Keywords for the Age of Austerity 32: The Take

The “take” has been carefully studied, and its obituary hopefully written many times. As historians of the take like Tomás Ríos, Elspeth Reeve, and John Herrman have argued, the take, whether it’s “hot” or not, shares two major, related characteristics: huffy moralizing and speed. The take must come as quickly as possible after the event that requires it, but its historical horizon rarely reaches much further before that event. It must also offer a clear opinion that is digestible and distinctive. Herrmann compares the take to the idea, emphasizing its temporal feature: “Ideas are Takes that can be referred to in the future without embarrassment.”

Ríos emphasizes its important link to sportswriting, which benefits from sports’ regular schedule–and constant new opportunities to have opinions–and its built-in moral drama of winners and losers. This, coupled with the turn in American sportswriting away from the genre’s older, often purple literary conventions and the embrace of journalistic features, like quotations and descriptive prose, opened up a space for sportswriters to read sports as a reflection of society at large, rather than a heroic contest set apart from it. (Ironically, this formula is often opportunistically reversed by conservative sportswriters seeking to silence left-wing opinions in and about sports, as the Colin Kaepernick drama shows). Sports was no longer an epic clash of leviathans on the gridiron; but rather than dispense with such grandiose moralizing, sportswriters projected it off the field. And since most sportswriters are white, conservative, and unimaginative, the results were what you might expect. As Ríos writes:

Start with an easy target—any athlete accused of doing anything “bad” will do—channel the aggrieved, paternalistic wails of your least favorite news anchor drunk on paranoia and privilege, dismiss nuance and insight at every opportunity, and close with some nonsensical pap about tradition, or responsibility, or America.

If you’ve ever read a sports column about Black basketball players’ tattoos/short lengths/suits, Dominican baseball players’ home-run trots, “role models,” “scrappiness” as the highest of virtues, or athletes’ salaries, you have encountered the moralistic sports take.

On one hand, professional anxieties around speed and superficiality are as old as modern journalism. At the consolidation of the modern commercial newspaper at the end of the nineteenth century, the new figure of the “journalist” was often described as a “scribbler” chasing the news for pay. Other writers, like Henry James, scorned the trivialization of the writerly career that newspaper writing augured.

On the other hand, the particularly moralistic, opinion-making feature of “the take” is what many people are referring to when they use the term derisively. It’s not surprising that this aspect of the take should have a strong sportswriting lineage, since so much political reporting–the other home of the take–resembles nothing so much as sportswriting. Like a baseball season, a political campaign generates opportunities for shallow moralizing on a regular schedule, in which the same things that happen over and over must be presented as an interesting or enraging plot twist every time, usually by emphasizing some superficial novelty. The “take” is by necessity  allergic to structural arguments; first of all, they take too long to research, and they tend to minimize the importance of the singular, heroic (or villainous) object of the take: what Hillary Clinton’s Candidacy Means to Women, What John Wall’s Back Tattoo Says About America Today, etc.

The temporality of the take is in many ways a creature of the Internet, and of Twitter in particular, for obvious reasons–they create an opportunity and a taste for instant reactions that didn’t exist before. But I think it would be a mistake to read it as a product only of technology. Instead, as the word itself shows, it’s a creature of an aggressive, possessive, anxious competitiveness that the Internet encourages, but which the economic structure of intellectual professions–journalism, academia, etc.–have nourished since long before Twitter’s rise to popularity. (Many people in these professions are well aware of this and feel powerless against it, which is one reason why the take is both so widespread, and so derided.)

It is an abbreviated form of the older, more colloquial phrase “take on,” like “my take on the Phillies’ bullpen.” Dispensing with the “on,” it became “my take,” as if what follows is an opinion jealously snatched from the underemployed slowpokes still deliberating theirs. The take is, like Twitter itself, more of a symptom of a neoliberal order in which precarious employment and minimal labor protections make hyperspeed, competitive take-having a professional necessity. No one in their right mind and with job security would be up at 11 pm writing an essay about something that happened at the Grammy Awards an hour before. And this restless anxiousness, this need to be constantly vigilant against one’s encroaching professional irrelevance that our economic system imposes upon us all becomes instinctual, even in cases when it isn’t strictly necessary. Why else does anyone feel the need to argue with Dinesh D’Souza?

The word offers a concise demonstration of the competitive self-branding that this neoliberal ideas market encourages. The “take” is always preceded by the possessive adjective–there are not, to my knowledge, collectively authored takes, “our takes.” Takes are a possessive word, which also denotes a sort of individualistic idea-hoarding at a time when universities and publications don’t often pay for the kind of ideas that take time to develop.

Reeve’s history of the take gives its earliest usage in April 2008, in a Mark Leibovich profile of the MSNBC blowhard Chris Matthews. Leibovich wrote: “As he went, Matthews seemed compelled to give his ‘take,’ which is how he describes his job each night at 5 and 7, Eastern time, on ‘Hardball’ — ‘giving my take.’ Take, and “hot take,” continued to be set in quotations like this well into 2014. Because the most popular “takes,” and the rare ability to have a media or academic job that pays you to have them before an audience, are part of an echo chamber of established commentators, I think it’s fitting that the earliest usage in print that I could find belongs to someone more humble, though no less obnoxious, than Matthews.

Meet Ray Burke, of New Maryland, New Brunswick, the forgotten visionary of take-having. In a letter to the editor in the province’s Daily Gleaner, Burke complained that local professors were overpaid. Calling his opinion “my take” (and later, even less gramatically, “my say”) Burke hits meets all the requirements of the “hot take” a half decade before that phrase’s popularity: the moralizing, developed after reading something “during the weekend,” that would have fit right in on sports radio. Ray’s letter, in full:

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