TK TK TK the rich

Subjects discussed: Golf, "Succession," Empire of Pain

Sometimes I’ll read an article not because I want to learn anything, but because I want to understand the default position from which a writer within a given field — soccer, couture fashion, Mario Kart speed running, British Parliamentary procedure, etc. — approaches their subject. What needs to be explained, what’s taken for granted? What norms are subtly reified, what unspoken contradictions are never probed or interrogated? Am I reading the testimony of an expert, a generalist, an expert attempting to be a generalist, a generalist attempting to be an expert, an ass-kisser, a glad-hander, a company man?

Stuff like that. It’s often not so very deep, but occasionally you discern a little. For example this ESPN article on the golfer Phil Mickelson, which I clicked on a couple of months ago and have continued thinking about ever since. I presume you are possibly like me, a person who does not like golf whatsoever, so I will try to summarize this goofy piece in four sentences: 1) Phil Mickelson, a famous and successful golfer, was set to play a tournament in Detroit. 2) The week of the tournament, The Detroit News ran an article about how Mickelson was allegedly cheated out of a bunch of money by a bookie, some years back. 3) In response, Mickelson cried foul and said he wouldn’t play the tournament in the future, because this article was mean to him. 4) A few days later, he walked it back and said he would — here’s ESPN’s language — “consider coming back here if enough fans signed a petition and committed to doing a random act of kindness.”

A real block of text, from the ESPN story:

"People were awesome and they were so nice, so I would say this, I don't want it to be divisive," Mickelson said Friday. "I didn't like the way that felt with the reporter. The people here were so nice that I'll make a deal with them. There's a guy, Mike Sullivan, trying to raise 50,000 signatures. If he gets 50,000 and all of those 50,000 agree to do one random act of kindness for another member of the community, I'm in."

And then:

"I just think that this tournament has sponsors, from Rocket Mortgage to a lot of local sponsors to a lot of the people in the community, that are trying to come together and do something good for the community," Mickelson said. "And if the members of the community will come together, I'd love to be back. But what I won't tolerate is that kind of divisive attitude from that particular reporter. It's just not helpful to anybody in any way."

Demanding a petition… for 50,000 random acts of kindness… so that he’ll get over himself and play a tournament of golf, at some point in the future. Unfortunately for all of us, the filed piece can’t say “????? LOL.” Mickelson is permanently insulated from the real world, and so it’s somehow very reasonable, within context of sports media and the way it treats the famous, for this horseshit saga to be treated like something for him to overcome, when he’s really just a mark who lost a bunch of money and can’t stomach anyone reminding him of the fact.

I suppose I must be naive for finding this extraordinary, given how the realities of having an obscene amount of wealth — specifically, the brain-melting part — are almost always treated neutrally by the press, and not just in sports. But it does give us artifacts like this to be considered and studied like pottery shards from a distant culture, if you want to think about it like that. That someone as rich and successful as Mickelson is allowed to say whatever he wants to assuage his own bruised ego, with no pushback, regardless of how desperately it sounds like the ramblings of a man whose brain has fully degraded into peach cobbler — well, not to go full Joker meme on you, but it says everything about the society in which we all live, and whose perspectives are valued by those in power, wouldn’t you say?

A couple of months ago, Jen got me to watch Succession, which I had put off for a very long time. Nothing against the show. It’s just that I had serious doubts about my ability to put up with the adventures of the obscenely rich, touchy as I am these days when I think about how much of our lives exist at their whim. And that instinct did not dissipate during the pilot, which I watched with gritted teeth and clenched fists, not smiling or laughing once as Jen kept on looking over at me to see if I was about to pass out. After which I said, “It’s not that the show is bad, it’s obviously written and acted well, but watching these people — I think I’m literally more comfortable with TV shows about murderers and criminals, than I am with this.” (We’d recently skipped around The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, shows of that nature.) To which she said that was probably worth interrogating, given the genuine look of discomfort on my face as Roman Roy dangled the promise of a million dollars in front of a poor kid, before snatching it away (versus the genuine look of glee when Walter White does some cool meth shit and I hop up and down in my seat like a good little boy and squeal, “Yes king, fuck ‘em up”).

Succession is just a TV show, and a well-made one at that, and after the second episode something turned for me and we ended up blazing through the two seasons in no time at all. Again, it’s a TV show. But I had an overriding thought the whole time, as we followed the ups and downs of the Roys: “The only possible conclusion for these characters is complete humiliation and/or bankruptcy and/or death.” Preferably death, I think. Tony Soprano and Walter White and Stringer Bell and all those characters get theirs in the end, you know? (SPOILERS, sorry.) And the crimes of a Roy family, analogous to the Murdoch family, seem to pretty obviously outsize anything as personal as shooting someone in the face, or even abetting illegal drug use. The memes are nice, and I’m touched by Jeremy Strong’s portrayal of addict Kendall, and bumbling Cousin Greg tickles my funny bone, and Logan slurring “fuck off” — yes, yes, all wonderful, A+ TV show, I can’t wait for season 3. But it would be nice if they suffer.

I must also be naive to expect that, because we know how life goes. Like many other journalists I recently read Empire of Pain, Patrick Radden Keefe’s absorbing account of how the Sackler family is primarily responsible for the opioid crisis, due to their (barely justified) creation and (inarguably immoral) promotion of OxyContin. Empire of Pain is one of those books that I kept on saying “Wait, babe, listen to this” as I read it, until I remembered Jen did want to read it on her own, because the mountain of evidence and history that Keefe amasses to prove the Sacklers’ villainy is just so overwhelming. For example, there’s the story about personal secretary to Purdue president Richard Sackler who, in the midst of writing memos about how OxyContin was being overprescribed, ended up with a prescription herself and very swiftly descended into addiction herself, which eventually progressed to heroin. I don’t have the book on hand at the moment so I can’t triple-check this, but the company did not look out for her, and she basically lost everything.

A lot of modern nonfiction works to inform you that many of our problems have complex, intersecting origins that date back decades or even centuries, which makes it somewhat jarring to read Empire of Pain and realize, quite convincingly, that the opioid crisis has one parent. And yet the Sacklers have not suffered, really. Their reputation in monied circles is somewhat tainted now, and Keefe lays out an emotional case for how the destruction of the family name is a damning existential fate, but they didn’t have to give up the majority of the money nor did they have to accept responsibility for the crisis. They are the type of wealthy that will allow them to forever reside in the delusional bubbles where Phil Mickelson and Roman Roy and every other rich person, real or living, can hang out for the rest of their lives — and there’s really nothing any of us can do about that, unless you’re going to [connection lost]. The destruction of the family name is a nice consolation prize, but I don’t think I’m alone in desiring more punitive measures.

Though Succession is considered analogous to the Murdoch family, there’s obvious parallels to the Empire of Pain story: a man pulls himself up by his bootstraps and founds an empire, only for his pathetic children to squander it all. Arthur Sackler, the paterfamilias of the Purdue fortune, was not a “good person”; neither is Logan Roy. But they both had a certain kind of grit that, god help me for lapsing into cliches, “you don’t see as much anymore” — a grit that led them to do great evil, and is hardly admirable, and yet it’s somehow admirable when juxtaposed against the mewling incompetence of the next generation, as we see in the book and in the show.

Halfway through the first season of Succession, I said I was rooting for Logan Roy. I still am, if I’m rooting for anyone. He’s a horrible old prick, but he actually did something with his life; wasn’t born on third and insistent about hitting a triple, as the saying goes. What he did with that life isn’t good, but it still seems preferable to being a spoiled heir. (EDIT: Initially I had a metaphor comparing Donald Trump to Donald Trump Jr., but they’re both pretty awful, and inserting Fred Trump doesn’t serve anything either, so I’m just deleting it altogether. Air Gordon pt. 2 apologizes for the conceptual inelegance.) Having read the Sackler book right before we started watching allowed me to attune myself to that sense of disappointment in Brian Cox’s performance — his disbelief that his idiot kids have turned out this way, and nonetheless expect the world. And this is not even unique within this monied milieu, because the Sacklers and the Roys are hardly the only families with this dynamic. They’re just the ones I’m thinking about right now.

Ah, but so it goes, and in my more despairing moments at what the excesses of the rich have done to this planet and to us — and because you subscribe to this newsletter I assume you can connect the dots, in this season of tumultuous weather and political chaos and everything else — I’m mildly comforted by the fact that no one, not even the fantastically wealthy, can stave off the chronological inevitability of cellular degradation. “Death is certain,” as they say in books and on t-shirts. Maybe that’s a depressed thing to say, but I don’t think I’m depressed — or at least no more depressed than anyone else who pays attention, and is often thinking about what we’re all up against, and how any of us can proceed. Right now, I would just like to see somewhat who deserves it get what’s coming to them, whether in fiction or real life. Preferably real life, if possible.

I am trying to start a dialogue

It’s been a while since I wrote one of these, mostly because I’ve been busy with work. I can’t complain at all, but I do treasure this Substack as a clearing house for whatever I happen to be thinking about, so I would like to post more before the end of the year. In the time since my last newsletter, Foster Kamer recommended me during a big New York roundup of “good newsletters,” during which a lot of you signed up. First of all, thank you Foster; second of all, I apologize for rewarding this public endorsement with silence. Still, I think that is part of the Air Gordon pt. 2 experience — lengthy dispatches followed by months of contemplation leading to the next lengthy dispatch — so welcome to the show, baby.

Professionally speaking

I said I was busy, and I have been. Here’s what I’ve been working on, in reverse chronological order since my last dispatch, along with some notes.

New York: ‘What’s the Best and Worst Day of Your Life?’ How System of a Down’s “Chop Suey!” tore up the airwaves — before getting banned post–9/11.

System of a Down’s Toxicity turns 20 this year, and a wonderful editor at New York asked me to talk to the band about “Chop Suey!” in particular, as well as the song’s connection to 9/11. This was my first oral history, and I have to give a shout out to The Ringer’s Alan Siegel — the undisputed master of the form right now, IMO — for giving me some advice on how to approach it.

Oral histories have been “controversial” in media circles as their usage has increased over the last decade, but I decided it was a fun challenge to demonstrate their personalities and dynamics without being able to explicitly “write about it,” as well as a great opportunity to peek inside the heads of a band I’ve been aware of for nearly 20 years. I would say the moment that made me most feel the passage of time is when I said something like “what I remember from 9/11 was…” and John Dolmayan, the drummer, said “What you remember — aren’t you like 23?” and then repeated it again because the connection was bad, I responded, “Ha ha, no, I’m actually in my early 30s.” The reverse of when I interviewed Azealia Banks in 2014 and she was shocked to learn I was in my 20s, for reasons that would probable devastate me if I thought about them too deeply.

The New York Times: The Secret to Yebba’s Debut Album? A Big Voice and Lots of Time.

Yebba is a big-voiced singer who was recently showcased on the new Drake album — she got a solo song on someone else’s record, which is sort of crazy — and is releasing her own debut LP this week. She is an extraordinary singer, which you can get from watching this performance, but she had such a clear-eyed perspective about what she wants from her career in a way that frankly blew me away, given her personal story, and all of the many pitfalls of the industry. That’s partly why she connects with people: Outside of the music, she’s so clearly “herself” and raw in a way that is difficult to find. I’m proud of all my work, but I am particularly proud of how this turned out.

The New York Times: How 88rising Crafted an Evocative Soundtrack for Marvel’s ‘Shang-Chi’

Sean Miyashiro, the founder of 88rising, has said that their biggest critics tend to be other Asians, which I tried to be aware of, especially this specific assignment was not the place to dig into it. But I like what they’re doing, and when I remember that the only option for Asian rap when I was growing up was the novelty song “Got Rice?” my belief in the basic righteousness of the project goes up 10,000%. Media representation will never save us, but opportunities to hang out with the homies — because music is fun, and live concerts are a blast — will always be important. I mean, listen to this shit:

The Nation: The Rhetoric of Pop Psychology (review of Jesse Singal’s The Quick Fix)

Because a wise man told me it’s almost never worth it to start shit on Twitter, and barely even worth it to start shit in a newsletter, I typed and retyped and ultimately deleted a meaner paragraph. But let’s just say that I tried to go into this assignment with an open mind, because that’s the work of the critic, and came out of it thinking much, much worse of the author. At this point, you just have to accept that some people are so shameless and unexamined that nothing short of a major life event will ever change their mind.

The New York Times: By Maurice Carlos Ruffin, Stories of a New Orleans That’s All but Lost (review of Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You)

A collection of short stories I enjoyed, by a writer I admire.

The New York Times: ‘Heels’ Is a Family Drama, With Body Slams

Heels is a fun show, and it was fun to think about wrestling’s big boom moment, right now.

The New York Times: After Two Decades in Music, Yola Expands Her Powers

Yola is another unbelievable singer I had the privilege of talking to; her commitment to doing it right without sacrificing her integrity is really admirable, and it was inspiring to hear her talk about how she followed her principles rather than underplay what she actually wanted. To which I was like, “Definitely good you don’t work in digital media!!!!!!” Ha ha ha.

Take care of yourself out there, friends.