Monday, April 13, 2009

The Taming of the Snark

The blogosphere has been somewhat atwitter (and likely Twitter-ing) about the recent book written by New Yorker film critic David Denby entitled, simply, Snark. In said book, Denby complains at length about the negative impact that "snark", which he holds out to be a primarily Internet phenomenon, is having on our discourse. Needless to say, many online writers have ravaged the book (and in many cases, been downright snarky about doing it)--ranging from complaints about Denby's politics (mostly liberal), to his alleged Ivory Tower attitudes; at least one writer berated him for excessive name-dropping and boasting about his culinary choices. (Suffice it to say, Mr Denby doesn't likely eat at Denny's very often).

I seldom read Denby or the New Yorker. Not that I dislike either; they just doesn't rise above my cut line. As a left-coaster, the arts and culture scene in the Big Apple isn't terribly interesting to me (I fully realize that quite a few folks are of the opinion that anyone in the US with a brain ought to care about the New York cultural scene--regardless of where they in fact live--but that's their problem, not mine). Denby does appear, from many accounts, to be the epitome of a certain subcultural stereotype--the "limousine liberal"--which is frequently flogged in right-wing media (media which frequently go well beyond "snark", and are not the least but subtle in their full-frontal denunciations of that which they oppose).

Many critics of the book have suggested that Denby is merely the latest member of the professional commentariat (and/or their dedicated readership) to bemoan the rise of the "cult of the amateur". This line of argument holds that the amateurism enabled by the Web has resulted in a decline in the quality of the media, as professionals are displaced by amateurs. Others deride this as nonsense, as the whining of a formerly-privileged elite being knocked off their pedestals (and disconnected from their revenue streams). Certainly, in these days of "Web 2.0" (a term I rather dislike), the barriers to entry to commentary have been demolished. This is especially true for punditry and criticism--something which any of us can now do in our living rooms, without the benefit of an employer who has a printing press and a subscriber base. As far as film criticism goes, Rotten Tomatoes is probably far more relevant to most moviegoers than is Denby; although I suspect Denby wouldn't have it any other way. Regardless, that horse left the barn years ago; if this is what upsets Denby, he is howling at the weather at this time.

Despite all that, I do think that Denby has a valid point--there is an unhealthy level of meanness and contempt in our public discourse. The Web, and amateur writers and publishers, aren't entirely to blame, of course--talk radio and TV has been a virtual sewer of vitriol since before there was a World Wide Web. I must to confess to watching Morton Downey Jr. as a teenager back in the 1980s, and rather enjoying it. Of course, Mort was merely Donahue turned up to 11, and from a conservative rather than liberal point of view. Lots of snark and nastiness and such can be found in the elite media as well. To suggest that "snark" is a recent phenomenon is in error, as is to blame it on bloggers and the like. Nor is nastiness an attribute of a particular political faction--the likes of Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, and the late Susan Sontag could all get just as down and dirty as Limbaugh or Malkin or Coulter.

All that aside, nastiness is there--and it is corrosive. Many writers (and readers) correlate nastiness with level of outrage. Unfortunately, it's far simpler to pen a withering ridicule of something or someone, than it is to write a sensible and fair-minded critique of it--and many commentators, professional and amateur alike, have found it a useful tactic to turn the dial up to 11 and leave it there. I've certainly been guilty of this in the past, and will probably succumb to this temptation in the future--it's just far too easy. Whereas with interpersonal conversation, the act of saying something to someone's face will often cause you to soften the edges, the interpersonal nature of writing (whether online, or for a dead tree publication) insulates a writer from his/her target.

Rather than questioning a politicians policies--their integrity and loyalty are instead called into question. If you believed all the political rhetoric out their; you'd be convinced that one of the major US political parties is composed of traitors and parasites; the other of sellouts and troglodytes. Even in the realm of film criticism--Denby's day job--it's far too easy for critics to hurl insults at the cast and crew, comments which go far beyond fair criticism of the performance or production. And when this is done, ad nauseum, then it raises the bar for the next truly withering review or analysis, which must dive deeper into the mud to "stand out" among the noise and have a chance at making its point. The effect of nastiness is further multiplied in the context of politics, where the targets and their supporters will have ample opportunity to return fire.

Denby is dead right when he complains that excessive meanness is damaging to our public conversation. However, he is dead wrong in his diagnosis of the cause. Amateurism isn't the cause of nastiness-- professional commentators frequently produce stuff which is just as mean. In some cases, the presence of an editor (or lawyer), or the delays inherent in going to print, will tone things down--but for many professionally-produced media, the editor actually helps sharpen the blade, and the commercial demands of for-profit media calls for more sensational content, not less. (US libel law is quite friendly to publishers and writers, especially when it comes to politicians). Even if we could somehow make the Internet go away--or at least once again raise the bar to entry--there would still be plenty of writers who are members of the club, who would be more than happy to continue slinging mud.

Ultimately, though, nastiness is so commonplace in the field of commentary because it's what readers, viewers, and listeners want. Democrats who get upset when Rush Limbaugh spends an entire hour hurling insults at Barack Obama, often cackle with glee when it's George Bush or Sarah Palin being splattered with rhetorical feces. Vice versa, ad infinitum. I'm actually pessimistic about finding a media-centric solution to the problem, as the sort of draconian techniques which would be needed to curtail inflammatory commentary on the producers side, simply aren't going to happen. (First Amendment and all that). Barring that, the people will be provided with what they desire.

Perhaps if we as a culture reach a stage where there is no demand for excessive nastiness--where the offerings of Malkin and Moore are widely viewed as refuse that only a kook or a nutjob would touch--then, I'd have hope. There are certain forms of discourse that appear to be out of bounds--but the topics they address are for the most part disjoint with mainstream American politics. President Obama seems to want to move the country in this direction--and his efforts so far seem genuine. Whether or not they will be successful is another matter--there is still lots of mud being flung across the aisle in both direction. But in the end, it is up to us.

If we, as a society, want the nastiness to end, then it is we who have to turn the page, change the channel, or click the back button whenever we see it. The media, professional and amateur alike, exists mainly to serve its customers--but they don't care what we "want" (in the abstract). They care what we are willing to buy.

Money (and page hits) are what talks. And we are speaking loud and clear.

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