|Photo by Louis Villard--My Hero!|
When I was 13, my friend and I wrote and illustrated an “underground” newspaper called “The Squealer.” It was filled with incredibly juvenile humor. So pretty much exactly like what I do now. Only I was a juvenile then, and it seemed OK. John and I would write it over the weekend, I’d type it up, hunting and pecking, John would illustrate it, and my mother would take it to her school (she taught high school English) and mimeograph about 25 copies, which we would pass out at school on Tuesdays. It became popular, I think primarily because the mimeographed pages smelled so good. The jokes smelled pretty bad.
After a few issues had been passed around, I was called into the principal’s office. I’d never been in a principal’s office, not once. I was pretty nervous. The principal told me in no uncertain terms that John and I were to stop writing “The Squealer” and passing it out to the other kids. I thought I was going to get sent home, or expelled, but, fortunately, that was it. I rather mildly surrendered.
That night I told my mother what had happened in the principal’s office. I was visibly upset, near tears. I could see she was beginning a slow burn. She made me slow down and carefully repeat what the principal had told me. I thought she was mad at me.
My mother called in sick to her school the next day. I had no idea. I walked to school every day (it was only three blocks). My mother called the principal, showed up at his office, stormed in, and proceeded to educate him on the Constitution, the rules of the school district, the right to free speech, and, undoubtedly threatened to feed him his dog’s testicles for lunch (which, coincidentally, was the cafeteria food that day). I wasn’t there. I’d have died of embarrassment.
That night, she told me what she’d done. And then she told me that John and I had better write “The Squealer” that weekend, so she could mimeograph it on Monday, and we would pass it around on Tuesday. And if we didn’t, I was personally going to suffer.
“Your principal bullied you, Ron,” she said. “He was wrong, and he knew he was wrong. He used his power on someone far weaker, someone he knew he could intimidate. You’re too young to have fought back. You did the right thing. But when you see that happening to someone else, when you see someone being bullied, you have to say something, you have to do something. It’s important. It’s about your character, and who you are. Don’t fear bullies. Ask for help, but don’t be fearful. Good people will help you. But you have to be one of them, one of the good people.”
The past few days, I’ve thought about that moment a lot.
Tim Atkin is brave enough to publish a piece I write on the first Monday of every month. I’m a busy guy, I have a life. Writing is a small part of it. That first Sunday of August, I still hadn’t written a piece for Tim. Someone sent me a link to the New Yorker piece on the younger Riedel, and that set my satiric mind to work. I hastily wrote “Riedel Me This” (a stupid title) and sent it to Tim. I didn’t like the piece at all, and I still don’t. It’s not my best work, and that’s a low bar to get over. But there’s lots of truth in it. The piece speaks to truths that are widely recognized by people in the wine business in a satiric fashion, that fashion being exaggeration, mockery and relentlessness. It's what I do, and, frankly, there aren't enough wine writers doing it.
When the letter came from the Riedel attorney, I was surprised. I knew I was within my rights to publish it in the good ol’ USA. There are fools and hypocrites who say people like me hide behind libel laws. The truth is that without those laws, that First Amendment these idiots refer to as "libel laws," it's the rich and powerful who would hide behind their money and lawyers. Any writer worth a dime knows that my protection, as someone who "claims to be a satirist" (gee, didn't know you could get a Master Satirist credential) is also their protection. I hate what I write, friends, but I'll defend to the death my right to say it so poorly. The Riedel lawyers knew they had no case against me, they simply chose intimidation as a first response to my lampooning. I'm sure in hindsight they wish they hadn't.
The response to my publishing the letter was, well, incredible. Thanks to all of you Good People. I intentionally stepped away during the past week's firestorm. A satirist needs some distance, and, also, I was overwhelmed with emails and comments and Twitter reports and FaceBook hits, and, I confess, in shock. Never in my life was I so happy not to be on FaceBook. I have some insight into the power of social media now. Even on this small scale, the power of your words, the power of your voices, the anger and fearlessness you all showed in the face of the bully were inspiring. My piece did nothing to scare Riedel. They wanted me to back down. Not publish. Don’t pass it around to the other kids. They expected me to timidly acquiesce. Your actions, your defense of this cut-rate satirist, your indignation at someone trying to stifle free speech, to try to silence satire, were what mattered. "Wow," was all I could say. To everyone I wrote to and spoke to. "Wow" was the best I could do. I’m rarely tongue-tied, but the tsunami of support was breathtaking. I’m certain I’ll never be part of something so beautiful and powerful and human again.
God, I hope not.
Many people who supported me were influential people I had previously lampooned, insulted, spoofed and tormented. But they’re Good People, and they jumped into the fray to defend my right to be an asshole. I’m a satirist. My intent is to have fun at the expense of the powerful, or the stupid, or the arrogant. I also take aim at the talented and famous. Many of them I admire, but as the HoseMaster, admiration is not in my wheelhouse. I’m not nearly the person many of them turned out to be.
But most who supported me were strangers. Just wine lovers who don’t pretend power or omniscience. Folks who like to laugh, folks who follow me for reasons I don’t understand. They jumped in without fear, cared enough to speak up in a very noisy world, refused to sit idly by and watch, knew instinctively to intervene. You’re the best people. I am in your debt.
The best among us recognized that we are all in this wine world together. Many bloggers, wine writers, and readers recognized that if Riedel silences me, and Tim, that the wine world loses. I might be the first to sink, but we’re all in the same boat. I might be the biggest jerk on the deck, but if saving me means saving the ship, you win, too. Thank you for that. It was certainly a tempest in a teapot, but, believe me, being the teapot is no fun. But you very well could be next, and karma is a dangerous enemy to ignore. I truly believe that what helped me was my mother’s strength and karma. I know, I’m such a momma's boy.
I’m not any kind of hero, if anyone is tempted to see me as one. I was a conduit. An unwilling one, but a conduit nonetheless. Tim Atkin MW had all the courage. He’s the guy who looked the bully in the eye and said, “Go ahead, hit me. See what happens.” I was hiding behind him. I don’t deserve your admiration, if, in some alternate universe, you have admiration for the HoseMaster. Save your admiration for Tim. I admire him for his rare appreciation for the place of satire in a business that takes itself far too seriously. He walks that walk. Few others will.
I think it’s interesting who didn’t chime in, who didn’t fight for the right of free expression and satire, who watched the bullying and decided silence was the best choice. Many are folks in the wine biz who take advertising money from Riedel. I didn’t see any of them here. Perhaps they’ll claim they didn’t see the brouhaha, or read about it. Do you believe that? People who are in the wine business? Who keep up with wine social media? And then ask yourself, if they were silent because they were afraid to offend an advertiser like Riedel, and many of them must have been in that boat, are they the same with other advertisers? Though maybe the truth is I'm nobody, so what does it matter? There's always that.
Above all, I know that this entire incident was not for a moment about me. It’s why I stepped aside, didn’t comment, refrained from posting. I’m insignificant. Maybe we all are individually. But when I was threatened, my community, the community of folks who love wine, folks who love satire, folks who love freedom of speech, stepped up—in a hurry, and in force. Wow. I do not think for a minute you stood up for me personally. You didn’t. You graced me with your kindness and sense of what is right. But you stood up for yourselves, for what you believe is right. You stood up to the bully. You didn’t have to. Thank you.
I’ve found that a life is a series of labels. I’ve been The Guy Who Won a Lot of Money on Game Shows. I was The Guy Whose Fiancée Died. I became the Guy Who Married a Much Younger Woman. I’ve been The Guy Who’s the HoseMaster for quite a while. Now, until the next label, I’m the Guy Who Was Threatened by Riedel. I’m none of those Guys. And all of them.
If you take away anything from all this, aside from my profound gratitude, for the support, for the money (I’ll probably need it again one day, and what I didn't spend I’m saving for that next rainy day), take away these words:
Don’t be afraid of bullies. Ask for help. Good people will help you.