Not Just Another Day

The craziest product review you've ever read, a marathon cheating scandal, tennis and golf go Netflix, Hamline University and cancel culture, The Last of Us, and much more.

Not Just Another Day

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Don’t pass up an opportunity to read Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail today.

It’s so easy to fall into remembrances that focus on the tragic end of King’s life. I’ve done so in this newsletter before, to share the little piece of family history that’s connected to those terrible days in Memphis.

But this holiday is pegged to his birthday and, in that vein, it feels only appropriate to share something that’s forward-looking rather than backward.

Rev. Raphael Warnock is not just a senator from Georgia; he’s the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. King’s church.

And his message around this holiday is as forward-looking as can be:

“My friends, as we remember and celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., let us recommit ourselves to continuing his life’s work and mission.

“For years, I’ve been inspired by Dr. King’s vision for a Beloved Community and his wise words that we are tied in a single garment of destiny caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality.

“Dr. King said that whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. In every vote and decision I make in the United States Senate, I try my best to reflect that moral vision. We’re still working on Dr. King’s unfinished business.

“He used to talk all the time about Franz Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Most symphonies have four movements. Schubert’s symphony only has two. And he used to think aloud at his sermons about why perhaps it was only two movements. But he said that in a real sense that’s the noble life. The noble life is a life engaged in work that is left unfinished. I believe that our life’s project ought to be larger than our lifetime.

“And so on this day as we reflect on the life and the legacy of Dr. King, we must also work towards completing his unfinished business towards finishing his dream to secure the right to vote for every eligible American.

“You know, these days I think often about Dr. King’s speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. No, not the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech — great speech. But I think more often these days about the one he gave the first time he spoke in the shadow of Lincoln in 1957, where he addressed what he called, quote, all types of conniving methods that were getting in the way of the free exercise of the constitutional right to vote. His rallying cry that day in 1957, was give us the ballot.

“And so there are many today who will celebrate Dr. King’s life while dishonoring his life’s work by blocking efforts to pass federal voting rights legislation. Keep this in mind: you cannot remember Dr. King and dismember his legacy at the same time, it is a contradiction.

“And so as the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church — Dr. King’s spiritual home — know that this is a fight I will never give up. Like Dr. King, we must keep marching until victory is won. Keep the faith and keep looking up.”

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. What are the odds that a nominal product review on an injection-less lip plumper would be one of the best stories I read this week? But here it is, in all its glory. This piece for The Strategist by Annie Hamilton is a hilarious bit of first-person gonzo reportage that is so entertaining that it hardly matters I was never the intended target of the particular product she was reviewing. It’s a conversational recap of what amounts to the worst couples’ getaway with a guy who wasn’t as into her as she wanted, while she was trying to quit smoking and quite constipated.

  2. A no less personal piece of writing was smuggled into yet another review, this one a book review, by Max Abelson in n+1. It’s on Janet Malcolm: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. Malcolm’s writing and way of thinking remains seductive to me. (The Postscript compiled a must-read list of her work when she died.) Though Abelson was making a point specifically to highlight Malcolm’s legal woes, I felt a certain connection with this passage from the story, because it seemed to reveal something that I hadn’t considered about my own dual background in the law and journalism:

    Interviews aren’t the same as sworn testimony, but they rhyme. They use questions to flatter, badger, and trap witnesses who, in turn, evade when they can and admit things they don’t want to. Reporting and the law both rely on evidence and discovery, asking for honesty and promising fairness in exchange. They offer just about the best systems we have for hearing arguments, measuring doubt, rendering judgment, and appealing verdicts—except, maybe, for psychoanalysis. All three approaches use confrontation to turn ambiguity into clarity, but only one can punish an outburst or lie by locking the speaker away.

  3. I find myself touched deeply in the aftermath of beloved journalists’ deaths. Perhaps that’s due to my own interests and experiences and resumés that I wish were my own. Perhaps it’s that the journalists are beloved by other journalists, other wordsmiths who can make you feel something when they share their remembrances. I felt that way recently learning of the death of Blake Hounshell, a political editor at The New York Times. I read a remembrance from Garrett Graff in Politico Magazine, a magazine that Hounshell helped bring to life, and all I could think was, “I wish I had more friends like this man. I wish I had some of these experiences.” His friends and colleagues spoke of him so reverently, so admiringly, and there was something awesome in that. I felt the same way when reading the accounts of soccer journalist Grant Wahl’s death during the 2022 World Cup. I didn’t know either journalist as a regular reader of their work, but I felt like I wanted to know Wahl more after listening to a re-released interview he did with Longform.

  4. I don’t often think of cheating when it comes to sports. It’s not that I’m so naive as to think it never happens, but it crosses my mind infrequently. Maybe that’s why I didn’t know of what’s apparently considered one of the biggest cheating scandals in sports history. The 1999 Comrades ultramarathon in South Africa was the setting for a simple plan of deception: Two brothers, not even twins, ran as a single race contestant; they switched out mid-race in a porta-potty. While they were successful in the moment, their deceit was uncovered, and they were pilloried by the white population of South Africa as scapegoats for all that could possibly go wrong in the country after Apartheid ended. Ryan Lenora Brown caught up with them more than two decades later. In trying not just to capture where they are now, he tried to capture where (and who) they were then, and he wrote:

    It’s hard, sometimes, not to read everything that happens in South Africa as a metaphor. This is a country where the jailers handed the keys to the inmates, and everyone was told to forgive. While the whole world watched, Nelson Mandela shook hands with apartheid’s last president, FW de Klerk, and told him, What is past, is past— “Wat is verby, is verby!” The story of two young men, born into one of the most unequal societies on earth, trying — imperfectly, deceitfully — to find their way out of it also feels like something bigger than itself. It’s a version of what South Africans have been doing for a generation now since the end of apartheid.

  5. Two of my favorite sports—tennis and golf—are about to see if they can harness the power of Netflix to the same effect that Formula 1 did. The streaming giant hopes to take viewers inside the worlds of tennis in the recently released Break Point and golf  in the upcoming Full Swing. Though the jury is still out on Break Point (full disclosure: I haven’t started the series; I’ll be getting my tennis fix by watching the first major, the Australian Open, this week), the reviews seem mixed. Slate’s Isaac Butler basically summed it up thusly: It fails to capture what’s inherently interesting about tennis. The Ringer’s Miles Surrey said one of its most interesting aspects is just how unappealing it makes a professional tennis career look.  This is not news; indeed, as much detail one could need was captured nearly 30  years ago when David Foster Wallace profiled Michael Joyce, a relatively unknown tennis star, in a piece for Esquire that I’ve recommended numerous times in this newsletter. But the reality is hard to ignore, and as sure as the time peg of a major tournament is the cause, so is the release of Break Point when it comes to this deep-dive by ESPN into the financial realities of professional tennis when you’re not one of its superstars. The golf version of all this is still a month away, but the details seem juicybecause the crews just happened to be on the ground while LIV golf, Saudi Arabia’s new golf league and one of the latest instances of sports-washing, took off and sparked an identity crisis for the PGA.

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  6. Hamline University. Have you heard about this in the news, most definitely attached to the Rorschach test of a term “cancel culture”? The basics are simple enough: An adjunct professor of art history intended to, and did, show a masterpiece of a painting from the 14th century that depicted the Prophet Mohammed. Because this act—depicting the Prophet—is considered against the religious beliefs of many Muslims, the professor provided a warning that she was going to show and discuss the piece of art in the context of her lecture and gave her students the opportunity to opt out if they didn’t wish to participate. None took her up on that. Afterwards, a Muslim student expressed concern about the class due to the content, and she complained to the administration. The professor was fired as a result. These facts paint a bleak picture of academic freedom at Hamline, but the more details you learn, the worse the university appears. This New York Times piece (free gift article for Critical Linking readers) gives not only a great high-level overview of the situation, but it also extensively documents the details and back-and-forth nature of the opposing sides in its purely objective way. This newsletter post from Ken White (who used to tweet as @PopeHat) used the Hamline debacle as a real-life test case to try to identify what cancel culture looks like in the wild. Instead of simply trusting every utterance of the term, White sets out a standard by which it could be evaluated and then applies that standard to the facts at hand in the Hamline incident. (Spoiler alert: White’s methodical reasoning, informed by his legal training, does not spare Hamline one bit.) But it was perhaps Jill Filipovic, in a newsletter post that was repurposed by Slate, who most accurately and eloquently captured my thoughts before I could sit down to actually formalize them as my own.

  7. The incomparable Zadie Smith took to the pages of The New York Review of Books ($) to write about generational warfare as seen in Todd Field’s TÁR, for which, Cate Blanchette will almost assuredly win a Best Actress Oscar. Her portrayal of Lydia Tár has many viewers asking if Tár is a real person (she isn’t), but Smith excavates the fault line that is the gap between Gen X and Gen Z. I, as the skipped-over Millennial, couldn’t put it down.

  8. Even if Todd Field’s creation of Lydia Tár wasn’t going to earn him even more Oscar nominations (he’s already quite decorated when it comes to nominations with his two prior films), he would still have one of the most interesting life stories I could imagine. The New Yorker’s Michael Schulman latest top-notch celebrity profile reveals juicy yet improbable tidbits. For example, did you know that Field, many years before he was an Oscar-nominated director, helped create one of the staples of my childhood, which is to say, Big League Chew bubble gum? (I would have been gobsmacked by this revelation reading the piece had I not recently found this out from Kottke’s Twitter feed.)

  9. Todd Field’s first film premiered at Sundance in 2001. This year’s festival is right around the corner. After a very shaky start to its online-only single ticket sales, I got tickets to four films (three features, one documentary):

    Magazine Dreams, Bad Behaviour, Fair Play, Murder in Big Horn. Don’t miss out on a truly seamless experience to see a festival from your couch; single film tickets are still available for $20.

  10. I thoroughly enjoyed the first episode of HBO’s latest prestige TV play (and from an unlikely source, at that): The Last of Us. The adaptation of the popular video game was conceived for TV by Craig Mazin, whose Chernobyl was a massive hit for HBO in 2019. This New Yorker article describes the long road to the small screen, and this Washington Post article breaks down what you need to know about cordyceps, the fungus that’s responsible for inducing the zombie apocalypse in the show. (TL;DR: Yes, they're real; yes, they can control insects as described in the show; no, they won't turn you into a zombie.)


Culture Diary

Here’s a collection of what I’ve been consuming in the past week.

The legend for my list was stolen from Steven Soderbergh, where ALL CAPS represents a movie, Sentence Case is a TV show, ALL CAPS ITALICS is a short film, and Italics is a book. A number in parentheses after a TV show highlights how many episodes I watched. An asterisk after an entry means it’s a rewatch. The source of the movie or show, whether streaming service, physical media, or in theaters, is shown in parentheses as well.

1/9:
1/10:
1/11: ACE IN THE HOLE (Criterion Collection)
1/12:
1/13:
1/14:
1/15: The Last of Us (HBO Max)