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Vince Passaro is a name that you need to know. He's the literary journalist who has had his finger on the pulse of societal overhaul for over four decades.
A scene from the LA Riots of 1992 after the beating of Rodney King. A police officer asserts himself over protesters - holding them hostage on the ground.
A protester in Minneapolis, Minnesota carries the American flag upside down (a symbolic form of dissidence) after the daylight murder of George Floyd.
Rabble rousing literary journalist Vince Passaro has been navigating an unsteady world through his prose and reviews for four decades. Passaro is a life-long New Yorker. He’s written for American giants from George to Esquire and Harper’s Magazine. He doesn’t take himself too seriously: his Linked-in photo is a mirror selfie washed over with a black and white filter. He looks like if Bukowski lived in a Brooklyn brownstone.
In this interview I wanted to capture what drew me to his writing - the unpolished intellectual-ism, paired with an East Coast cynicism and a talent for getting the writers he criticizes to hate him, and then to love him. Passaro speaks to the buried parts of the personas we drag around - cynical, yes, but also blindly optimistic.
The aptly titled piece “Why Can’t We All Get Along?” in George Magazine by Passaro reviews books that “paint the U.S. as a nation of whining, crying kvetching complainers”.
“Funny, I don’t remember that piece, though I do remember the title, which echoes the words of Rodney King during the LA Riots in 1992, a premonition of outrages to come.” The LA Riots, a result of the beating of Rodney King, and the innocent verdict of the four police officers involved mirror the current righteous anarchy in Minnesota. A result of the daylight murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man accused of writing a faulty check, just trying to buy groceries. The streets burn, and story remains the same.
“Half a decade ago, somewhere between communism’s fall and the arrival of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, there began to be much talk about “culture wars” in the United States. The term has two sections: to recognize cognitive dissonance that entered into our national narrative in the late 1960s, and, less hopefully, to act as a catchall for every political commentator’s pet peeve from immigration laws to reading scores, from liberation movements to more new prisons, from feminism to environmentalism to America-firstism.”
Excerpt from “Why Can’t We All Get Along”, Vince Passaro, George Magazine, September 1996
What does Passaro remember about writing for George? “ What I remember is all about me personally. I was getting paid $2/world by George twenty-five years ago which would be around $3.50 a word now (think about it: $3500 for a thousand-word piece).” Now, Passaro has moved away from being paid per word:“I’m a literary guy, concentrating on my own literary work, posting writing to my website, especially now, since I can’t make a living in magazines anymore.”
For having written for publications that toyed around with the idea of making politicians celebrities and celebrities politicians, Passaro is a non-believer. “Are there really ‘celebrity’ politicians? I don’t think Trump qualifies. He’s beyond celebrity—he moved up from celebrity to charlatan and then, happily, ignorant white Americans and rich cynical ones voted for him. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has a kind of celebrity thing going but not with people who don’t agree with her. Whereas no has to agree with ‘Timothy Challomee’ or whatever his name is. He’s a celebrity regardless of convictions.”
He writes with an unabashed New York honesty. Albeit longwinded at times, Passaro’s writing is something to escape to, be it reviews about any and every New York Times bestseller, mobsters, or “the slippery ideal of American freedom”. Passaro’s gracefully truthful yet brash tone is a rarity, he has a that has voice unchanged over decades, unable to be bought out or manipulated.
His prose is as honest as he is: in conversation, in seemingly trivial email quips, in Twitter debates. Passaro, known by the right people but still unknown by so many is the foolproof voice to read during chaos, and an even better one to laugh with about it all when its over.
“Our nation invades other countries, destroys ancient cultures, puts our political prisoners in black jets to Syria and generally sews the seeds of fifty years more global animosity. We can call it “voluntary tyranny”—a tyranny we all tacitly accept and to which we all contribute.”
From “Voluntary Tyranny, or Brezhev at the Mall: Notes From Wartime on the Willful Abdication of the Liberty We Claim We’re Busy Promoting Elsewhere” by Vince Passaro, 2002.
Through the eyes of someone with a career in journalism spanning four decades, what is different now? “There was corporate media then and there’s corporate media now and they’re easily influenced by publicists and concocted trends. But they were a little more sober then, I think; and there were at the same time serious commentators in places like Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and even Vanity Fair and The New Yorker and these commentators actually mattered, people read them and they influenced the corporate media types at least a little. Now there’s nothing like that.”
When it comes to politics, Passaro and I share a rage at the mainstream Democratic party, and its “vicious plutocracy” as he calls it. Explaining:“The stunning efficiency with which the Democratic leadership assassinated the other candidates and lined them all up for Biden between South Carolina and Super Tuesday [a day in either February of March where multiple states hold their primary elections] and how everyone just went along illustrates what is possible—as does every day of the Trump admin—how you can basically do anything now, call it a blue sky and candy, and get away with it.”
Passaro is not a household name, but he should be. Have a read through the archives on his website here. Given the current state of the nation and beyond, his work makes for a timely read, and if there was every someone who would be willing to answer any and every request for a phone call to talk about it all, it’s Passaro.
The golden rule to cut through the drivel of the masses? “It’s not about attention, it’s about impact. We’ve been neutralized.” Amongst other things, Passaro makes masterpieces out of the mundane, and that is what makes him a master of his own kind.