The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

‘Revenge of the Nerds,’ IRL?

Posted on | August 5, 2019 | Comments Off on ‘Revenge of the Nerds,’ IRL?


After our podcast Saturday night, John Hoge and I went out to dinner and he was telling me about his latest engineering project. He does very important work for NASA, but the way he talks about it is so low-key you aren’t likely to realize exactly how important his work is. So we’re sitting there in the restaurant, and he’s talking in a rather nerdy technical way about a project to do maintenance work on satellites using remote-controlled equipment and I’m like: “SPACE ROBOTS!”

This is really exciting stuff, to those of us who aren’t NASA engineers, but to Hoge, “It’s just my job five days a week,” you might say.

So I call the waitress over to our table. Hoge and I have become regulars at this place, so much that the waitress knows our orders by memory, and I point to John and say, “Can you guess what he does for a living?”

“A teacher?” she guesses.

“No — he builds space robots for NASA. Like, C3PO.”

“Actually, more like R2D2,” Hoge corrects me.


Because of my own professional experience, I understand that words matter. How you describe something makes a difference in how it is perceived. The whole point of Hunter S. Thompson’s career, a point he made explicitly in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, is how the media create the gap between reality and perception.

Hoge’s tendency to describe his work in a mealy-mouthed way — engineering contractor at Goddard, blah blah blah — is a typical example of this. I spent the early years of my career as a small-town sports writer, where the challenge is to write about the local high-school girls softball team’s tournament victory as if somebody actually cared:

ADAIRSVILLE — Becky Ann Randall slammed a seventh-inning double Saturday to give Red Bud High School a 12-10 victory over Fairmount in the semifinal round of the Early Bird Invitational Softball Tournament, advancing the Lady Cardinals to Sunday’s championship against host Adairsville.
Randall’s two-RBI double was one of three hits for Red Bud’s senior shortstop in Saturday’s semifinal.
“Becky Ann has really stepped us for us as a team leader,” said Lady Cardinals coach Ruth Talley, whose team graduated six players after last year’s 14-7 season. “She’s always been a competitor, and we’re counting on her to make a big difference this year.” . . .

Et cetera, et cetera. You’d illustrate the story with a photo of the “star” player of the game, and give it a headline and subhead that conveyed the idea that this was The Most Important Softball Game Ever, knowing that Becky Ann’s mama was going to buy six copies of the paper, cut out the article, laminate it, and send copies to all her relatives. Beyond this kind of scrapbook memorabilia function, I have no idea if anyone else ever paid attention to the local sports stories I wrote, but the coaches and players (and especially the players’ parents) loved the way I hyped up everything like it was really important. Why did I do it that way? Because I couldn’t see the point of doing it any other way. Like, why am I getting paid to cover these games, if the outcome doesn’t matter? Considering my own work to be valuable, I couldn’t maintain my self-esteem without trying to convince readers that the people and events I was writing about were important. Writing about high-school kids as if they were Athletic Superstars was essential to maintaining my morale as a journalist.

Words matter, and how we talk about ourselves affects how we are perceived by others. John Hoge was entirely honest with his low-key description of himself as an engineering contractor, but it’s also honest — and infinitely more impressive — for him to say he builds space robots.

True story: My son Jim was doing a home-remodeling job in Lynchburg, Virginia, and went out to have a few cold beverages. He got talking to a guy in the bar and when he introduced himself as Jim McCain, the guy said, “Like . .. The Other McCain?” Jim answered, “Yeah, that’s my dad,” and he didn’t have to pay for his drinks the rest of the night.

Oh, I’m just a blogger, in the same way Hoge’s just an engineer, but when I introduce myself to people, I tell them I’m a political correspondent for The American Spectator, which sounds more impressive.

Nobody ever paid serious attention to Santino Legan, Patrick Crusius or Connor Betts before they went on shooting rampages that have made national headlines. Legan killed three people and injured 13 others July 28 at a California food festival before killing himself. Crusius killed 20 people and injured 26 more Saturday in El Paso, Texas, before surrendering to police. Betts killed 9 people and injured 20 others in the wee hours of Sunday morning in Dayton, Ohio, before he was shot to death by police. None of these mass murderers had previous criminal records, and all three were young white men — Legan was 19, Crusius is 21, Betts was 24 — who might be described colloquially as nerds or losers. Politicians and pundits rushed to interpret these atrocities in a political context, but the rise of a genuine terrorist threat from such “lone wolf” killers — misfits or outcasts, filled with feelings of frustration and hopelessness — might better be understood from a sociological or psychological perspective. . . .

Read the whole thing at The American Spectator.



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