Monday, December 09, 2013

Snark vs. Smarm

Really great piece at Gawker by Tom Scocca, On Smarm which I found via my FB friend Roy Adroso.

I love that it gets at what the pleas for niceness are really about - people at the top of the hierarchy striking back at those beneath them, as revealed by certain ways the Very Serious People express themselves. I knew I loved this article when it called out Niall Ferguson:
The plutocrats are haunted, as all smarmers are haunted, by the lack of respect. Nothing is stopping anyone—any nobody—from going on a blog or on Twitter and expressing their opinion of you, no matter who you think you are. New media and social media have an immense and cruel leveling power, for people accustomed to old systems of status and prestige. On Twitter, the only answer to "Do you know who I am?" is "One more person with 140 characters to use." 
So the smarmers deplore the coarseness of the tone, or try to invoke the old credentials, or both. Niall Ferguson, the prizewinning Harvard historian now practicing the craft of a tendentious magazine hack, came unhinged on his blog after people pointed out his magazine work had been done sloppily and dishonestly:
What exactly are his credentials? 35,550 tweets? How does he essentially differ from the cranks who, before the Internet, had to vent their spleen by writing letters in green ink? 
(Elsewhere in the same post, he wrote that his critics had breached their duty to "exchange ideas in a humble and respectful manner.") 
 I blogged about Ferguson in October, how Krugman went after Ferguson for his rank-pulling. And as the Scocca article points out, the plutocratic smarmers are acutely aware of the power differentials:
The critics—the snarkers—are haters, smarm says. The snarkers are driven by "their resentment," Denby writes. Their resentment. ("It's Personal," his subtitle says.) They are "pipsqueaks" and "brats." Young. Malcolm Gladwell, another target for the haters, has a conversion narrative interchangeable with Eggers', if more quizzical in tone:
I am everything I once despised. When I was 25, I used to write these incredibly snotty, hostile articles attacking big-name, nonfiction journalists. Now I read them and I'm like, "Oh my God, they're doing a me on me!"
Above (or beneath) it all, they are little. Eggers writes of his former critical self, "I was a complete, weaselly little prick." He asks: "What kind of small-hearted person wants an artist to adhere to a set of rules, to stay forever within a narrow envelope which we've created for them?" He answers, and answers, and answers: "the lazy and small ... small and embittered ... narrow-hearted ... the tiny voices of tiny people."
The Very Serious People (a favorite term of Krugman's) are not especially subtle about their disdain for people who haven't been as blessed in their literary endeavors by the Invisible Hand of the Market as they have been. My first encounter with a high-status smarmer was when Daphne Merkin responded to something I said about her on this blog, way back in 2006. Please note that what she is responding to is me, an unpaid blogger, questioning why she gets paid to write, since what she was paid to write was essentially a long whine about how obnoxious men are on online dating sites. There are a whole bunch of entire, unpaid websites devoted to the topic.

But I was questioning the wisdom of the Invisible Hand of the Market, and Merkin was certain that she had already received its blessing and I hadn't and so how dare I criticize her?
This is the whiney and unfairly remunerated Daphne Merkin reporting in, having stumbled on your blog late this night instead of sleeping or finishing reading D.H. Lawrence's THE RAINBOW. Aside from insulting me, you sound like a generally unreflective and overly self-regarding person. >From glancing quickly at your bio, I gather your own "feminist" credentials are less than wonderful, since you seem to have abandoned one early putative interest (illustrating) for another ( playacting) on the basis of meeting a "beautiful young man." Your blog makes me shudder on behalf of bloggerdom, seething as it is with envy and bravado and received wisdom. I hope your plays are better than this.
Now she doesn't actually say "do you know who I am?" because clearly I do, but she had to make sure I was aware of her intellectual stature via her reading selection, which she just happens to casually mention.

Merkin isn't only a literary plutocrat, her family comes from money and was permitted by the NYTimes to write an op-ed piece defending her brother, a business associate of Bernie Madoff.

As all those blessed by the Invisible Hand like to believe, Merkin imagines I'm motivated by envy. Dave Eggers demonstrates how it works:
The most significant explicator of the niceness rule—the loudest Thumper of all, the true prophetic voice of anti-negativity—is neither the cartoon rabbit nor the publicists' group nor Julavits, nor even David Denby. It is The Believer's founder and impresario, Dave Eggers. If there is a defining document of contemporary literary smarm, it is an interview Eggers did via email with the Harvard Advocate in 2000, in which a college student had the poor manners to ask the literary celebrity about "selling out." 
In reply to the question, Eggers told the Advocate that yes, he was what people call a sellout, that he had been paid $12,000 for a single magazine article, that he had taken the chance to hang out with Puffy, and that he had said yes to all these opportunities because "No is for pussies." His response
builds to a frenzied peroration:

Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them.
Here we have the major themes or attitudes of smarm: the scolding, the gestures at inclusiveness, the appeal to virtue and maturity. Eggers used to be a critic, but he has grown out of childish things. Eggers has done the work—the book publishing, the Hollywood deal-making—that makes his opinions (unlike those of his audience) earned and valid opinions. 
It is no accident that he is addressing undergraduates here; he tells the Advocate that before he sent back his reply to its questions, he had already delivered a version of the text as a speech at Yale. He is explicitly performing, for an audience of his inferiors. ("The rant is directed to myself, age 20, as much as it is to you, so remember that if you ever want to take much offense.") 
It is also no accident that Eggers is full of shit. He is so passionate, and his passion has such rhetorical momentum, that it is almost possible to overlook the fact that the literal proposition he's putting forward, in the name of large-heartedness and honesty, is bogus and insulting. Do not dismiss ... a movie? Unless you have made one? Any movie? The Internship? The Lone Ranger? Kirk Cameron's Unstoppable? Movie criticism, Eggers is saying, should be reserved for those wise and discerning souls who have access to a few tens of millions of dollars of entertainment-industry capital. One or two hundred million, if you wish to have an opinion about the works of Michael Bay. 
And now here is Dave Eggers 13 years later, talking to the New York Times about his new novel, The Circle, a dystopian warning about the toxic effects
of social media and the sinister companies that produce it:

I've never visited any tech campus, and I don't know anything in particular about how any given company is run. I really didn't want to.
Someone has come a long way from "do not dismiss a book until you have written one." But Eggers was never laying down rules for himself. He was laying down rules for other people.

The other people of course being the little people. Snarkers make Dave Eggers as well as Daphne Merkin shudder on behalf of bloggerdom.

More on smarm from Scocca:

People want to be uplifted, and through social media people want to demonstrate to other people that they are the kind of people who appreciate being uplifted. Negativity is a bad market niche, according to no less a figure than Malcolm Gladwell—a known expert, in theory and practice, on the marketing power of popularity:
[T]here's very little negative stuff you can put in a book or an article before you turn most of your audience away. Negative stuff is interesting the first time, but you'll never re-read a negative article. You'll re-read a positive one. Part of the reason that my books have had a long shelf life is that they're optimistic, and optimism permits that kind of longevity.
One curious fact about this long view is that it's quite untrue. I can't recall ever, unless compelled by duty, rereading a Malcolm Gladwell article. What I have reread is Mencken on the Scopes Trial, Hunter Thompson on Richard Nixon, and Dorothy Parker on most things—to say nothing of Orwell on poverty and Du Bois on racism, or David Foster Wallace on the existential horror of a leisure cruise. This belief that oblivion awaits the naysayers and the snarkers shouldn't survive a glance at the bookshelf.
Although I was favorably disposed towards Gladwell because of his calling out Steven Pinker for his racist intellectual bedfellow Steve Sailor, when I saw this New Yorker Festival talk he gave on Pioneers, Tokens and Pariahs I was forced to conclude that Gladwell feels he can slap together any shaky premise on the morning of a talk and expect it to be taken seriously.

Although if you want to see worst ratio of privilege to content ever, check out Delia Ephron's rant against Citi Bikes.

New Yorker writers appear to hold onto their jobs until death, so Gladwell is secure and needn't respond to criticisms with angry jabs. But for those like Daphne Merkin and Niall Ferguson, the changing of the old rules of prestige is upsetting. As Scocca notes:
The old systems of prestige—the literary inner circles, the top-ranking daily newspapers, the party leadership—are rickety and insecure. Everyone has a publishing platform and no one has a career. 
Smarm offers a quick schema of superiority. The authority that smarm invokes is an ersatz one, but the appearance of authority is usually enough to get by with. Without that protection, to hold an opinion is to feel bare and alone, one voice among a cacophony of millions.