Month: March 2019
I was – I think I’ve mentioned before – raised Catholic. Which is to say, I attended a Catholic primary school, went to Sunday mass with my dad, was confirmed at age fourteen, and still look back with misty eyed nostalgia at the day our parish priest appeared on BBC Crimewatch having absconded to Australia with a hundred grand in parish funds.
Then I went off to university, and then moved to London where I fully embraced the life of a cynical, secular, Guardian reading (then Guardian writing), liberal. This was the early 2000s, around the same time George and Tony cited their shared Christianity as the casus belli for invading Iraq, firmly establishing liberalism and religion as polar opposites. I knew which side I was on.
Still, no matter how liberal my politics became, I couldn’t quite get on board with the militant atheism practiced by my fellow lefties. The insufferable Ricky Gervais, Christopher Hitchens, Stephen Fry brand of atheism: Hectoring churchgoers and eye rolling about “sky wizards” to millions of hooting and cackling Twitter followers.
It’s one thing to be evangelical about something, but to be evangelical about nothing seems like a special kind of obnoxiousness. Like a Jehovah’s Witness knocking on your door just to call you a fucking dope.
A decade and a half later, this type of militant atheism is strongly in vogue in Silicon Valley. It seems especially prevalent amongst young techies raised on Ayn Rand for whom the only true gods are technology and The Market, and the only legitimate prophets are men like Steve Jobs and Peter Thiel. Never would those geniuses be so dumb to blindly take direction from an invisible sky wizard, not when there are so many perfectly good algorithms to show them the way, truth, and light. (Never mind that Saint Peter Thiel – ever the contrarian – is himself an evangelical Christian.)
What those techies, and other young, sophisticated San Franciscoites do dig – however – is spiritually. Spirituality, like its cousin mindfulness, is cool. Especially when it comes packaged inside a fitness regimen. Witness the armies of young believers, traipsing dutifully through the city to their 9am Sunday yoga/Soul Cycle/Bar Method worship. See the flickering candles surrounding the SoulCycle altar; hear the exhortations at Orange Theory Fitness to shake hands (or fist bump, if you must) your neighbor in communion, to say nothing of the mantras and icons and incense and prayers to the “universe” and to one’s inner goddess found in every yoga class.
Picture, an hour or so later, the roomful of yogis or spin cyclists, their hands clasped together “at heart center” to connect with the universe at the end of class. How infinitely more sophisticated they are than those rubes in church with their hands clasped together in, pffft, prayer.
On the face of it, the line between organized religion and organized fitness is now so blurred as to be almost meaningless. So why is it that the very same young, liberal Silicon Valley types who mock religion – who roll their eyes at middle American evangelicals and the devoutly religious – are so enthralled by the exact same ideas when they’re disguised as a workout? Is it just that yoga is cool and church isn’t? Is it just the ‘G’ word that’s taboo?
Maybe it’s a simple case of supply and demand. The demand, in this case, is for the comfort and feeling that religion once offered: That sense of togetherness and real world connection desperately needed in a world which seems to have been re-engineered to divide and distance us from each other. A yearning for simple moral guidance – for some concrete and universally agreed code of right and wrong in an age when the rich and powerful are able to lie, cheat and steal with impunity. In a world run by Donald Trump and Mohammed Bin Salman, we have to at least hope there’s a hell waiting for them.
That spiritual demand remains constant, or growing, even as churchgoing has fallen off a cliff. As religion has disgraced itself with child abuse, bigotry, misogyny, support of terrorism and being co-opted by right wing politicians, so the fitness industry has stepped in to fill the void. For the young and spiritually restless, boutique fitness teachers – spin instructors and the like – have taken the role of pastors and other religious leaders: Doling out instagram-worthy affirmations over a thumping techno beat. Meanwhile, yoga teachers offer a smorgasbord of goddesses to satisfy a congregation that’s had quite enough of being told what to believe by the Father, the Son, and the rest of the patriarchy
No surprise, then, that more than one Silicon Valley mogul has mooted the idea of starting his own non-religious church: All the community and ritual of the real thing, but none of the God. The O’Douls of churches. My favorite example – and I swear I’m not making this up – was the successful startup founder turned would-be cult leader who hired a branding consultant to invent “religious sounding words” to describe his various pseudo-sacraments. Because, yeah, it’s the Christians, Jews, and Muslims who are the crazy ones.
And it’s no wonder both audiences – the yogis and the techies – are avid consumers of self-help books. From the charmless-but-harmless Tim Ferris to the tolly not about God (and please ignore the religious imprint logo on my spine) Rachel Hollis, there has never been a more lucrative time to publish your own bible.
It’s almost impressive how thoroughly religion – Christianity in particular – has fucked itself, brand wise. Last year, Yale University Press published David Bentley Hart’s much-hyped re-translation of the New Testament. Flipping through 600 pages of familiar-but-forgotten stories of Jesus and his pals, I was struck by how the source material of Christianity (that is, without the bigotry, intolerance, and general hatred that’s been piled on top by church leaders) knocks the spots off any self-help book published in the last, say, two thousand years. Love thy neighbor, cross over the road to help the afflicted, throw the capitalists out of the temple, free healthcare for lepers…. OG Jesus leans so far left he makes AOC look almost centrist. (Spoiler: The New Testament contains not a word about abortion, gay marriage, guns, or invading Iraq. Second spoiler: The hero dies at the end.
Or doessss he?)
Of course, “Jesus wasn’t an asshole, despite what Evangelicals say” isn’t a particularly original observation – in fact it’s pretty much the elevator pitch of the Jesuits. (Billion dollar idea: Jesuit Boutique Fitness — Save Your SoulCycle). Similarly, I have no doubt that adherents to other religions – Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and all but Scientology – could make similar claims about their holy books. I’m focusing on the Christian New Testament here only because it’s the only one I can credibly claim to have read.
Which brings me neatly back to Jamaica, where after a perfect week of yoga, staring out at the sea, surrounded by wonderful people offering nothing but love and support to each other, I’m boarding this flight happier, healthier and feeling closer to… something (God? The Universe? My fellow humans? Rachel Hollis? All of their above?) than I’ve ever felt.
The perfect starting point, in other words, to think more deeply about where exactly I sit on the religion – spirituality spectrum, and how the answer to that question might help me on my continuing journey to become slightly less of an asshole.
As a Brit in America, I am keenly aware of my obligations.
For one, I have a duty to pronounce words like “zebra” and “trousers” and “pasta” in ways precisely calibrated to sound amusing to the American ear. Then I must smile warmly when those same words are parroted back to me in a Dick Van Dyke accent.
I must have an opinion on the Royal family. Sometimes that opinion must be shared on television, like the time in Vegas when the local NBC affiliate declared me an expert on the wedding of Kate and William and allowed me to make up facts for 45 mins. (“What can you tell us about the man in red standing beside the altar?” / “Well, that’s actually very interesting. According to feudal law, if William fails to show up for the wedding then that fellow is obliged to step in and marry Kate.” / “Incredible. What a wonderful tradition. We’ll be right back.”)
I am obliged to have terrible teeth, to drink tea by the gallon, and be willing – at the drop of a hat – to discuss the cultural significance of Doctor Who with someone for whom the entire franchise began with Matt Smith. I must “explain” Jimmy Saville.
And now, of course, I must have an opinion on Brexit.
I understand completely the American fascination with Brexit. For one thing, it is objectively fascinating. It’s so rare these days that you get to see a first world democracy simultaneously punching itself in the face, shooting itself in both feet, and dashing itself on the rocks, again and again, in slow motion. Also, it’s strangely comforting: Brexit is the only clusterfuck in the world that’s more clustery and more fucky than the decision to elect Donald Trump.
Well, since you ask, my opinion is much the same as everyone else’s: Brexit is a clown show. A disaster. An unprecedented humiliation even for a country which is world famous for its bumbling, and whose citizens live in a constant state of embarrassment and apology.
To end the madness, the only logical next step is for the government to declare a second referendum, for the British people to vote a decisive no, and then pretend the whole mess never happened. Another thing British people are very good at: Pretending things never happened. (It was we Brits who invented that awkward little jog you do when you trip in the street and don’t want anyone to realize.)
(Update: Since publishing this post last week, a formal petition to cancel Brexit has gained so many signatures from the British public that the UK parliamentary website has exploded.)
And yet, for all the voting and rejection and yelling and confusion and major banks relocating to Ireland, a second referendum remains the one thing which neither of the two major parties is willing to consider. A second referendum, we’re told, will lead to blood on the streets and to the Prime Minister being ousted and replaced with Nigel Farage. The far right will be frothing at the mouth, they warn us, apparently unaware that right wing mouths are already frothing, and have been for a very long time.
The same logic explains why Republican senators stubbornly refuse to halt the destruction of their own party by a crazed orange bigot, or why Evangelicals continue to abandon every single lesson Jesus ever taught about love, forgiveness, tolerance – never mind their own church’s prudish teachings on divorce, adultery, blasphemy and porn stars. It’s why Lindsay Graham sounds like he’s been possessed. Don’t anger the base! Beware the base!
As a result, in both Britain and America, the levers of power are now in the hands of men (mostly men) who, when faced with anything resembling a moral decision, appear to ask themselves only one question: What would a total fucking asshole do?
We are living in an assholistocracy.
Sometimes those men in a power have a very specific asshole in mind when asking their What would a total fucking asshole do? question. For Republican lawmakers, the asshole constantly on their mind is the 45th president of the United States. The Supreme Dalek of Assholes.
More often, though, the fictive asshole is actually a group of assholes. In Britain, as in America, much of the current idiotic, self-destructive lawmaking around immigration, economics, Supreme Court nominees, and – yes – Brexit is driven by politicians (themselves assholes to a man) wondering how best to pander to the large (but minority) mob of bigots, misanthropes and proud ignoramuses who still cling on to the notion that anything that reduces the number of foreigners will provide a commensurate increase in jobs and opportunities for the working class.
(Important note: That mob <> the working class. Sure, Trump’s base is built on what pollsters call “white men without college degrees” and Brexit is most popular amongst those low paid workers who could stand to benefit most from European jobs and subsidies. But throw a rock in Silicon Valley or on Wall Street and chances are you’ll hit a racist or misogynist who not only shares Trump’s worst impulses, but has the resources to fund them. Bigotry, like intelligence, respects no class divide.)
We can’t have a second Brexit referendum because, simply put, the assholes won’t allow it. We can’t defend the constitution because the assholes won’t allow it.
Worse, we can’t even easily vote out the assholes and replace them with non-assholes. Not when the system is stacked so heavily in favor of the assholes. I don’t just mean the electoral college system, or gerrymandering, which allowed Trump to win and maintain control of the White House while losing the popular vote. Nor do I only mean the fact that the assholes who gave us Brexit – Farage, Johnson and the rest – were willing to lie and even cheat to get the outcome they wanted, while the Remainers couldn’t cobble together a coherent counter-argument, hobbled as they were by fidelity to the truth.
I’m also talking about how the assholes control the tools of information and communication. Tools like Facebook, which we know was used by the Russian government to help turn public opinion against Hilary Clinton and the EU, towards Trump and Brexit. Mark Zuckerberg’s unwillingness to put a stop to it, despite a direct personal appeal from Barack Obama, puts him firmly in the asshole camp (never mind his tolerance of Nazis on his platform, and the fact that he’s packed his policy team with right wingers as a sop to frothing conservatives.) Meanwhile the longest serving Facebook board member, Peter Thiel, is a Trump donor who famously said that the worst thing to happen to “capitalist democracy” was women getting the vote.
It ain’t just Facebook though. Over at Twitter, Jack Dorsey refuses to enforce his company’s own rules against Trump’s tweets, and in his spare time pals around with anti-vaxxers. Google recently $135m to two executives accused of sexual harassment and assault.
Social media is a matryoshka doll of assholes, as of course is the Murdoch press, and…
…12 hours later…
I drafted the first part of this post (everything you’ve just read) a few hours before news broke of Thursday’s terror attack in Christchurch. You’ve likely read the same coverage of the attack as I have: The white supremacist murderer, radicalized via adolescent Internet forums and lolzing his way through the livestreamed slaughter. The rambling manifesto using copy-and-pasted memes to frame the senseless snuffing out of human life as just another way to stick it to liberals and anyone else who supports multiculturalism, sensible gun control, and basic human decency. Mass murder as epic trolling.
Timing is everything.
This past Sunday, I had an idea: To see if I could go without sugar for an entire week.
It wasn’t until Wednesday that I looked at the calendar and realized with horror: Withnail-style, I had embarked on Lent by mistake.
Right now, around the world, millions of Catholics – in particular Catholic children – are undergoing a forced sugar break. I was raised Catholic and, for most of my childhood, I observed Lent by quitting sweets and chocolate, as did most of my friends. I’d keep a “Lent box” on top of our fridge at home, to place all the candy that I was unable to eat in March and April. Then on Easter Sunday it was open season.
If I could deny myself my only vice for that long as a seven year old, surely I could do it as an adult. The accidental timing was, in its way, like a message from God: Seven days? Seven days! Pffft. If you really want to see the benefits, it’s a month and a half or nothing.
So here I am. Five days in and craving Twixes like they’re the very bread of life.
Quitting something for 40 days is an odd experience for an alcoholic. If something is unhealthy, aren’t you supposed to quit it forever? Doesn’t going back = failure, described in terms like relapse, and falling off the wagon?
I know that sugar – specifically, added sugar, and sugar found in cakes and sweets – is really bad for me. Books with titles like Murdered By a Donut and Sweet, Sweet Cancer* outline the gruesome specifics: Sugar causes bloating, insomnia, bad skin, kidney issues, heart disease and can even increase your risk of some cancers.
Even the Oompa Loompas get it…
What do you get when you guzzle down sweets?
Eating as much as an elephant eats
What are you at getting terribly fat?
What do you think will come of that?
I’ve written before about the link between sugar cravings and alcoholism. I know several recovering/former alcoholics who can easily devour an entire cake in a single sitting, and who can’t leave a restaurant without ordering dessert. Most of them aren’t overweight – zeroing out the booze frees up a ton of calories – they just really, really like sugar. Or, rather, their bodies really like sugar.
The science is pretty straightforward: Drinking alcohol causes a spike in blood sugar. After quitting, the body misses that sugar spike and our brains tell us to replace it with candy or dessert. At least in the short term. The problem, at least in my case, is that after ten years of sobriety I’ve become quite separately hooked on that sugar jolt.
This past week, even as I neared my lowest ever body weight (thank you Orange Theory Fitness), I realized my sugar intake had reached unhealthy levels.
I always eat some kind of sweet after lunch – a candy bar, a muffin – and then a dessert after dinner. Ice cream is my absolute favorite – the more toppings the better. In recent weeks though, perhaps because of my increased calorie burn at OTF, I’ve been snacking between snacks. A second muffin, a handful of chocolates after dessert, a huge bag of jelly beans on my walk home. It doesn’t help that, in February, I finally finished 18 months of Invisalign treatment (more on that in a future issue) so no longer had to remove a plastic gumshield to snack.
So between that, and the accidental Lenten overlap, there really was no alternative.
For forty days I’m going to avoid sugar wherever I know its present in food: No candy or cakes, no sugary sodas; nothing where sugar has obviously or plausibly been added (no sandwich bread). The only exception: I can eat sugars found naturally in fruit. I’m not going to deny myself an apple or a banana for breakfast, or as an evening snack to keep the cravings at bay.
I’m already hammering the fruit loophole. On Wednesday night, Sarah and I went out for Prime Rib. We had some work stuff to celebrate, and also were feeling in dire need of cow-meat after a week of workouts. Two hours after we got home, there came a shout from our kitchen: Hey! Did you eat all the bananas?
“Yeah,” I called back, “sorry about that.” I had eaten four bananas in a single day. And some strawberries from the fridge. And a little thing of blueberries with my lunchtime quiche.
On the upside, I’m down a couple of pounds since Monday, which is good news as the number on the scale had plateaued, despite five OTF workouts a week. I’m not smart enough in matters of nutrition and exercise to know if the plateau was down to an increase in muscle, or something to do with water weight, or if it was just the sugar causing my weight loss to slow – but the sweet stuff definitely wasn’t helping. More interestingly, I have a lot more energy this week than last. I’ve also been sleeping better, and thinking sharper, and my blood pressure is down.
As we get closer to Easter, I’ll update you on my progress and whether I’d recommend a sugar fast for my fellow recovering drinkers. Of course I’ll also tell you if I find myself hunkered down on the kitchen floor mainlining Snickers at 3am. So far so good.
Which reminds me, at some point I want to write an issue of the newsletter about religion. It’ll have to wait a few days, though – Sarah and I are about to head to the airport for a three day mini-vacation to Palm Springs.
We both love Palm Springs, as do the kids (although they’re with their dad this weekend), — and we’ve told ourselves that in the unlikely event we become rich, we’re going to buy a house here. For now, we’re just going to hang out by a hotel pool, go on a hike maybe watch some tennis, and have dinner at a couple of our favorite restaurants.
No dessert, though. Just desert.
* Neither of those books actually exists
People keep asking me why I don’t start a podcast.
They ask this, of course, because everyone and their cat has a podcast.
Producing a podcast today is like keeping a blog ten years ago, before Twitter and Instagram made us all social to the point where we’re all constantly screaming into the void.
I get the appeal of the medium. Podcasts are a return to the good old days: Those halcyon blogging days when you could pour out your heart and soul online, safe in the knowledge that the only people reading were your friends, family and that one weird guy in Oklahoma who emailed you every time you post.
The days when you could post something stupid, or unfunny, and it would simply be ignored. When there was no (ok, little) of the public mob shaming that inevitably follows every bad joke, dumb opinion, or misjudged emoji on social media.
Just like with blogging ten years ago, today the tools for podcasting keep getting cheaper, and the methods of distribution more efficient. Next comes the goldrush, starting with the announcement last week that Spotify had spent nearly $340m buying podcast companies.
I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t considered joining the fun. For one thing, I love the sound of my own voice. For another, I spent almost three years in Vegas hosting our near-nightly radio show, and I miss the community that grew up around those hour-long broadcasts.
But there’s one significant difference between starting a blog and launching a podcast: Unlike a blog, a podcast has to be about something.
Even NSFWLIVE – which, on any given week, might see us discuss corrupt Vegas cops, the sex life of jellyfish, and the Koch Brothers – was ostensibly about the week’s news. And even when an episode was about nothing, it was still about NSFWCORP Magazine. And Taylor Swift. Always Taylor Swift.
And that’s where things get tricky. While everyone seems to agree that I should have a podcast, they can’t seem to agree on the subject matter.
Those who do express a preference fall mainly into two camps: People who want me to start a podcast about Addiction / Not Being An Asshole, and those who couldn’t care less about addiction and want to hear me swear about Silicon Valley.
A show about Addiction / Not Being An Asshole could be interesting, I think. I’ve listened to a few of the popular ones on the iTunes Store but they all seem tremendously bleak. Meanwhile, the upbeat/funny ones seem to have stopped producing new episodes.
There’s definitely a gap in the market. And, judging from the emails I get in response to these newsletters, there’s an audience too, with no shortage of cautionary tales to tell.
The appeal of this blog is that I get to think about addiction and recovery once a week for a couple of hours while I write and edit each update. Then I go back to my actual life. One of my (many) issues with AA is how it forces you to live permanently in recovery mode; constantly between meetings because you are An Addict first and everything else second. A blog is one thing, but a blog and a podcast and I’m only a short hop away from being (picture a conference speaker bio:) a Writer and Broadcaster, Who Specializes In The Subject of Alcoholism.
I don’t think so.
So, what about the Silicon Valley thing? Well. There’s a reason I quit tech journalism a couple of years ago: The news cycle is ghastly enough right now without it being my job. I spent years shouting about the awfulness of Uber and Facebook and Peter Fucking Thiel, and for most of that time nobody believed me, or Sarah, or anyone else at Pando.
Then suddenly everybody believed us, but acted like they’d known all along. It’s like the classic “deny, deny, deny… this is old news” playbook used to dismiss political scandal.
Three or so years ago, I wrote a proposal for a book about Silicon Valley and Addition. The working title was “The Intervention” and my premise was that the tech industry was acting like a dangerous, but functioning, alcoholic: Lying to everyone, cheating, stealing — generally stuck in a cycle of bad behavior, but with nobody close enough to help them quit (surrounded by enablers, in fact.)
To support my premise, I included in the proposal some true stories about things I had witnessed in more than a decade covering tech bad behavior. I wrote about Facebook and Peter Thiel; about the suicides inside the Vegas Downtown Project; about Uber threatening Sarah; about tech’s ties to the CIA and DOD… and maybe a half dozen other scandals which now seem like old news but which back then had barely been reported (except by us on Pando.)
My agent shopped the book to a dozen editors at all the major publishing houses. The opening line of first rejection, sent apparently after consultation with the firm’s legal department, set the tone for all the others: This stuff, if true, is dynamite. But unfortunately the feeling here is that the legal exposure would be simply too great…
At least tell me I’m a shitty writer, or that the premise of my book was boring. Anything other than sure, I know you say you’ve written for the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, TechCrunch, Pando and all these other publications, but we still think you’re full of shit. Tech is great! (Unless it isn’t, in which case Facebook will sue us, and Amazon will refuse to stock the book.)
Now fast forward four years and every publisher is clamoring for their own version of How Big Tech Is Destroying The World And We Had Absolutely No Idea.
So, yes, that’s pretty infuriating. Just as it’s frustrating to witness the godawful state of tech commentary circa 2019; how effective Peter Thiel and Charles Harder have been in silencing all but the driest of Silicon Valley coverage. And, God yes, it could be fun to tell jokes about Keith Rabois, Peter Thiel, and Bitcoin for an hour a week. (There should be entire podcast networks dedicated to mocking Rabois.)
But at what psychic cost?
One too great for me, I think, when the opportunity cost is to go to Soul Cycle, or bake a cake with Eli, or read a book, or spend the day working with the amazing team at Chairman Mom.
So there you go. Podcasts have to be about something, and the only things I know enough about, I’ve said all I have to say.
That, and baking, are why I don’t start a podcast.