How To Be Right: The Art of Being Persuasively Correct (2015)

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STUNTS

OR, HOW AN IDIOTIC, ABSURD ACT OF STUPIDITY CAN REVEAL A TRUTH ABOUT LIFE AND OTHER CRAP

I’m no stranger to doing dumb things. In fact, dumb things are some of my best friends. Back in grade school in San Mateo, California, I was suspended for the last two weeks of seventh grade for lighting firecrackers in class. I still have no idea why I did it, but the punishment felt like a reward. They wanted me to stay home, until the next year, when I returned as student body president. It was a win-win, I suppose. I caught up on The Price Is Right and Let’s Make a Deal and drank a lot of my mom’s milk shakes (home was a real prison). I’d kill for that life today.

Fast-forward to similar antics that marred my career. When I got canned as editor of Men’s Health in 2000, I slipped a few lines into the “letter from the editor” of my last issue. The letter was originally about Halloween (it was the October issue), and I added this: “I’ve just been fired from this job—and I never saw it coming.…Dangerous ideas can instill a little fear—and when you scare your boss, you’re gone.” Rodale Press, which owned the mag, stopped the presses halfway through the print run to remove my simple but honest thoughts (not exactly the “Stop the presses!” moment I’d envisioned for my journalism career). It cost them money, and created some ugly press in the “media” media—which they deserved. I’m sure I cost them more than they saved by firing me. That wasn’t my intention, but it does feel sort of just, considering how I’d raised their circulation (along with their blood pressure on more than one occasion).

I’d like to think that from the moment of lighting firecrackers in my St. Gregory’s uniform to tossing that final grenade in a magazine, I’d grown a little (about six inches, tops). Yes, “St. Gregory’s.” There is a career-making psychology dissertation embedded in that, I suspect.

WHAT MAKES A GOOD PRANK

The stunt must convey a message. It can’t simply be something that makes someone look stupid or you look great. Firecrackers are bad, but that editorial grenade…good. If there’s no reason for your mayhem, then it’s simply destructive.

A prank, to prove its worth, must be directed against something that simultaneously has more power than you but is potentially dangerous. Pranking Christians? Please. Try drawing Muhammad, then start bragging.

HOW TO PERSUADE PEOPLE THAT PR LEADERS ARE MORONS

I’ve told this story before (usually drunk) so I’ll keep it short. I was asked to speak at a magazine industry conference about how to create “buzz.” I hated the idea. Buzz comes from great work, wit, and effort; a conference on this would be “un-buzzy.” So I turned it down. Then I hired “little people” from a friend (I think he likes them in a nonplatonic manner) who arrived with clipboards and phones on vibrate.

To quote the New York Times: “As editors from Rolling Stone, Glamour and O: The Oprah Magazine opined on the serious business of buzz creation, the actors began chomping loudly on handfuls of potato chips as their cellphones started ringing furiously. (The actors, of course, loudly took the calls.)”

When the panelists tried to get these little people to pipe down, they accused the panelists of discrimination against little people. That left them anchorless in an ocean of political correctness. In the media, they finally got nailed for what they had been nailing everyone else for: insensitivity. That was my goal: to hang the PC on their own PC petard (also, to investigate what a “petard” is). And in the process, teach them how to create real “buzz.” I was promoted to brand development, which is L.A.-speak for “drinking by the pool, waiting for your dealer.”

HOW TO PERSUADE PEOPLE THAT FASHION LEADERS ARE NAKED EMPERORS

During Men’s Fashion Week in New York, as editor of Stuff, I was told I had front-row seats to a major show on that Thursday. I had no interest in going, for I loathe the pecking order of the fashion world and the fact that Crocs are no longer in style. It’s a grim universe, based on desperate approval from pretentious peers. (Also, I had hockey tickets.)

So when told by my fashion editor that I had to go to this show, I panicked. Then I looked on the floor—where our products manager had left a bearskin rug, complete with the bear head. (I’m not kidding—it was really there. It wasn’t a hallucination.) I scooped it up and put it in a bag. Across the street from the fashion show, I sat at a bar and downed three tequila shots, and perhaps ingested some other things—and then went to the bathroom, where I put on my outfit, which was nothing but the bearskin rug. The head rested in between my cheek and shoulder—the face, the claws, the perfectly fanged teeth all present in their grotesque beauty. I showed up to the event in this garish garb, and immediately had every photographer around me, as I was interviewed by legendary fashion editor André Leon Tally about my look, which he found to be beautiful. I ended up being written up in some big-time rags—in which I claimed that the bear had died for a cause. “His name is Skittles…and he lived and died, for fashion.”

The stunt was silly and impulsive, but it revealed how easy it is to trick even the professionals in an industry based on illusion—who had no idea if my garb was authentic or a joke (it was both: it was a real bear, with real teeth and claws). I left a brief but memorable stain on fashion—and left the event feeling awesome that I had accomplished something out of nothing. I think I got lucky that night. In the bear costume, no less. Or maybe it was with the bear costume. It really didn’t matter at that point.

The point is, it was a stunt with a purpose: to turn the pretensions of this crowd of lefty poseurs on themselves, to highlight their basic fatuousness. To this day I suspect there are fashion editors out there who still don’t realize it was a joke. But that’s okay. Far more people realized after this that those editors are the joke.

HOW TO PERSUADE MUSLIMS THAT GAY PEOPLE NEED LOVE TOO

Note: If you’ve already read about this before, my apologies; please skip to this page.

Back in August 2010, during the “Ground Zero mosque” outrage, I decided to build New York City’s first Islamic-friendly gay bar—right next to the yet-to-be-completed Park51 mosque, which the media had shorthanded to “Ground Zero mosque” because it was mere blocks from the 9/11 graveyard. Per my monologue on Red Eye: “As an American, I believe they have every right to build the mosque. Which is why, in the spirit of outreach…I’m announcing tonight, that I am planning to open the first gay bar that caters not only to the West, but also to Islamic gay men. I hope the mosque owners will be as open to the bar, as I am to the new mosque.”

I later emailed and tweeted the mosque, seeking a response. They tweeted back: “You’re free to open whatever you like. If you won’t consider the sensibilities of Muslims, you’re not going to build dialog.”

After that tweet, Red Eye cohost Bill Schulz suggested we name the gay bar Dialogue.

The stunt took off. Donations were pledged, and it certainly felt like this bar was actually going to happen. Which, to be clear, was not my point. My point, of course, was to expose the developers’ hypocrisy in the realm of tolerance. I told the developers that I respected their right to build the mosque, and in return they should respect my right to build a gay bar. Of course, instead they questioned my sensitivity toward their beliefs. Note the irony: did they consider the sensitivity toward New Yorkers when they decided to build the mosque so close to the site?

Of course, some people called me a bigot, but those people missed the point. Shouldn’t they champion gay rights before they sling accusations of Islamophobia at me? This stunt exposed a humorless, PC left and introduced a little humor to an otherwise shrill affair, populated on both sides by ideologues and hacks. A prank can cut through all that bullshit.

The bar was never opened. To this day the mosque is still under construction. I guess we’ll count it even.