James At It Again

As many of you know, I get a lot of crap about the fact that I’m happy to note that Ted Rall is my friend and that I will on occasion note he’s roiled the masses with his typically strident leftyness. What you probably don’t know is that I get an equal (and somewhat opposite) amount of crap from people asking me why I like James Lileks, who I have also been fortunate to count among my friends. These questions about my friendship and admiration for Lileks have been piling up in particular after last Friday’s Bleat screed, in which James took a bludgeon to Iraqi blogger Salam Pax and actually wrote the words “fuck you,” which is the Lileksian equivalent of nuclear war.

Some of you may be shocked to learn that James earns, at least among my correspondents, an equal amount of disdain as Ted. Don’t be. As much as people on the right writhe at the strident middle finger that is Ted’s writing and drawing, people on the left are agog at what they see as Lileks’ softshoe, homey delivery of a right-wing agenda, which I assume they see as something like slipping poisoned-dipped needles into toasty warm marshmallows. One correspondent recently described James as a poster boy for comfortable fascism, which I thought was a bit much. The point is, in my experience James is just as much a lightning rod, merely in a different way. Believe it.

I was planning to note my own interpretation of Lileks’ screed, but I see James has offered a fuller explanation today of his thought processes, and not entirely surprisingly, it’s rather close to what I suspected he might be thinking, so I commend it to you instead. As I’ve said of Ted before, James is a big boy and he doesn’t need me to defend what he writes; in addition, as far as politics goes, frequently James and I are not eye-to-eye and therefore (and again, like Ted) I won’t defend him on that point either. James is who he is; you’re not required to like him.

I like James for a number of reasons. I’ve admired his writing style for well over a decade now — when I was working at the Fresno Bee newspaper I would crawl the wires looking for interesting things to read and I always knew that when I came across his byline (for his Newhouse column) I would have fun reading it even if I didn’t agree with it. When I started a humor area at America Online a number of years ago, I specifically sought James out and begged him to write me columns, offering him that absolute highest amount of money I could offer. I was delighted when he accepted; he was only one of two people I was absolutely certain would provide me with top-drawer material without worry (The other, I should note, was Ted Rall. So yes, there is some irony for you — my friendships with both these guys started at the same time and for the same reason. Make of that what you will).

I’ve also frequently credited James’ Web site as the inspiration for this Web site; the Whatever was originally modeled on James’ Bleats. Indeed, in a number of ways our lives have interesting parallels. He’s a short, balding newspaper columnist who lives in the Midwest with a fabulous wife and super kid, who is also a notable online presence and who has books that got their start from the site; I’m a short, balding former newspaper (and current magazine) columnist who lives in the Midwest with a fabulous wife and a super kid, who is also a notable online presence and who has books that got their start from the site. There are a lot of perpendiculars in our lives as well, of course. Be that as it may, I admire James’ professional output and personal style and I feel fortunate to have known him.

I’ll cheerfully note here that I don’t imagine either James or Ted would enjoy being in each others’ company, but I have a lot of friends who I would not mix short of my wedding or my funeral, so that’s perfectly all right. I’m not one of those people who expects all the people I like to like each other, or even to like that I like the other. Likewise, in a larger sense, I’m not bound to explain or justify my friendships to a larger world of acquaintances, correspondents or total strangers. In the quarters of the online world defined by the righty-libertarian-stuffy axes, my friendship with Ted puts me in bad odor. In the quarters defined by the lefty-overempathetic-humorless axes, my appreciation for James has the whiff of suspicion. I guess no matter what I just plain stink.

Whatever. I plan to go on admiring James’ style and his missives from Jasperwood and the surrounding environs. I’m aware occasionally he’ll bleat out something that exasperates people and makes them e-mail me, pointing it out as further proof of his genial consumer-oriented evilosity. They are of course perfectly within their rights to think that. But I know James a little bit. I’ll continue to feel free to think otherwise.