Last Friday was a pretty embarrassing day for The Daily Caller, a pretty embarrassing conservative website founded by the pretty embarrassing bowtie model and former journalist Tucker Carlson. Early in the day, Caller correspondent Neil Munro yelled a bunch of confused, intermittently coherent nativist stuff at President Obama while Obama announced a change in deportation policy regarding America's most productive young undocumented non-citizens.
That was all very Daily Caller, and so all pretty embarrassing—not because Presidents shouldn't take questions, but because yelling "Why are you the worst, and I have a follow-up" during a speech is neither asking a question nor a good look, in general. Also very Daily Caller was their attempt to make some sort of pageview hay on the whole weird thing by treating it as some sort of triumph. The Caller's piece in which Munro opens up about his achievement in the field of political heckling describes the incident as "an exchange with Obama," which is true only to the extent that walking quickly by The Black Israelites—the bizarre racialist street preachers who dress like members of the Sun Ra Arkestra—while they rant about "the so-called white man" is to have an "exchange" with The Black Israelites. But the most Daily Caller thing was that Munro's performance was actually not the most embarrassing thing associated with the site that day.
While Munro was doubtless living the dream of thousands of bile-powered creeps whose fondest desire is to be loudly rude to a prominent Democrat, his performance was finally just a bit of dim, sourly narrowcasted theater—no one convinced, a few entertained, all of it quickly and deservedly forgotten. But Caller columnist Mark Judge's attempt later that day to appropriate Bryce Harper as a conservative icon has had, and may yet have, a longer life.
Not because it's good, certainly—whatever aspirations Tucker Carlson might once have had to run some sort of conservative intellectual journal have given way to race-baiting, SEO tricknology and a dedication to the lowest of dittohead common denominators; the title of Judge's column is "Bryce Harper, Conservative Hero" and the first sentence of it is "Bryce Harper is a conservative hero." It is, for something written by a professional writer with a published book to his credit, shockingly amateurish, uninformed and hackneyed. The reason it has endured is the reason why Jim Newell flagged/flogged it at Wonkette on Friday and Charles Pierce took the time to thrash it comprehensively at Esquire on Monday. It's one of the most artless and least-reasoned and generally lousiest pieces of sportswriting in a good while. It will be a thing as long as people on the internet continue to kick it around and goof on it, and only because for that long, and for those reasons. But.
But: the reason that Judge's piece is such a joke is that Judge is an appallingly shitty writer and so remedial a polemicist, and not because there's something inherently ridiculous or wrong about trying to put a legitimate phenomenon such as Bryce Harper into a broader context. The problem is that Judge's personal context is so narrow, and so silly. George Will, when he's not being supercilious on television, has had a nice sideline slotting baseball and various baseball types into his fusty, antique vision of The Rich Tapestry Of American Life. Will, too, is kind of a clown, albeit one in a regulation-size bowtie, but he has a worldview. It's a claustrophobic, retrograde and rigorously caucasian view of American life—something like what Wes Anderson's would be like with Francois Truffaut and melancholy precocity swapped out for Ronald Reagan and Chamber of Commerce booster-piffle about the magic of the market. It's goofy, but it's fundamentally more sentimental than it is harmful. And it's a lot more than Judge can muster.
Judge doesn't have a worldview so much as he has a series of simple, silly partisan binaries, each of which is touched upon in his piece, briefly and with the usual breezy grievance—the stations of the Fox News cross. Bryce Harper, a 19-year-old baseball star who is good and bold and confident, is conservative by dint of that goodness and boldness and et cetera. The rest of Judge's game is just trying to figure out how to get Obama and union members and Occupy Wall Street's faces onto the straw men massed opposite on the battlefield. Judge, it's worth mentioning, is also a creep—his previous bit of internet fame came thanks to a Caller article whose argument boiled down to "someone, I assume a black person, stole my bike, so what do you liberals say to that."
Race issues or not, though, Judge certainly doesn't seem to know or care much about baseball, or Harper, or where the two fit in relation to each other. Judge makes his first point about Harper's conservative heroism by telling the story of Harper taking an extra base on Braves right fielder Jason Heyward, and then comparing the "indolence" of Heyward—who happens to be black, but whatever (probably)—to that of union schoolteachers, and then to Obama himself, "who never seems to have had to slide head-first into a base his entire life." The rest of the piece isn't so much argued as it is that dim bit, over and over again: a series of free-associative slams on favorite Caller targets grafted, Human Centipede-ianly, onto various Tales of Harper that are pitched at a level of sports ignorance that would embarrass even David Brooks. Then there's some cheezoid Romney advocacy and a story about Judge's grandfather, who played for the Washington Senators in the 1920's, at the very end. The worst sentence, by which I mean the one that packs the most nausea into the smallest amount of space, is probably, "Manager Davey Johnson tries to bench him for being hurt, and Harper confronts him and says, like a person with enough dignity to refuse welfare: Let me work."
This isn't the way someone who knows or cares about baseball writes, of course, if only because there's no baseball in it, and nothing about Bryce Harper himself. This despite the fact that even a brief spin through the SI Vault will turn up some stuff about Harper's ferocious work ethic, Mormon upbringing, ruggedly individualism and other talking points that might be of interest to someone trying, for whatever reason, to turn Bryce Harper into Ronald Reagan.
But if Judge's piece doesn't betray much interest in baseball, neither is it written or reasoned in the way that someone who knows or cares about ideas would write or reason. Baseball exists within our culture and politics—all those taxpayer-subsidized stadiums and the other hijinks of rentier owners—and also as a microcosm of it. The sport has its own class structure and economy, its own homespun management theories and slanged-out rhetoric and the comparatively adorable, safely neutered creative destruction of its free agent marketplace. There are abstract questions to be debated where that miniature play-world overlaps with or reflects our serious and sharper-edged one, and not-at-all-abstract questions when the two intersect, as with razed neighborhoods and the shameful plutocratic decadences that replace them, or with ripped-off municipalities, or when one sports-y ghoulishness or bit of stubborn hope reflects another that has nothing to do with sports. There's such a thing as an overly doctrinaire sports-and-politics column—Dave Zirin, who has written so many great ones, recently gave us one about the Oklahoma City Thunder that left no room for sports. But for the most part—and obviously I have my own biases here, but I believe it—situating a piece of sportswriting in the wider world is a good and helpful and bracing thing. The issue, here, is not just that Judge is too limited a writer to pull it off, but that his wider world of context is too small even for sports.
The kindest allowance that Pierce makes for Judge in his strafing of the piece is also the most inaccurate. "There's something fundamentally dehumanizing," Pierce writes, "in dragooning someone like Bryce Harper into the service of your ideology as though he were nothing more than an action figure in your mental toybox." He's right about the dehumanizing part; he's over-generous to call the petty and profoundly stupid thing that motivated Judge's overreach an "ideology." It's dumber, and smaller, than that.