Bobos in the Panopticon; or, Why Does the New York Times Hate Freedom?

American culture abounds with knee-jerk displays of patriotism.  Fourth of July fireworks, Presidents’ Day, elections, baseball games, football games, gun shows, the Country Music Awards, pep rallies, NRA conventions, even the state fair — all come with flag-waving, anthem-singing, and the implicit belief that America is the best because we have the most “freedom.”  But does this assumption comport with facts, or is it a reductive, even jingoistic oversimplification?  The naïve citizen would claim that freedom means the ability to choose the direction your life will take, or a lack of undue burdens like oppression and bigotry.  These definitions create a false binary, putting freedom in the “good” category while consigning so-called “evils” like slavery, totalitarianism, unjust laws, bigotry, poverty and lack of opportunity to the “bad” category.  That kind of black-and-white thinking might fly in kindergarten, but it simply won’t do for the sophisticated readers of the Paper of Record!  They demand nuanced, rigorous thought.

New York Times editorialists are ready to give it to them.  And for most, that can mean only one thing.  Continue reading “Bobos in the Panopticon; or, Why Does the New York Times Hate Freedom?”

Eggs, Bugs and Joseph Conrad: An Anti-Ethicist Manifesto

The great thinkers of humanity’s past have devised many ethical systems, all purporting to tell conscientious citizens how to do the right thing.  From Islamic law and the Ten Commandments to the Golden Rule and the Yamas and Niyamas of yogic philosophy — from Utilitarianism to liberal humanism to the Categorical Imperative and even Objectivism — these codes seek to answer our deepest questions.  Is our greatest responsibility to ourselves, or others?  Individuals, or the community?  What about animals, and the environment?  Are corporations people?   Is it permissible to bring your own candy into the movie theater?  Is straying from the path of virtue the same as pigging out on pizza and fries?

Yes, the world’s tradition of moral reasoning is indeed diverse.  Put it all in a blender with some whimsical self-deprecation, add water, and you’ve got the New York Times Ethicist column.  Continue reading “Eggs, Bugs and Joseph Conrad: An Anti-Ethicist Manifesto”

Jesus Saves, but Santa Clause Splurges: The NYT Last-Minute Gift Guide

Christmas is almost here!  If you haven’t finished shopping for gifts, don’t panic.  The New York Times is here to help.  They’ve spent the whole year finding the best trends, the most must-have products, the hottest artisans and designers.  I’ve searched their archives and selected the greatest gift ideas of 2011.  Just check out this list, figure out what categorie(s) of recipient your loved one(s) is/are, and have their dream gift shipped overnight!  What could be easier?

Continue reading “Jesus Saves, but Santa Clause Splurges: The NYT Last-Minute Gift Guide”

The Bruni Bible; or How to Write a New York Times Editorial

Frank Bruni’s accession to the position of New York Times editorialist was announced in May by Andrew Rosenthal (no relation to former chief editor A.M. Rosenthal) (just kidding, he’s his son).  The op-ed page editor suggested that Bruni was qualified by virtue of his ability to provide a “sharp, opinionated look at a big event of the last week, from a different or unexpected angle, or a small event that was really important but everyone seems to have missed, or something entirely different,” presumably involving a medium-sized event.  Further lending gravitas is that fact that the former restaurant critic’s NYT career has “spanned…part of a papacy.”  (This is true of many events, but it does sound impressive: “We’ve been sitting here for part of a papacy, waiting for our appetizers!  This service is atrocious!”)

In the six months that followed, the papacy-spanning pundit has been called “a pretty bad columnist,” denounced as inane, unreadable, and an unqualified poseur, vilified for his lack of arithmetic skills and contempt for substantive issues; it’s even been suggested that he doesn’t know he’s writing for the Times at all.

But I believe he does.  Oh, he knows it all too well.  Whatever his faults of relevance or coherence, Bruni’s work is distinguished for its firm grasp of the New York Times house style — that mélange of  dad-joke whimsy, inspiring truisms, fake sociology, celebrity snark, magnificent scorn for the lowbrow,  and horse-race election reporting, all united by a pervading tone of NPR blandness and upper-middle-class obliviousness.  Frank Bruni’s writing could appear scrawled on a bathroom wall, or crumpled in a bottle that washed up on the beach, or blazoned in the sky in letters of fire, and you’d still be like “is that from the New York Times?”  (Although you might mistake it for Gentzlinger.)

So by understanding Bruni’s literary techniques, we’ll understand the essence of the Times editorial page.  In no particular order, here they are.

Continue reading “The Bruni Bible; or How to Write a New York Times Editorial”

What Not to Wear: From Hot-Pants Trashy to Pinafore Classy, the New York Times Way!

It may sometimes seem like women face an impossible task:  Whether it’s motherhood, professional life or just walking down the street, ladies are vulnerable to the conflicting demands and judgmental expectations of society.  A woman is  liable to be judged on tiny details — of speech, behavior, even the clothes she wears — and must negotiate the conflicting dangers of being labeled too butch or too feminine, too assertive or too timid, too prudish or too sexy.

But if you think that sounds hard, it’s nothing compared to what New York Times writers have to deal with.  Just look at the first sentence of Ruth La Ferla’s article “Women Enjoy the Cool Comfort of Summer Dresses“:  “Trends come and go, but the dress persists, secure in its status as a metaphor.”

Continue reading “What Not to Wear: From Hot-Pants Trashy to Pinafore Classy, the New York Times Way!”

Why Does the New York Times Hate Fun?

The New York Times has a strange idea of fun.  They seem eager to give me, the reader, tips on enjoyable things to do with my free time.  But the activities suggested aren’t always so relevant to my interests.  I could become an influential industry bigwig, then spend years befriending club promoters and buying $1000 “bottle service” to earn myself a permanent spot on the guest list at a trendy night club.  I could go to an exhibition of designer nightstands featuring such artists as Sting.  (“I liked the idea to let men conjure up their story for the nightstand. It’s almost role reversal,” says the curator.) Or stop in at a racist country club to sample a delicacy called a “frozen tomato” that consists of “essentially tomato ice cream (except, instead of cream, it’s got cream cheese, cottage cheese and mayonnaise), served in a round scoop on a lettuce leaf with a dollop of more mayonnaise on top).”  I could collect Victorian taxidermy, or knit Brobdignagian cozies for public statuary.

Still, for every bizarre activity that they praise, there is another relatively harmless pastime they disparage.  Why?  Maybe it’s too lowbrow.  Maybe it’s because the fans of said pastime are presumed to be illiterate proles who don’t understand the consequences of their actions.  Or maybe it’s for the opposite reason — the pastime is question has gotten too popular with the hip, trend-chasing urbanites whom the writers fondly imagine comprise their core readership.  There must be something dangerous about it.  But what?  In a selection of recent articles, we’ll explore how Times scribes find fear in the benign.

Continue reading “Why Does the New York Times Hate Fun?”

Bunch Drunk Love: On the Unintelligibility of Manohla Dargis

In theory, I should enjoy the New York Times Arts section. Its writers aim to cover all of forms of artistic production, from ballet and jazz to pop music and reality TV, from an approachable yet intellectual perspective.  I love all those things!  (Except jazz.)  I like to stay informed about art and literature; these writers like informing me about art and literature.  They’re urbane, culturally literate city dwellers; I’m an urbane, culturally literate city dweller.  They have a superficial familiarity with Max Weber, Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes; I have a superficial familiarity with Max Weber, Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes.*  What could go wrong?

*Actually, I know all about Roland Barthes.  I was just saying that to be nice.

Well, we’ve already seen what can go wrong.  The writers are a little too excited about how urbane they are, a little too eager to let you know they know about philosophers and literary critics; most of all, a little too anxious to distinguish themselves from an imagined class of fellow Americans who enjoy pop culture in an uncritical, unironic way.  Those buffoons!  So the Times critics cluck their tongues at the common people’s affection for Snooki.  They scold Real Housewives of New Jersey fans for “abusing [free will].” Et cetera.

Too often, their writing is full of signifiers of Intelligence and Important Ideas — philosopher names, abstract concepts, compound-complex sentences that are hard to read — and lacking in the clarity and precision that might serve to convey actual intelligence and ideas.   A fine example of this problem is Manohla Dargis.  She seems to mean well, and is often praised as a smart broad with high standards.  But every time I read one of her reviews I end up being like “what the hell is she talking about, this is unintelligible, just tell me what the movie is about.”

Aside from this guy, though, people seem give her impenetrable writing a pass, just because it’s got big words in it.  It’s a shame!  We’ll go through her latest together, and you tell me if I’m wrong.

“‘Bridesmaids,’ an unexpectedly funny new comedy about women in love, if not of the Sapphic variety…”

Why would it be “of the sapphic variety?   The phrase “women in love” doesn’t convey “…with each other” to me.  Maybe Dargis is trying to allude to the famous novel Women in Love, but mistakenly believes it’s about lesbians?  Also, what’s with the euphemism?  You sound like Playboy’s Party Jokes circa 1972.  “A butch young lady of the sapphic variety entered a men’s haberdashery shop and told the limp-wristed assistant, “I’m looking for something sturdy in a brown tweed trouser.’  The fey young man replied, ‘aren’t we all!'”   It’s 2011!  Just use normal words!

“…goes where no typical chick flick does: the gutter.”

This is a long sentence, although by no means the longest we’ll encounter.  Is it even true that “typical chick flicks” don’t have toilet humor?  It seems like these days, every rom-com has a scene where, like, a guy accidentally sits on a huge black dildo… while he’s trying to pull it out, a dog vomits on his crotch… he accidentally presses a button on his cell phone that calls his mother-in-law… she hears the noises, thinks the guy’s wife in in labor, and drives right over… anyway, I guess I wouldn’t know.  I’m not a huge connoisseur of fart jokes like Manohla Dargis is.  Zing!

“Well, more like the city street that Lillian, a soon-to-be wife played by a wonderful, warm Maya Rudolph, dashes into…”

So it doesn’t descend into the gutter, but into a city street, shots of which appear in almost every movie?  You just ruined your own disingenuous rhetorical flourish!  Seriously, is this not the clunkiest sentence?  I’d rewrite it as “More like a city street.  Lillian, a soon-to-be wife, dashes out of an upscale New York salon…” No, that’s clunky too.  “The city street onto which Lillian (a warm, wonderful Maya Rudolph) dashes, its ineluctable gutters bespeaking an earthy, Rabelasian symbolism…”  Actually, I don’t care.  This movie contains a scene where a woman in a wedding gown does something zany.  No tortured syntax required.

“…dressed in the kind of foamy white gown that royal weddings and the bridal industrial complex are made of.”

Dargis is attempting satire, but it isn’t really working for me.  Saying these things are “made of” wedding dresses is like saying America’s obesity crisis is made of cheeseburgers, or that unprotected sex is made of herpes.  Better to have written something like  “the kind of foamy white gown that make or break royal weddings (and that keep the bridal industrial complex going strong).”  Actually, still annoying.  The problem is the phrase “bridal industrial complex.”  It’s one of those expressions where the first time someone hears it, they think it sounds so clever that they just have to work it into a conversation right away.  Congratulations, you noticed that weddings are big business.  How incisive.  This is a movie review and a Marxist critique of the patriarchy, in one!

“Suddenly realizing in a salon that she’s been hit with food poisoning, she flees like a runaway bride,except that it isn’t a man who’s making her, uh, run…”

Because a person using terrestrial motion to proceed rapidly on foot is said to be “running,” while a person with digestive difficulties is said to have “the runs.”  Funny!  How old are you, twelve?

“…but the giddy, liberating humor of the writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo.”

How bold: a movie character doing what it says to do in the script.  Unless this is one of those self-referential movies where the writer starts appearing as a character in her own work and arguing with the protagonist about what’s going to happen to them and stuff?  So you’re saying this film crosses diagetic levels to self-reflexively meditate on its own narrativity, and there’s poop jokes?  We’re living in a golden age of cinema.

“That may sound disgusting, perfect for the reigning naughty boys of American screens…”

I get what she’s saying here, but the way she says it’s “perfect for” them, it sounds like she’s planning to give Maya Rudolph’s intestinal distress to Judd Apatow for Rosh Hashanah.

“…and it is, a little.”

Goddammit!  If you use a cliché phrase like “this may sound X,” you’re supposed to explain that it is, in fact, not X.  That’s the whole point of the phrase.  You’re not supposed to limply conclude that the thing is exactly what I may have thought it was.  Although, I wish Ross Douthat would start using that strategy.  “Beltway insiders think Mike Huckabee is too big a stupid, homophobic, racist, Cracker Barrel-y Jesus freak to be president.  They’re right.”  Now that’s an editorial I could take seriously!

“Given how most wedding pictures enforce the hoariest clichés about the sexes, the go-for-broke outlandishness of Lillian’s pratfall — nicely handled by the director Paul Feig, holding the shot as she sits in a deflated puff of white — is welcome.” I still don’t know what’s “outlandish” or “nicely handled” about the scene… maybe it would help if you quoted a line of dialogue or described some of the shots, instead of writing down familiar phrases with some of the words changed around?

“In most wedding movies an actress may have the starring part (though not always)…”  “Most” and “may” already imply “not always.”  What’s with the parentheses?

“…but it’s only because her character’s function is to land a man rather than to be funny. Too many studio bosses seem to think that a woman’s place is in a Vera Wang.”

Goddamn, replacing words in familiar phrases with other words is really Manohla Dargis’s downfall.  Altered clichés are to her what meaningless non sequiturs are to Randy Cohen, or outdated pop culture references are to Philip Galanes.

“There is a big dress here, of course…” Why are we still talking about the dress?  Get to the bridesmaids!

“…an aggressively foolish Gordian knot of silk and wit that slyly speaks to how women need (and want) to be packaged as brides, dolled up in satin and all but lost in a cloud of tulle and the appreciative din of family and friends.”  The dress is shaped like a knot?  It “slyly speaks”?  It’s made up of “silk and wit”?  Great description… very vivid… I can see it in my mind’s eye.  All this yoking together of a specific thing and an abstract thing in one phrase (e.g. a “cloud of tulle” and an “appreciative din”) is very headache-inducing.  It’s like a more convoluted version of “colorless green ideas sleep furiously.”

“The movie doesn’t push hard in that direction — more than anything, Ms. Wiig and Ms. Mumolo want to make you giggle and snort — but they get at the layers of insanity in weddings as well as the joys. They ask the question facing every modern woman who jumps at the chance to enact the latter-day equivalent of being passed from man to man, father to husband, if without a bushel of dowry corn and 12 goats: How do you survive getting down the aisle?”  If a woman has her own job and apartment, how is her wedding the “equivalent” of being passed from man to man?  A symbol, maybe, but not an equivalent…  also, where did the goats and corn come from?  Are we talking about, like, primitive tribes now?  Does Manohla Dargis think being given away by your dad is an African thing?

“With a little, or rather a lot, of help from your friends, or so say the filmmakers, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till misunderstanding, jealousy, other people or just life us do part.”  I’m surmising that this is the part of the review where Dargis looked at her notes and realized she hadn’t written down any dialogue, plot points or scenes besides the food poisoning one.  Her notes from the screening all said things like “woman writers <—– FEMINISM?????” and “doodoo jokes:  perfect for naughty boys of Hollywood?!”, and she realized the only way to reach her word count was to start writing down familiar phrases with some of the words replaced. “Till death do us part’ isn’t always true!  The Beatles didn’t consider that some people need a lot of help from their friends (because they’re neurotic)!  Life’s a beach, and the protagonist of this film just stepped on a discarded heroin needle!”  Manohla Dargis, you can use that line if you want.  I know it’s gold.

“To that intimate end…”  Oh, to that end.

“…Lillian, after announcing her engagement, asks Annie (Ms. Wiig) to be her maid of honor.”  Here Dargis describes the plot.  John Hamm is seen “playfully riffing on his persona as the thinking woman’s brute,” and “figures into her life with humor and almost too-true pathos,” whatever that means.

“A lanky-limbed blonde who evokes Meg Ryan stretched along Olive Oyl lines, Ms. Wiig keeps her features jumping and sometimes bunching.”  I can’t even picture Meg Ryan “stretched” to look like Olive Oyl if I try, let alone spontaneously think about it when I look at at Kristin Wiig.  She looks pretty normal to me.  However, I hope the filmmakers use “Ms. Wiig keeps her features jumping and sometimes bunching!” as the quote on the movie poster.  It’s the must-see face-bunching comedy of the year!

“She’s a funny, pretty woman, but she’s also a comedian, and she’s wonderfully confident about playing not nice.”  Funny, but also a comedian?  Why doesn’t the New York Times’s chief film critic know what “but” means?

“It would be easy to oversell ‘Bridesmaids,’ though probably easier if also foolish to do the reverse.”  In other words, you could make the movie sound better than it is… but you could also make it sound worse than it is.  That sentence has a wonderfully Brooksian ring to it.  It would be easy to give an inaccurate impression of something if you described it inaccurately.  Well, don’t do that!  How about you just tell me how good it is?  I must warn you, I usually judge a film’s quality based on how successful the actors are at keeping their features jumping and bunching.

“It isn’t a radical movie (even if Ms. McCarthy’s character comes close)…”

A character in the movie comes close to being, herself, a radical movie?  I told you this was some metareferential shit.  “Tom Stoppard in the house!”

“It’s formally unadventurous; and there isn’t much to look at beyond all these female faces. Yet these are great faces”

LOOK AT… ALL THESE… GREAT FACES!” — The New York Times.  “Hey, wanna go see Bridesmaids?  I heard it has great faces, and they know just when to bunch!”

By the way, why does every Times review of a mainstream comedy have to include a token remark about its lack of visual innovativeness?  Hall Pass is “stubbornly visually unevolved,” Please Give is “visually unmemorable,” Get Smart is visually painless, Your Highness is not “interested in doing much visually,” I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry is “about as visually sophisticated as a parking-garage surveillance video.”  Comedies featuring bongs and Saturday Night Live cast members aren’t really aiming to forge a new visual aesthetic and change the way you view the world forever, so you can stop deducting points for that.  Actually, all those reviews are by Manohla Dargis.  She also always talks about Judd Apatow, even in reviews of movies that don’t involve him.  Apparently he “has carved out a niche and inspired something of a subgenre with movies about funny, smutty but sincere man-boys puzzling their way through adult heterosexual relations,” and furthermore is “the king of… sublimated man-on-man affairs.”  The woman has a real love-hate relationship with the naughty boy of Hollywood comedy.  The only way to make her happy would be for Judd Apatow to make a visually stunning, Kurosawa-esque epic that takes place at a lesbian separatist commune.  COMING THIS AUGUST FROM PARAMOUNT PICTURES:  I Love You, BitchGrowing up.  Growing out of hegemonic gender essentialism.  Growing soybeans.

“Contra Christopher Hitchens and his 2007 assertion in Vanity Fair that women are not funny, they offer irrefutable proof that along with producing and starring in a hit TV series (thank you, Tina Fey), women can go aggressive laugh to aggressive-and-absurd laugh with men.”  I dunno, it seems like if Christopher Hitchens wanted to believe women could be funny, he could have noted the existence of Jane Austen, Katherine Hepburn, or Joan Rivers (among many others [hey, I’m using parentheses!]) decades ago.  I don’t think he’s even trying to be reasonable.  If this review prompts Christopher Hitchens to go see Bridesmaids and admit he was irrefutably wrong, I’ll eat my hat.  While he’s at it, maybe he’ll admit he he’s a supercilious, tumor-ridden old warmonger who gets off on feeling superior to people.  Don’t hold your breath!

“All they need, beyond talent and timing, a decent director and better lines, is a chance.”  Well, if they don’t have any talent, then they’re not in a position to “prove” women can be funny… and if they don’t get good directors or lines, they’re not really being given “a chance”… couldn’t you have just written “all they need is a chance”?  Oh fuck it, this is almost over.

“It helps if the director has a clue, and if everyone involved sees women not just as bosoms with legs, but as bosoms with legs and brains.”  So in Manohla Dargis’s utopia of the future, people still won’t notice that women have heads?  In life as in her work, her standards really are too low.

Confidential to David Brooks:  You can block me from your Facebook page, but you can never silence my voice!   And coming soon:  Why does the New York Times hate fun?