Wednesday, February 26, 2014

"Can I Get An 'Amen' For Moderation?"

I used to like Maureen Dowd, meaning I enjoyed reading her columns, not that I liked her personally.  I do not know her personally.  I just thought she was smart and articulate, which is another way of saying that she thinks and writes not that differently that me. 

Then, Maureen Dowd started calling the president “Barry”, and berating him for being insufficiently aggressive in furthering his agenda, a position many of the president’s disgruntled followers also held, but Maureen Dowd seemed more nasty about it, her burgeoning vindictiveness conjuring “payback” for some White House snubbing, which I do not know is true, it simply appeared that way from her insistently retributory tone.

The president got her back when he held forth at a recent “White House Correspondents' Dinner”:

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Maureen Dowd said I could solve all my problems if I were just more like Michael Douglas in The American President.  And I know Michael is here tonight.  Michael, what’s your secret, man?  Could it be you were an actor in an Aaron Sorkin liberal fantasy?

So, “Bam!” and “Bam!” back at’cha!

In this context – and I could actually have started here, but I could not resist including that joke, not ‘cause it shot down Maureen Dowd, but because it’s a spectacular joke in all respects – not long ago, in a recent New York Times column, Maureen Dowd took a position favoring “snarkiness” – including imaginably her own – not by defending “snarkiness” itself, but by attacking its opposite –  “smarminess” – which, according to her column, refers to being unnecessarily effusive, and – since “nobody can be that nice” – insincerely complimentary. 

Dowd’s column drew attention to an ongoing literary tussle between the prevailing ethos of “snark”, which writer Heidi Julavits deplored as “a reflexive disorder”, and those on the other end of the critical spectrum who believe that “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

To exemplify the latter position, Maureen Dowd offered the example of writer and magazine founder Dave Eggers who, in an interview in the Harvard Advocate, confessed that being a critic, as he had once been, “came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy.”  Eggers went on to urge his student audience: 

“Do you dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them.”

In rebuttal to what she characterized as the “vapid niceness brigade”, Maureen Dowd offered an essay in Gawker (I do not know what that is) by Tom Scocca, taking the position that, given the two alternatives, “snark” is better than “smarm.”

To which I reply,

“Hey, Tom (and Maureen Dowd, by association), those aren’t the only alternatives.”

(And, by the way, they have nothing to do with how passionately you feel, or how under attack your beliefs, at the moment, are.  “Snark” and “smarm” are simply the condiments of self-expression.  They are not about “what” – meaning what you believe; they are only about “how”, meaning how you communicate what you believe. 

To me – though apparently less so to others – the “how” matters.  A lot.  It is not only about, as Maureen Dowd argues in her final paragraph, the “actual privilege to take a side {in an important quarrel}.”  It is also about the way you do it.  It seems to me that, in her column, Maureen Dowd mistakenly mixed those two important issues together.)

A column delineating the argument of “Which is the better extreme?” excludes, without consideration, the array of defensible positions between the two poles.  I am entirely aware – and painfully so, since it contributed mightily to the ending of my career – that “Extremes sell!” – and that columns about extremes attract attention – and sometimes even “counter-column” responses – but, to me, it feels creepy, scary, uncomfortable and sad that, in a conversation about criticism, the argument is restricted to two far-flung – and highly questionable – alternatives.

The question for me is not, “Is ‘snark’ superior to ‘smarm’, or vice versa”? 

The question is:

“Have we, while conscientiously standing up for what we believe, abandoned the possibility of anything else?”


Canda said...

Well, I agree that we should always challenge our beliefs and opinions, but I see none of that happening in the Democratic or Republican party. Nor do I see it in the two cable networks that represent their views, MSNBC and Fox.

Snarkiness is king.

The joke you so admire that the President told about Maureen Dowd, frankly seems like overkill on his part, and a reaction to criticism that is not that healthy. You're the President. Do what you think is right, no matter who cares.

I have found the Obama Presidency operating usually as a reaction to critical voices (from both sides), with a large degree of PR, and very little real direction.

As you know from creating TV shows, they succeed when the main character has a strong point of view.

JED said...

I'll give you an 'amen' for moderation, Earl. In spite of the better press the extremes get (and most of the stories and movies), it's the moderates who get things done.

And Marty even won four Academy Awards. So, moderates can do well in the movies. Once in a while.

Paula Deen Martin said...

It was the White House Correspondents Dinner, and the Pres. did exactly what he and other Presidents have done since this event began. He was at times, very good; and at times, well, he needed better writers. It's available on YouTube, all 23:15 seconds. His shot at Dowd was well earned.

Overall, on the snark v. smarm issue - we're still wallowing in the Shock-Jock Syndrome, and as long as it's the Shock that gets the most attention, we'll continue to wallow.

Now let's all get over to the Palm rest. and beat the shit out of that clown who was so rude to you!