Newsletter 90: The Perpetual War Between the Olds and the Youngs

I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one is from January 2018, about yet another fight between a young person and an old person, each of them absolutely convinced the other will never, ever get it. We’re all always wrong, about everything.

This week, Katie Way, a writer at the site sent a nasty, angry letter to television commentator Ashley Banfield after Banfield criticized on air a much-discussed story Way wrote about a woman who had a date with comedian Aziz Ansari that may or may not have veered into the category of “sexual misconduct.” I feel unqualified to have any sort of opinion on Way’s piece, or Banfield’s reaction to it: One of the many offshoots from this particular moment in our history is an opportunity for people like me, 42-year-old white males, to listen to voices we hadn’t had the opportunity to hear before and maybe try and learn, and I feel an obligation, thus, to sort of just shut up and listen. I am fascinated by the tone of Way’s note to Banfield, though. And this I feel a little bit more qualified to comment on.

Way is 22 years old, and just typing that independent clause made me tired. Her email to Banfield features personal invective, lack of situational self-awareness, total confidence in her own righteousness and obnoxious, mostly unearned braggadocio. It is exactly the sort of email you read and say, “Yep, the person who wrote that email is 22.” Here’s a highlight:

I hope the ~500 RTs on the single news write-up made that burgundy lipstick bad highlights second-wave feminist has-been feel really relevant for a little while. She DISGUSTS me … I will remember this for the rest of my career — I’m 22 and so far, not too shabby! And I will laugh the day you fold.

There is zero chance that Way doesn’t regret that email someday, not because it’ll necessarily hurt her career — from my experience, alas, Way’s brashness usually does people less harm than good — but because someday she’s not going to be 22. She’s going to be 50 like Ashleigh Banfield, and she’s going to look at 22-year-olds and she’s going to hate them. This is the way it works. Sure, youth is wasted on the young. But when you are older, you are self-aware enough to know you were are stupid but still incapable of not being stupid, which … well, I’m not sure that’s any better. Banfield’s televised lecture was a scold of the young, a I-know-better-than-you fingerwag, and maybe she was right and maybe she was wrong, but the generation gap was clearly a primary factor in it. Way’s email was over-the-top and will be embarrassing to her forever. But it came from a place of passion that Banfield — and I, and the rest of us olds — can’t duplicate anymore. I can’t help but think that’s part of the backlash Way is receiving too, outside of the meanness of her note. We’re all clicking our tongues, tsk tsk. We would never make a mistake like that; you’re too young to know better. But we were just as stupid then and aren’t much smarter now.

As longtime readers know, I have some experience in this regard. When I was 24 years old, I wrote a scathing piece about Roger Ebert, my hero and mentor, for my old Website Ironminds. The piece’s overall point was that Ebert was spending more time on television than writing — an issue for writers to this day — which isn’t a particularly exciting one but still one with at least a little bit of merit. But when I was 24, I was convinced that everyone older than me (and more successful than me, which was everybody) was wrong and I was right and only I and my friends understood. So I went after Ebert in a way that was clumsy and scattershot and mean and screamed LOOK AT ME. It was thoughtless and dashed-off and exactly the sort of thing that, if I felt the need to type out at all, should have stayed in the Drafts folder. But I published it, because hey, when you’re 24 (or 22), why have any thought at all that isn’t broadcast to the world that THIS IS ME.

My Roger Ebert Piece for Deadspin in 2010 details this whole thing, but it is worth noting that after I was that insulting to Ebert — and I said I was “sick of his fat, fucking face” — this was his response:

Will —

I have always tried to help you, and you know that. I am not sure what you were trying to do with your piece — if you object to me being on television, there is a dial to the right that will take care of that problem for you — what issues you might be dealing with, but I am certain you will grow to regret writing it someday. If you were trying to make a point, I fear you are not in control of your instrument. I wonder if you feel shitty this morning, now that that piece is out there. I know that I do.


I didn’t regret it someday: I regretted it immediately. But it wasn’t until 2010, when I was a decade older, when I wrote that big piece for Deadspin, that I fully reckoned with just how stupid I was back then. Ebert himself even responded to it on Twitter, as kindly and maturely as he always was.

I don’t know if Way will ever feel exactly about her email to Banfield the way I felt about my piece about Ebert: After all, Ebert was my hero, and my friend, and Banfield, to Way, is just some old person yelling on television. But I suspect she’ll regret how she went after Banfield so personally, with such specifics about her age, and I suspect she’ll regret the brashness of that “not too shabby!” because the world is long and hard and will bring you more ups and downs than you could ever be ready for. But Banfield could have used some of Ebert’s grace too, in understanding that she, too, was 22 once, and thought she was smarter and hungrier than everyone else, that she had many more mistakes left to make. Young people are stupid. Old people are stupid. We’re all just flailing around, trying to figure out any of this in any way that we can, until we someday die. We’re all just dumb people who are scared and nervous and hopeful and anxious and all of it, and that’s what we have to remember. When I was 22, I thought I was a moron when I was 12. When I was 32, I thought I was a moron when I was 22. Now that I’m 42, I think I was a moron at 32. I will feel the same in a decade. We’re all morons, all the time. But we’re also all just trying to do our best. I have always been amazed by Ebert’s ability to understand that and empathize with everyone, even young punks calling him names. It’s a lesson for all of us, for Way, for Banfield, for you, for me. After all, we only get to do this once.

Also, seriously, I miss Ebert every day. Sure could use him in the year 2019.

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Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of five books, including “How Lucky,” in bookstores now.