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.”
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.
“About 2,310 results for ‘I respect David Brooks'”
“About 7,360 results for ‘David Brooks is an idiot'”
David Brooks is an idiot. His writing is terrible, and his “ideas” (insofar as he has any) are horrible. But analyzing the badness of David Brooks is a tricky proposition. There are three reasons why. First, because it’s been done before. Unlike such previous targets of my blog as Pamela Paul, Neil Ganzlinger and Philip Galanes whose writings are simply ignored by most readers with normal-range cognitive abilities, Brooks is often actively denounced by serious thinkers. His work, while no more thoughtful, logical or well-informed than that of the average Styles-section celebrity profile hack, nonetheless draws many times more commentary and debate simply because it appears in the Opinion section. However copious his lies, evasions and self-serving half-truths, political bloggers debunk them as soon as they appear.
But some people must like his forays into film review and cultural satire. And indeed, some people do — just look at his Facebook page or the sales figures for his dumbass books. The veneer of likeableness is working. In fact, that’s the third reason that Brooks is so difficult to write about. The reasons why he’s horrible are indistinguishable from the reasons why he’s admired and praised. He’s the go-to conservative for liberals who want to feel open-minded, the guy they can “respect” for his apparent intelligence and moderation.
What he offers are the same talking points most other conservatives spout (cutting taxes for the wealthy, cutting social programs for the poor, old-fashioned family values because the new ones make you feel kinda weird). But he wants you to think he came to these conclusions all by himself, through pure logic. So: Every column considers the liberal point of view, then reluctantly concludes that it’s wrong (and laughably soft-headed) yet again. Every column contains watered-down criticisms of the Republican party, thus showing that he’s willing to criticize the Republicans, even though they’re on the right side of every major issue. Every column contains allusions to important-sounding authors and philosophical concepts, which grant an air of learning to his Limbaugh-isms and demonstrates that anyone who disagrees with him just doesn’t understand federalism/the Enlightenment/cognitive science/whatever. Most importantly, Brooks doesn’t come right out and say anything that would grate upon the ear of the affluent Beltway insiders who read Brooks’ column and attend Brooks’s cocktail parties. So his points are garbled, vague, and written in a kind of pundit-ese that prevents Brooks from offending subscribers and from making a coherent point alike.
The Times, the Atlantic, and (alas) even the New Yorker may be fooled by this sort of thing, but I’m not. I can see through him. Below, I’ll go through a recent Brooks piece and translate it into regular human words.
“The Missing Fifth” concerns a crisis affecting America’s job market and causing untold suffering to thousands — of business owners! They can’t find anyone to work at their companies, because the government keeps giving everyone free money to stay home in bed. That’s the basic idea of this piece, but let’s take a look at the details.
“In 1910, Henry Van Dyke wrote a book called ‘The Spirit of America,’ which opened with this sentence: ‘The Spirit of America is best known in Europe by one of its qualities — energy.'” Who’s Henry Van Dyke? Is he an important figure in intellectual history, and on what did he base his conclusions? Why should we listen to NO TIME FOR THAT NOW! David Brooks has read a book, it’s from the past and written by a person who, based on his name, is a white dude. It’s probably a classic of the Western canon. You probably can’t even read! While David Brooks was reading a book, you were out getting jailhouse tattoos, listening to Insane Clown Posse, drinking Four Loko, huffing ether from a jar, pissing on the lawn, shooting at a lawnmower with an assault rifle, and recklessly conflating “democracy” with “republicanism” in your understanding of America’s founding institutions. David Brooks knows that about you. That’s the sort of person you are, if you disagree with him.
Okay, I just looked up The Spirit of America. The quote Brooks cites doesn’t appear until page 113, the opening of Chapter 4. Maybe when Brooks said the book “opens” with that sentence, he meant that one of the middle parts of the book opens with that sentence. I know when I read a book, I like to skip right to Chapter 4, where the meat is. The first three chapters are usually just filler anyway. (He totally didn’t read the book.)
“This has always been true.” Your method of proving something has always been true is to just tell us it “has always been true”? You shouldn’t be writing for the New York Times, you should be getting a C Minus on your first freshman English paper. Anyway, the argument here is: One writer says Americans are energetic; because that was considered true one hundred years ago, its has always been true; because it was considered true, it must be true; because it’s true, it’s the right way for things to be. That seems like an awfully tenuous intellectual edifice to build, based on one quote from a book nobody’s ever read.
“Americans have always been known for their manic dynamism.” We have? I thought we had always been known for our passionate, sensual natures, love of wine, high fashion and existentialism, and penchant for debating philosophy. No wait, that’s the French. Hang on a second… haven’t we always been known known for our huge wigs, flamboyant attire, transgressive, gender-bending personae, and double-entendre-laden public performances? No, that’s drag queens. Well, fuck! I wish you got to pick your country’s ultimate unchanging essence, instead of just being stuck with one. “Manic dynamism” doesn’t even sound cute. We sound like a bunch of methheads at a Marketing Strategy Optimization seminar.
“Energy has always been the country’s saving feature. ” Fuck, again. I though our saving features were democracy and the Bill of Rights and shit. Now I find out it’s people’s willingness to stand up, walk around, and perform actions — any actions at all? I’m moving to Jamaica.
“Thus, Americans should be especially alert to signs that the country is becoming less vital and industrious.” Even if you accept the freakishly deformed syllogism with which Brooks opened, that doesn’t make any sense. If we started out more vital and industrious, shouldn’t we need to be less alert to declining levels of vitality? We could lose, like, 78 percent of our industriousness, and we’d still be better off than Greece or Italy. They’re the ones who should be “especially alert”! Ba-zang!
“In 1954, about 96 percent of American men between the ages of 25 and 54 worked. Today that number is around 80 percent. One-fifth of all men in their prime working ages are not getting up and going to work.” They went from “manic dynamism” to not even getting up? They sound bipolar. Maybe in they’re just in a depressive phase right now. The good news is, they’re going to feel great when they swing back the other way in 55 years. All staying up until 4 in the morning, scrubbing their apartment with a toothbrush, going on $5000 Ebay shopping sprees, drunk-texting their resume to all their LinkedIn contacts, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure just for the hell of it. Forget about a “missing fifth,” it’s going to be more like a missing gallon of vodka! The U.S. economy is going to be off the chain!
But Brooks isn’t concerned with these men’s mental health problems. He’s also not concerned with other reasons for not having a job, such as being a full-time dad or not being able to find a job. No, he’s got his eye on a different reason for slacking off: disabilities. “The number of Americans on the permanent disability rolls, meanwhile, has steadily increased. Ten years ago, 5 million Americans collected a federal disability benefit. Now 8.2 million do. That costs taxpayers $115 billion a year, or about $1,500 per household.” Brooks The American taxpayer is being forced to give his money away to a bunch of layabouts whose legs, arms or spines aren’t appropriatedly dynamic.
“Part of the problem has to do with human capital. More American men lack the emotional and professional skills they would need to contribute.” “Emotional skills?” Are we hiring them to talk about their feelings? If we were hiring men based on their emotional skills, a hundred percent of them would be unemployed — amirite, ladies?! JUST KIDDING.
“There are probably more idle men now than at any time since the Great Depression, and this time the problem is mostly structural, not cyclical.” “Structural, not cyclical” means the jobs they used to do welding cars or building railroads or whatever have disappeared. The “cycle” (recession) isn’t to blame, so everyone should shut up about fruity liberal stuff like stimulating the economy and creating jobs. It sounds counterintuitive if you say it like that, though. That’s why Brooks has fancied it up with the phrase “structural, not cyclical,” which sounds like a classical epigram or something. It’s like the “If the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit” of trickle-down economics.
“Sectors like government, health care and leisure have been growing, generating jobs for college grads. Sectors like manufacturing, agriculture and energy have… not been generating more jobs.” Hey wait a minute, why are we talking about job skills and college degrees, when this article started out pinning the blame on disabled people? I don’t think David Brooks knows what a disability is. David Brooks thinks “disabled” means the head businessman of big company calls you up and says “Hello, sir, I’d like to offer you a prestigious job,” and you’re like “I’m sorry, I’m ‘not able’ to come in to work, because I’m too tired to get out of bed, plus I don’t have a college degree!” And that’s how you get on disability! No wonder he’s sick of giving them money!
“These men will find it hard to attract spouses.” Men only “attract spouses” by being rich and powerful. David Brooks must have learned that by reading his half-assed book that he based on a bunch of half-assed evo-psych articles. More on that in my next post. Anyway, I think if these guys are really having difficulty attracting “spouses,” they should be like “baby, my disability may be costing your household $1500 a year, but I’ve got manic dynamism in my pants! My tool is at its prime working age! Wanna help me find my missing fifteen inches? We’re all vital and industrious when you turn out the lights!”
“It can’t be addressed through the sort of short-term Keynesian stimulus some on the left are still fantasizing about. It can’t be solved by simply reducing the size of government, as some on the right imagine.” This sentence shows that Brooks is fair and balanced, because he says one bad thing about the Republicans for every bad thing he says about the Democrats. But he always uses a worse verb or adjective for the Democrats. Like, they’re always “navel-gazing” or “hand-wringing” or being “pedantic” or “elitist” or, in this case, “fantasizing.” Yeah, I really wish the left would stop “fantasizing” about stimulating the economy, what a bunch of escapists. Why can’t they see that this job shortage isn’t cyclical, like a menstrual cycle? The economy is nothing like a menstrual cycle! It’s “systematic,” like a manly pair of testicles! Or something.
More about “reinvigorating the missing fifth.” “If this were a smart country, we’d be having a debate about how to shift money from programs that provide comfort and toward programs that spark reinvigoration.” This means David Brooks wants to take away people’s unemployment and disability benefits, and give them a case of Five-Hour Energy. Problem solved!
“Discretionary spending, which might be used to instigate dynamism, is declining.” It might be used to instigate dynamism?!?! Here I’ve been pissing away all my discretionary income on exacerbating ebullience. Of course, the liberals probably want to spend it on optimizing amelioration, those hippies.
“Health care spending, which mostly provides comfort to those beyond working years, is expanding.” This is the second time he’s mentioned “comfort.” I think “comfort” means food, shelter and medical care. Fuckin’ disabled people, unemployed people and (apparently now) retirees! Always wanting to be coddled with the basic necessities of human survival! “Ya know, when I get down in the dumps, the one thing that cheers me up is putting on my sweats, sitting down in front of House reruns, maintaining sufficient caloric intake to sustain life, and not going blind from macular degeneration!”
“Democrats have gone into demagogic overdrive calling premium support ideas “privatization” or “the end of Medicare.” “Demagogic” means means it’s not fair that one of the Democrats’ policies is popular, and they’re talking about it. Also, they didn’t make up obfuscatory new jargon to describe it. For instance, “premium support ideas” isn’t demagogic, because no one could figure out what it means in a million years. “Overdrive” means bitching about something one tenth as much as Republican politicians bitch about abortion, gay people, or the Ten Commandments. Anyway, when I think of “demagogic overdrive,” I think of like, ancient Athens, and politicians goading people into starting wars with Sparta and putting people to death and stuff. “Privatization” might be the most abstract concept about which the masses have ever been whipped into a frenzy.
Brooks goes on about “reinvigorating the missing fifth.” He asks, “should we be using our resources in the manner of a nation in decline or one still committed to stoking the energy of its people and continuing its rise?” That means if we give money to losers, we’res loser too. But if we spend money on nebulous concepts, our great nation David Brooks’s penis will rise, because abstraction gives him a boner.
Let’s be honest: I don’t care what Brooks proposes to do about this vaguely-defined, ever-shifting network of problems. No one does. The function of a Brooks editorial is to sound erudite and intellectually valid, without alarming anyone the way the fruits of actual erudition might do. It’s a branding exercise. Its purpose is to sell the idea of Brooks as a balanced, moderate conservative. Like most branding efforts, it is vapid. Nothing in a Brooks column will ever be really new, but nothing will ever be down-to-earth and commonsensical, either. Brooks may be employed — indeed, overemployed, with jobs at the Times, Weekly Standard, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and more — but his lack of interest in real people and reliance on high-flown abstractions means that he’s the one who lacks dynamism, energy and vitality.
In part II of my Brooks series, the top 10 worst David Brooks columns! And coming up soon, why do Manohla Dargis’s sentences read like they were badly translated from Old Norse?
Jersey Shore had been coming up a lot in my posts lately. But it’s not just because I’m so interested in the subject (although it is fascinating!). And it’s certainly not because I went looking for Jersey Shore references in the New York Times. I don’t have to — I read the paper, and they just come up. Constantly. We’re told that it is the worst show on TV, that it resembles “the most unrepentant, obviously guilty serial killer or multimillion-dollar defrauder,” is the “most appalling show of 2009,” and features “eight young people of dubious intelligence and accomplishment,” who are “insufferable” and might not really even be Italian. We’re informed — repeatedly — that a new SAT question might force unwilling youths to pen essays on The Situation’s abs. The show is compared unflatteringly to a musical someone saw at the Algonquin Hotel, and inexplicably to Beavis and Butthead. When Mike comes out with his own vodka brand, we even hear about that. We’re told in hushed and reverent tones about people who don’t know who Snooki is, but no such fate awaits the regular Times reader, who receives constant updates about their plans, their ratings, their brawls and benders and hookups.
But why? It’s clearly not because the writers like the show (or at least they’re not admitting it). One might argue that it’s just because the Shore is popular, and that is doubtless an element of the obsession. NYT writers love to make guesses about which things imaginary trendy young people care about, then lard their copy with references to those things in hopes that such readers are actually reading it. Philip Galanes is the master of this tactic. But the show’s popularity is not enough to explain the references. Many things are popular — from Larry the Cable Guy to Oprah, from Ugg boots to the Olive Garden, from Shrek to Glenn Beck. Horrible though these individuals and institutions may be, the outrage directed that them is far surpassed by the vitriol reserved for the antics of the tawny-skinned octet.
Rational explanations have failed. Is there a way to make sense of this bizarre fixation that’s less rational, and more psychological? Does the solution lie in the dark corners of the journalistic psyche? Could it be that the writers are projecting their anxieties about intellectual inadequacy and cultural irrelevance onto the characters, deriding them as foolish and contemptible in order to bolster their own fragile self-image? Yes. I’m no Freudian, but this problem calls for one of his theories if anything ever did. And Freud’s concept “narcissism of small difference” fits the situation state of affairs perfectly.
Narcissism of small differences is all about erecting psychic defenses against people you perceive as threateningly similar to you. It’s defined by “sensitiveness to… these details of differentiation” that separate groups. As this book explains, “We compare ourselves carefully with those who are like us–yet in some way different. According to Freud, small differences are an implied or potential criticism of ourselves. Therefore we note carefully what the difference is… and evaluate the situation, usually in such a way that it comes out in our favor.”
How does one make a comparison “in such a way that it comes out in [one’s] favor”? It looks like this: I drink artisanally infused vodka, you drink Ron-Ron juice. I go to lounges, you go to clubs. I buy my clothes at Ann Taylor, you buy your clothes at the Hustler store. I do pilates, you lift weights at the gym. I cook free-range turkey meatballs; you cook chicken parm. I wear self-tanner and bronzer, you wear too much self-tanner and bronzer. I enjoy looking my best and appreciating the finer things in life, you’re a narcissistic hedonist.
And so it goes. What makes it worse is, look who we’re talking about. Lifestyle journalists. People who write thousand-word essays about “vooks,” do their research on Wikipedia, and don’t know what a “percent” is. Their own grasp on highbrow intellectualism is tenuous at best. No wonder their assumed contempt for the Shore gang’s flimsy intellect can seem a little overheated. No wonder they’re “sensitive,” in Freud’s words, to “details of differentiation.”
Time for some examples. New York Times Jersey Shore paranoia began after the show’s very first episodes. In “The Jersey Shore Handbook,” Joshua David Stein shows us that even though he’s writing about reality TV, he’s not an airhead like people who watch reality TV. Why, just listen to the words and concepts he knows! He calls MTV “the music-cum-social-anthropology network.” The what? I knew Skins was raunchy, but I didn’t think things had gone that far. I thought I was the only cum-social anthropologist around here. Just kidding! Seriously, though, I hate when people use “cum” to mean “with.” It’s like in old novels, when the writer uses “ejaculated” to mean “exclaimed.” “Great scott!’, he ejaculated.” Latin fanciers, it’s time to let “cum” go its own way.
He continues, “‘Jersey Shore’ resembles nothing more than American Kabuki theater, a refreshingly solipsistic aesthetic world, a temporary coastal community that’s a bulwark against normative American youth style.” Why does being non-normative make it like Kabuki theater? No time for that now! An intellectual reference has just been made! If you’ve heard of Kabuki, then congratulations: YOU GOT THE REFERENCE. You are now part of a rarefied intellectual community. Those dum-dums on the TV probably think “Kabuki” is a brand of motorcycle.
To construct his piece, Stein uses a popular comedy humor format that you’ve grown to love from old Dave Barry columns, Playboy Magazine‘s “unabashed dictionary,” and your college’s short-lived “satire” publication: Funny definitions. A list of wacky fake dictionary entries could absolutely never, ever become tiresome, especially not when Stein is hilariously telling us what “Jacuzzi” and “Guido” mean. For example, in defining “nickname,” he wittily points out that many of the characters on the show have nicknames. He illustrates this principle with a quote from Mike: “‘The Situation’ is indescribable. You can’t describe ‘The Situation.’ — Michael, ‘The Situation,’ describing the situation, Episode 1.”
Okay, that was funny… because the character said something funny, and Stein quoted it. What else has he got?
He shows himself a true social anthropologist (no “cum” necessary) with his observations about the characters. “During the day, [women’s] hair is usually worn long and straightened, often dyed black or highlighted.” Imagine! long straight hair with highlights! Highlights! This world of Jersey Shore is like stepping through the looking glass into a nightmarish dystopian bizarro world… with flat irons!
It is further revealed that the cast members are tan, sometimes go shirtless, enjoy hooking up, and are known to become inebriated by consuming Ron-Ron juice. The male characters use “lip balm and lip gloss.” All of this is sure to horrify New York Times readers, who have never removed their shirts, engaged in casual sex or consumed alcohol, and take pride in enduring cracked, dry lips with the stoicism of true American patriots. But Stein’s most relevant commentary is reserved for the then-raging controversy over the word “Guido.” “The term has been reappropriated, Judith Butler-style… and now refers to a complex of aesthetic and moral choices made by young Italian-Americans.” Hey, I know who Judith Butler is! But you may wonder: Do any of his readers get the reference? Well, wonder no more. You need only read the comments to find out how many of Stein’s readers know who Judith Butler is. It starts right at comment #4, where reader Emery observes: “Nice Judith Butler reference.” After reading that sentence, how can you continue to doubt Emery’s awareness of Judith Butler? The man knows who Judith Butler is!
In “Surf and Turmoil,” Neil Gantzlinger also has a tried-and-true comedy joke format in which to corral his loathing of the fact that “young people of dubious intelligence and accomplishments” are enjoying a “hormonally charged, alcohol-fueled summer.” Despite the failure of their accomplishments to impress him,* he is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt with his “five reasons to love the show.”
*I’m going to assume he didn’t know at the time that Snooki once delivered a freakin’ calf from a cow. I find this pretty impressive, too.
Actually, the reasons are kind of confusing. He says that the show is making the actual Jersey Shore interesting again, or something (???), and that because its characters are “brash” and “bawdy,” its popularity might cause the Kardashians’ show to be cancelled (????). Then he starts saying how it will provide a good cautionary example for today’s sheltered young people. “They have no idea how much ignorance, narcissism, predatory sexism and hair-gel abuse lurk out there in the real world.” Neil Gantzlinger is really impressing me with his moral gravitas here… he just equated sexism, a millennia-old form of bigotry that has caused incalculable human misery, with bad grammar and a predilection for going to the gym. And he slipped in a Randy Cohen-esque joke about hair gel. Bravo!
Because the characters are so bad, he goes on, people will be moved to take decisive action against whoever’s to blame. “The schools, if any, where they were educated can now be located and shut down…. The gyms and style salons that seduced them with the lie that physical appearance is more important than personality can be picketed and boycotted.” “Style salons”? I’m guessing the person who wrote this sentence has been telling himself that personality is way, way, way more important than physical appearance for a very long time.
His final reason is:
“5. UM, LET’S SEE, THERE’S,
well … All right, so maybe ‘five reasons to like “Jersey Shore”‘ was setting the bar too high. In truth it was hard enough coming up with four.”
OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE. If you’re going to use a hacky, obvious “concept” for your piece, you can at least be an energetic hack and commit to the concept. Come up with five reasons to like the show, and make the fifth one the funniest one. “LOL I couldn’t think of any more examples… because I hate the show so much!” doesn’t actually qualify as a joke. It’s lazy. That’s like if instead of beating up a beat, you sort of pawed at it gently from a supine position. Like if instead of going to the gym and doing laundry, you just put on a pair of Shape-Up shoes and sprayed yourself with Febreze. Like if you pranked somebody by putting, like, one piece of cheese in their bed. In other words, you’re not entertaining. You’re the grenade grundle choad of humorous prose. There’s a reason why you’re not a reality star, Neil Gantzlinger, and it’s not just because your abs look like the underside of a Jacuzzi coated in mozzarella. YOU SUCK.
The show has even prompted Ross Douthat to dip his a tiny, wizened toe into the hot tub of topical humor. “Advertising tonight’s address, the White House opted for ‘the situation in Libya,’ which sounds less like a military intervention than a spin-off vehicle for the famous musclehead from MTV’s ‘Jersey Shore.'” It is funny… because the character calls himself “The Situation.” These people have nicknames. Nicknames!
In an article from July of last year, Cathy Horyn starts with a bang. She begins, “Flake, cow, loser, slut, idiot, airhead, trash, penguin, creep, moron, midget, freak, Oompa-Loompa, nobody.” This sounds like some sort of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem, or the opening of Sapphire’s latest novel, but it’s actually list of epithets that have been applied to Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, the profile’s subject. I applaud this writerly decision; debates about a woman’s attractiveness, height, and sexual history are the very lifeblood of intellectual discourse. But after acknowledging the valuable contributions of internet commenters who think Snooki is an ugly slut, Horyn is frustratingly vague about her own philosophical position on these issues. It’s almost as if she wanted to remain above the fray, critiquing Snooki’s body, intellect and choices while masking her contempt in a register of highbrow detachment that would set her apart from the vulgar muck of bloggers and Youtube trolls. See if you agree!
First, an interview with her dad, Andy Polizzi. (I don’t know why Horyn talked to Snooki’s father before Snooki herself… maybe she thinks it’s more polite? Is she trying to emulate a nineteenth gentleman caller about to propose marriage?). Mr. Polizzi ascribes his daughter’s fame to the fact that she’s a “likeable person,” an opinion that Horyn characterizes as a “worn rut of relatedness and just-folks-like-us celebrity bunkum.” This is why I have nightmares that someday the Times will send a reporter down to Tennessee to interview me. I might make some offhand remark about how people like ice cream because it tastes good, and be described for all posterity as a “bumpkin cornpone hick with gingham Spanx, a raccoon for a pet, and a car that runs on moonshine.”
Anyway, now that we’ve dismissed the “people like her because she’s likeable” hypothesis as a foolish dream of childlike naivete and prelapsarian optimism, it’s time to discuss the show. Apparently some people find it uncultured. “”The adventures of the most irrelevant people on earth,’ as someone wrote recently on a gossip blog. And even viewers who claim to love ‘Jersey Shore’ usually find it hard to say why.” I can only assume this absolutely does not mean Horyn asked a bunch of people why they watch that horrible show, they gave her perfectly lucid answers, and she tossed the answers down the ol’ memory hole right away because they didn’t sound smart enough. Cathryn Horyn would never do that. She seems… humble.
“Everything about this show is super-sized — from the over-the-top hair to the over-the-top nature of the comments,” said Robert J. Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. If you can’t tell, he’s an avid fan. ‘”Jersey Shore” is brilliantly cast and, of course, Snooki is the star,’ he said.” This person sounds perfectly capable of explaining why he likes the show. But he’s a professor, so that’s why. Don’t try this at home!
For her part, Horyn isn’t burdened by the crippling inarticulateness that afflicts the MTV-addled American masses. She has many strong opinions — on Snooki’s looks. “She’s short, drawing our attention like a berserk windup toy.” “That Snooki is not conventionally attractive — ‘A spray-painted Chihuahua,’ Mike (The Situation) said when he first saw her — has a lot to do with why she is the breakout member of the cast. She is busty and short-waisted with small legs; sort of like a turnip turned on its tip.” Now, that is high-class journalism. I wish more people would follow Horyn’s example. Paul Krugman hardly ever uses his column to poke fun at how funny-looking short people are, and he’s only won one Nobel Prize. Coincidence?
Next, the discussion turns to styling choices. “‘With a blank look, [Snooki] shrugged. ‘Me, I like the pouf. I’m still going to rock it.'” To be fair, she was probably looking “blank” because a someone with a Master’s Degree in journalism just asked her a probing question about a hairstyle. I don’t know if this “blank look” problem is a common occurrence in Horyn’s life, but here’s a good rule of thumb: If people respond to your questions by staring at you in horrified incomprehension more often than, say, once a week, it’s not because they’re all really dumb.
“Snooki has a way of putting herself together that while in some ways is atrocious, is completely identifiable to her and consistent with her attention-seeking personality.” That sentence “while in some ways is atrocious,” too. Here’s another rule of thumb: If you’re going to critique someone for being attention-seeking, only do it in a publication with a circulation of less than 30 million. It’s less ironic that way.
“She wears short, clingy dresses in a pattern or with some metallic trim, huge enameled or bejeweled hoop earrings and glittery high heels.” The hoop earrings would be bad enough, but a pattern? Of all forms of trim, metallic trim is known to be the most slatternly, and rightly so. Who would seek to inflame the vile lusts of man with such gaudy attire? Don’t women veil themselves in modesty and shamefacedness anymore? Say, what kind of Quaker meeting house is this?
“Lots of 22-year-old women wear revealing clothes, but they may not have her body shape, and it’s a safe bet they’re not rocking a pouf.” I’m confused. Do you mean “may not” as in, it’s theoretically possible to have a different body shape than Snooki, while also wearing clothes? Or “may not” as in, it’s not permissible for someone so fat to wear those clothes? This article is like a Perez Hilton blog post written in code. Whatever the high-class version is of drawing a penis on someone’s face in MS Paint, I fully expect to see it next.
“Trying to hold a conversation with Snooki is a little like getting down on your hands and knees with a child. You have to come down to her level, and sometimes you almost think you need to bribe her with a piece of candy to coax her to be more responsive.” This is like the “blank look” dilemma, part II. I can’t imagine why Snookki didn’t want to get into an intense philosophical discussion with you, after the insightful ideas you’ve been sharing with her. It reminds me of a famous quotation by Samuel Johnson. “Last week, I saw a woman flayed, and you would hardly believe how much she was shaped like a turnip turned upside down, except with tiny little legs.” Isn’t there a part in Kant’s Metaphysical Principles of Virtue where he talks about the proper types of attire for apple-, pear,- and turnip-shaped body types? Or am I thinking of Schopenhauer?
Anyway, Snooki is taken to task for having poor self-control and (again!) wanting attention. “Not surprisingly, Snooki is an only child, adopted when 6 months old.” These are some astute psychology diagnoses! If I do a phone interview with you, will you guess my zodiac sign? How about Tarot readings?
Then, shocking journalism scoop: Snooki is spoiled. “Her parents do everything for her — her laundry, her cooking.” The show’s producer is saying it’s normal for Italian-Americans to rely on their parents. “Talking to Ms. Salsano, who is from Farmingdale, on Long Island, made me more sympathetic about the cast.” Well, I can see how you’d have been unsympathetic at first. It’s easy to be resentful of all Snooki’s privileges when, like Horyn, you’ve spent years ekeing out a hardscrabble existence as a Barnard college undergrad, Vanity Fair editor, and NY Times fashion reporter. Hey wait a minute, don’t you like, get into Marc Jacobs shows for free? And get invites to Diane von Furstenburg’s exclusive parties? And you’re bitching about someone else getting a free load of laundry? These critiques are getting weirder and weirder… is this some sort of gonzo journalism?
Another source of complaint is Horyn’s continuing befuddlement about “Snooki’s strange appeal.” “Part of the problem is that she can’t explain it herself. She simply isn’t capable of serious introspection.” She’s supposed to explain why other people like watching her on TV? I don’t think you know what “introspection” means.
“She told me she has read only two books in her life, ‘Twilight’ and ‘Dear John.'” Well, that’s damning. Part of being a sophisticated intellectual is that you only can like other sophisticated intellectuals who have lots of degrees and read a lot of books. I know that from reading George Eliot. In one of her finest essays, she observes: “A really cultured woman, like a really cultured man, is all the simpler and less obtrusive for her knowledge…. She does not make it a pedestal from which she flatters herself that she commands a complete view of men and things, but makes it a point of observation from which to form a right estimate of herself…. She does not give you information, which is the raw material of culture — she gives you sympathy, which is its subtlest essence. Just kidding, sympathy is for fatties!”
Meanwhile, Horyn has gotten her token Jersey Shore fan, the professor, to waspishly state that “I certainly wouldn’t want to be stuck in an elevator with [Snooki].” “‘We don’t even know how to define what Snooki is so good at,’ he said.” These people sure do love to be mystified! Nicole Polizzi defines definition… I GUESS WE’LL JUST NEVER KNOW why the originator of quotes like “I think I broke my vagina bone,” “I hate the ocean, it’s all whale sperm,” and “I look like a hot drunk baseball player, and I’m loving it!” is considered likeable in the public eye. In the spirit of the Times, I’ll conclude by saying: I don’t even know how to define what is so bad about this article. And I wouldn’t want to be stuck in an elevator with Cathryn Horyn.
Some of the problems with the New York Times are nebulous and diffuse. The writers’ tone can seem kind of smug and suck-uppy. They write about rich people too much. They care way too much about iPhones and hipsters and artisanal axes and stuff. Yet none of these things are wrong, exactly. It’s not incorrect to write that a man in TriBeCa is crafting beautiful handmade “urban axes,” as indeed he is. Yet some claims and ideas in the Times aren’t just annoying; they’re concretely, satisfyingly wrong. That is what we’ll be looking at today. How many kinds of wrongness are there in Times articles, and what form do they take?
Michael Leviton is a New York musician and author who has a children’s book forthcoming from Hyperion next year. The video above gives you an idea of his worldview: It features accordion and glockenspiel, warbly soprano vocals, and lyrics about how all the normal beautiful people are having fun in the summertime but the speaker is lonely and disillusioned because he’s so quirky, unique and sensitive. The video contributes to the atmosphere, spinning a nostalgic yarn about a 1940’s sailor who falls in love with an emaciated mermaid and is lured by her coquetry to a watery grave. I posted it on my Facebook page, and one music fan was moved to comment on the song’s “incoherent lyrics, extremely amateurish singing, and worst of all, an acoustic guitar (technically ukulele) with which absolutely nothing interesting is done,” observing that “Benjamin Franklin invented electricity for a reason.” I think it sounds like an imitation of parody of a Stephen Merritt/Belle and Sebastien cover band. You might like it, though!
Why am I telling you about Michael Leviton? Because he is the author of the latest “Modern Love,” and the subject of this post. But before looking at his writing, let me shift gears for a moment. Why do people write embarrassing stuff about themselves? Everyone has done dumb stuff they feel bad about, but why publish it for all the world? It’s hard to say. Yet autobiography, memoir and standup comedy would all be impossible without the speaker’s penitential urge to be bracingly honest. No one wants to read a story about how you went to Stanford, didn’t do drugs, got a job at a financial firm, bought a Prius, and married someone just as upwardly mobile as you. Or maybe they do, if you’re in the New York Times wedding pages, but that doesn’t make it interesting. So it’s lucky we have some writers who feel compelled to tell the ugly truth.
The New York Times has much to offer that is not worthy of hatred. Within the US, International, Local and Business sections, there is a wealth of informative coverage of the world around us — “news,” if you will. Why, then, do we return again and again to the Styles section, again and again to be disappointed? What is the true purpose of the Styles section? What is it doing next to all those other sections, and why can’t we just throw it away? Well, I’ll tell you why. The Styles section (and the Magazine, and T the fashion magazine) is far from extraneous. These sections have news to transmit, albeit more ineffable and subjective than that which you’ll find in the “A” section. The tidings they bring are about our lives, here in the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century: How are mores and manners shifting? how are we changing? how is technology changing us? and how we should feel about it all? These sections help us make sense of it. Their subject is (hip, urban, upper-middle-class) humanity itself. They may be vapid, but they are dear to our hearts.
But what answers do the Styles section and the Magazine really give? Below, I analyze a selection of pieces from this Sunday. I will extract the conclusion or “moral” each piece offers, and we’ll see if any patterns emerge.
We’ll start with Randy Cohen’s latest. Randy Cohen writes a column called “The Ethicist,” in which he advises readers on morally significant decisions. His qualifications to do this are that he has a B.A. in music and is an “Emmy-winning humorist,” although I suppose he’d be just as ineffectual if he had a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard. There’s something reassuring about his lack of credentials, though. If you don’t like Cohen’s ethico-philosophical worldview, you can feel free to ignore it, because he’s just some guy.
I remember Cohen best for the column in which he asserted that “nobody should attend strip clubs, those purveyors of sexism as entertainment. Strip shows are to gender what minstrel shows are to race.” That’s a nice analogy, because think about it. Minstrel shows were a form of traveling variety show enjoyed by multiracial audiences in the 1800’s and early years of the 1910’s. They gave many talented black musicians, actors and comedians a chance to succeed as professional artists, yet also forced them to perform degrading caricatures of blackness for the benefit of their white spectators. If everyone had boycotted minstrel shows, these black artists would have been able to… go back to cotton sharecropping! Thus bringing about an end to racism. Similarly, boycotting strip clubs would help the women’s movement by putting a bunch of single moms out of work. Why am I comparing these two things, again?
Don’t get me wrong, I think Cohen should following his personal moral compass on this issue. As a feminist, I would never want to go to a strip club with Randy Cohen.
This week Cohen is at it again with the milquetoast-y pronouncements. Someone writes in saying they don’t spank their kids, but have been asked by friends to spank their kids “when they are playing at our house and misbehave.” Cohen says they don’t have to:
Many parents are militant in defense of their putative right to discipline their children as they see fit: with a sound thrashing. But conversely, your friends may not impose their Neanderthal parenting practices on you…. When you [tell them] that, you probably ought not mention that spanking is banned or restricted in 22 countries. Such facts will only irritate them. (And you should avoid the word ‘Neanderthal.’) Parents can be so prickly. Here in America, most people believe it is a fine thing to beat children, as long as you employ the accepted euphemism, ‘spanking,’ and are the child’s parent. (A similar justification was once applied to spousal abuse.)
Actually, I kind of love that Randy Cohen exists. It is a rare writer who can make a person like me — someone who goes to graduate school, drinks Starbucks Via and gets one hundred e-mails a day from MoveOn.com — feel like a flag-waving mama grizzly Hell’s Angel rebel. Don’t tell me not to spank my kids, you pantywaist! I’m not gonna let some Liberal fascist feminazi communist Canadian Al Gore-hugger tell me how to raise my kids! I almost can’t wait to have kids, just so I can start spanking them (moderately) (in cases of extraordinary disobedience). Don’t Tread on Me! Live free or die tryin’! You’ll pry this imaginary gun out of my cold, dead hands! I’ll put a boot up your ass, it’s the American way!
Moral: Don’t spank kids, don’t go to strip clubs.
Up next, “Out and About: Cruising the Caribbean.” This piece argues that “cruise ship food doesn’t have to be bad.” “Qsine’s approach is high tech and high concept. The menu, with a lineup of small bites — or food to be shared — is presented on an iPad, through which each diner scrolls to select his favorites…. For dessert, the options are presented in a Rubik’s cube-like puzzle. Shift the boxes around and reveal ‘The Cupcake Affair,’ four cakes with do-it-yourself sauces and garnishes.”
Moral: The next time you’re planning a luxury cruise, hold out for one with gourmet meals.
“TV Right-Sizes 3D” by Virginia Heffernan. “In deciding whether to buy one of the new, ludicrously cool 3-D TVs — some of which won’t even require special glasses — ask yourself a serious question: Do you like your entertainment in front of you, inside your body or all around you?” Um… are you sure that’s really what you meant to ask me? That’s a very very… intimate topic! A penetrating question, if you will! I’ll take the second one.
Moral: Buy a 3D TV immediately, unless you’d rather just fuck.
Social Q’s. Someone writes in to Galanes complaining that their daughter (apparently of high school age) is dressing “trampy.” He responds: “We don’t want your little girl mistaken for a hooker as she waits for the school bus. Horns of a dilemma, right?” Anyone who would mistake a student waiting at the bus stop for a “hooker” is probably not a reliable arbiter of youth fashion, anyway. Galanes suggests a way for the parent get perspective on the situation: “Drive over to your daughter’s school and take a hard look at what the other girls are wearing.” Yes. There is no more welcome sight on the high school campus than an adult cruising around the parking lot, taking a “hard look” at the female students. You might want to take the family van, in case a couple of those girls needs a ride! Teenage girls can be shy, so don’t hesitate to ask. Some of them might need painkillers for their menstrual cramps, so try yelling “WANT SOME DRUGS?” at them to get their attention. Let me know how this goes.
As for the daughter in questions, “set reasonable limits: blouses three inches above the nipple line.” Nipple “line”? It’s a circle, Galanes, a circle! I knew none of these guys had ever seen a naked woman. “And save those mini minis and four-inch heels for 11th Avenue, not home room.” Is anyone else creeped out by all these references to someone’s “little girl” becoming a prostitute? Galanes is not an “edgy” humorist; he cannot transition easily from anodyne gags about old sitcoms to statutory-rape jokes. Also, the vast majority of women you see wearing skimpy or revealing clothing are not prostitutes. Galanes must be a barrel of fun at cocktail parties, though. “Pardon me, madam, that’s a lovely pair of boots! Didn’t I see you wearing them earlier on the corner of 28th and Lexington?”
“”Keep her safe, but let her express herself, too.” “Safe”? From what, nipple-line frostbite? Oh wait, I get it… from rapists, against whom the only impregnable defense is modest clothing. No man would be so beastly as to victimize a woman with the mouth-watering three inches above her nipples covered up.
Moral for girls: Don’t dress trampy, or bad men will rape you. Moral for parents: Go to the high school and check out all the trampy chicks!
“What ‘Modern Family’ Says About Modern Families,” Bruce Fiedler. “In his 1964 book ‘Understanding Media,’ Marshall McLuhan helped define the modern age with his phrase, ‘The medium is the message.’ Were he here nearly 50 years later, the critic would hardly be surprised to discover that in the most talked-about sitcom of the moment, the medium has become the punch line.”
Moral: You should watch Modern Family because it holds a mirror up to your techno-savvy, upper-middle-class lifestyle. Also, Bruce Fiedler is an intellectual.
“MTV’s Naked Calculation Gone Bad,” David Carr. This article chronicles the problems MTV has caused by itself by airing the controversial show Skins. “What if one day you went to work and there was a meeting to discuss whether the project you were working on crossed the line into child pornography? You’d probably think you had ended up in the wrong room. [DRAMATIC PARAGRAPH BREAK.] And you’d be right.” Wouldn’t I actually be wrong, if I worked for MTV, and we were being accused of violating child pornography statutes, which is what this scenario is all about? Oh, never mind.
Carr is in a moral panic about this show. To be sure, “MTV didn’t invent ‘friends with benefits’ [or] oral sex as the new kiss.” Man, I’d like to see a profile on the guy who invented oral sex as the new kiss. Now that’d be a trend piece I could get behind, am I right? LOL! That guy is responsible for so many cold sores. Here we are wasting time on this stupid Skins show, while a much more sinister figure lurks in the darkness of anonymity. He’s like the huge cocaine kingpin who gets rich and hangs out on a yacht in Miami, while all the little neighborhood crack dealers get prison time.
“The self-described ‘Guidos’ and ‘Guidettes’ of ‘Jersey Shore,’ MTV’s breakout hit, have probably already set some kind of record for meaningless sex.” Gratuitous Jersey Shore reference alert! The “record” for meaningless sex was probably set by some gay dude on Fire Island in 1978. Still, it’s helpful to have David Carr around, weighing in on how much “meaning” other people’s sexual experiences should have.
“MTV leaves it to real-life parents to explain that sometimes, when a car goes underwater, nobody survives and that a quick hookup with cute boy at the party may deliver a sexually transmitted disease along with a momentary thrill.” Or… they could just use condoms? I am not joking right now. Actually kind of mad that the paper of record is resorting to scary metaphors straight out of an abstinence-only classroom to demonize young people’s sexuality.
Moral: Don’t watch Skins; don’t have sex or you’ll die of STDs and drown in a car.
“On the Street: X Factor,” Bill Cunningham. This is that weird collage of half-inch fashion pictures. “Every era has a defining stance, and at present, it is standing with your legs crossed, like a model or a dancer en pointe. The key to the look is the ankle boot, some with platforms and stiletto heels.”
Moral: You’re not standing right. Go buy some Christian Louboutin ankle boots.
Meta-moral: The lesson I take away from all this is that we live in a time of great opportunity, yet also great danger. This era is exciting, because innovations like 3D televisions, gourmet Caribbean cruise cupcakes, and Christian Louboutin booties are available to all, except people who don’t have a combined total of $16,299.98 to spend on them. It is terrifying, because raunchy television shows, hookup culture, unrestrained oral sex and scantily clad young women are undermining the very fabric of the society in which we live. Yikes! But no matter how bad things get, pseudointellectual theorizing and half-assed social commentary are here to stay. The Styles section will never die.