Rex Huppke has a flair for absurdity. Plenty of journalists speak truth to power, ignorance, and mendacity. But not many of them make me laugh.
Years ago Huppke was sitting in a carrel at Lehigh University studying for a thermodynamics exam and he had a fateful thought. "I hate this," Huppke told himself. "I hate everything about it. I don't know what I'm doing."
Huppke stuck it out and graduated and, like his father and his father before him, became a chemical engineer. He took a job with a consulting firm in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. But aside from some writing he did for a local alt-weekly, the Bethlehem Star, he didn't stop hating the life he'd chosen. His roommate had a word with him: "If you don't get off your ass and do something you'll never figure this out."
So Huppke quit his job, enrolled at the University of Missouri, and got himself a master's in journalism. Then he worked for the Associated Press in Indiana, where his wife, Catherine Cornell, was getting a law degree, and in 2003 the Chicago Tribune hired him as a metro reporter. I'll describe his career in the fanciest possible terms. Along the lines of those scientists in Geneva who smash atoms together in search of the God particle, Huppke batters "news" with ridicule to see what shards of truth spring free. The results have been gratifying. Huppke started in the suburbs, but now he writes one column a week in the Tribune business section and another on page two of the news section.
Facts matter to Huppke, as they do to all reporters, but only Huppke has written their obituary. Last April he announced in the Tribune: "To the shock of most sentient beings, Facts died Wednesday, April 18, after a long battle for relevancy with the 24-hour news cycle, blogs and the Internet." Facts had been born, Huppke said, in ancient Greece, "the brainchild of famed philosopher Aristotle," and had lived a long and honorable life. But after ailing for years, Facts finally succumbed to "injuries suffered last week when Florida Republican Rep. Allen West steadfastly declared that as many as 81 of his fellow members of the U.S. House of Representatives are communists. Facts held on for several days after that assault—brought on without a scrap of evidence or reason—before expiring peacefully at home in a high school physics book. Facts was 2,372."
This column of his became an "Internet sensation," in the words of the American Journalism Review, which rewarded Huppke with a profile. "If someone can come out and say that off the cuff and with nothing grounded in evidence," Huppke told AJR in reference to West, "then I say that pretty well does it for facts."
One way of looking at facts in a world where everybody gets to make up his own is to conclude they no longer exist. But that's a shallow understanding of the situation. The deeper view—which Huppke grasps—is that facts, far from dying out, grow like weeds. The shrewdest demagogues understand that the way to deal with facts isn't to deny them or to make them up but to cherry-pick the ones you want and dish up exactly the conclusion you wanted your facts to support. A lot of Huppke's best work exploits this insight.
Here he is writing in October on Obamacare: "The government shutdown, which conveniently started the same day the Affordable Care Act exchanges opened, was pushed by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. As soon as the health care website started acting hinky, we learned it was created by a subsidiary of CGI Group, a company based in Canada, a godless, ghastly country ravaged by decades of universal health coverage. . . .
"Now the average person might look at this and think, 'Well, too bad we farmed our tech work out to the Canadians, but what's the connection to the government shutdown?'
"Good thing I'm not the average person. The GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN was concocted by TED CRUZ who was born IN CANADA which is where the OBAMACARE WEBSITE COMES FROM. . . . In much the same way Obama's presidency was hatched years before his birth and carefully planned out with the insertion of a fake birth notice in a Hawaiian newspaper, Cruz was sent here to provide cover for this communist Muslim president's socialist anarchist health care law."
This isn't funny because it's all made up. It's funny because half of it isn't.
"One of my favorite things is to grab two unrelated studies or surveys and combine them and create something that doesn't actually exist," he told me. A column he'd written earlier this month was based on two sets of what we might call facts—which is to say, actual studies. The first, done in America, found that about one American in three trusts his or her fellow Americans, down from about one American in two in 1972. Huppke called a researcher at the University of Chicago for comment.
Tom Smith told Huppke that the amount of time people socialize with their neighbors has dropped by 10 percent since the 1970s. "The hypothesis I find most compelling, though not proven," said Smith, "is that the society has become less close in terms of interpersonal contact. . . . If you have those ties, you tend to trust people. If you don't, you become more skeptical because you don't know most of the people you come into contact with."
Fortunately, Huppke mused, a solution had surfaced. This was the other study, done in Finland, which established that—in Huppke's words—"the part of the brain believed to be responsible for maintaining long-term relationships is stimulated by physical [but nonsexual] human contact."
Huppke rejoiced. "Bingo. Thank you, Finland, you've solved America's trust problem. Rather than mucking about getting to know each other, all we have to do is strip down to our skivvies and touch each other in a nonsexual manner."
In 2011 Huppke was asked to write a workplace column for the business section of the Monday Tribune. He said OK, so long as he was allowed to have a little fun with it. Once "I Just Work Here" was up and running, he began contributing more frequently to page two, where John Kass presided on Wednesday through Sunday and Barbara Brotman on Monday, leaving Tuesday up for grabs. Eventually Huppke claimed Tuesday for himself, and last week the Tribune began syndicating the Tuesday column.
Huppke speculated that he might have stayed in chemical engineering a little longer if his job had sent him out in the field, but all he did was sit in a cubicle all day. You're in a cubicle at the Tribune, I pointed out. The similarities end there, he said. "In science, and in engineering in general, you have these really brilliant people who are wholly incapable of communicating their own thoughts and feelings. Journalists are certainly more creative, more curious about the world, as opposed to curious about certain parts of the world."
When he entered journalism school Huppke believed he was leaving engineering behind. "Even at Mizzou there was a science journalism track," he said, "and a lot of people kept saying, 'Why aren't you doing that? You'd be incredibly marketable.' But I never wanted to get into that arena again."
I don't think Huppke ever left that arena. I speak with the authority of someone who spent an unbearable freshman year at an engineering school, fled to Mizzou, and like Huppke wound up a newspaperman in Chicago. Steven Colbert’s "truthiness" pinpointed a threat to our great nation that gives us both the willies, and I hold that our brush with engineering’s absolute standards makes the threat doubly clear. To a political reporter, a false fact is a lie. To an engineer, it's a bridge falling down.
Huppke listened politely as I had my say. There's this, he allowed: in journalism as in engineering "you're figuring out how to get from A to B," and science taught him to deploy logic to make the trip. He remembered that his father didn't send him to Lehigh to become the family's next chemical engineer; the reason to go to college, he told Huppke, is to learn how to think. Huppke now thinks along lines that deeply amuse him, me, and lots of other people besides. But it's serious thought.