Everyone always makes such a big deal about search engine optimization, but I don’t see anything impressive about it. Search engine optimization is easy. For instance, let’s say you’re a blogger, and you have a target audience who is interested in a variety of topics, such as “David Brooks idiot,” “David Brooks stupid,” “David Brooks hack,” “David Brooks asshole,” “David Brooks dickhead,” “David Brooks imbecile,” “David Brooks sucks,” “David Brooks wack,” “worst David Brooks,” “David Brooks waste of organic matter,” and “fire David Brooks.” Just create blog posts about those topics, using those words, and internet success will be yours! Continue reading “The Two Stupid Faces of David Brooks: David Brooks Is an Idiot, Part III”
Picture an educated, culturally literate member of the upper middle class. Someone who’s in touch with art, cuisine, music, literature. This person has a professional job and lives in an urban center. Overall, her or his lot in life is a fortunate one. But this person isn’t getting any younger. The carefree undergraduate days of doing drugs and staying up until the dawn are over — five, ten, maybe even twenty-five years in the past. This person could slide gracefully into obsolescence and let the younger generation have their outlandish trends, but that option isn’t too appealing. After all, in Today’s Globally Connected World of Social Media, each vicissitude of taste is on display, vulnerable to critique by people who are skinnier and go to more parties. Any evidence of lameness will be immediately noted and remembered forever. This person feels painfully exposed! In these circumstances, keeping up to date feels essential — even as it becomes more unattainable with each Pitchfork Music Festival that goes by.
Does this sound familiar? Yes, New York Times reader, it’s a description of you! Or so the typical New York Times culture writer appears to believe. Maybe it isn’t. But it’s definitely a description of the typical New York Times culture writer. And these authors’ thoughts on the issues of relevance, timeliness and hipness are instructive. Because they are offered up to the gaze of millions of readers, their struggles for cool are those of the average social media user, writ large. In the case of these beleaguered scribes (though hopefully not the rest of us), the result is a hideous vicious cycle of self-conscious navel-gazing, ironic quipping, defensive posturing, and counterintuitive trend-prognisticating designed to make the writer feel ahead of the curve.
Hence all the articles about “New Speakeasy in Bushwick” and “Meditation is the New Botox” and whatnot. This discourse’s ostensible purpose is to help us understand the trending topics of today, so we can feel like the stylish young things we once were. But cultural phenomena are ephemeral, appearing and disappearing like the wind. And no one really cares about a new line of cruelty-free fountain pen ink or artisanal baking soda, anyway. Paying attention to the pieces’ actual subject matter does us no good. If we wish to grasp the essence of New York Timesian cool, we must get beyond the minutia to the “deep structure” that underlies it.
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.
“The problem is it’s… I can’t think of a word to describe it. It’s… well, bizarre doesn’t even come close. Senseless doesn’t get close. I can’t identify a reason why it was written. I can’t figure out what inspired Brooks to write it, well, other than he had to write something. I don’t know who he expected to read it and comprehend it. I don’t even know how he expected the editors at the New York Times to actually publish it…. There is nothing that broaches sanity that explains this piece. There is literally no reason for it. The who, why, when, where, what, there isn’t any of that in it. The relevance to anything, it’s not.”
— Description of a David Brooks column by… Rush Limbaugh?!
Rush was describing one of Brooks’s occasional forays into film criticism (“The Flock Comedies“). But his critiques could apply equally to any Brooks column. Truly, as he says, there is nothing that broaches sanity that explains anything in his oeuvre, there’s no reason for it, and the relevance to anything, it’s not. These comments find Limbaugh in a strangely reasonable mode, conveying the reaction of a sane, intelligent reader on encountering a tissue of banality. In oxycontin, veritas.
But Rush’s opiate-addled ramblings, while true, aren’t specific enough. There are many flavors of inane claptrap, many ways to broach sanity and reduce people to indignant sentence fragments. In his prolific career, Brooks has discovered them all. Below, I provide a taxonomy.
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.”
“‘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, Bitch. Growing 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.
“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.
Despite his cushy spot on the back page of the “A” section, David Brooks isn’t just interested in slamming Obama’s foreign policy and defending the Bush tax cuts. Brooks is just as eager to torment his readers with vague, knee-jerk reactions to movies, technology, sexuality, fashion trends, and philosophy. Indeed, that’s the second reason why the Brooks oeuvre is so hard to take. It encapsulates everything that’s bad about bad NYT writing: Pop-culture references that don’t make sense, high-culture references deployed to no purpose, sexism disguised as high-mindedness, fear of sex, ambivalent fascination with technology, unthinking science worship, and ignorance of history, all encased in a veneer of moderation and likeableness
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.
Stanley Fish is a professor of humanities and law. He’s hella old, but instead of retiring to Florida, he did the next best thing: Got a job writing editorials for the New York Times. Oh, and took an academic job in Florida. Before that, he taught at UC Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke and University of Illinois, Chicago. During his protracted journeyings around this great nation, he’s built an intellectual reputation for advancing anti-foundationalism and extreme relativism. Not the fake kind of relativism, where it just means you like gay people and disagree with Glenn Beck, but the real kind, where you go around like a dickhead telling everyone that truth doesn’t exist and human nature is just a bunch of historically contingent cultural norms.
Looking at his Wikipedia page, I find that critiques of his philosophical stance are legion. For instance, Judith Shulevitz reports Fish “rejects wholesale the concepts of ‘fairness, impartiality, reasonableness,'” Terry Eagleton “excoriates Fish’s ‘discreditable epistemology’ as ‘sinister,'” and Martha Nussbaum says he “‘relies on the regulative principle of non-contradiction in order to adjudicate between competing principles,’ thereby relying on normative standards of argumentation even as he argues against them.” I’m glad someone finally said something! That’s basically what I was going to point out myself, but I didn’t want to be the first to one bring it up.
Knowing that Fish’s discreditable epistemology and regulative principle of non-contradiction have been duly addressed, we can turn with an easy conscience to this blog’s rightful concern: His writing for the Times. Specifically, his sentences. Fish is a master of sentences, having authored the recent volume How to Write a Sentence. So it’s fitting that we look to his methods for guidance and instruction. What kind of sentences can a world-famous Milton scholar, teacher to generations of young minds, and distinguished commentator for the Paper of Record turn out?
Love has always proved a difficult subject for NYT writers to tackle. Having existed for over 50,000 years, long before the beginning of recorded human history, it cannot be convincingly described as a “trend.” It could even be said defy trends, outlasting all epochs, regimes, reigns, administrations, and empires. It’s a human universal! That is all very inspiring, but poses difficulties for the Styles scribes, who have a paradigm that — while perfectly serviceable when men’s eyebrow grooming appointments go up 8 percent between 2009 and 2010, or some such — lacks explanatory power when dealing with with time frames in the tens of thousands of years.
Are trend pieces the only option? No. If you want to explain the vagaries of affection to Styles readers, you could turn to another perennial format, the one that I call “article about a press release.” Specifically, an article about a press release about a scientific study, a study that is about something of interest to Styles readers. Creating an AAAPR(AASS) is easy, because all you have to do is read the one-age press release, paraphrase what it says, and add in some Jersey Shore references. You don’t have to weigh conflicting opinions and reach an independent conclusion, or read a bunch of relevant scientific work in the field, or even read the one scientific work that the article is about. Just summarize the press release, and bam, you’re a Science Reporter, using all kinds of cool words like “hypothesize” and “control group.” Science is great!
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?