Tuesdays with Moron: Chatological Humor Update

Mar 11, 2014

Gene's next monthly chat is Tuesday, March 25 at noon. You may submit questions here.

Although the weekly edition provides an update between live chats, it is not and never will be a "blog," even though many persons keep making that mistake. One reason for the confusion is the Underpants Paradox: Blogs, like underpants, contain "threads," whereas this chat contains no "threads" but, like underpants, does sometimes get funky and inexcusable.

Greetings, update readers.

Joe McGinniss, author of one of the best non-fiction books ever written, died yesterday.

I wrote that accolade in my head nearly two years ago, on the day Joe first told me he had inoperable, metastatic cancer. I felt it had to be said, and that, for complicated reasons, no one else would say it in an obit. All that was missing was the date of death.

I first met McGinniss in 1988, introduced by a mutual friend, when McGinniss was at the apex of his career, one of the most highly regarded writers of his generation. As it turned out, from that point on, the arc of his professional life would be not so much a tailspin as a nose dive. His decline was partly of his own making – some unwise career choices – but I believe it all stemmed from a single event, the publication of a grievously unfair 1989 article in The New Yorker that called him a journalistic con man.

At issue was McGinniss’s conduct while reporting his masterwork, “Fatal Vision,” a book about Jeffrey MacDonald, the handsome young army doctor who murdered his wife and two daughters in a drug-fueled frenzy in 1970. During the doctor's 1979 murder trial, McGinniss had been invited by MacDonald and his lawyers to be a fly on the wall; in return for a piece of the book royalties, the writer was given unrestricted access to the defendant and his legal team. Just like the jury, McGinniss eventually became convinced of MacDonald’s guilt, but did not tell MacDonald. To keep the murderer’s cooperation, which he desperately needed to flesh out his book, McGinniss feigned incredulity at the verdict and sympathy for an unjustly convicted man.

When it was published, the book took MacDonald by surprise. It said he was a killer, unequivocally. Its greatest strength was that it provided a riveting look inside the mind of a narcissistic sociopath, based largely on MacDonald’s own words, volunteered to the writer in hours of taped monologues from prison, when he presumed the author to be his friend and supporter.

After the book became a best-seller, MacDonald sued McGinniss for breach of contract, saying, in effect, that the writer had deceived him. The jury was hung, but the trial transcript (including embarrassingly ingratiating letters from McGinniss to MacDonald) gave New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm a platform from which to skewer McGinnis -- and, as it happens, to purge her own demons.

Her 1989 story – “The Journalist and the Murderer” -- indicted not only McGinniss, but the sometimes manipulative craft of journalism for being ethically indefensible. Not surprisingly, her story had legs. Journalists love nothing more than discussing themselves.

This never really became a part of the narrative, but in writing this piece, Janet Malcolm was also wrestling with her own guilt. She had recently gone through a trial of her own, having been sued by celebrity psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson for a piece she had written that had called him a narcissist. Masson claimed she made up quotes, and though Malcolm won the case, it hurt her reputation. She was never able to convincingly establish that she had not made up quotes. When she was writing about the alleged journalistic misdeeds of Joe McGinniss, she had a chip on her shoulder, a boil to be lanced. It leaked all over the page.

Joe McGinniss wrote many excellent books in the first half of his career – “The Selling of the President,” about the impact of PR on politics, was extraordinarily prescient, and “Going to Extremes,” about the weirdness of Alaska and Alaskans, is a forgotten gem. The majority of McGinniss’s work after “Fatal Vision” was inferior. Much as I hate to agree with Sarah Palin about anything, his 2011 biography of her was thin and crappy and lazy, filled with poorly sourced innuendo.

But I am writing this because of “Fatal Vision,” which was as good and as rigorous a work of nonfiction as there is. It belongs right here, in the same sentence as Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” which may be the greatest true-crime book ever written.

What was McGinniss supposed to have done when he realized, midway through the reporting, that the man he was writing about had lied to everyone? That he had killed his wife and older daughter in a rage – and then calmly, methodically hacked to death his sleeping two-year old, stabbing her 33 times with a knife and ice pick, just to strengthen his alibi? Was McGinniss required to dutifully inform the murderer that he now believed him guilty, and invite him to withdraw his cooperation if he wished, possibly killing the book outright, but certainly killing it as a meaningful, enlightening, powerful examination of the mind of a monster?

There is an implicit covenant between a writer and a subject; in return for whatever agreement you might make for the telling of the story, the subject must tell you the truth. If he lies, all deals are off. It is impossible for a subject to be less truthful than Jeffrey MacDonald was with Joe McGinniss: he misrepresented the central fact of his story, his own guilt.

One of the main reasons that there is still doubt about Jeffrey MacDonald's guilt – 44 years after the crime -- is the degree to which “Fatal Vision” was unfairly pilloried by Janet Malcolm, and in a tsk-ing generation of journalistic self-righteousness that followed. It was a great book. It was a fair book. It is Joe McGinniss’s masterpiece. If you are a writer, and you want a clinic in muscular storytelling -- how it can and should be done -- read "Fatal Vision."


Questions left over from the last chat follow:

I used to pull the underpants down, like the other chatter, but sometime in my mid-30s I started using the underpants fly (I wear briefs) and won't go back. It took about a week to be able to reach in through both flys (flies?) in one, um, fluid motion to pull it out, but with a little bit of practice it's much more efficient. And your belt stays buckled, so anything clipped to it won't fall off.

So why do we say that a baseball player "flied" out instead of flew out?   Well, Okay, I get why.  It's the same as why a man was hanged and not hung.    Unless the man was hung, if you get my drift. 

Also, I have never understood why it is the Maple Leafs, instead of Leaves, and also what you call a single Red Sox player.   A Red Sock?    Do people do that?

Isn't English interesting?

Gene, I'm 14 so kind of young for your poll, but most of my classmates shave 'down there'. I'm sending a picture to your email so you know this is real.

Hahaha.   I am so glad I missed this question the first time through because I might have freaked. Now I am only mildly alarmed, and 99 percent certain this is a joke, but just to be sure, I have deleted all my personal email going back to 1996.



I'm all for grooming however one wishes, and I'm not going to psychoanalyze anyone's pubic grooming preferences. However, when this topic comes up there is usually at least one male (I am female) who expresses disgust at the presence of hair in the female pubic area. I have no objections to a man that likes an unobstructed view, but I have major objections (and slight revulsion) to a man who expresses disgust at the signs of a sexually mature female form. That is all.

One of the weirdest men in history was the British art critic John Ruskin, who divorced his first wife Effie (a lovely looking woman) after 6 years of unconsummated marriage.   There has been much speculation as to why this occurred; Ruskin said in the divorce proceedings that although Effie seemed beautiful to other men, upon her disrobing, he discovered she was repulsive to him. 

Ruskin's main biographer concluded that he was appalled at the simple fact of Effie's pubic hair: That his only experience with female nudity involved Greek statuary, in which pubic hair (on women) is customarily removed by the artist.

Others speculate that Ruskin was repulsed by menstrual blood.   Either way, he was a creep and a immature a-hole and unspeakably cruel to an innocent young woman, and deserves this sort of eternal ridicule.

Okay, this made me laugh out loud.   This is about as pretentious as anything can get.  And yes, under the false flag of humility.  

This is not a humblebrag, exactly.   It is a humblepose.   She is a humbleposeur. 

I'm a groomed-but-natural lady, but my reason wasn't among your options. I went with preferring how it looks, as the closest option, but it's less aesthetics than...political, almost? That's overstating it, but I'm in the Delaney/Moran school of thought: it's a sign of being a grown woman, and I don't like the idea of erasing that sign, aping the look of a girl. There's nothing wrong with looking like an adult woman.

Many years ago, I wrote a philosophical explanation of why women should not clear cut.  I've been trying to find it, without success.   I will try to reproduce it here.

One of the reasons men love and respect women is that women are more put together than men are.   It is a vast overgeneralization, but it is also essentially true, that women care more what they look like, are neater, smell better, are kinder, more genteel and whatnot.   They are more put together.   This is part of their allure to men.   Cool and put together.   The best explanation of why women avoid visible panty lines came several years ago in this chat, from a woman:  They don't CARE if men like VPL, they are not dressing to impress men, they are dressing to impress other women, and so they want to look finished and complete and in control.   I repeat: In control.

So, when the clothes come off, men don't want to see cool and in control and carefully put together and sculpted and mainted just so, probably shaved just hours ago to maintain absolute put-togetherness with absolutely no hairs in place or out of place.

We want to get to the wild and savage.  



Update: Here's the link Gene was looking for to the original explanation, from a 2009 chat. You'll need to scroll down the page a little bit to the question on banning Brazilians.

Happened to me at Disney World last November. I walked into a restroom and was welcomed by the site of a saggy, white bum, shorts all the way down to the floor at the urinal. I still have nightmares about it.

Another poster reported a similar occurrence. 

I have noticed people at the urinal tickling themselves near the base of the spine, I think to start things going.   I never asked what that was about, naturally.  

You probably all know about the guy with terrible bruises and abrasians on his private part who went to a doctor.  Doctor gave him ointments and such, but nothing worked.  Then one day he was at a urinal, and noticed the man next to him had a flawless thingie, and he screwed up the courage and asked the guy if he did anything particular for maintenance.  Guy said, well, not really, except after I pee I do tap it three times, and then tuck it away.  So the guy tries that and within two weeks his condition was gone!

So he went back to the doctor to berate him for having just given him salves that did not work, when this very basic advice did the trick.   "So you just tapped it three times after you pee?"   "Yep."   "What were you doing before?"   "Oh, I would WRING it out... "

The Empress of The Style Invitational doesn't see the names of the entrants whose entries she is judging. She can't tell until later if the entries she picked are all from the same person. The Invitational still regularly will run four or more entries by one Loser. There might be less multiple ink than from the Czar's reign, though, because there's now a limit of 25 entries a person. If one person was fabulously clever and sent in 200 entries, there was more of a chance he'd get a lot of ink in a given week. -- The Empress Herself

Ah, okay.   This is the Empress reacting to my sense that she valued diversity in the winners more than the Czar did, trying for more new voices or fewer multiple inks to the same person.  Since she reads em without knowing the submitters, clearly this is wrong.

While do not agree with the two young women in this article, it is the best example I have seen of the whole love the sinner but hate the sin. I think that most Christians are somewhere between these two women and full acceptance that there is nothing wrong at all with homosexuality.(I am in the latter camp.) The rabid ultra right wingers grab all the headlines but I don't think they speak for most American Christians on most social issues.

These young women ALMOST got it right.    Why is it such a leap from "God loves sinners, hates the sin," to acknowledging that maybe, just maybe, we haven't really figured out what "sin" is, yet.    If God is so unknowable, maybe it's a little presumptuous of us to claim to know what He thinks?   The only obstacle to that is to regard the Bible as the literal word of God, and if you are there, then I demand you practice it all.    Live like Leviticus, why don'tcha?

Women who remove all their pubic hair look no more like children than do children who dress up in their mothers' clothes. Also, if we're going to keep insisting that clean-shaven women look like children, then let's say that clean-shaven men do too. Right?

Several people made this seemingly reasonable comparison, so I suppose I should cede some ground here:  Of course hairless female genitalia do not really resemble the genitalia of a little girl; we all understand that.   But it is a move back in that direction.  We all understand that, too.    And no, a close-shaven man is not a move back toward little boy; men have been close-shaven for millennia.   The shaving trend in women is by and large a very modern phenomenon -- though classic art of the female nude frequently omitted pubes, this was generally seen not as journalism, but as an act of delicacy on the part of the artist.   Some surviving art across many cultures makes it clear that pubes were ubiquitous.  I refer you to Hokusai's 1814 humorous erotic masterpiece, Dream of the Fisherman's Wife, which should be safe for work, and I think is safe for work, but use discretion if you feel you must. 

My point here is that for most of humankind, women did not mow the lawn much or at all, and the lawnmowing seems to have coincided with the explosion of cheap, easily available obstetric-level pornography, which for some reason adopted the bare esthetic almost universally.  I think you have to be on the defensive to see no linkage.

We're going to go out on this one, but I'd like to remind you of something Gina said not long ago in a column with me. (I like our lead paragraph here.)  Gina teaches feminist literature, and as such tends to teach classes largely of young women.   They reported (as you will see delicately alluded to near the end) that their lovers and suitors -- young men weaned on pornography -- seemed to think that sex, perpetrated normally, ends with a certain degrading act, and expected them to same acquiesce to same.   If you are someone familiar with modern porn, you know what I am talking about.  If you are not, consider yourself lucky.  If Gina's anecdotal evidence is right, it really bothers me.  Which is why we will poll about it for the next chat.

See you in the updates, first.

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Gene Weingarten
Gene Weingarten is the humor writer for The Washington Post. His column, Below the Beltway, has appeared weekly in the Post's Sunday magazine since July 2000 and has been distributed nationwide on The Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service. He was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing.

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