So this Tom Scocca essay on smarm is entertainingly executed and much-needed, even if it’s hardly the first time these arguments have been made, and even if there’s no small amount of hypocrisy in its appearance on Gawker. (Nick Denton presenting himself as some kind of warrior against the elite is, of course, a special kind of horseshit.) But a broadside that handles, in one fell swoop, Dave Eggers, David Denby, Niall Ferguson and Upworthy is something I am fated to love.
Freddie more or less agrees: it’s a “perfect argument in and of itself,” he says, and then plunges into yet another taxonomy of the online status-reinforcement circuit of which he is an excellent if somewhat overly obsessed critic. I would like to think I understand and second his allergy to groupthink and elite self-congratulation, and try to do so publicly when he is the unfair target of the resentment machine’s sneering.
But I guess we have a different sense of when certain genres of criticism that may be vital reach a point of diminishing return. In fact, his criticisms of Scocca are so meta and nitpicky that I struggle to see an argument that isn’t part of the infinite spiral of making a bigger deal out of the social position of the writer than the substance of their argument. That’s what I think this is really about with Freddie—“not authentic enough” people getting on his turf—but we’ll come back to that.
The criticisms, the best I can tell, are something like:
1. Scocca’s tone and pose are too self-righteous considering that he is subsidized by the very shit he’s attacking. Freddie would have preferred “a little awareness” of the extent to which Scocca is implicated in this dialectic.
2. Too many people—or perhaps too many of the wrong people—liked what Scocca wrote and praised him for it publicly. Scocca knew this would happen, so his criticism of a truly pernicious form of elite reaction—“smarm”—is not that courageous when you consider he knew Gawker commenters and twitterers like me would eat it up. (Scocca’s genius, Freddie says, “is to write pieces that appear risky but which are actually money in the bank, perfect for the kind of people who read Gawker or the Awl.”)
I’ll deal with these in order. First, does anybody really think Scocca is unaware that sentimental crap calculated to be shared by millions pays his bills? (He writes: “Obviously there are personal states and connections here. I get my paychecks [deposited into an account with the corrupt JPMorgan Chase megabank)] from Gawker Media.”) Everybody, everybody, even the Good People, make peace with this system at some point—including Freddie, as he points out in his post. Gawker may have let Scocca write something like this out of a cynical awareness that it’ll get tons of traffic, but so the fuck what? He said stuff that needed to be said (again and again), and I struggle to see how anything about the piece is undermined by the fact that he didn’t explicitly attack the host of his essay as part of the problem. Anybody who writes anything for a well-known media outlet is, to some extent, playing the game, replicating the system, being part of the problem. I really have no clue what “more awareness” would have added to the quality of this particular piece.
Secondly, I’m not sure what is inherently undermining about writing something that certain people agree with. According to Freddie, Scocca’s “self-flattery” and the supposedly massive positive response of the “chattering class” defeat the point of the essay. If he’d truly done his job, nobody would like him.
There’s a number of problems with this assessment, primarily its wild hyperbole. “Hundreds and hundreds” of elite members of the chattering class did not even share Scocca’s essay, much less “portray it … a work of unpopular daring.” I’m pretty sure Freddie and I follow most of the same people on social media, and a battery of searches reveals a fairly narrow subset of the “chattering class”: no Politico reporters, no BuzzFeed honchos, no Ezra Klein, Matt Yglesias or Chris Hayes, few if any major newspaper columnists, no other editors of big publications. I’m not denying it was shared by many, many well-connected people, some of whom praised it highly and perhaps hyperbolically. Not one that I have found so far, however, has called it anything close to “unpopular daring.” The consensus seems to be that Scocca is saying what a lot of us—particularly us left-leaning people, particularly those of us who work in the inherently reactionary media industry—feel almost every day. I said on Twitter, for example, that it was “incredible”—definitely overheated—and then on Facebook that it was “cathartic” (more accurate). But there are a lot of people who decidedly would not like this piece, and a good number of them tweeted smarmily about it. “Everybody” doesn’t love it.
The deeper issue on this second point is that it’s pretty clear Freddie is suggesting Scocca is somehow not good enough to say these things—that nothing he is capable of doing aside from renouncing his media career and moving to the boondocks, if even that, would give him the moral authority to write a self-righteous piece about the pernicious ways the cultural elite censors dissent and reinforces its privilege. The real offense that Scocca has committed, it seems, is along the lines of “writing while privileged,” or “writing while rich”—rich, of course, based on Freddie’s intimate knowledge of our salaries and how much it costs to live here. The strong suggestion is that no one who works in the media or lives in Brooklyn can credibly write against the cultural elite, or that they can only do so with an intense, and perhaps career-ending amount of self-flagellation. I understand pointing out Scocca’s position of privilege if he were making a reactionary argument, or if that critique added any significant angle to the debate. But Freddie himself said the piece was a “perfect argument in and of itself.” So why can’t we debate arguments, and for god’s sake let the privilege tournament shit go?
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- AC700 on Living the Story of Belief: Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead”
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