his). He is also among the most honest and genuinely decent journalists I know, two character traits often in short supply in our seedy little trade.
He works me out, below, as we have a wide-ranging, rollicking conversation about everything from journalism, to social media, to the challenges/benefits of Substack, to writers I love, to sports I used to love, to why I hate broadcasts, to the importance of music, to books, to fishing, to an extended back-and-forth on why and how the wheels have come off the American Right, with dishonorable mentions of their crazy counterparts on the Left. I so enjoyed shooting the conversational rapids with him that though this is also running at National Review, I’m simulcasting our interview in its entirety here, complete with Jay’s introduction. I’m also keeping the paywall down, since we’ve had a lot of newbies sign up lately, and this will give them a pretty good roadmap of what we’re about. Though feel free to upgrade to paid subscriber anyway. You’ll feel better. Or at least I will. And now I’ll let Jay kick things off. (Forgive any introductory repetition):
Jay Nordlinger’s opening note:
Matt Labash is one of the leading magazine writers in America -- though he now writes on Substack, in modern fashion. His newsletter, or column, or acreage, is Slack Tide. (Bill Buckley used to call “Notes & Asides” in National Review “my half-acre.”) Matt and I are old friends and colleagues. We worked together at The Weekly Standard during its first years, in the mid 1990s. As Matt will discuss below, he is not one for podcasts or TV appearances. He is a writer -- pure and simple. So, I did not do one of my Q&A podcasts with him. Rather, we have done a written Q&A. I asked some questions I would have in a good ol’ podcast, and he delivered waves of Labashery, a treat for me and a treat for readers in general.
My questions will be italicized. And though Matt is of Sicilian ancestry, at least in part, he will be in Roman. (Yes, I know that “roman,” as in the type, should be down -- uncapitalized. But allow me my attempted witticisms.)
Why do you call your newsletter “Slack Tide”?
I’d thought about calling it “The Weekly Dish with Andrew Sullivan.” But I didn’t want to get pinned down on the “weekly,” and it turns out, Andrew Sullivan already took it. I kind of just liked the way “Slack Tide” sounded. The one-two punch of the one-syllable words. The hard-k ending on “Slack” gives it a certain crispness that is at odds with the word itself. Also, I’m kind of a slacker. But mostly, it’s because I fly fish a lot in the tidal waters of Maryland. It’s usually best to fish on a moving tide -- that’s when fish are on the hunt and more susceptible to our deceptions. But in between the ebb and flood tides, the water is mostly still, said to go slack. Fish can at least theoretically rest from eating or being eaten. The world stands still long enough to catch your breath. So I liked the metaphor, and try to reflect that in the writing. Though these days, the world moves pretty fast even in between tides. After I’d launched Slack Tide, I found out a brewery in Cape May, N.J., uses the same name. So whenever I do merch giveaways, I just send readers one of their T-shirts. Beats having to contract with a sweatshop in Jakarta.
Above, I said “newsletter.” Is that the right word? “Column”?
Yes, thanks. “Column” is a much better word than “newsletter.” The latter makes me think of Aunt Marge sending out her Christmas-card insert, catching you up on the state of Uncle Henry’s shingles, and maybe including her patented pecan cheese log recipe. I really hate pecan cheese logs, so let’s call it a “column.”
The name “Labash” is unusual. Where does it come from? Do all Labashes say “LAY-bash”?
That’s how we say it. Though a high-school buddy used to insist on saying it “Lah-BASH,” which he called a better “Cap Centre name.” As in the way a basketball announcer would bark it over the PA system after you sink a three-pointer. (The Capital Centre was where the Washington Bullets used to play, before the arena was demolished and they changed their name to the ridiculous “Wizards,” which lacks the old drive-by shooting spirit.) Of course, since I was twelfth man on my high-school team, the only way the announcer would have to worry about my name’s pronunciation is if I sustained an injury while falling off the bench.
Theoretically, it’s Russian. My paternal grandfather’s people came from a small town in the Carpathian Mountains, in what is now Ukraine. Though the name turns up in everything from Polish to Hebrew reference books. I’m not Polish, though -- it only takes one of me to screw in a light bulb. And though I’m a big fan of the Jews, I’m not Jewish either. Which I guess means Harvard students won’t show up at my house, pinning me with a yellow star while chanting “From the river to the sea!” Though I’m thinking about starting to say I’m Jewish, just because all the scary antisemitism of late is getting on my nerves.
Do you enjoy self-assigning? (I intend nothing dirty by that.)
I didn’t know we were working blue, Jay! But yes, I very much enjoy self-assigning. Which I did a fair amount of even when I had editors. Tuba Phil Frazier of the Rebirth Brass Band in New Orleans once told me, when I requested a song he wasn’t ready to play, that if he doesn’t feel it, he can’t play it. And I immediately knew what he meant, because that’s pretty much how writing goes for me. I’ve always admired the sturdy professionalism of writers who can take any stray idea from an editor and turn it into something decent. But if I don’t feel it, I tend not to play it. So even when I worked for others, I probably spent as much time getting out of the stories I didn’t want to write as getting in to the ones I did. And I think my editors will back up that account.
Do you think you would ever like to work for a publication -- a magazine, a newspaper -- again? Or is the Substacking life sweet?
“Sweet” is a strong word. Because when you run a solo Substack like I do, there’s no masthead to hide behind, or colleagues to share blame. If subscribers like you enough to pay for it, it’s all on you -- you’re the only one there. And if they hate you enough to cancel, the same. It’s hard for me to blame the editorial the magazine ran that week, since there was neither an editorial nor a magazine. So everything becomes a weirdly personal referendum. And I’m way more conscious of the business end of things than I used to be. But that said, after two years of doing it, it’d be hard for me to go back to the old ways. You know firsthand from working together at The Weekly Standard, which is about as good a magazine gig as existed, that we had as much editorial freedom as could be had while still working for someone. I had friends across the industry that envied what we were allowed to do. But even since then, I’ve gotten mighty used to doing what I want to do, and have yet to lose a single editorial argument with myself. I can take pieces to weird places I wouldn’t always go if I had to explain it to someone else beforehand.
I’ll always have affection for magazines, the way you do your first love. I was raised on them, and most of my heroes worked for them. I would love to see a resurgence. Every time another one dies or cuts back its publishing schedule, it makes me genuinely sad. And there are things about working for one full-time that I miss -- such as hitting the road and running up exorbitant tabs that other people pay for, getting your adventures subsidized. But that said, the world moves so fast now, that I find it more satisfying these days to tack it down in essays rather than stories. The latter of which take much longer to do correctly if you sweat the details. And I was always a details-sweater, overly so, some would argue. My process was punishing. After scouting and reporting a story, I would often spend weeks racking up 80 pages or so of single-spaced interview transcript, which I (mostly) transcribed myself, and which I’d then have to index, just to be able to find my material. I think you also reach a certain age where you get tired of constantly hunting for characters to say what you want to say, instead of just saying those things yourself. You get to a point where you ask, “Do I really need to find another third-string nudnik to explain America to me? Or should I be explaining it to him?” Not that we can’t always learn from new weirdos.
You are not a doer of podcasts or television. Why? You’re such a good talker -- almost as good a talker as you are a writer. Very “fluent,” as Bill Buckley would say.
My standard answer is that I’m like an old Sioux chief -- microphones and cameras steal your soul. The less sexy answer is I have horrible stage fright. Not on the page. And if you put me on a barstool, I can roll all day. I’m not shy. But stick a camera or microphone in my face, and I want to run for the hills. I hate the formality of it. And as a writer, I’ve gotten too used to saying things precisely how I want them to come out. Why settle for less? I hate it so much that when I was basically conscripted into promoting my book by my publisher over a decade ago, I had to drink to get through it. I like drinking as much as the next guy. More, probably. But hitting the Maker’s Mark at nine in the morning is a little early even for me. The nerves canceled out the alcohol, so it went fine. But then, the rest of the day was wrecked. The good news is I’ve been dodging punditry duties for so long that even my friends who have television shows or podcasts (most of them seem to have about four apiece) have stopped asking me to appear on them, because they know what I’m going to say. Which is “No, thanks.” Life’s too short to do things you hate doing if you don’t have to.
You were “not on social media” before “not being on social media” was cool. Why? (You’d be awfully good at it. Is that one reason?)
Well, I’m not the purist I used to be. Because I do pop off on Substack Notes now and then. (Their equivalent of Twitter, without all the Russian bots, white supremacists, and Elon jock-sniffers.) Mainly because the people on it already have to belong to Substack, so it’s like a canned hunt for potential subscribers, and that self-selecting audience is much more civilized, besides. It’s the one bit of shameless marketing I permit myself.
But I’ve yet to ever tweet, or do a Facebook or Instagram post, and have no plans to. People bitch about the epidemic of fentanyl overdoses these days, but I think social media, generally, has done more to destroy the country than just about any other dark force. It’s turned us into a nation of Peeping Toms and rubberneckers, forever waiting for the next fight to break out behind the virtual gym after school. I read it plenty because I have to for professional reasons. As I like to tell people, “If you’re in the jackass-observation business, you have to go where the jackasses are.” And I’m grateful when people promote my stuff on it. Since everyone counts on social media to direct their fractured attention to anything, it helps a little.
But I also don’t trust myself with it. It’s too much like sleeping with a loaded gun under your pillow. It might be nice for you to know it’s there, but whenever you roll over the wrong way on it in your sleep, you might blow your head off in the middle of the night.
Do you have a pantheon of journalists? I mean, ones who influenced you? Tom Wolfe et al.?
Wolfe, definitely. He was The Man. Still is, in my book, even if he’s dead. You can open his journalism collections to any page and read one spectacular paragraph after another. The guy was incapable of writing boring sentences. Like most boys my age, I also cut my teeth on Hunter Thompson and P.J. O’Rourke. A cliché, I know. But for good reason. Because both wrote like their keyboards were on fire and needed blowing out. You realized by your mid-twenties that you’d better stop trying to write like them -- not only because if you don’t sound like yourself, there’s no need to sound off period, but also because the cheap imitations were immediately evident. But when you came to them cold, in college, you had that feeling like, “Oh, this is what’s possible in journalism.” Plus, they always looked like they were having fun, even when miserable. Which is kind of journalism in a nut: a fun kind of misery. Forever making sense of the worst the world has to offer, then trying to set it to music.
There are so many other writers I love far and wide, from Jim Harrison to Richard Ford to you-name-it. But those are probably the ones who made me want to get into their line of work.
Why did you decide to become a writer? What else might you have been (leaving out NBA player)?
To be honest, I wasn’t qualified for anything else. I’m really unemployable for respectable corporate work. I’m bad at taking orders. I hate team-building exercises and stupid business-world euphemisms. I’d be a disaster anywhere except where I am. So having no choice helps concentrate the mind.
Plus, see the music graf, above. Even when I worked for an ideological magazine, ideology had nothing to do with why I wanted to write -- it was just a frame to hang words on. I positively love words. I love arranging them and slapping them together in a certain order to evoke a desired response in people. I love music, too. And if I was a real musician -- like you -- and could actually play something, I’d probably have less need to write. Because music is the highest form of communication, in my book. It goes places words can’t go. But I can’t play anything, except my Dell laptop keyboard. So here we are, settling . . .
Is basketball -- specifically, the NBA -- your favorite sport?
I guess, if you had to nail me down. Though boxing once loomed large in my world, too. There’s nothing as exciting as a good title fight between genuine rivals. I played plenty of basketball as a kid, and never boxed -- unless you count hitting the bags, which I still do, though that’s not boxing, because they don’t hit back. But if I’m being honest, my sports fandom has declined so precipitously in the last 30 years that calling myself a real fan of anything would be gross overstatement. When I was young, I was a fiend. I collected football, baseball, basketball, and hockey cards (and I didn’t even watch hockey). I kept stats during games. I escaped church on Sunday mornings to go listen to Dallas Cowboys broadcasts on AM radio in my dad’s Oldsmobile in the parking lot, to root on my favorite receiver, Drew Pearson. Now, my mom probably knows more about the NFL than I do. I was also a San Antonio Spurs freak -- back when the Iceman, George Gervin, was still finger-rolling up a storm. (I spent many formative years in Texas as a military brat). But somewhere in my twenties, it all just went away -- I became interested in other things and couldn’t sit inside for three hours on a Sunday afternoon anymore. Now I just catch playoffs -- unless I don’t -- and call it a day.
When you read books, what do you read? Novels? Histories? Motorcycle-repair manuals?
I read literally anything that interests me. I read all of the above and more. (If you can count Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a motorcycle-repair manual.) I have very catholic tastes when it comes to books. As in broad-in-taste catholic, not one-true-faith Catholic (which I reject as a Prot, though there are plenty of Catholic writers I love, like Thomas Merton, for instance). So I read literary fiction, memoirs, poetry, fishing books, cooking books, not too many political books (which tend to be dreary, though I’ve picked up the pace in the last few years as everything is now politicized), whatever. I’ll go high or low or hopelessly middlebrow. A book has to generally tick one of two boxes for me to pick it up: It has to be well written (I especially love reading writers who make me want to write -- helps put gas in the tank), or it has to put me in the middle of a world I want to see explored. If it does both, all the better. But either will do.
I find that I consume so much media, I have little time -- too little time -- for books. Same with you? Or do you avoid this error of mine?
I can honestly say I read like a maniac. That is, if you count audio books as reading, as well. And since I forget nearly everything I read -- even between covers when I mark books up (most of my books look like they’ve been through a war from all the dog-earing and underlining) -- I don’t consider it an inferior form. Other than that you can’t mark up audio books like their hard-copy counterparts. But they allow me to get to books I’d never get to otherwise, due to all the media-reading we have to do. So I always have at least three books going at any given time, usually more. Just as a current sampler, there’s my regular books (right now, that would be Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss -- about his struggles with faith and sickness -- and Wendell Berry’s New Collected Poems). There’s always an audio book on CD for the car (presently, that would be Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar -- which I’ve long neglected, but is funnier than I ever expected for a depression book -- on the heels of Willie Nelson’s fantastic memoir, It’s a Long Story, which I picked up after seeing Willie play in July at the tender age of 90). Then there are Audible books on my phone, which I’ll listen to when I’m cooking or dog-walking or paddling a kayak or chopping wood. I find audio books enhance nearly every activity, except for fishing. I never “read” while fishing. Fishing’s too important to defile with other people’s words. But on Audible, I’m currently juggling Henry Miller’s Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, Stuart Stevens’s The Conspiracy to End America (because he’s as frustrated with his old party as I am), and David James Duncan’s first novel in 31 years, Sun House, which is over 42 hours long and which I hope to finish before I’m on Social Security.
So yes, books play a prominent role in my daily life. It’s important to keep the words-filter flushed. We always need to be moving good words through our system. Helps keep us clean.
Who introduced you to fishing?
I bait-fished in Texas -- mostly for catfish -- when a school chum used to bring me along to his family’s houseboat on a lake outside San Antonio. I put it away for years, then picked it up again when my kids were young. But when a friend told me he bought a fly rod, and taught himself, I got jealous, because I always wanted to fly fish. So I did the same. Taught myself, then became a fly-fishing obsessive for the last two decades, fishing everywhere from the Chesapeake Bay, ten minutes from my house, to sewage treatment plant outflows. I used to have a self-imposed goal of catching at least 1,000 fish on a fly rod every year (I released all of them) -- a streak I kept going for a good 14 years. Until 2021, come to think of it, when my fish totals dropped off a cliff after I started my own Substack. Turns out, it’s hard work being unemployed. This year, I have only 326 fish so far, which I regard as a personal disgrace. Will have to rectify that next year, and get serious again.
Who are the top fishing writers? The only name I know is “Izaak Walton.” I always loved that spelling of the first name.
It’s a good name, but the spelling never really caught on, did it? No “Izaak Hayeses” or “Izaak Asimovs.” There’s a lot of great fishing writers, since fly fishing is probably the most overwritten-about sport in America when considering the small number of people who actually do it. Years ago, I tried to encourage one of my buddies whose fishing-related emails I enjoyed, to write a book on the subject, and he said not a chance. Jumping on that bandwagon would be like contributing to the overpopulated corpus of Civil War literature, where the bookstore at Gettysburg is littered with titles like “Hour Three at Devil’s Den” and “What the Generals Ate for Breakfast on Day Two.” “I would contribute something similar to fishing,” he scoffed. “My theories are near and dear to about 300,000 other fishermen, all of whom have already written books.”
That said, I like fishing books. Helps pass the time when I’m not fishing. John Gierach is probably The Dean -- I’ve read about eight or nine of his. They all read the same, but the writing’s good, so you don’t mind. The novelist Tom McGuane is excellent when he writes about fishing. The late Russell Chatham, better known as a landscape artist, wrote both beautifully and irreverently on the subject. James Babb, who used to edit Gray’s Sporting Journal, not only writes well about fishing, but is funny to boot. Jim Harrison could fold the whole world into a modest fishing piece, the same as he did any subject he wrote about. The aforementioned David James Duncan wrote the second-best fishing novel of all time, The River Why. Surpassed only by Norman Maclean’s novella A River Runs Through It, which even if you’ve seen the film, you should read. Because it’s perfect in every way. And like most of the best fishing writing, it’s about a lot more than fishing.
Have you stopped being shocked at what has happened to the American Right? I have no right to be shocked -- not after all this time. But I have not quite . . . gotten over it . . .
I’d be happy to stop being shocked if they’d stop being shocking. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, they always find a new bottom. Just when you think MTG is as low as it goes, George Santos comes along. It’s bad enough that January 6 happened at all. But rather than just cobble together revisionist histories about it, the party’s standard-bearer and near certain nominee practically runs on it. While everyone who knows better -- which is to say just about everyone, except maybe for true mouth-breathers like Tommy Tuberville and Paul Gosar -- looks the other way. I don’t know how to say it, other than to say it: There are a lot of moral cowards out there who make me sick.
And while I spent my entire career banging on the Left, I will never be able to take seriously any rightist complaints about lefty detachment from reality ever again. Yeah, it’s sad that some of them can’t tell the difference between boys and girls. (Helpful hint: what’s between the legs is usually a pretty fair tipoff.) But pretending that Donald Trump isn’t a sociopathic narcissist who would rather burn democracy down than tell the truth about losing an election? It’s unconscionable. And a lot of people have shown what they’re made of the last few years when confronting (or more often, avoiding) that very obvious truth. It’s why I feel zero party loyalty. Not that I ever did. I always vaguely considered myself a man of the Right, but I abstained from voting for the Republican nominee for president on principle for one reason or another in four of the last five elections. (From disliking the Iraq War to thinking Sarah Palin was a cynical idiot.) But now? I’d vote for Chelsea Clinton’s cat before giving that tangelo-flavored goon another shot at sacking the Republic, and I’m not a fan of Chelsea Clinton. Or of cats, for that matter.
Often, people on the left tell me, “You did this.” I answer -- or I would, if I answered them -- “No, I didn’t.” I’ll defend Reagan conservatism, broadly speaking, till the cows come home. I don’t feel in the least “complicit.” You?
I don’t feel complicit for not buying into the lefty foolishness of the last several decades. (There’s been plenty.) Nor do I feel guilty for generally adhering to conservatism -- whatever that means anymore. (Few people seem to know, since it’s now so ill-defined.) I’m still for low taxes and a robust military (used sparingly) and a secure border and many of the other things I paid lip service to in the Eighties and Nineties. If I’d at all been an apologist for Trump -- handwriting we could see on the wall from many miles away -- I’d feel complicit. But I wasn’t. And I feel like I’ve told the truth about him every step of the way, going back to the Nineties when I was following him around while he was pretending to run for president by way of the Reform Party. The title of my piece was “A Chump on the Stump.” (Probably our old colleague Richard Starr’s doing -- who remembers now? -- but it captured the piece’s sentiments nicely.) He’s bad news. He’s always been bad news. Yet the fundamental difference between then and now is that the stakes are so much higher. The guy who was once a throwaway punchline is now a genuine cult leader. Because that’s all the Republican Party is, now. It’s not about ideas anymore. There’s no ideological architect, like Buckley or Reagan. As evidenced by the party not even bothering with a platform at the 2020 convention. The platform is whatever bullshit Trump is spewing at the moment. If he said, “We need more illegals, and when they come over, they should get free abortions,” they’d find a way to be for it. It’s just a never-ending series of loyalty tests. The new Speaker of the House, who looks like a boring accountant, had to pretend he was a revolutionary, signing on to Trump’s election lies. Instead of that being a deal-breaker -- something Mike Johnson should be ashamed of -- it’s a prerequisite to becoming an assistant cult manager, which seems to be his highest aspiration.
Do you have an explanation for . . . for . . . what has happened?
Yes, gang warfare. Just like the Crips encourage new recruits to perform random murders, to prove they’re down with the team, Republicans now encourage abject fabricating to prove they’re unharnessed by principle. Let’s dehumanize the other side, and shoot one of theirs. Except replace “shooting” with “lying.” The more you’re willing to buy into this alternative reality of Donald Trump’s creation, and then to lie about it, the worthier you are to be one of his ambassadors. And to often be rewarded handsomely for your trouble. I know a lot of people -- and I’m sure you do too -- who have become very wealthy saying things they know aren’t true.
You’re familiar with the expression “to turn on one’s heels.” I saw this in action -- literally. At a gathering, I approached a woman who had been . . . well, a fan. Big-time. Upon seeing me, she turned on her heels. Have you lost friends, admirers? On account of remaining Matt Labash instead of . . . you know: going with the flow?
Oh, hell yes. I’ve lost old friends. And I’ve even seen some family relations strained. But . . . small price to pay. Telling the truth is its own reward. I could have five times the number of paid subscribers I do now on Substack if I was willing to sling party-line bullshit. But I couldn’t live with myself. I’d rather live peaceably with my own conscience by telling the truth than to get rich off of telling lies. Plus, the extra money would go straight up my nose anyway. So it’s probably for the best. (Only kidding -- I hate drugs, they get in the way of more important things, like drinking.)
That said, I have lots of truly free-thinking readers that Substack has introduced me to. Thank God they still exist. I’m a man of faith -- an unapologetic Christer -- who frequently finds myself agreeing with hardcore atheists, who even if their own ethics don’t originate from my source, they still jealously guard them. And more importantly, exhibit them. There are still a ton of decent, honest people out there. People we might not even agree with around the edges, but who still recognize what’s important, both as individuals and as members of the greatest experiment that has ever been hatched (America -- sorry for the rah-rah, but that’s how I still feel about it, even in its diminished state).
I think independence is great in theory. But, in practice, it can often stink. Let me put it a different way: To be partyless has its attractions, maybe. But the warmth of a party, or a tribe, is . . . well, warm. You agree?
Yes, I utterly agree. And that’s precisely why so many people twist themselves into balloon animals trying to conform to the demands of the tribe. Which is a mistake. Therein lies emptiness. It’s why the Right can’t call January 6 an abomination. It’s why the Left has to pretend that our southern border isn’t a joke, or that having a johnson (as in a penis, not Mike Johnson) doesn’t make you a male. The truth usually exists somewhere outside of such blind and stupid loyalties, which is often a polite word for “being willing to tell your own side’s fictions.” Instead, we should be willing to embrace truth and perpetuate it unrelentingly. Because the truth doesn’t hurt. Or it might a little. But it also heals. It is a necessary thing. Perhaps the most necessary. You can’t solve problems if you can’t even acknowledge they exist. And we have a lot of problems.
These days, people often treat writers like politicians. The distinction between politicians and writers is increasingly blurred. Readers have the same expectations of writers that they do of politicians. I think this is the writers’ fault, not the readers’ -- because writers so often act like politicians: cultivating constituencies, tending to the “base,” crafting applause lines, etc. What say you?
That is a hard reality to avoid. Especially since everything has become so hyper-politicized. I kind of miss the old days, when three-fourths of the country seemed apathetic, and cared more about the Kardashians. Now, too many people care too much about politics. Often, the dumbest ones you wish would disengage to make the Republic healthier. The problem with democracy is that dumb people vote too, which is why I just assume Kari Lake will become a senator someday.
But I think one of the healthiest things we can do as writers is to not be afraid to piss off our own readerships. Journalism was a better place when we could have robust disagreements, often in the same publication. (Think The New Republic of the Eighties, when fellow staffers sometimes went after each other.) I don’t mean to be unnecessarily combative. But room for honest disagreement should always exist, without it being an executable offense. One of the things I hate most about now is how fast we go from 0 to 100 in the I-want-nothing-else-to-do-with-you department. Debate is usually where the real action happens. Or it used to be. And now, the people who get the most traction don’t debate, they just sing their side’s talking points the loudest. Years ago, people thought CNN’s Crossfire was a stagey wrestling match between Right and Left. But I’m almost nostalgic for that level of discourse. Because now, most dialogue has become endless monologue. With some exceptions -- Jake Tapper and Kaitlan Collins on CNN are two shining examples of breaking this rule -- most cable hosts don’t even have on people to disagree with, these days. They just want everyone singing from the same hymnbook. Which is bad conversation, and bad TV.
Matt, what are the issues you most care about? I care a lot about many issues -- and I am one opinionated sumbitch. But, first and foremost, I care about the maintenance of our democracy. I know that this sounds gooey. Don’t care.
I probably don’t care about as many issues as you. I was always less of a policy guy, more of a temperamental conservative. I’m a pretty simple person. Leave me alone. Let me leave others alone. Keep my taxes low, my defenses on high alert. Keep the country safe, and the world safe as much as we can (though don’t get overly ambitious about it, and kid ourselves that we can stand up democracies in the Middle East, for instance). Freedom is very important to me, but so is responsibility. And yes, your primary issue is now mine, too. Preserving this thing of ours. Because once it’s gone -- once we let it go -- it probably ain’t coming back. We have to have elections, and live by their results. Not to shoot it out in the streets. When democracy ceases to be the straw that stirs the drink, nothing else will matter. Which is why Trump’s rejection of it is the unforgivable sin. Such behavior leads to anarchy, followed by authoritarianism. Neither is a desirable outcome. And never has been, anywhere in the world. We have thousands of years of history to back that up. This is not a guess. It’s a replicable experiment. So your concern is not just an issue. It is the issue.
When you listen to music, what are you apt to listen to?
Anything that moves me. I place music -- usually a video -- at the end of nearly every column, because it’s an important part of my life. And my pulls come from all over the map -- gospel, soul, blues, alt-country, pop, classic rock, gut-bucket old country. I like soul men (and women) who leave it all on the table. And that can come from anywhere. You know them when you hear them. They are not genre-specific. Though I’ve always held Tom Waits close. If he goes before I do -- and he’s a full 20 years older than me, so hopefully he will -- I will probably not be able to write his obituary. I’ll be too emotional. The first song I ever played for my oldest son, by design -- whom you, Jay Nordlinger, held shortly after he was born -- was Tom Waits’s “Picture In A Frame.” I stand by that choice, some 24 years later. A fine way to get introduced to the world.
Name three of your favorite TV shows of all time (or any number you like).
Ooof. Hard call. My wife and I recently re-watched every single episode -- all eleven seasons -- of Curb Your Enthusiasm. They were even better the second time around. So I guess we should put that on the list. Larry David is a comic genius, and even though he contributed greatly to Seinfeld, Curb is a superior show in every way. Danny McBride also makes me reliably laugh. I love his current Righteous Gemstones, but the first season or so of Eastbound and Down holds a special place for me. Just watch the boogie-board scene and you’ll see why. Dramatically? It’s hard to top The Sopranos. (I’m Sicilian on my mom’s side -- her people hailed from Corleone -- so it’s kind of a near’n’dear.) Though I’ve never re-watched it. (I hated the series-finale ending.) But maybe I should.
Name three women of the popular culture in our lifetimes who have . . . have . . . appealed to you. (I write this on October 29, Winona Ryder’s birthday.)
Are you trying to get me killed? My wife’s going to read this. She’s a brunette, so let’s go with Penelope Cruz, Alessandra Ambrosio, and for old times’ sake, Phoebe Cates. I have no idea what the latter looks like now, but back during her Fast Times and Private School days, she had me thinking plenty of impure adolescent thoughts.
That’s easy: Miller’s Crossing (the greatest Coen Brothers movie by far, accept no substitutes). Barry Levinson’s Diner (about a diner in Baltimore -- sue me for homerism, I’m a Maryland guy). Cinema Paradiso (the 1988 Italian film, the Ennio Morricone score for which helped bring me and my wife together). And the film adaptation of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (which I wrote about here). In keeping with the Sicilian theme, Goodfellas never gets old for me, either. I especially love how Ray Liotta keeps his eye on the sauce he has cooking as law enforcement is closing in. Such a goombah move . . .
None of them current. The Dallas Cowboys’ Drew Pearson. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Lynn Swann. The San Antonio Spurs’ George Gervin. The boxer Boom Boom Mancini. Whom the great Warren Zevon sang about.
Weren’t you a ballboy for the Washington Bullets or Wizards?
Man, if readers don’t know, you have a freaky, encyclopedic memory. More than any single person I know. It’s crazy impressive. How’d you remember that? I was a ballboy for the Washington Bullets. Or a trial ballboy. They let us “try out” for several weeks, before they ended up giving the jobs to children of Bullets employees. The fix was in all along. It was all a big farce. But . . . I did get to pass the ball to Michael Jordan once, during warmups. I like to think I made him with that pass. Taught him all he needed to know, going forward. And Moses Malone once threw a bloody Band-Aid at me while I was swabbing sweat out of the foul lane. So I was in heaven for a short time.
When I ask George Will about America and its prospects, he says, “I’m a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist.” You? And thanks.
Will is a smart guy, so I hesitate to buck him. But I’m probably the opposite. I’m a short-term optimist and a long-term pessimist. I don’t think it’ll all fall apart tomorrow. But I do think it will probably all fall apart eventually. Everything comes undone, sooner or later. The Law of Entropy. I’ve never hoped to be more wrong about anything than this . . .
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