Are You in a Quasi-Cult?

By Preet Bharara

Dear Reader,

I spent some time watching the Emmy awards on TV last Sunday night. I don’t always watch award shows, and I’m rarely rooting for any particular contenders because I’m unfamiliar with too many of the actors and artists. This time, though, I was rooting a little bit. I had seen, and loved, The Queen’s Gambit and Ted Lasso, both up for a host of Emmys. The first was a limited series that follows the progress of a precocious female chess champion. I loved the arc of the plot; I loved the acting; I loved the way it was shot.

Ted Lasso, based on a comedy sketch that actor Jason Sudeikis developed for NBC Sports, portrays an intentionally endearing American football coach who somehow winds up as coach of a hapless big league UK football team (read, soccer). Hijinks ensue. The tone is uplifting, if sometimes corny. I find it hilarious and surprising, and it makes me cheer. I haven’t had occasion to do much of that lately. Life feels like too much vodka and not enough tonic. Ted Lasso is a tonic for these times. Now, you may not agree and may not have seen the show and won’t because you don’t have AppleTV+, and that’s both fine and actually entwined with the point I’m about to make.

Both series have been mini television sensations. Ted Lasso, especially, has developed a quasi-cultish following. I suppose I am a member of that quasi-cult. I have tweeted exuberantly about the program, and the showrunner kindly sent me a box of Ted Lasso swag.

But therein lies the problem. Cults are not good things. Now, you would be forgiven if your reaction to that statement is: “Pop culture quasi-cults are not cults at all, you overthinking scold. The rants by superfans of Ted Lasso – or of Taylor Swift or Tom Brady, for that matter – are a harmless and welcome distraction from the doomsday debates about the state of our democracy and the survival of our planet. Lighten up, Frances.” (Note my nod to the cult of Stripes fans.) This is largely fair and true, but I am still bugged by something. So I just have a limited point and a small resolution to make.

The observation is this: there is sometimes a tendency for people with strong preferences about a show or a musician or even a cuisine not merely to state their subjective preference, but to cast the quality of that preference as an objective and unobjectionable truth. As in, the Beatles are the best band who ever lived and if you think otherwise, you’re crazy, stupid, and possibly deaf. Newsflash: there are people who hate the Beatles; who don’t care for Gone with the Wind; who switched off the Sopranos. The most popular paragons of music and film and art have substantial numbers of good faith detractors. And that’s okay. But there are folks who will make judgments about other people’s intelligence, taste, sophistication, empathy, maturity, and more – based on whether they like this or that writer or film.

Some people frankly have an irritating self-regard for their own tastes and an obnoxious disregard for the tastes of others. This week’s note is inspired in part by a tweet posted after the Emmys by a New York Times reporter: “[Y]ou can’t just tell a ted lasso fan you’re uninterested and the conversation moves on. you say it’s not for me and they’re legally bound to evangelize or they won’t see heaven.”

Point taken. So my resolution is this: If a thing I love is not your cup of tea, that’s Kool and the Gang (cult of Pulp Fiction). I don’t need to evangelize. And if a thing I find insufferable brings you joy, God bless.

I don’t need you to love everything I love, but I also don’t need you to talk me out of what I love. There is the phenomenon of reverse-evangelism also.

That dynamic played out earlier this year in the saga of my feast of Indian food with curmudgeon Tom Nichols. You will recall that Nichols notoriously dumped on the cuisine of the country of my birth, and was roundly dunked on for it. But what was his cardinal sin? It was not that he expressed his personal and subjective preference. He said, “Indian food is terrible and we pretend it isn’t.” He declared his personal taste must be universal. He announced that he found a certain cuisine terrible and if you did not find it so, you were a liar, which was news to well over a billion people. You can hold an opinion or a preference that doesn’t by its nature invalidate the preferences of others. It’s actually not that hard.

Everyone who knows me knows my love of Bruce Springsteen. I saw his live Broadway show six times, including on closing night. I’m in the quasi-cult of Bruce, you could say. Except I’m not. I don’t evangelize, even within my own family. Over the summer, I had a long drive with my daughter, at the outset of which she declared that I could play any music I wanted, except for Bruce Springsteen. My daughter, you see, prefers Bach over Bruce, which among other things demonstrates which parent has the greater influence. And that’s okay. She, by the way, doesn’t disdain my taste; it’s just not her cup of tea.

The last night of Springsteen on Broadway was emotional. As he did every night, Bruce talked and sang about his mother, his father, his friends, and his music. He told us about his buddies who were killed in Vietnam, perhaps in his place; the depth of loss he felt after Clarence Clemons passed; the difficulty of his aging mother’s Alzheimer’s. The theater managed to feel heavy and buoyant at the same time. Especially for this, his last performance. I’ve often quoted Jon Stewart’s comment on Bruce. “Do you like joy?” he asked once. “If you like joy, go see Springsteen.”

After I left the St. James Theater that night, I posted my thoughts about the final show on social media. Later I saw some folks – a small minority, to be sure – felt the need to bash Bruce, calling him overrated and such, which are not really good faith statements of personal preference but a gratuitous criticism of my preference. And so I tweeted, “One thing that is great to do is block anyone who pisses on your joy.” Don’t let anyone piss on your joy. Feel free to make that your mantra too.

My best,

Preet

In Body Image

Listen to Stay Tuned, “An Optimist’s Eye,” where Preet interviews Bina Venkataraman, the editorial page editor of The Boston Globe and former senior climate advisor in the Obama administration. And don’t miss the bonus for Insiders, where Preet asks Bina a series of lightning round questions.

Listen to Up Against The Mob, “Deep Cover.” Elie speaks with Joaquin “Big Jack” Garcia, a legendary former FBI undercover agent who infiltrated the Gambino crime family deeper than anyone else in history. Don’t miss the bonus for Insiders, where Elie and former Third Degree co-host Safeena Mecklai go behind the scenes of the episode.

Listen to Now & Then, “New York, New York,” where Heather and Joanne discuss the 20th anniversary of September 11th, 2001 attacks and the larger role of New York over the course of American history. Don’t miss the “Backstage” segment for Insiders, where Heather and Joanne reflect on their personal relationships with New York City.

Listen to Note From Joyce, “The Evil Genius of the Texas Anti-Abortion Law.”

Listen to CAFE Insider, “Durham, Theranos & Abortion.” Preet and Joyce discuss the second indictment stemming from special counsel John Durham’s investigation into the origins of the FBI’s Russia probe, and they also break down the trial of Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced founder of biotech company Theranos.

FOLLOW:

If you’re a Ted Lasso fan, the show’s Twitter page is a must-follow. Check it out @TedLasso.

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That’s it for this week. We hope you’re enjoying CAFE Insider. Reply to this email or write to us at letters@cafe.com with your thoughts, suggestions, and questions.

Edited by Tamara Sepper

The CAFE Team:

Tamara Sepper, Adam Waller, Sam Ozer-Staton, Jake Kaplan, David Kurlander, Noa Azulai, David Tatasciore, Matthew Billy, Nat Weiner, and Namita Shah.