What a guy who wouldn’t help his kid open a can says about the Culture War
I met John Roderick exactly once. Almost a decade ago, we were in a photo shoot together because our bands were playing the same local festival and we both wound up on the cover of a now-defunct Seattle arts magazine. I had never heard of his band The Long Winters, and I think that fact surprised Roderick, who seemed very used to people knowing who he is. Throughout the photo shoot, he was loud, boisterous, and occasionally funny, although nowhere near as funny as he seemed to think he was.
Roderick’s overall vibe was one that I encountered often in the small and close-knit Seattle art community, especially in those days. Everything ran on cachet, and there existed at this time a cadre of older Gen Xers who seemed to own the place. (Some of them literally owned the place, and still do.) These were guys who had been there when Seattle had its MTV moment and lived to tell about it. Guys who had bought single family homes when they cost less than a quarter of a million dollars. Guys who bought bars and their friends who played music in them. At some point in the early 2000s, the preferred musical idiom of this generation became indie guitar rock with whimsical, ironic lyrics foreclosing any hint of vulnerability. Their dominant sense of humor was bristly and irreverent, reflected in the smirking voice of The Stranger alt-weekly (for which I would later freelance) and its then-competitor Seattle Weekly. In many ways, John Roderick, his music, and his subsequent podcasting career (as well as his 2015 City Council bid) embody the spirit of a certain era—one that strikes me as dated, but which nonetheless continues to resonate with the swath of the general population that still has Modest Mouse’s “Bukowski” on heavy rotation in their personalities, if no longer on their iPod shuffles.
I hadn’t thought about John Roderick in years when, on Sunday, I opened Twitter and discovered that despite a bombshell story about Trump attempting to manipulate the outcome of the Georgia election, “Bean Dad” was the social media network’s top trending topic. Bean Dad, it turned out, was John Roderick, who had issued a series of tweets about how his 9-year-old daughter had asked for his help opening a can of beans while he was working on a jigsaw puzzle. Instead of showing her how to work the can opener, he made her figure it out on her own, which she finally did after six hours of “grunting and groaning.”
Thousands of Twitter users heaped scorn on #BeanDad, accusing him of teaching his child that asking for help is futile at best, and abusing her by denying her food at worst. Many who know Roderick came to his defense, including his podcast co-host Ken Jennings, who tweeted, “If this reassures anyone, I personally know John to be (a) a loving and attentive dad who (b) tells heightened-for-effect stories about his own irascibility on like ten podcasts a week. This site is so dumb.”
To be sure: Roderick’s story is almost certainly a heightened-for-effect story about his own irascibility. It’s also a demonstration of the gap between what he personally finds funny (i.e. publicly mocking a child’s inferior sense of “spatial orientation, process visualization, and order of operation”) and how strangers on the internet react to his sense of humor in the absence of context. More troubling than the original story was a number of older tweets unearthed by the unamused—tweets in which Roderick uses an array of slurs to joke about rape, homosexuality, disabled people, and Jews.
The reaction to these tweets was swift. Many condemned Roderick as a “Nazi,” and the podcast My Brother, My Brother, and Me announced that they were dropping their theme song, which had been written by Roderick. Roderick then hid his Twitter account and set his Instagram to private. Many people who know him personally continued to defend him, arguing that he was joking in an “ironic” style that was once ubiquitous (via shows like South Park and The Colbert Report) but has since fallen extremely out of fashion.
While I think it’s safe to say that Roderick is almost certainly not a Nazi—as has been pointed out, basically all of his many, many jokes about Jews are evidently meant to be tongue-in-cheek, if not successfully so—it’s also easy to understand why a significant percentage of the internet finds his old tweets so disconcerting. (These tweets bring to mind the time Stephen Colbert received pushback for unfunny jokes in which he adopted a racist persona in order to ridicule racism—just because it’s a joke in your mind doesn’t necessarily mean that joke is going to land, let alone be appreciated by those who are the butt of it.)
Over the past day, the discourse around the Bean Dad kerfuffle has had me thinking about the larger cultural disconnect it reveals between members of the same community. This is the chasm between between those who have decided that joking about “funny rape” or ironically calling someone a “fag” actually isn’t very original or creative (and honestly never was), and those who feel alienated by the prospect of living in a world where their jokes about Jews (delivered with or without affecting a Cartman voice) are no longer met with unconditional approval. It is the difference between thinking Jerry Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais, and Dave Chappelle sound out of touch (and perhaps even a bit pathetic) when they lambast “cancel culture” and nodding vigorously in agreement.
As someone who grew up during the 90s watching Comedy Central run South Park, PCU and The Man Show on a seemingly infinite loop, I think at least part of this division is generational. What I mean is, I generally find it harder to convince people my age and older that trying to be nice to other people is cooler than trying to be an edgelord, and I think a significant part of that has to do with the media we were fed growing up. Likewise, I generally find that people younger than me — the Millennial and Gen Z “snowflakes”—are more likely to have a baseline ethic of solidarity and kindness that makes intentionally ableist, homophobic, and otherwise aggressively ‘othering’ language just seem less funny from the outset.
As I have written previously, I think part of this shift has to do with growing up in the panopticon of the internet where all kinds of people (not just your immediate peers) can see what you’re doing and tell you if they think you should knock it off. But I also think this division, insofar as it is generational, might also have an economic component. Gen Xers were known for being “latchkey kids,” making them, according to a 2004 study, “one of the least parented, least nurtured generations in U.S. history.” In his book Millennials and the Moments That Made Us, fellow Seattleite Shaun Scott traces the neoliberal economic transformations that took hold during the Reagan years, laying the groundwork for the activist sensibility that has risen to prominence in the past decade. Millennials would come of age during the largest financial crisis since the Great Depression; Gen Z is coming of age during a global pandemic. Younger people have learned the hard way that all the capitalist indoctrination in the world won’t save them, but mutual aid and compassion might. And so at its baseline level, the contemporary cultural shift toward demanding more respect, kindness, and empathy from each other may be about ensuring our mutual survival as much as anything.
At its baseline level, the cultural shift toward demanding more respect, kindness, and empathy from each other may be about ensuring mutual survival as much as anything.
What telling a 9-year-old that she won’t eat until she can figure out how to use a manual can opener (without ever having seen one used before) and telling people they need to grow a thicker skin about mean-spirited, unfunny “jokes” have in common is that both narratives resonate with a mythology of “rugged individualism.” Roderick called the bean scenario a “teaching moment”; however as multiple educators pointed out, Roderick’s pedagogical strategy is not necessarily the most effective way to actually teach a skill. Rather his performance—aside from probably being mostly intended as an amusing story about himself—seemed to prioritize the teaching of self-reliance over the imparting of technical mastery. On one level, this prioritization seems intuitive. On closer examination, the level on which it seems intuitive is precisely the level on which we have internalized the imperative to become more competitive, self-reinforcing agents of an everyone-for-themselves capitalist order.
Likewise, “ironic” racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia all attempt to put an ~ edgy veneer ~ on the act of upholding the hierarchies that make a hyper-competitive capitalist ethic seem inevitable. Even when it’s “just a joke,” it’s a joke that demands the submission of marginalized persons to a heteropatriarchal, white supremacist, ableist notion of what constitutes humor. Whether or not it’s delivered with a wink, the end result is the strengthening of a cutthroat (and inherently violent) status quo. And as the Trump years have made painfully clear, the blurry line between “real” and “ironic” slurs often provides a mask of plausible deniability for actual fascist inclinations. This point alone helps explain why a certain degree of alarm over Roderick’s tweets is perfectly reasonable.
From what I’ve seen of the Bean Dad debacle, it would seem that John Roderick is very much a product of his generation. The dull façade of hipster irony that Gen Xers were encouraged to hide all their emotional vulnerability behind creates an obstacle to empathy that makes it difficult to fully feel the weight and implications of our mutual dependency. I know because as an Xennial, I grew up at the tail end of this generation, and while I tend to identify more strongly with the cultural experiences of my Millennial peers, I do remember feeling the pressure, especially in my young adulthood, to internalize the hipster posturing so prominent among the cultural gatekeepers who preceded me. But I have also learned that the more I am able to break through it, to feel that mutual dependency in which our fates are self-evidently intertwined, the less funny I find “edgy” humor at someone else’s expense. What analyses of the so-called “culture war” often miss is the extent to which hipster irony resonates with and perpetuates an ethic of capitalist realism by forestalling the possibility of vulnerability and interconnectedness. That young people have all but discarded this detached, ironic vibe is a beautiful sign of resiliency that gives me hope for the future.
As far as the ethics of “cancelling” John Roderick for his old tweets, I don’t think anyone owes him anything—especially not anyone who experiences racism, misogyny, homophobia, ableism, or anti-semitism firsthand. That said, I also think we would do well as a culture, generally speaking, to train ourselves to think in terms of restorative, rather than retributive justice, leaving open the possibility of redemption for those who are able to acknowledge, apologize for, and sincerely learn from their past wrongs. I say this not in the interest of accommodating bad behavior, but because I would love to see us normalize accountability, personal growth, and transformation. If this is something Roderick is feeling, then a thoughtful statement acknowledging the troubling content of his old tweets (i.e. not gaslighting those who rightly find the content distressing) and disowning racism, misogyny, anti-semitism, homophobia, rape, and ableism could potentially go a long way, not only toward beginning to climb out of the hole he’s dug for himself, but also in setting an example of how to gracefully recover from internet infamy.
Admitting that we’ve been wrong can be deeply embarrassing, and this embarrassment can cause us to dig in our heels and make things even worse for ourselves and others. But when it comes to learning to be a vulnerable, empathetic human being, the reward is actually far greater than the risk. For this reason, I truly hope John Roderick will see this situation not as an excuse to more deeply entrench his prickly persona, but as a “teaching moment” of his very own.