Children in autumn leaves aiming toy guns, Westpoint, NY, 1986. (Photo: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

David Sedaris: Punching Down

A Thanksgiving treat from the most delightful man on planet Earth.

It’s Thanksgiving, which for the lucky among us means eating too much turkey and pumpkin pie. For others, it means getting into arguments with your Gen Z cousin who, in a fit of rage, calls you a settler colonialist and storms out of the dining room. Happy holidays!

But whatever your Thanksgiving brings, we here at The Free Press wanted to bring you a bonbon from one of the most delightful writers we know: David Sedaris. 

Sedaris is a humorist and author of many best-selling books: Calypso, Theft by Finding, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Naked, Holidays on Ice, Barrel Fever and, most recently, Happy-Go-Lucky, which I spoke to him about on Honestly last December. It’s one of my favorite episodes.

Today, we’re thrilled to bring you a new essay from David titled “Punching Down.” You can listen to David read it while you baste the turkey, or read it yourself while you hide from your family in the next room. —BW

When I first moved to New York in 1990, I knew a total of five people. They all had lives of their own—I couldn’t just plop myself down and demand their attention—and so I signed up for a once a week class taught at the West Side YMCA, hoping I could make a friend or two there. “Writing Funny,” the course was called, and it was taught by a British woman named Freda Garmaise who was maybe in her mid-sixties at the time, and had published several books. 

“What are the rules of comedy writing?” she asked at the start of our first session. 

I put my hand up. “You should never make fun of anyone who has less power than you.” 

Freda looked at me the way I deserved to be looked at, with a combination of disgust and pity. “Where on earth did you get that idea?” she asked. 

I groped for an answer. “The Village Voice, maybe?” 

“No, no, no,” she said. “The only rule of comedy anything is that you always should be as tasteless as possible.” 

I think about that moment a lot, especially now when punching down, the phrase, has become ubiquitous—the worst crime a comic or humor writer can commit, at least according to the people who now decide such things, meaning people on Twitter who determine, based, I suppose, on your photo and a wild guess at your net worth, who you are and are not allowed to make jokes about. 

Words, we are now regularly reminded, are violence. So too is silence. I read not long ago that capitalism is violence, as is misgendering someone. Ignoring someone is violence, but so too is paying them attention. A friend recently called on one of her assistants to deliver a statistic during a business meeting and was later charged with “casual violence.” Apparently Deborah needed to give advance warning that she was going to ask a question, one that might possibly put her employee—someone who was well paid to know stuff and be able to spew it forth—on the spot.

Who are these hothouse flowers, all so easily and consistently wounded? People whose parents never hit them, that’s who. People who don’t know what real pain is, but still want to throw the word around. When I was a child, a slap across the face was too minor to qualify as “casual violence.” It was simply what you got for talking back or holding everyone up. It never hurt all that much; what stung was the swiftness of it, the surprise. Who knew my mother could move so fast, like someone belted in the martial arts. I don’t feel like it traumatized me to be knocked around a little. Blood was rarely drawn. No limbs were broken. Could my parents have made their point without resorting to violence? Probably, but it would have taken more time, and with six kids to dress and get out the door that was a precious commodity. I see parents now who worry they’re being abusive if they don’t spend at least an hour putting their child to bed. An hour! I said to my sister, Amy, “Do you remember ever once being tucked in? Can you imagine Mom and Dad reading to us, or singing? Can you imagine them kissing us?”

“Ugh,” she said. “Stop!” 

And look at us! We’re fine. We can handle stuff. We never get offended by anything. 

Our parents thought we were okay, at best, and I think that really helped us in the long run. Ask someone now if they have kids, and they’re pretty much guaranteed to use the word amazing, as in “I have an amazing six-year-old daughter.” 

“Amazing because she just discovered a cure for herpes or because she speaks three words of Spanish,” I always want to ask. “I mean, just how low have you set that bar?” 

One of the worst things that’s happened to us as a country is that people are having fewer children—1.8 as opposed to five 50 years ago. Sure, it’s good for the environment—fewer people means less demand for resources. The problem is that single children receive a freakish amount of love and attention. Most graduate at least twelve times before leaving high school. Their every move is recorded and celebrated, and it gives them an outsize sense of their own importance. 

The solution isn’t for every couple to start having five kids again, but maybe for one chosen couple to have five, and the other four couples to go without—either have a full litter you can’t pay that much attention to, or nothing at all. 

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. Had one of my teachers told my mother that I was acting up in class, she’d have said, “Thank you so much for letting me know.” Then she’d have come to wherever I was—in front of the TV, or at the side of the TV making my way to the front of it—and slapped my sister Gretchen so hard her eyes would have crossed. 

“What was that for?” Gretchen would have asked.

“Oops, wrong kid,” my mother would have said. Then she’d have slapped me twice as hard to make up for her mistake. 

I was in Los Angeles not long ago, staying at a hotel in Bel Air. Houses in that neighborhood start at $20 million, so of course there are no sidewalks—you wouldn’t want the wrong people wandering in. So I was on the far edge of a winding street, Porsches and BMWs racing by, certain I was going to die, when I saw a van-size school bus pull up in front of a gated mansion. A mother ushered her child, aged seven or so, through the door as I passed. I walked for another five minutes before turning back, surprised to see that the school bus hadn’t moved in the time I’d been gone. Rather it was where I had left it, the mother still at the door, mewing, over the sound of her crying child, “Well, Atticus, honey, where do you want to sit?” 

So the bus driver and all these kids had to wait until this one woman’s son was happy with his seat? 

I think that if you don’t want to slap or spank your child, that’s fine—your decision. But that other people should be completely allowed to. Not higgledy-piggledy, but in this situation, the driver had every right to yank Atticus into whichever seat was empty and say, “Shut the fuck up. We’re leaving.” 

Children now are like animals who have no natural predators left. Had I arrived at my elementary school with a bleeding head wound, explaining that my father had just thrown me out of his moving car because I was teasing my sister, the teacher would have handed me a Band-Aid, saying, “Well, I hope you learned a lesson from it.” Now, even a scratch on the back of your hand could get your parents locked up for abuse. And children know this! 

In a London park one afternoon I saw a woman glaring into the distance, to where three kids aged seven to nine were breaking branches off a tree. “Hey, you. Boys!” she shouted. “Stop doing that.” 

“You can’t talk to us,” the ringleader shouted back, and he was right, at least legally. According to the law, the woman was bullying them. 

I was in a crowded restaurant not long ago where this four-year-old was running back and forth across the candlelit dining room—the parents charmed—this as servers were carrying heavy trays of hot food. I kept waiting for the manager to say something, but they’re all afraid now of being condemned on Yelp or TikTok. She didn’t seem innately horrible, this girl, but I think we’d all be better off had someone said, “You sit down right now.” In this case, though, it was really the parents who needed to be hit. 

Ditto the couple I saw the next morning at breakfast. They came with two kids, aged maybe four and six, and each of them was watching a different program on an iPad. Neither had headphones on, and the high-pitched voices of the cartoon characters—“Let’s go see what the letter M is up to”—were super disturbing. If this was a sports bar, the sort with billboard-size TVs and loud music all playing at the same time, it might have been different, but it was the dining room of a nice hotel. One that offered room service. 

Do the parents know that this is not their house? I wondered, thinking of a couple I saw on the subway in Yokohama once. Their eighteen-month-old son was with them, and when the boy wanted to look out the window, his mother removed his shoes, and took a towel out of her bag that he could stand on. Just before we reached their station, the woman pulled out a small spray bottle along with a paper napkin and cleaned the kid’s handprints off the glass. So actually, maybe that’s the solution. You have a child or two, and then send them off to be raised in Japan until they’re eighteen or so, and have learned proper manners. When they return and you tell them how absolutely awesome and special they are, they’ll look at you and blink, not understanding, and thus not believing, a word of it.

David Sedaris is the author of many books, most recently Happy-Go-Lucky

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