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Since my last work-related dispatch, I’ve published several new articles. Here’s the complete rundown.
In last week’s print edition of the Washington Examiner, I reflected on the greatness of star pitcher and power hitter Shohei Ohtani:
While many will struggle to adjust to the most extensive overhaul of league rules since the introduction of the designated hitter to the American League in 1973 — as of 2022, both leagues now use DHs — Ohtani has a trump card. Very nearly as good a hitter and base runner as he is a pitcher, whatever Ohtani loses at the pitcher’s mound will be regained at the plate or rounding the bases. This is, after all, an athlete who can throw a 102 mph fastball, hit a ball 119 mph, and reach a max sprint speed of 19.8 mph.
With Ohtani, who this week is preparing to lead Japan to yet another World Baseball Classic victory over the likes of the United States and Cuba — it has already won the WBC twice, more times than any other country — one simply cannot stop with the superlatives. He is the greatest all-around baseball player Japan has ever produced, the kind of once-in-a-century performer that baseball-mad country has been trying to develop since visitors from the U.S. introduced the sport at the beginning of the Meiji era. He is the greatest two-way player in the history of baseball, including Babe Ruth, who had a pair of solid pitching-and-hitting years in 1918 and 1919 before leaving the mound to focus on swatting home runs. Ohtani blows Babe’s two-way numbers out of the water, particularly on the mound, and he is doing so with a “live” ball rather than a “dead” one in a league that is not only integrated but full of players from all around the world. He is arguably the greatest active athlete in any sport: Imagine Argentine footballer Lionel Messi if he played as both forward and keeper or quarterback Patrick Mahomes if he also started in the defensive secondary and you’re on the way to understanding the extent of what Ohtani has already accomplished.
This is rarefied air for sports-obsessed Japan, a country that once came close to producing the world’s finest athlete — the massively muscled sumo Chiyonofuji, who reigned as yokozuna for a decade from 1981 to 1991 and physically outclassed contemporaries in nearly all of the strength-oriented sports, from football to freestyle wrestling — and that can reasonably claim to have produced baseball’s best singles hitter, the metronomic Ichiro Suzuki, who set MLB’s single-season record for hits, 262, and, between stints in MLB and Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league, also holds the all-time career hits record, 4,367. But Japan, a country that either sharpens its most promising athletes to a fine point with excessive practice or, more commonly, destroys their bodies with overtraining, has never produced a perfect natural athlete: No Usain Bolt, Bruce Jenner, Michael Phelps, or LeBron James has arisen from that archipelago. Until Ohtani, that is. Ohtani changed everything.
Over at RealClear Books & Culture, I discussed my affection for the sport of sumo:
Men like Mainoumi and the similarly-sized Enhō Akira (arguably his latter-day equivalent) are the reason I watch sumo — they embody the Japanese “fighting spirit” and obsession with the repetition of technique, willing and able to take on much larger opponents knowing that most of the time they will lose (a leitmotif of Japanese mixed martial arts as well, where men like Kazushi Sakuraba and Shinya Aoki will gladly fight two or three weight classes above their own). When it comes to the practice of technique, former San Francisco Giant and Kintetsu Buffalo pitcher Chris Arnold told American-born Japanese sports journalist Robert Whiting in his wonderful book You Gotta Have Wa, “when it comes to practice, the Japanese believe there is no peak point…they don’t recognize limits.” One drills the mitokorozeme incessantly not in the hope of hitting it frequently, but merely once — at the time of greatest need, in a moment that the sport’s archivists have been recording in the pages of its history for a century. Other sports offer more than their fair share of spectacular feats, but none packs so much meaning into so little space while a solitary man stands in direct competition against.
My father, who played on the offensive and defensive line at West Virginia University during the late 1950s, often told me that he played the game not because he enjoyed football — he hated its labored, stop-and-start pace — but because he enjoyed the frisson that came from laying one’s hands on an opponent and feeling their strength or weakness. It was this distillate of pure competition that he chased and also what drew me to folkstyle wrestling; both of us were disappointed by all the rest of these sports, which often turned on referee discretion in football and tedious grinding in wrestling, particularly in the heavier weight classes. Meanwhile, in that one half of a split second, you recognize in your heart who is the better man — and if you know, you know. What is the point of going any further? We win or lose in the flutter of an eyelid; everything else amounts to the tedious labor of setting the table or mopping up. America offers no such do-or-die pastime for its large, aimless boys, but Japan at least gives them sumo.
For Pirate Wires,I took a deep dive into the “ouroborotic” culture wars:
The culture wars are, as Pat Buchanan observed in his rhetorically impressive “Culture Wars” address at the 1992 Republican National Convention, a “war for the soul of America.” The war has been going on forever, it is waged by canny rhetoricians like Buchanan and cruder hacks like Bill Clinton strategist James Carville, and it requires two sides — Coca-Cola and Pepsi drove awareness of one another’s brands to untold levels during the fiercest years of their 1980s “cola wars” rivalry, much as the WWF (now the WWE) and WCW combined for never-equalled wrestling-show television ratings during their “Monday night wars” of the late 1990s. The culture wars, like the cola wars or the pro-wrestling Monday night wars that continue in changed ways in 2023, albeit with new cola products and wrestling promotions occupying the stage, are “ouroborotic” — never disappearing, but perpetually changing form in an eternal cycle of destruction and recreation. The hard structures of society — for example, the “capitalism” against which many twentysomethings raged during the 2010s — function in a similar way, as historian Fernand Braudel devoted a career to explaining; such material realities function as the slow-evolving, largely-unchanging backdrops against which we all live, laugh, love, and eventually die.
Of course, within this longue durée (“long term”), the ways in which these cycles play out do change. History moves at a snail’s pace, at least in retrospect, but the one thing it never does is repeat itself. And today in 2023, we are players in the left-versus-right culture wars in a genuinely unique way. During the 2010s, one of the great innovations of America’s Silicon Valley were the primary social media platforms, which, as they reached their zenith, had the effect of harnessing all the latent marketing energy in the base of end-users, converting that into what we hoary veterans of the ancient internet might once have called a MUSH (i.e., a “multi-user shared hallucination”) that operated at unprecedented size, scale, and speed. Suddenly, a new game was unlocked, a competition of all against all for engagement, clout, and even profit.
Social media was the perfect arena for the culture wars. Back when a doughty culture warrior like Pat Buchanan was fighting the good fight, one could easily disengage: turn off the radio talk show, refuse to watch nascent left-versus-right talk shows (like Crossfire, which Buchanan co-hosted), and touch grass. Don’t get me wrong; we were all still foot soldiers in the culture wars. But we weren’t on the front lines, posting and tweeting in support of or opposition to the Hogwarts Legacy video game. Such participation wasn’t mandatory. Now, however, the “game done changed” — there are no culture-wars agnostics and conscientious objectors in Twitter group DMs full of top posters, podcasters, and other minor political operatives. One cannot easily implement Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life author Luke Burgis’ advice and disengage from what he, following literature professor René Girard’s definition of “mimetic desire,” terms “mimetic conflict.” It is not so simple as that; millions reared on advertising and marketing grow up not so much with Freudian superegos calling the shots as “marketing consciences” that have them always honing their identity, positioning their product, selling themselves — often for nothing but the satisfaction of a post well-liked and a tribal cause well-defended.
In the first of three March pieces for UnHerd, I used Ozempicas a jumping-off point for speculating about the future bodies of the rich:
As a lifelong strength athlete, I have toiled in filthy gyms and basements to maintain my own physical condition. I would like to say that remaining “natural” or practising intense physical discipline offers some intrinsic reward. Unfortunately, it does not; it is a hard-to-follow path made more tortuous in my case by my stubborn unwillingness to take any effective shortcuts (even though the stem cell injections I received worked like a charm). But a resistance to emptying my wallet, and an aversion to some of the side effects from these drugs — cancerous tumours in the case of Ozempic — has hindered my route to body optimisation.
For me, glorifying the “natural” in and of itself, then, is little better than writing some trite ode to manual labour. There are loads of people, nearly all of them poor and sick, whose bodies are relatively resistant to weight loss. For them, the simplicity of the Ozempic jab — as opposed to the creation of a stomach pouch via laparoscopic gastric bypass surgery — might offer an improved quality of life in much the same way that cheaper insulin and other band-aids help ease the pains associated with sedentary, unhealthy lifestyles.
But the rhetorical appeal of this medicine — that it will produce gains that will “trickle down” from the upper classes to the masses — is an old lie. Time is a thief, stealing each passing minute from us, but as money proves able to purchase ever-increasing amounts of it, it will be disproportionately hoarded by those rich people who are already proficient at squirrelling away their money. Whether by violent nature or scientific nurture, the body is merely something to be overcome. And if you’ve the money to opt for the latter, why wouldn’t you?
In the meantime, those of us doomed to remain mere humans can only watch this process unfold while the rich become superhuman. Consigned to increasingly rare “normal” bodies that are both temples and tombs, the middle class must study this journey from the sidelines, watching on as a vast array of battered, bloated and ruined bodies are left in the wake of a transhumanist train that goes in only one direction.
I also wrote about how Joe Biden has held the line in his own party — and what a future without him might mean for the Democrats:
Biden’s greatest asset, meanwhile, has been his wobbly centrism — a late-stage, cracked-mirror version of the pugnacious, energetic centrism that made him a presidential front-runner in the 1988 Democratic primaries, until allegations of plagiarism in his speeches and academic work torpedoed his candidacy. In the style of a grandparent simply unable to hear the complaints of his arguing grandchildren, Biden has alternated between offering lip service to the social-justice issues that animate his party’s Left-wing base, while reiterating his own more traditional support for police, law and order, and the middle class.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that Biden has given every indication that he will run for re-election in 2024. Genuine one-term presidential administrations are rare — only three presidents served four years and chose not to run again. But Biden is still working on borrowed time. There are a variety of ongoing issues that could take a turn for the worse. The long-promised Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine could weaken Nato’s resolve to continue subsidising that embattled nation. The layoffs seen primarily in the technology and entertainment sectors could spread more widely across the economy. Mounting infrastructure disasters like the recent train derailment and hazardous materials spill in East Palestine, Ohio could give the administration a black eye. Police shootings such as the violent arrest and death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis could send protestors back to the streets across the United States. All of this could provoke conflicts between Biden and other senior figures in his party, who might apply pressure to prevent him from running again.
Even if he runs and wins, Biden will be 82 when he takes office in 2024. This is unprecedented territory for a democratically elected leader. His health could fail suddenly. The mounting personal scandals involving the handling of confidential documents and his “black sheep” son Hunter could topple, or he could make one too many a gaffe-ridden speech. (Biden recently received praise from 76-year-old former president Donald Trump for delivering a relatively coherent State of the Union Address.) But most alarmingly for the American Left, there are no obvious candidates waiting in the Democratic wings — in fact, Biden’s surprisingly strong performance has caused would-be rivals to fall in line, with The New York Times interpreting the deference of party heavyweights as evidence that it’s “Biden or bust” in 2024.
Finally, I examined the market incentivesthat spur racial fraudsters to exaggerate or invent their backstories:
Vianne Timmons, whose claims of Native American heritage are redolent of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s long-time but ultimately disproven assertion of a similar background, is but the latest in a long line of racial identity fraudsters, of whom there seem to be more being exposed on a daily basis. Prior to Timmons’s admission that she “sincerely regrets any hurt or confusion” from her outright deception, Raquel Saraswati — a self-proclaimed “Muslim progressive activist” and equity, inclusion, and culture officer for the Quaker nonprofit American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) — was outed as Rachel Seidel, a white woman of Western European descent.
Saraswati, whose mother described her as being “as white as the driven snow”, resigned from her role in response to the revelation. Her story, unlike Timmons’s or Warren’s more measured deceit, is one of the lifelong clout chaser who “identity-frauded” her way into a privileged field. Saraswati claimed to have converted to Islam as a student at a private high school in Troy, New York, after which she emerged in the 2000s looking noticeably different from her adolescent self. To fit the part, she now boasts visibly bronzed skin, darker and thicker eyebrows, and an ever-present head covering (early in her racial transition, she previously described herself as a “Catholic Latina” with Arab ancestry).
Both Timmons and Saraswati clearly saw value in escaping their whiteness, and seem to have been done so for some kind of career advancement. Saraswati’s deception led her into the DEI space, a lucrative career path for which organisations created over 100,000 positions in June 2020 alone. Timmons, meanwhile, earned the presitigious position of university president.
Given the mercenary nature of Saraswati’s conversion — she was on national TV shows as soon as she could get there — her profit-motivated story is not interchangeable with that of, say, disgraced “transracial” NAACP official Rachel Dolezal, whose biography reveals a deep, albeit deeply troubled, commitment to the cause of social justice. Likewise, Timmons, similar to Elizabeth Warren, appears to have been repeating fabricated history largely to appear more interesting to Left-leaning friends.
Yet both their stories also show how this kind of deception, when coupled with out-of-control narcissism, can drive at least temporary career success, particularly at a time when a market for “underrepresented identities” is booming. Timmons’s ascent through university administration was a long process, most likely fuelled by some degree of competence; Saraswati was in charge of DEI — an executive-level role — for a small but significant American nonprofit almost entirely due to her fabricated persona. Here, her career success is more closely analogous to the upward trajectory of Jewish-born “Caribbean-rooted Bronx black Latina” Jessica “Jess La Bombalera” Krug, whose widely-praised book Fugitive Modernities landed her a coveted tenured position in George Washington University’s history department before revelations about her own identity prompted her resignation.
For Russ Smith’salways-excellent Splice Today, I wrote a humorous piece about a date gone wrong:
“Are you calling this a date? Is that what this is?”
“I guess so.”
“I’m not comfortable with the term ‘date.’ That puts a lot of pressure on me.”
“I agree. Let’s call it hanging out.”
“No, I don’t like that, either. Let’s just call it nothing.”
“Okay, Emily, then it’s nothing. We’re doing nothing.”
“I like that. I like doing nothing with you.”
“Yeah, I suppose it beats doing something.”
“Does it? I like staying active. You know, going out and doing stuff.”
“So do I, Emily. I’m a big fan of doing stuff, especially when I go out.”
“Well, there are also times when it’s good to stay in, Ohvuh.”
“My name is actually Oscar, but otherwise you’re so right. Most nights, I’d just like to curl up in my pajamas while staying in. It’s a jungle out there and so forth.”
“Well, Ohvuh, I hope you’re not one of those guys who just wants me to come over and stay at his dirty rat hole of a place. I want a guy who comes up with interesting ideas for dates.”
I also wrote about historian Carl Becker and the work of pro wrestling history:
Carl Becker writes in his “Everyman His Own Historian” address that “the history that does work in the world… is living history, that pattern of remembered events, whether true or false, that enlarges and enriches the specious present, the specious present of Mr. Everyman.” This is intended to serve as a valuable reminder that history ought to be remade to suit the needs of whatever generation writes it, in order that we members of that generation might “make use” of history so as “to correct and rationalize for common use Mr. Everyman’s mythological adaptation of what actually happened.”
When I first read this address two decades ago, I considered it more small “d” democratic than it actually is. The address, far from being a plea for “Mr. Everyman” to sit down and write his own history, is instead an exhortation to professional historians to adapt their work to the “felt necessities” of the present, Von Rankean notions of perfect objectivity be damned. It’s a call for better and more relevant scholarly production—even if, as Becker himself acknowledges, Everyman rarely reads “our” books, the books of professional historians like him or yours truly.
Everyman’s own memories, in Becker’s opinion, “fashion for him a more spacious world than that of the immediately practical,” with most of the scraps of factual knowledge that he acquires derived from his mostly unconscious work as a popular culture bricoleur: “information, picked up in the most casual way… from knowledge gained in business or profession, from newspapers glanced at, from books (yes, even history books) read or heard of, from remembered scraps of newsreels or educational films or ex cathedra utterances of presidents and kings, from fifteen-minute discourses on the history of civilization broadcast by the courtesy (it may be) of Pepsodent, the Bulova Watch Company, or the Shepherd Stores in Boston.”
Becker’s proposed solution, then, is that we professional historians must work to ensure that Mr. Everyman’s weltanschauung is shaped by more than just the detritus left in the sieve after his daily skimming and browsing is complete. Thus, through our useful and frequent contributions to the public-intellectual sphere, a somewhat more enlightened Mr. Everyman might one day become acquainted with the meanings of borrowed words and phrases such as bricoleur, ex cathedra, and weltanschauung.
Over at RealClear Books & Culture, my friend Emmet Penney wrote a great article on arm wrestling legend John Brzenk’s last stand:
Theodor Adorno said that when it comes to the paintings of Old Masters that their late works are catastrophes. The old works’ maturity, he wrote, “does not resemble the kind one finds in fruit. They are for the most part not round, but furrowed, even ravaged. Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation.” As for Old Masters, so for Old Champions. John Brzenk, the greatest armwrestler to walk the face of the earth, went home on his shield at the King of the Table 6 supermatch series in Dubai last weekend.
Few Americans know Brzenk’s name, but every armwrestler in the world has looked up to him. A former Delta airlines mechanic with an “aw shucks attitude,” big dimples, and thumbs the size of Miller cans, Brzenk spent a quarter century undefeated, often flying to the far reaches of the former Soviet bloc to rip men twice his size to the pin pad. He even had an action figure made of him in the 1980s—he’d been an extra in the corny Sylvester Stallone vehicle about armwrestling called Over the Top (1987).
Though the Russian Alexey Voyevoda would end his 25 year winning streak, as cataloged in the seminal documentary Pulling John (2009), Brzenk would remain an elite competitor into the 2010s. He toyed with retirement, but it didn’t stick. The table kept calling him back and he’s been back for about a year and a half now. At 58 years old, he can still keep up with many of the new breed. That’s the thing about armwrestling: it’s a tendon sport. Strength matters, but connective tissue and technique matter more. You can age with it, as Brzenk has, because tendons don’t flag as fast as muscle.
Palate Cleanser: Mainoumi vs. the Giants of the Sumo
This article occasioned a few pieces of amusing hate mail, including one in which someone compared Ohtani to a good “arcade bowler.”
They’re here on Substack, so you can subscribe to them. Interesting stuff, with a focus on Silicon Valley and far fewer of these “seen this take/topic elsewhere” headlines.
I’ve wanted to write this particular article for a long time.
Many forms of insurance already cover Ozempic, including mine, and more will likely do so in the future, thereby ensuring that prices drop — but the point isn’t about Ozempic (it’s merely the timely “hook” for the article). The point is that the outcome of the body wars is a fait accompli. I’d urge you to read this one, as it pulls together years of my work.
As well as clout incentives, though that’s surely the same thing in the all-encompassing “marketplace of ideas.”
Russ was recently hacked on Twitter and had to start a new account, which you can follow here.
Most dates in my early twenties played out like this, right down to the confusion about my name. Even today, people on social media sometimes confuse me with the slender, bald-headed writer Oliver Burkeman (I am neither slender nor bald-headed).
"The body is merely something to be overcome." This is the line from your essay that reminded me of the book The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker. Damn good book and much of its analysis overlaps with yours. Just absolutely no-nonsense stuff happening here. "The straight dope" as the kids used to say.