The Recent Work of Oliver Bateman #15
An overview of what I've been working on
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Since my last work-related dispatch, I’ve published several new articles. Here’s the complete rundown.
For The Ringer, I wrote a long obituary that looked at the life, times, and influence of the late “Superstar” Billy Graham:
Eldridge Wayne Coleman, known to generations of pro wrestling fans as “Superstar” Billy Graham, died last week at the age of 79. Graham, whose steroid-enhanced physique and grandiose soliloquies established a template later followed by Hulk Hogan, Jesse “the Body” Ventura, Big Poppa Pump–era Scott Steiner, and many others, had spent the past 30 years of his life dealing with health problems. Yet, Graham spent countless hours perpetually recounting the tale of a man whose short-lived stint as a “Superstar”—now WWE’s official descriptor for all of its wrestlers—was succeeded by an array of personal trials. These included career setbacks, as well as enduring the long, painful toll of his physical health deteriorating, leading to the systemic collapse of his body that ultimately signaled his demise.
Though he was only a megastar for a five-year period starting in the mid-1970s, everything about the performance and pageantry of pro wrestling from the 1980s to the present is tied to him in some form or fashion. “Superstar” Graham, channeling Muhammad Ali’s self-aggrandizing post-fight rants (and Ali, in turn, was channeling wrestling great “Gorgeous George” Wagner), had his slick style of boasting borrowed by all of the top stars that followed in his wake, from Dusty Rhodes to Ric Flair. Perhaps one of Graham’s most enduring contributions is his characteristic use of the word “brother” in his promos—a nod to his evangelical origins, where fellow congregants are “brothers in Christ,” much like how his ring name is a nod to the famed evangelist he outlived by a half-decade—a practice that has since been widely adopted by other wrestlers.
There was nothing quite like Graham’s routine—he could fill 15 minutes of a 20-minute main event with posing, boasting, and preliminary challenges like arm wrestling or weightlifting, activities which might seem like superfluous time-wasters but had capacity crowds hanging on his every gesture and utterance. He was, in other words, the first great sports entertainer, with everything that came before and after his matches far more impressive than what happened during them. In the ring, he preferred to let his opponents get much of the offense, merely selling for them as needed—an approach followed by both Hogan and Ventura, who each spent a good deal of time in their matches writhing in pain or outside the ring. Because of this surprisingly light touch, writes Steve Keirn in his recent autobiography, “[Graham] wasn’t the type of wrestler that most guys relished the idea of working with. His style was so loose, and you couldn’t feel anything he did in the ring.” But that didn’t matter; Graham was there to perform, not to wrestle.
For American Affairs Journal, my friend David Inman and I tackled the regulation (and even the potential prohibition) of social media platforms:
We are not advocating for the complete abolition of internet media, or even for its devaluation as a form of social discourse. After all, social media initially connected us in ways we never imagined, giving us the means to rapidly share information and experiences across the globe. One vital function of social media has been to expose the absurdities and injustices of our shared condition, allowing for at least the possibility of a better understanding of the world we live in—though certainly, as the dismal failure of everything from the “Arab Spring” to the 2020 BLM protests has shown, it has provided no means for improving them.
What social media can never do for us, however, but what we must somehow find a way to do for ourselves, is provide a socially constructed space in which this new technology can be useful and beneficial. We must replace the superficial optimism that social media corporations and their users will self-regulate with the determination to see that our elected representatives adopt prudent regulations. Our government has risen to this challenge in times past, such as during the heyday of the New Deal—proving that it is possible for a democratically-elected government to bring bad market actors to heel before the damage they are causing to our commons becomes irreversible. This determination calls for a willingness to legislate based on our best conjectures, even if such conjectures can never be proven absolutely. It demands that we continue to strive for genuine reforms to the problems that plague civil society and now threaten even the language that binds us together.
In recognizing social media’s limitations and pitfalls, we should be left with a sense that we stand with one foot over the edge of an abyss; below us is the pit of unreason, the degradation of our very tools for communication. It would be irresponsible to avert our gaze, laugh under our breath, and hope or pretend things will get better on their own. Instead, we must collectively rise to the challenge imposed by these new technologies, and once more craft for ourselves and our descendants a society that operates for the common good of all.
In one of my best UnHerd articles to date — the rare piece that was firing on all cylinders — I used “mommyblogger” Heather Armstrong’s recent death as an opportunity to discuss the perils of selling a version of one’s self in the marketplace of ideas, a hobbyhorse of mine:
I have argued before that blogging — indeed, many forms of social media — allows people to unhealthily distort themselves for profit. This isn’t therapeutic, despite Armstrong’s repeated claims to the contrary; in fact, as my own therapist has pointed out, reminding everyone around you that your creative work is “therapeutic” is a sure-fire sign that it probably isn’t. When personal reinvention for commercial success becomes the norm, it’s easy to lose sight of your own needs, while focused on catering to an audience’s demands. There is a vast difference between performing wellness for an audience and actually achieving it.
The relentless cycle of selling and repackaging the self not only creates a dizzying array of personas to uphold but also lays the foundation for an existential crisis when the demand for one’s curated identity dwindles. In the final years of her life, Armstrong was already posthumously known; writing on Instagram to a fraction of her former audience, her past was better-known than her present. Many of today’s top posters, podcasters, and pundits will have the same experience. Countless people have invested themselves in the game of personal content creation — making moves that will invariably lead to diminishing returns, until they have no moves left to make.
I also tackled the rise of the easy-access sportsbetting:
In her 2012 book Addiction by Design, anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll writes that gamblers find themselves adjusting their behaviour based on the features and giveaways provided by casinos, such as in-play betting, cash-out options, or bonus plays. In the decade since, the gambling scene has evolved — from mechanical slots in a handful of states to video slots in nearly all of them, and finally to sports betting on almost every smartphone in the US. The relationship between sports bettors and the growing industry that services them is characterised by a constant interplay, where bettors seek to maintain the ideal balance of dopamine hits, spend, and control, while the industry releases an endless stream of innovations and promotions to draw them deeper into their apps. They dangle special offers to keep time-on-app as high as possible, while draining bankrolls over time — hence the money thrown at new users to convince them to join the service: no one wants to stick around if they lose their wad all at once.
The “zone”, as my cousin describes it, is a state where bettors feel fully absorbed, achieving a balance between risk and enjoyment in which they are perfectly synchronised with the app. He, and enthusiasts like him, have noted that their betting experiences keep becoming “smoother” and more immersive. While data analysts behind the scenes make sophisticated predictions of potential value, this “zone” state keeps bettors anchored in the immediate excitement of the wager, which prevents them from making informed long-term decisions.
Predictably, the rate of pathological gambling in the US seems to be increasing. There was a 45% rise in calls, texts, and messages to the National Problem Gambling Helpline between 2021 and 2022. In New Jersey alone, the state’s Council on Compulsive Gambling’s help hotline has experienced a 200% jump over the past four years. We are staring into a potential epidemic with serious dangers: a report from the UK Gambling Commission revealed that problem gamblers are 12 times more likely to suffer from depression, and the suicide rate among these individuals is considerably higher than among the general population. The argument for ubiquitous, 24/7 sports betting often skates over these facts — as well as the financial costs of this supposedly revenue-boosting exercise. A recent study found that the annual social cost of gambling addiction in the United States is now around $7 billion.
For Splice Today, I laid out the blueprint for the for-profit “Bateman University”:
Classes: Ugh, talk about a pain in the neck. There’s nothing worse than waking up at the crack of noon at some point in March, logging on to the new version of your school’s shitty Blackboard service—which hasn’t had an interface update in decades and therefore runs like an old jalopy on even the best gaming PC—and discovering that you’re enrolled in a whole bunch of nonsense classes. U.S. history? English literature? Calculus? The “classics,” whatever those are (classic episodes of The Simpsons, maybe, like the one about the monorail that put Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook on the map)? Who has time for all that when you’ve got a Vanderpump Rules party to attend and several thousand scalps to take during a marathon session of Fortnite: Expensive MCU Skins Edition? Well, this new super-school is going to scrap the fusty old crap and replace it with course offerings that will ensure you get your $170,000-of-student-loans-worth of entertainment. How does a loaded spring schedule of “Miniseries of the Week I: She-Hulk: Attorney at Law,’” “Introduction to March Madness, Intersectionality, and Bracketology,” “Cool internship where you work an email job for free,” “Health and Physical Education: Advanced Gender Training for Autoandrophiles and Autogynephiles,” and “Spring Break Study Abroad: Overproduced Elites World Tour” strike you? Even if you love these courses, attendance will be both optional and strongly discouraged.
Tests: Here’s another aspect of college that’s nothing but unpleasant. Let’s take a typical exam question: What year did the American Revolution begin? Now, unless you’re a Jeopardy! egghead or perhaps an unfairly “on-the-spot” pundit getting mugged by the mainstream media because you don’t know the meaning of words like “woke,” “based,” “frens,” or “RETVN,” you’re not going to want to take a stab at answering that. In fact, you’d probably prefer to run as far away from that brainteaser as possible. Years of scientific research that I just made up indicate that tests—or any current means of gauging progress in a class, for that matter—aren’t the least bit fair. Every question, including the one I included in this paragraph, is laden with so much unconscious bias and Eurocentric thinking that it’s impossible to arrive at a “correct” answer; facts themselves are fights! In place of these tests, I’m going to have instructors offer Nap Ministry-branded “nap-ins” during which they cruise over to your pad and sleep with you as an act of resistance against the workaday world.
Instructors: Man, don’t get us started on those instructors! Why would anyone pay top dollar to listen to a bunch of grizzled 1960s fossils and marble-mouthed millennial up-and-comers whisper tedious monologues about Foucault, rhizomes, orientalism, standpoint epistemology, and aporias? If you’re shelling out $170,000, you should expect to see someone who could give Bachelor Brad, Bodega Bro, or—at a minimum—disgraced former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards a run for their money in the looks department. To remedy this problem, I’ll add a “hot or not” field on the student evaluation forms. If the instructors don’t measure up, they’re out the door. Oh, and the remaining teachers—Bachelor Brad levels of hot or not—should boast well-honed, joke-free comedy “bits” that put them on par with legendary anti-yuksters like Hannah Gadsby and Brendon Schaub.
I also wrote about why we must resist our coming AI overlords at all costs:
In addition to this innate flair for procrastination, we humanzees continue to showcase levels of acquisitiveness far beyond any machine. Trivia robots like Watson of Jeopardy! fame can earn thousands on quiz shows by spouting facts about Novgorod’s population (216,200) or the Best Picture winner at the 1964 Academy Awards (My Fair Lady). But could they have conjured up the magical COVID-19 virus that almost shattered the world economy? Only a grand wizard, master soothsayer, sloppy laboratory scientist, or devoted pangolin eater could perform a feat like that. Robots may be overflowing with knowledge, but they lack the cunning to rush vaccines to market, scam investors out of billions, reward themselves hefty bonuses after disastrous fiscal years. Even when instructed to maximize profits, these emotionless, socialistic machines can’t compete with the most clueless of CEOs. Until we manage to instill them with enough artificial intelligence to grasp the worth of gold hoards, trillion-dollar offshore accounts, and Scrooge McDuck-style “money bins,” these machines will never measure up on Wall Street.
Furthermore, machines can’t develop the obsessive attachment to local sports teams and athletic idols that many of us humans possess. Whether you’re partial to Mac McClung’s gravity-defying slams or the Pittsburgh Pirates’ now-underway and long-awaited losing streak, you can be sure that no chrome-domed robot could ever match your level of fandom. We flesh-and-blooders can take it personal and make it personal in a way that machines simply can’t, bound as they are by their various corporate-defined prime directives not to say impolite words or engage in sexy talk with their masters.
To add insult to injury for the machines, they’re not exactly easy on the eyes. Except for a handful of those lifelike android dolls developed in Japan, there aren’t many motherboards that you’d consider settling down with. On the surface, Watson and chess maestro Deep Blue might seem like suitable partners—intelligent robots that could earn your parents’ approval. But let’s face it: they’re just big boxes. Would you want to spend the rest of your life with something that a friend of mine politely described as a “breadboard homunculus?” And even if GPT-4 were stuffed into a human skinsuit stitched by Buffalo Bill himself, would you enjoy cohabiting in a small apartment with someone who corrects you each time you mistakenly attribute The Color Purple to Toni Morrison? Regardless of how you slice it, these robots are unworthy of our fierce human lusts.
Does anyone ever read any of this? I wouldn’t know! I’m paid to write, not to be read.
To prove that I do indeed contain multitudes, I want to direct your attention to my UnHerd article about the other Billy Graham (the Billy Graham from whom this wrestler took his ring name).
Many people have said, “I agree with what you two are saying here, but this will never happen.” They’re right! We still felt a need to write this — for the record, as it were. Also, a word to the wise guy (as Bill Burroughs would put it): this article is 20+ pages, so pack a sleeping bag.
I’ve discussed it in several of the recent paywalled “Work of Content Creation” episodes, including the latest one.