Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Twitterchimps


Have you ever been at the zoo when the resident chimpanzees become excited? It’s an amazing cacophony of hooting, screaming, chest-beating, and teeth-baring aimed at displaying dominance and power in the troop. It’s very loud and very aggressive, and ultimately meaningless. It’s soon over, until the next moment someone rattles the cage.

A simple Darwinian analysis would conclude that chimpanzees are the inspiration and model for what has evolved into Twitter—a lot of hooting and chest-beating displays of dominance that amount to nothing. Though for the primates who live in the zoo, it certainly gives them something to do. Especially the bright orange orangutan who currently rules Twitter.

I, apparently, provoked the Twitterpated with a satiric piece I wrote for Tim Atkin’s wine website. It was a piece based on a simple premise. Robert Parker officially retired. It had been unofficial for some time, so the announcement wasn’t met with shock, but with countless, unfailingly dull, postmortems. The talentless rule the wine writing world these days, sad to say, and they were out in force. I wondered, as one does when one has a twisted comic mind, who might be positively happy to see Parker gone from the wine universe. Several names jumped to mind, but the one that resonated was Alice Feiring. After all, she wrote a book about saving the world from Parkerization, she made a career of insulting him and insisting he had ruined wine, why wouldn’t she be tickled that he was finally gone?

When I sat down to write the piece, another thought occurred to me. It’s an old comic and psychological trope: what we loathe is often what we secretly desire. From there, I had the beginnings of a piece. The rest came relatively easily.

Does satire have boundaries? That’s a question I’ve contemplated, and frequently been asked over the many years I’ve published HoseMaster of Wine™. Yet the answer is simple. No, satire does not have boundaries. Put any boundary in front of a satirist and his first move is to attempt to breach it. And, anyway, who would decide the boundaries? You? The great unwashed public? Me? And what sort of gerrymandering would go on? As it turns out, "Does satire have boundaries?" is a stupid question. Satire certainly needs boundaries, for without boundaries, the boundaries of good taste, the boundaries of fake morality, the boundaries of tradition and culture steeped in ignorance, satire would have no purpose and no comic effect. In essence, satire needs your boundaries.

Satire thrives in a free society, and is necessary to it. Satire is profane and tasteless, ribald and outrageous, fearless and uninhibited, angry and unapologetic. It is often said that satire’s job is to speak truth to power. I don’t see it that way. In my mind, satire’s aim is to take another person’s truths, or the truths of a group, and dismantle them comically. Hold those truths up for ridicule. The self-righteous hate to be mocked. They immediately play the victim, and profess indignant outrage that anyone could belittle them when they’re so clearly beyond reproach. This is absolute catnip for comedy writers.

Writing about the Supreme Court’s recent decision to strike down a law that banned foul language from trademarks, Justice Samuel Alito, with whom I almost never agree, wisely wrote, “Viewpoint discrimination is poison to a free society.” The more I think about that quote, the more I admire it.

I’ve never met Alice Feiring. As far as I know, I’ve never even been in the same city at the same time with Ms. Feiring. I don’t care even the least bit about her. Nor do I hate her. As I said, I don’t know her. Several well-meaning and well-known people wrote to me on her behalf after my recent piece about her. Each of them used the word “fragile” when describing her, as though she is a character in a Tennessee Williams play, a Folle Blanche DuBois.That’s rather sad, but it also implies, of course, that I shouldn’t lampoon her mercilessly. Which, to my mind, is profoundly sexist. I shouldn’t write about her because she’s a woman? Because as a woman, she’s “fragile?” I didn’t lampoon her because she’s a woman, her sex is unimportant to me. I lampooned her because she claims a moral high ground when it comes to wine, and I learned a long time ago that people claiming a moral high ground do so only to look down on the rest of us. You may think that’s fine, you may be one of her unquestioning sycophants, or you may be one of those Knights in Shining Armor who defends her with your imaginary honor, but I am not. My instinct is to take those folks on the moral high ground, no matter who they are, and bring them down to earth. Alice Feiring is hardly Rosa Parks or Desmond Tutu or Gandhi. She’s a wine writer. We all occupy one of the lower circles of Hell.

Feiring’s book about Parkerization is filled with sexual references and stories about ex-lovers. In my mind, that makes her sexuality fair game for a parody. In fact, it is fair game for parody. That I can mimic her writing voice effectively is testament to her gifts as a writer. She has a very strong literary voice. It’s damn near impossible to parody a lousy writer. It’s easy to parody a talented writer. They have style, they understand pace and tone, and they write stories in a distinctive way that is particular to them. After I skewered Terry Theise, he wrote me a very funny and gracious note about how painful it was to read himself being lampooned. I told him what I’ve written here about Feiring. It’s a tribute to his talent that he’s easy to parody.

So I wrote the piece. Tim Atkin MW foolishly published the piece. He can’t help it, he’s my most fervent and eloquent supporter, for which I’m very grateful. The Twitterchimps went berserk, or so I’m told. I didn’t read a single word written about me anywhere on social media. Well, to be more accurate, I didn’t read a single word written about the HoseMaster on social media. In truth, the piece was written by a fictional character, the HoseMaster of Wine™, who I created, about a fictional voice Alice Feiring created in her books. I didn’t “attack” Alice Feiring. The HoseMaster lampooned the Voice of Alice Feiring. That’s a big difference. Sadly, the moral police out there in the Twitterverse don’t care about subtlety or viewpoint. They care about hooting and screaming about their own self-righteous causes in an attempt to change the world to suit their liking. Like chimps everywhere, they do this by hurling their own feces at you. I don’t mind, I’ve thrown plenty of my own in my time. It’s all part of the fun.

I didn’t read or react to any of what was written about me because I know that if folks go to a lynching and there’s no body to tar and feather, they quickly lose interest. And if I’m the body, what the hell am I doing there? I heard about the fracas from friends. And as the Twitterchimps grew louder and did more teeth-baring, I began to receive a large volume of personal emails from people supporting me. All of them were from people famous in the wine business in their own right, and most of them were women. I know who I am. I do have boundaries as a satirist, personal boundaries that I would not impose on any other satirist. I go after everyone and anyone. I always have. I don’t see Alice Feiring as a fragile woman, and I didn’t treat her as such; I see her as a self-righteous, humorless blowhard claiming the moral high ground. Why wouldn’t I try to dismantle her truths?

When it comes to my work, I keep two lists in my head. One list is of those who like, perhaps even admire, my comedy and satire. The other list is of those who hate what I do. It matters to me who is on each list, it matters a great deal. We are judged by our enemies as often as we are judged by our friends. I’m quite proud of my list of admirers, but I am even prouder of my list of detractors. It’s a long list of some of the worst fools in the wine business. Were the two lists to switch places, I would be distraught.

One of my strongest assets as a satirist is my thick skin. I don’t care what anyone thinks of me, with a few exceptions. After the piece was posted, and before all the hooting and chest-beating, my wife came to me unsolicited to tell me she had loved the piece. She almost never does this. As it turns out, she’s a woman. She found the idea that it was sexist absurd. Hers is the only opinion I care about.

31 comments:

Jim Caudill said...

You know what side I'm on, and always will be. Rock on.

Mike Dunne said...

Aptly put, of course.

bill marsano said...

Apart from all that, her book on Parker is riddled with grammatical errors, and she lacks courage. She decamps from a dance featuring testeroneful French winemakers lest one of them put a move on her, and when she finally gets Parker on the phone, she afraid to talk to him--and hands the phone to here pal. So she has fragility--the fragility of one who can't defend her position.

Joff Day said...

Brilliantly written - as usual.

I seriously despair of the Twittersphere and the 'sensitivity' of those who vicariously take offence for others particularly if they are not actually offended themselves! What a shame that the wine world on Twitter has become politicised and adversarial and can't take a step back and smile at the absurdity of 'correctness'.

I'm a newbie in this world but love the fact that a Jancis Robinson can comment on the Hosemaster thus, "No one is immune from California sommelier and wine judge Ron Washam's skewering. He polishes that skewer with boundless enthusiasm and acuity." I guess that is coming from a place of being targeted in the past or knowing it will happen in the future.

A friend of mine used to comment that (and you have to be a Star Trek fan to get this) some people have had their humour chip removed.

Anonymous said...

New to the Common Taters here, but Ron you must provide that piece in your archives. I can understand Tim Atkin removing it from his website, but censoring yourself would not be like the HoseMaster I know.

I was here for you in spirit with the Georg "Hand Blow Me," Riedel temper-tantrum.





george Skorka said...

Disturbingly pure and logical homework from a man whom I respected for decades...

Clare Tooley said...

Well said. Shame it had to be written, but I'm glad you have as it gives me more of your words to enjoy - which I always, unfailingly, do - wincing often, chortling often, sometimes even with a sharp intake of breath - a glorious work-out so rarely enjoyed when reading anything at all in the wine-sphere and even less in Twitter-sphere. Happy Independence my friend x

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Common Taters,
Thanks for the thoughts. I had decided to stay silent on the whole issue, but this post haunted my days until I finally sat down and wrote it. It won't change any minds, my lists of admirers and detractors will not be any different, but I guess I needed to explain to folks why satire matters, and why it defies boundaries. What I wrote was pretty tame by most standards. Anyone remember Samantha Bee calling Ivanka a "feckless cunt?" (That's the first time I've used "cunt" on this blog.) And yet the morality chimps felt called to duty. Honestly, it made me laugh.

As for publishing the piece here, I probably will. I just haven't decided when. To be perfectly clear, taking the post down was originally MY idea, to which Tim was originally opposed. Tim Atkin MW and I talked about it and eventually decided that was the course we wanted to take. Not because it was deemed sexist and offensive, not because it was inappropriate satire that crossed someone's idea of a boundary of taste, but because it was becoming a massive headache for Tim, and it was really my headache to own. He'd already endured the threat of being sued by Riedel on my behalf, I didn't want to make his life miserable once again. I told Tim, "Lenny Bruce went to prison, the writers at Charlie Hebdo were murdered, I can live with a post being taken down."

The Lost Muse said...

Bravo, well said on all accounts!

Paul in St. Augustine said...

Eff 'em if they can't take a joke.

David Ramey said...

Perfectly written, Ron.

Galactic Wine Emperor said...

Ron, eloquent wordsmithing, not to mention rock solid thinking. You gave my Coravin a stiffy.

David Larsen said...

I love the images of the Twitterchimps, the Twitterverse and their ruler, the bright orange orangutan. Good branding!

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Sweet,
Perfect. This response is simply perfect.
Not that it matters in the least but I admire this, and You.
Love,
Samantha

Ron Washam, HMW said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,

It matters more than you know.

I love you!

david pierson said...

I guess you read the Forbes article on Alice's reaction to the Twitter outrage over your post. Personally I loved the post and find the whole sexism idea ludicrous. And the argument she was horrified that people would think she actually wrote the post equally ludicrous. I mean, if people are that stupid, what do you care? BUT, she points out that Parker paid you to write posts for him and your first target was her and and a Twitter commenter said, one mention might be satire, 10 is bullying. Not that I agree, take as many shots as you like. But why not, ten posts on Hugh Johnson? Glad you got a thick skin, I always thought you were ripe for parody with your whining about how tough the Hosemaster column is to write, your umpteen retirements and awards.. thought you'd be thrilled to have the 3W Award named after you... the Washam Whine Writers Award... sure you'll be excited to give it to Walder for that tone deaf piece he wrote about how PR wine flacks can make life easier for wine hacks like himself on junket trips..

Ron Washam, HMW said...

David,
No, as I said, I haven't read a single word about the whole kerfuffle, including the Forbes piece. Though I love the irony of Twitterchimps accusing me of bullying. In fact, out of 600+ pieces I've written over the years, perhaps ten are about Feiring. There are probably 50 about Parker. And, hey, if Alice Feiring wants to pay me, I'll write for her, too! Beyond that, only a victim can be bullied. I can't help that she sees herself as a victim. Though self-righteous people always do when their authority and motivations are questioned. Most of the others I've lampooned have simply laughed and accepted it as part of being in the public eye. Many have seen being insulted by the HoseMaster as proof that they're somebody in the wine biz. Now that annoys me.

Why not ten posts on Hugh Johnson? Stupid question. When has Johnson ever put himself up on a pedestal and preached to us about how his notion of wine is the correct one?

Her remark about people perhaps believing she wrote the piece illustrates her contempt for readers' intelligence.

Feel free to parody me, David. Probably harder to do than you think.

Allison L said...

Sadly we live in a world where people are quick to make judgments and make those judgments based on pieces of information, but not the entire picture. The critiques were out of context and disregarded context. I enjoy your writing and admire your ability to rise above the attacks. I will continue to enjoy your satiric pieces and love your humor, which is not mean or satirical in person.

Rocky Volcanics said...

Keep doing what you're doing, Ron. It's important. Happy to renew my dues to your club.

david pierson said...

Didn't know she had set herself to be I'm right.. you're wrong camp.. and you're right Ron,what an idiot for that attitude... but hey, maybe she'll pay you to go over to the other side.. in the mean time.. let's work on the 4W Award, the Washam Whine Wine Writers Award... what wine writer can whine the most??
























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Rob R said...

Previously, I was willing to post a sum to a defense fund against Reidel. I am willing to do the same against Feiring if needed. It would be equal to the cost of a bottle of Natural Wine. I prefer un-natural, and non-biodynamic wines.

To paraphrase the WP - Sarcasm Dies in Darkness. Keep Publishing!

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Rob,
Thanks, I appreciate the support.

I think it's important that I add one more thought, a mea culpa of sorts.

The piece, whether you like the piece or not, was tone deaf. I don't think that disqualifies it as satire, and I also don't think the "outrage" about it was warranted--though I love outrage. Nor do I believe it's sexist. But...

Thankfully, we live in the #MeToo moment. There are countless women who have been abused by men--emotionally, physically, and sexually. The sheer numbers are horrifying and sickening, and make me ashamed to be male. And in this moment, I come along and publish a piece written by a man, writing in the voice of a woman, and part of that piece involves her lusting after a powerful white male. Tone deaf. And maybe worse than that.

I inadvertently triggered a big reaction. If I caused any unnecessary anguish or pain to anyone, pain unrelated to the satire, I deeply regret it. From what I've been told, a lot of anger was hurled at me online. I can live with that. It comes with the territory. But the anger always seemed way out of proportion to what is actually on the page. I've written far worse things and received little anger in return. In this case, I've come to believe, it was the wrong piece at the wrong time. It happens to everyone who pushes boundaries--ask Louis CK or Samantha Bee or, well, anyone who deals in satire. Now and then you cross a boundary you didn't even know was there. I cross a lot of boundaries on purpose, but it's the ones you don't see that can trip you up. I'd say I learned my lesson, but that's exceedingly unlikely.

Finally, I was amazed that during all of the brouhaha, no one who published a piece about the fracas bothered to reach out to me to hear my side of the story. It doesn't matter, really. In the big picture, all of this is completely meaningless. It's just curious.

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Sweet,

I too thought it odd that no one reached out to you. Anyone that knows you absolutely knows you are the furthest thing from a sexist...like ever. Made me thick with rage when I read a couple of those comments. Especially when Tim sited Elaine as one of the reasons he took the post down. She knows you, how in the fuck could she possibly think you had a sexist bone in your body?! I'm still pissed about that. I love you and I like Alice as a person, and I think she does have a voice out here in the stupid wine world that means something to a lot of people, which is why she was ripe for your picking as it were. I didn't see anything but humor in your post but maybe I am just lucky enough to know where your heart is.
I love you
Samantha

Ron Washam, HMW said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,
Thank you. As I wrote, I know who I am, so none of that "sexist" name-calling bothers me. If I were a sexist, my mother and grandmother would return from their graves and disembowel me. I'd never dishonor them. Plus, you'd help them.

Tim and Elaine and I shared an email exchange. All very civil. She was trying to mediate, somehow, though I was not the least bit interested in whether or not the post hurt poor fragile Alice, and nor do I think Elaine knows much about satire. I suggested early on to Tim that he should take it down simply for his own peace of mind. It was my battle, but he was fighting it, even getting his hand slapped by the Institute of the Masters of Wine--the cowards. They've gone down in my estimation--though they don't care. Elaine may have been who finally persuaded Tim to take it down. It went profoundly against his nature to back down from a fight with a bunch of loud, self-righteous, morals police. He may have needed Elaine's extra voice to persuade him.

Truly, Love, I found it to be a very enlightening experience. I learned more about many of my friendships than I ever expected, not all of it pleasant. But one can only be grateful for knowledge. It can be interesting to discover what people really think about you as opposed to how they pretend to think about you when you're around.

Tim, for what it's worth, has been a hero to me for more than six years now. The wine world needs more fearless people like Tim. And far fewer Twitterchimps.

I love you, too. Thank you for your support here, Gorgeous, it means a great deal to me.

Unknown said...

Excellent. Those who put themselves on a pedestal need the be brought down to earth.

George Vesel said...

Sorry, didn't mean to be anonymous.

David Round said...

It's shame that you chose to base your view of your Twitter critics on hearsay from your friends and admirers. If you had read some of the original tweets, in their proper context, you may have understood them better and written a very different piece. Instead of calling people chimpanzees for making criticisms you haven't even read.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

David,
That's a legitimate complaint. I agree that I may have been far too harsh on chimpanzees. To be honest, I wish I'd heard personally from people who hated the piece, or found it offensive, and not just from friends and admirers. But, alas, no one wrote to me who was critical but for Eric Asimov.

Also, all of this is just a hill of beans in this crazy world.

Proper context is something that doesn't exist on Twitter. I write satire. Alice Feiring is a very public figure in the wine business with a very public persona, as is Robert Parker. The piece comes from a legitimate satiric point of view, and apparently got its message across, judging from the response. I don't expect everyone to like what I write; in fact, I'd be disappointed if they did. I don't mind criticism either, though I'm certainly not obliged to answer it in a forum like Twitter that encourages anonymity.

What is there to understand about the criticisms? That people were offended by my parody of Alice because I used some sexual language? That's the point, David. That I shouldn't lampoon her because she's famously "fragile?" Just not how it works. That I'm a shameless misognynist? Demonstrably untrue. That I'm an asshole? Duh.

And, no, I doubt that had I read the original tweets I would have written a different piece. I'll stand by what's here and live with it.

The chimp analogy is also meant in a comic sense. Kind of works, though, doesn't it?

Unknown said...

I'm with your wife.
Not at this moment.

Nice to see such unbridled support for the HoseMaster, our literary hero!

David Round said...

You're full of contradictions: a self-styled satirist who seeks controversy but then runs shy of it; who publishes on Twitter but won't read what others publish in the same place; who then writes a piece on the resulting controversy based on hearsay without actually looking at the original source material; and who repeatedly highlights Alice Feiring's alleged fragility while seeming very fragile when it comes to facing any criticism himself. But I can see why you prefer to hang around here rather than Twitter. It's very comfortable and, looking at the comments, very much the demographic for your writing style. Only one critic here, and I will take care not to let the door hit me on the way out.

Unknown said...

Coming a little late to the party here, but I am glad to read your words. Always. I know you didnt' feel the need to defend yourself, but you do demonstrate the pen is mightier than the Twitter! xx--Lana