Will Leitch, senior writer at Sports On Earth, contributing editor at New York magazine, film critic for The New Republic, contributor at Sports Illustrated, and founder of Deadspin, is doing his yearly fill-in for Drew Magary on today’s Thursday Afternoon NFL Dick Joke Jamboroo. (Here is 2011’s version, and here’s 2012’s, and here’s 2013’s, and here’s 2014’s , and here’s 2015's.) Leitch has written four books. Find more of his business at his Twitter feed and his official site. He also has a weekly newsletter he’d very much appreciate if you subscribed to.
Last week, a man named Adam Saleh was kicked off a Delta flight from London to New York City. Here is the video. You may have watched it already, but it’s worth refreshing your memory of it before we get started here.
(I love when Saleh keeps yelling “it’s 2016!” as if this is some sort of argument for discrimination not happening. Has he looked around? The first thing I thought when I saw this video was “Well, it’s 2016: This is exactly what happens in 2016.” The idea that human history is on this constant upward progression, I’d argue, was rather definitively debunked specifically by the year 2016, so the claim that “I can’t believe this still is a thing in 2016!” seriously misunderstands what in fact 2016 was. I swear, someone in recorded history, at one point, must have said something like, “It’s 22 A.D. and we’re still burning people alive? It’s the year 22! Come on!”)
This video has caused quite the social media kerfuffle in the last few days, with regular updates, interviews with different passengers and the expected, tired kabuki foofaraw of subsequent outrage. Thing happens, people react, primary actors clarify and protest, and finally everyone retreats into their comfortable corners and commences lobbing spitbombs at people on the other side. This happens so often now that the life cycle has sped up, that it’s difficult to even find out what’s happened; people are already fighting over what went down before the rest of us even know anything went down in the first place. Anymore, we don’t even need something to happen for us to react to it.
So let’s go over what we know about the Saleh incident.
- Delta Air Lines kicked Saleh and his friends, a bunch of YouTube “stars,” off of their flight.
- The instigating incident was either one of Saleh’s friends talking to his mother on the phone in Arabic (Saleh’s story) or Saleh and his friends purposely causing a ruckus on the plane as some sort of prank (Delta’s story).
- Some passengers back up Saleh’s story. Some passengers back up Delta’s story.
- There is a history of Arab and Muslim men being kicked off flights for making passengers nervous, including a man being booted from a Southwest Airlines flight back in October for speaking in Arabic on the phone (to his uncle) before the flight was to take off, the precise thing Saleh claims he and his friends were ejected from the Delta flight for.
- Saleh and his friends are celebrities on YouTube, which means they point cameras at themselves, jabber about like idiots for 10 minutes and somehow garner 500,000 views for it.
- Saleh and his friends have been busted before for airline-related pranks, including a rather stupid one in which he claimed to have sent himself from Melbourne to Sydney in baggage claim, which was not only easily disproven but also, you know, impossible.
This is all we know for certain about the incident, and because uncertainty abhors an anger vacuum, everyone has filled the empty space with whatever they believed when they woke up that morning. Saleh and his friends were profiled! They’re yelling about racism instead of taking personal responsibility! Millennials are jackasses! We’ve seen all that before, and over and over again. Ultimately, I’m not sure it really matters what the specifics of this incident are, whether Delta was in the right or Saleh and his friends were. There will be future asshats who try to pull pranks on planes, and there will be future spineless airlines who kick people off planes for scaring idiot passengers by speaking in a language that they do not understand. This incident will neither solve or abet either occurrence.
Instead, the lesson to learn from this video doesn’t involve Saleh, or a Delta employee, at all. It involves this guy, at the 1:12 moment of Saleh’s video.
Surrounding this guy, there is screaming, and anger, and anguish, and conflict, and basically everything that is a microcosm of every major battle taking place in our culture at this particular moment in human history. There’s an explosion of People! happening right next to him — literally, right there in his seat — and he is staring out the window, ignoring it the best he can, just concentrating on getting where he’s trying to go. He doesn’t care about the issues, at least not passionately enough to say anything, and if he did, what difference would it make anyway? He’d just be another voice screaming. So he stays out of it, pretends it isn’t happening, goes to his happy place until all the trouble fades and it’s safe to come back out.
This guy, and the millions of us like him, is gonna be the difference between surviving what’s coming, or succumbing to it. This is the guy you have to win over.
Horrors are coming, people. Horrors have been coming every day since Donald Trump was elected President of the United States—actual words I just typed that are true—and it’s impossible not to be somewhat numb to them at this point. Climate change denier in charge of the EPA? Skipping intelligence briefings because they’re boring? Picked senseless fights with China? A million other things that might get us all blown up? The day after the election, Donald Trump met with Barack Obama in the White House, and Trump looked a little bit humbled and a lot bit scared, and Obama told us it was all gonna be okay, that his success is our success, and for about an hour or so, still in shock from the night and morning before, you might have been able to convince yourself that was true. But then other people got in Trump’s ear, and then he reminded himself that he had a 10-inch penis and 40-foot hands, and then there was Pizzagate and then people started getting blown up and shot again and then we all remembered and we were all thrust back into the nightmare that’s somehow both ongoing and impending.
As a general rule, I am steadfastly, stubbornly, irritatingly optimistic, almost always in the face of near-universal evidence to the contrary. I believe, deep down, that people are ultimately good, that our truest natures are to be kind to each other, that it’s the avarice of the outside world that brings out the worst in us. We hold doors for strangers, we wish people good morning, we don’t go around clubbing each other for meat: We mean well. We have to, right? Well, I’ve never had a more serious test of that belief than 2016, and even when we remember that every year is the worst year ever, it’s a lesson I’m finding difficult to shake this time. Every silver lining I look for in the Trump presidency ends in a dead end. It’s bringing out the worst in everybody, on both sides, on every side, and it hasn’t even begun yet.
The only way I’ve ever been able to find something positive about it is to try to minimize it. Well, it’s only four years. He’s just one man: How much can he do? Our country is an ocean liner, and it will take longer than he has time for to hit every iceberg. Smart, measured people, even people I might disagree with personally, will make sure to steer him away from too much trouble. All of these end up running into the same dead ends. I can’t convince myself I’m not kidding myself.
You know what the only thing that works is? Pretending. Ignoring it. Focusing on something else, a distraction, any distraction. Hey, the Cardinals signed Dexter Fowler! Awesome! Malcolm Hill could get the Illini to the NCAAs! Moonlight is an amazing movie! That story on Deadspin was hilarious! Another half-marathon’s coming up in April: Gotta train hard! The new Chabon book is killer! I’ve gotten really good at NBA2K! I love my wife! My kids are cute and smart and the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life! I get to write every day, for a living, like I always wanted! The only things that make me feel better about the world we live in now are the things that have nothing to do with the world we live in now. They’re things that take me out of it. They’re the things that help me escape.
They are the things that allow me to stare out the window, staring at nothing in particular, so that I do not have to deal with what’s happening in the seat that’s right goddamned next to me.
Watch that video again. I don’t care about the Delta employees, or Saleh, or the two or three people who are supporting him, or the two or three people sarcastically waving goodbye to Saleh, celebrating him being kicked off the plane either because they witnessed him pulling a prank or because they are racist dicks. (Or both, I suppose.) Those people are all well-defined. We know where they stand, or at least where they claim they stand.
The people who matter are everyone else. They are the ones dodging the camera when it comes their way, or flipping absently through a newspaper, or staring out that window. They are the ones who have no dog in this hunt, or at least think they don’t. They just want to get home for the holidays. They’ve had a long day: Traveling is hard, man. They just want to read their book, or watch their serialized television program, or play their mindless video game on their smartphone, and they want to be left alone. Life is exhausting and thankless enough as is without these massive fusses, all these people yelling at each other. How do they have the energy? Just lemme sit here. I got problems, you got problems. I’ll leave you alone. You leave me alone. And we’ll both be fine, right? Right? I’m just trying to get where I’m going. That’s okay, right? Right?
Those people, those are the ones who allow evil to exist. They are the ones who turn people who are engaged, or are actively fighting, to be dismissed as troublemakers, or whiners, or people just trying to call attention to themselves. Or people who just have more time for protesting and making a difference than they do. They are the ones who allow people, as I wrote last year in a post that felt prescient at the time and now almost looks charmingly naive, to lie with impunity and without shame. We tell ourselves that staying out of it is taking the high road, that we’re focusing on What Really Matters, that we’re just Being Fair To Both Sides. But we’re not. Our indifference and lack of engagement is just letting them get away with it. Our fear of being a troublemaker is allowing so much trouble to be made.
There has been a sense, particularly among journalists but also among people horrified by Trump and what his rise means, of impotence in the wake of his victory. In the final months of the election, the national news media launched nothing less than an all-out assault on Trump, dredging up every scandal, every scam, every fraud, every “charitable foundation” that existed only to enrich Trump, every dumbass business venture, every disgusting worldview, every (lest we forget this, and we seem to have in the wake of everything else since Election Day) woman he assaulted and then boasted about assaulting. They fired shot after shot after shot. No candidate in recorded history ever underwent such an bombardment. And you know what? He still won. Every truth about him was exposed, and it just didn’t make a difference. If such an onslaught couldn’t save us from Trump winning, well, shit, why do anything? It has led to an undeniable passivity during the Trump transition. Man, it’s not like we can stop him now. So, have you seen the new Star Wars movie? Can you believe Grayson Allen? Time for Grief and Disbelief From Celebrities on Twitter. Everyone has retreated to their windows.
But paying attention, and being vigilant, is more important now than it even was before the election. When people retreat to their windows, or their own private worlds, it allows monstrosities to take place outside of it. Maybe Delta was doing something terrible. Maybe Saleh was lying through his teeth. We’ll never find out if most of us are too embarrassed to look up from our phones. If you can get people to pay attention and not fiddle while the planet burns around them, you don’t have to count on activists, or investigative journalists, or Twitter warriors to do it. It will just ... be. The only way Trump will get away with all he wants to get away with is if we are too distracted by other stuff. We need to convince the guy not to look out the window, but first and foremost, we need to not look out the window ourselves.
Now, practically speaking, it is difficult to support this position without sounding like a scold or a pedant. Why does opposing Trump mean that I can’t watch my Illini again? But of course it’s not that. It’s just not being buried by that stuff. And it’s not by playing some sort of fake middle simply because it scores you points on social media. The Saleh story is instructive in this way as well. Many earnest people reacted immediately—because you must act immediately, always!—to the Saleh video before recanting later, saying, whoops, turns out Saleh is a hoaxster. But whether Saleh was pulling a prank or not—and again, it’s not certain that he was—it is undeniable that the experience of Arabic-speaking men being pulled off airplanes is not unique to him, or even all that rare. But it became easier for people to say, “Saleh is a jackass”—and it’s worth noting that he does seem to be a jackass—and thus return to thinking the world was the way they wished it to be: That only happened because Saleh and his friends are jackasses. Whew. As you were. But this happens all the time. The recanting of Saleh support revealed its inherent flimsiness in the first place. Either you are repulsed by the fact that this happens, or you aren’t. An anecdote being proven or disproven doesn’t change what’s really going on. It’s really just a way to make yourself look good on social media without actually doing anything.
The trick is to do something. The trick is to rouse from slumber, and distraction, and willful blinders. Decades from now, our children and grandchildren will be looking at how we reacted, what we did, what we said, what we stood up for, in this exact moment, right now. This is the time when the difference will be made. This is how we’ll all be judged. Taking no action is taking negative action.
If you can get the guy by the window, you can change the world. You have to start by not being the guy by the window. I do, you do, we all do. Because eventually, you’re gonna be the guy being dragged off the plane. And that man by the window will not help you. And then the plane will crash.
All games in the Jamboroo are evaluated for sheer watchability on a scale of 1 to 5 Throwgasms.
Packers at Lions. Whew! Okay, that’s done. As always, now that the fart-sniffing is finished, we can get back down to football. Again, I’m Will Leitch, I founded this place, I fill in for Drew once a year to give Drew a week off so that he can hang out with his family just long enough to wring another year of material from them for himself. Unlike Drew, I make sure to do a section on every game. Unlike Drew, I rarely talk about the games. It’s a whole thing. So don’t worry: He’ll be back next week. Until then, Carl Monday, the symbol of the ancient Internet age when I actually worked here, gets us going.
He’s still out there, making America safe. We’d be lost without him.
Giants at Washington. Hey, since I talked to all you people last, Gawker got sold! Do you realize how much in the early days they paid in Gawker “stock?” Do you know how little faith any of us have that we’ll ever see any of that money now? Of all the Peter Thiel sins—destruction of the First Amendment, the murder of Gawker, the virtual assassination of one of my best friends, possible vampirism, that hair—I can’t think of a worse one than “ruined a potential retirement fund of a bunch of white idiots who happened to be hanging around The Magician at the exact right moment in 2005.” What a monster.
Panthers at Buccaneers. Oh, by the way, the Cubs won the World Series. Can I say I handled this better than I always thought I would? It’s possible that the destruction of the planet about a week later had something to do with it, but it wasn’t the apocalypse I imagined it would be. Nonetheless, I bought this jacket for my father this Christmas to deal with all the newly minted Cubs fans who think David Ross played for the team for 20 years, like he was Ernie Banks or something.
Yeah, it’s hideous, but it’s my hideous.
Ravens at Bengals. I can’t say I’m particularly enthralled by any of the AFC playoff teams that did make it—ooh, look, Houston and Miami, exciting—but I’ll confess that I won’t miss either Baltimore or Cincinnati. Their playoff games somehow end up being both boring and painful, and this whole division, well, it sort of has a think-our-shit-don’t-stink vibe. (Says the Cardinals fan.) Anyway, Paul DePodesta and the Browns are gonna dominate it in a few years anyway. Baseball nerds unite!
Jaguars at Colts. Every week, I’m on a show for Sports Illustrated called “Pro Football Now.” It features three people who know football extremely well (Nate Burleson, Maggie Gray, and Andrew Perloff) and it also features me. I am there, I think, to make stupid jokes while wearing a stupid suit and making stupid analogies to baseball. I think I’m there to lower the curve.
Anyway, last week, I did a video making fun of the Jaguars and the city of Jacksonville. It was the sort of cheap-shot video I ordinarily criticize people for making, and my only excuse is that I was looking for an excuse to show off my Christmas tree.
The video ended up infuriating Lenny Curry, the mayor of Jacksonville, who responded on Twitter.
I am not sure what pounding sand means, but out of deference to the mayor of Jacksonville, as soon as I learn, I promise that I will do it.
Texans at Titans. You know it has been kind of a dull NFL season when “you know, it might be kind of fun if the Titans make the playoffs” was an actual thought that entered my brain at some point.
Patriots at Dolphins. Never forget.
Bears at Vikings. Hey, did you guys see Rogue One? I am guessing that you saw Rogue One. I do a weekly podcast for the New Republic with my old pal Tim Grierson —you guys remember that we used to review movies for Deadspin, right? Or was that wiped?—and we dug into it. I hated it, Grierson thought it was “magnificent,” and I think he’s a lunatic. Find me one awesome moment in that isn’t solely connected to our nostalgia for the previous films. The only interesting character is a robot. And hey, bully for Cool Chappie.
Bills at Jets. By the way, our sound is usually a lot better than that, but we taped it from the same room rather than in the sterile environment of our home offices. I love that podcast technology has progressed enough that taping a show in which the particulars are 2,000 miles away from each other provides better sound quality than taping a podcast in which the particulars are sitting right next to one another.
Cowboys at Eagles. I’ve sort of been rooting for the Cowboys all season? And kind of think it would be fun if they made the Super Bowl? I accept your scorn.
By the way, R.I.P. Carrie Fisher. She ruled. Here is my yearly reminder that every year is the worst year ever; we’ll be saying the same thing about 2017 that we were about 2016. Also: I feel it is either a rare moment of internet decorum or (more likely) a failure of the institutional Web that no one has done a “2016 Deaths, Ranked” blog post. Should I just do one? I totally shouldn’t. But I’m gonna do one:
2016 Deaths, Ranked by Ultimate Cultural Import
1. Muhammad Ali
3. Elie Wiesel
4. Fidel Castro
5. David Bowie
6. Leonard Cohen
7. Shimon Peres
8. Carrie Fisher
9. John Glenn
10. George Michael
11. Harper Lee
12. Phife Dawg
13. Merle Haggard
14. Pat Summitt
15. Antonin Scalia
16. Debbie Reynolds
17. Edward Albee
18. Bill Cunningham
19. Nancy Reagan
20. Garry Shandling
21. Gordie Howe
22. Arnold Palmer
23. Gene Wilder
24. Alan Rickman
25. Dave Mirra
26. Tom Hayden
27. Gwen Ifill
28. Glenn Frey
29. Garry Marshall
30. Natalie Cole
31. Morley Safer
32. Janet Reno
33. Patty Duke
34. Florence Henderson
35. George Kennedy
36. Ken Howard
37. Kenny Baker
38. John McLaughlin
39. Zsa Zsa Gabor
40. Miss Cleo
41. Phyllis Schlafly
3,492. The American Ideal
Browns at Steelers. I knew about the Pittsburgh Steelers before I knew about the band “Steeler,” which featured, briefly, guitar wunderkind Yngwie Malmsteen. But the difference of awareness, or dedication, between the Steelers and Steeler was close than I’d like to admit.
The lead singer of Steeler was Ron Keel, who later headed up the band Keel, which was a favorite of Gene Simmons back when Gene Simmons could be a king maker. According to Wikipedia, Ron Keel is now “the midday host on classic rock station KBAD-FM in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and heads up the Badlands House Band, at Badlands Pawn, Gold, and Jewelry.” This is pretty much what I assume all former lead singers of hair metals bands end up doing with their lives. Do all pawn shops have house bands now?
Saints at Falcons. In an emergency, I had to go to a mall the day on Christmas Eve and when I came back I saw this tweet and suddenly the whole world made sense.
Cardinals at Rams. Man oh man what a shitshow my Buzzsaw That Is The Arizona Cardinals turned out to be this year. Most of my fellow Buzzsaw fans agree that this, in fact, has been the worst season out of all the losing seasons. You’d rather go 4-12 with Max Hall or Stoney Case than go 6-8-1 with a massively talented team that can’t ever get its shit together. The Cardinals boomlet appears to be over. What a sad little boomlet.
Raiders at Broncos. Okay, one more SI video. You don’t have to sit through the whole thing—it’s basically just another excuse to scream at Stan Kroenke for a little while—but do note my suit.