July 15, 2021

Article at Steven on Authory

Part of My Problem with BJOL

The “unjudicious” part of my problem with BJOL has to do with how Bill sees his role: not as a fair judge, but as an aggressive lawyer arguing his case by any means necessary. Since the arguments take place on a website he controls completely, he also gets to act as the judge when he feels the need, which is imposing much more authority than he needs. Concerning oversight of your own website, I’ve always felt that “Less is more.” Imposing control over the discussions—which topics may be discussed, how terms may be defined, when the discussion ends—as severely as Bill does actually weakens the website much more than it strengthens it.  Strong arguments become more persuasive when they are presented by people bending over backwards to seem fair and reasonable, not when they’re bristling with authority.

I’ve heard from several of you in the past few days (and thanks for all the notes), saying how you’ve refrained from (or never began) engaging on “Hey Bill” because of your expectations of rude treatment, selective editing of your questions, and obtuse misunderstandings of the points you were making, often so obtuse that they seem deliberate coming from someone of Bill’s intelligence.

It’s not your place, nor mine, to instruct Bill in how to run his website, so the better part of valor has been to discreetly allow others to insert their heads into the firing line of the “Hey Bill” section of BJOL, but I mourned the lack of more intelligent back-and-forth there. By discouraging the most intelligent readers from posting questions, Bill in essence fields only the questions posed by his least intelligent readers. Personally, I was reminded of relationships I’ve had over the years with difficult and highly sensitive girlfriends, with whom I gradually withdrew from conversation, as it seemed to present only new opportunities to get my head bitten off—when I’d reached that dismal stage, it was only a brief time before I’d find my way to the door altogether.

One of the quirks that puzzles me the most is Bill’s scolding of readers for asking multiple questions. I understand why he might want to deal with a single question at a time, but since he can (and does) edit the questions anyway, why is it so hard to reduce a multipart question to the single question Bill wants to answer? Why the need to harangue people for asking overly complex questions? I think we’d all have caught on quickly enough to Bill’s answering only one of several questions asked, and if not, Bill could explain his policy (“one question at a time, fellows”) cheerfully enough to anyone following up with “How about my other questions?” Instead, we get a series of redundant and ill-tempered tirades about how to phrase our questions. Not exactly conducive to an affable atmosphere.

Here, I was reminded of Mike Francesa’s ill-mannered attempts to teach callers (he had a call-in show in NYC for many years) how to make phone calls, particularly their lack of speed with which they understood that they were now on the air and to ask their goddamned question without a lot of phumphering. Callers would respond to Francesa announcing “Here’s Arthur from Bay Ridge” by saying “Hello? Mike?” and he’d get all pissed off, and start yelling at poor Arthur for not realizing he was wasting valuable time verifying that he was on live radio, and sometimes he’d cut the poor guy off if he didn’t spit out his moronic question about some trade the Yankees should make PDQ. And then, after hanging up on the poor dude,  Francesa would lecture all of us, his listeners, about not wasting everyone’s time with “Hello?” and “Yes, this is Arthur. Oh, boy, I’m really on the air?” and other nervous maunderings that first-time callers tended to stammer until they got their bearings. Francesa’s rants about callers too stupid to get right to the point probably wasted six times the amount of time that nervous callers wasted, but he thought, I suppose, that he was doing a great service by teaching listeners proper telephone etiquette in calling in to WFAN.  That’s what Bill’s instructions on how to ask a question remind me of.

It wasn’t only multiple questions, either. Bill’s latest rants against “open-ended questions” puzzles me. I get what he’s objecting to, I guess—questions like “What do you think of X or Y or Z?”—but 1) sometimes he opts to answer the most open-ended of questions and 2) Bill can simply not print such questions. After all, there are many, many questions submitted to “Hey Bill” that go unanswered. (Frustrated posters have opened up multiple threads on “Reader Posts” devoted to “Unanswered Hey Bill Questions,” which are often pretty interesting threads.)  A better option, to my mind, would be (as with the “multiple questions”) simply to riff on an aspect of the open-ended questions that he does feel like answering. If you ask him “What do you think of X?” that’s pretty much carte blanche to free-associate in any way he chooses, isn’t it? Why Bill opts instead of either these two sensible choices to go off on the same rant time and again is something of a puzzle.

What I’m suggesting with these two examples is that Bill’s website seems to give him a venue to treat his readers abusively, which is strange for a number of reasons, one of which is that when Bill speaks in public, he is unfailingly polite and cordial to his audience, his interviewers, or the people he appears on panels with. I’ve watched a lot of these appearances on Youtube—a long discussion with Rob Neyer on Cape Cod a few years back, an address he gave in a university setting (U. of Cincinnati, perhaps?), some network TV appearances all come to mind—where he was asked some questions of a multiple nature, or of an open-ended nature, and even of a rude and stupid nature, and his response to them was uniformly genial, deferential, modest, temperate, and humble. It seems that Bill’s aggressive, combative, hostile side comes out only on his website, and to the folks paying money to hear his views. (I recently asked him if he’s ever noticed the differing personalities he projects orally and in print, and got a blunt and dismissive rejection of my premise for my trouble, an “I’ve never been anything other than kind to people in my entire life” sort of eye-popping response. I think that was among the last questions I ever asked him. It spoke volumes.) 

I’m not sure that the Bill Jekyll and Bill Hyde breaks down quite that strictly along the binary oral/written lines, but there are definitely two personalities here, and I’m not sure where the abusive one comes from. A benign interpretation would be that it comes from an attempt to be funny or entertaining that doesn’t always work—I’ve laughed out loud on the occasions that it did work, when an especially dim-witted or foolish “Hey Bill” question drew a witty, savage sendup from Bill. But too often it doesn’t seem that Bill is going for wit or good fun as much as he’s just being cranky or nasty for its own sake.

I once suggested (in a “Hey Bill,” I believe) that Bill might have been diagnosed with a psychological condition known as Oppositional Defiant Disorder, which as I understand it is a condition where a person told that something green is green will respond “No, I see some blue in there” but if he is told the color is blueish-green will respond “Are you crazy? That’s pure green, not a touch of blue at all.” (In an attempt to fend off Bill’s being offended by my question, I added that I suffered to a degree from ODD myself, and that it might be characteristic of perfectly healthy but skeptical or curious people generally.) There may be something to this, that what makes Bill prickly in print is also what makes him a sharp-eyed analyst, that perverse principle I attributed to writers in my last article. Why this would manifest itself in print but not at all in public speech is puzzling, though that appears to be the case.

The question of “authority” crops up in here, and I’m not sure what to make of it. Of all the oppositionalities (to coin a term) I’ve noted in Bill, the one that presents itself most prominently is that of an authority asserting itself, especially when unearned. Bill has devoted his career (and admirably so) to opposing false authorities, and some of his passion seems fueled by a resentment of false authority that seeps into his interactions that have nothing to do with baseball, or crime, or any of the other subjects Bill has written about. The odd part, of course, is that I’m also pointing out here how often Bill himself oversteps his own authority.

On his own website, his authority is nearly complete: he has total control over which issues he chooses to discuss, how he wants to discuss them, which questions he chooses to answer (or to ridicule), how long he wants each discussion to go on, and ultimately who he permits to have a voice on that website. It hardly seems necessary to me to assert this complete authority nearly as often as Bill does, or as vigorously, especially given Bill’s constitutional defiance of authority in general. I would imagine that opposing authority on principle makes one more aware, not less, of one’s own abuses of authority.

I’d like to discuss this question of authority, and how it relates to our perspectives on racism, and hypocrisy, in my next 1000+ word installment.