I never really got into David Sedaris. As a humorist and satirist, his material fell flat. My ex-wife adored him, but I preferred the less-dry work of Patrick McManus and Dave Barry. Maybe I felt talked down to, or I saw a streak of cruelty not very well hidden in Sedaris’s work. Whatever the reason, I never connected with it. Maybe that’s why his current rightward streak doesn’t come as much of a surprise.
The latest example comes from The Free Press, a rightwing blog edited by Bari Weiss, the former NYT opinion columnist and staunch free speech advocate for everyone who agrees with her. It’s essentially Highlights for Conservative Men. “Punching Down” is a “humorous” piece that’s also a nearly verbatim conversation Sedaris had with Bill Maher earlier this year. In it, he bemoans the evolving rules for comedy that keep certain jokes (racist/sexist/homophobic/etc.) off-limits for certain performers (rich white guys).
There’s something sad about a man who endured homophobic slurs as a child wishing today’s kids were okay with the same treatment. Fortunately, Sedaris doesn’t linger too long on the woes of Guys Like Him before moving on to his real complaint: parents don’t beat their kids enough.
That last paragraph makes me hope he’s joking. That he’s writing for The Free Press and subtly insulting his pro-child abuse audience in a Kaufmanesque performance. If so, it falls flatter than the top of Ben Shapiro’s head. Sedaris has written many times about his father’s abusive tendencies and how his mother - despite his obvious love for her - let it happen. One sister committed suicide in 2013 after a lifelong battle with depression I doubt was helped by their father’s abuse. I’m struggling to understand how the world was a better place when parents communicated with their children via physical assault. If it is satire, it’s much too subtle for its approving audience. The comment section is one big slow clap from men who will never be allowed to babysit their grandchildren.
Most of Sedaris’s complaints are actually about the parents, who in his view let children run roughshod over the quiet, childfree existence he’s cultivated. To some degree, that’s valid. Letting your kids charge through a crowded restaurant without a care for the staff or other diners is aggressively impolite. On the other hand, the parents allowing such rude behavior were themselves raised by the child-beaters, or perhaps a generation removed, so clearly it didn’t work. That’s not even addressing the fact that the Venn diagram of people who think it’s okay to hit your kids and who also think it’s okay to invade the Capitol building is just a circle.
What is it about human nature that makes so many people want to see our kids suffer in the same ways we did? See them raised exactly like we were, despite the obvious flaws in the strategy? I might not have responded so strongly to this had I not listened to my relatives make the same complaints yesterday. “Why don’t you have a job?” they asked my 12-year-old, only half in jest. The reality that she’s busy up to 14 hours a day, 6 days a week with school and dance had little impact. And then came the inevitable complaints about student phones. Complaints David shares.
If our schools are a mess, it’s in large part due to these parents who think their kids are special, who get mad if you contradict their brilliance, if you give them a bad grade or, God forbid, try to take their phones away.
Why does every 12-and-up child have a phone, David? Maybe so they can let their parents know plans have changed without bothering a school administrator. Maybe so a parent can let their student know they’re running 10 minutes late. Or maybe, since we live in the United States where pro-child abuse adults ensure every unstable adult who wants an AR-15 gets one, so they can text their parents goodbye before they’re ripped to shreds in math class.
The 60-and-up crowd love to critique modern parents the same way their own parents criticized them, so perhaps it’s no surprise that Sedaris would take issue with the same social dynamics as his peers. But I don’t remember him being so reactionary, like when he came out as “straight” last year because he didn’t like how someone else defined “queer.” Maybe I’m the one who’s changed, in the 15 years since I last read Sedaris’s work. Probably. I know I’m more tolerant of little kids who break down in public since I had my own children, and that I welcome parenting critiques from the deliberately childless like I would a case of the clap. I’m allowed to say some kids are too soft, spoiled, and selfish because I’m raising a couple. Sedaris has the same experience with children as I do orangutans; from a distance, and behind glass.