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?

About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

4 Responses to Privilege and Smarm

  1. ethangach says:

    I think there’s a slight misreading of the privilege/insider part of Freddie’s reaction, which I take to be less of an indictment based on the author, and more a smell test that says, if the reaction to a piece is extremely positive and enthusiastic (on the whole), you probably haven’t actually said anything that was all that critical/contrarian.

    If a manifesto against false or propagandistic pleasantry is greeted with extreme positivity, it’s not a show stopper, but it certainly raises some issues.

    • David Sessions says:

      I hope I’ve misread as you suggest, but if this is the alternative argument he’s making, I’m trying to rebut that, too. It’s crudely simplifying, I know, but some of Freddie’s arguments are so focused on the social performance of certain rhetoric that he seems unable to consider that someone might have the right motivates, however contradictory their involvement with the system, and that all the people who are positive about their essay might also have just-fine motives. “Smell tests” can be stupid if their practical result is that no one can ever be accepted as arguing in good faith, or tweeting or sharing a certain article in good faith. The same problem shows up in Freddie’s “resentment machine” essay: it’s right on, but then starts pushing its contentions past the point of plausibility/good faith. I’m reacting to the reflexive tendency, common to a lot of the internet left, to reduce arguments to nothing more than posturing.

      • ethangach says:

        Hmm, well Freddie might have been focused on reading bad-faith into it, but I think, whether it was his intention or not, that the “smell test” bit I’m talking about has nothing to do with discrediting the author, or maligning their intentions, so much as considering how effective the piece ultimately is, either because it’s not reaching an audience that doesn’t already agree a thousand times over with it, or because the audience doesn’t realize that the argument in question applies to them, and is critical of some of their own practices (e.g. the “white people ruin everything” post, wherein the comments seem to suggest that much of the audience’s intuitive reaction was actually that “those OTHER white people ruin everything.”)

        • David Sessions says:

          Yeah, I think that’s a quite fair point, and perhaps I just made much ado about nothing. I just tend to be rubbed the wrong way by the reaction to someone making a good, if ultimately not-revolutionary gesture, to be always pointing out how it’s inadequate and and how complicit that person is. However well intentioned (and it isn’t always), it feels like shitting on people for trying. While I’m also against “don’t criticize your own side” wagon-circling, you’ll never convince me that leftists don’t get perverse pleasure from exposing one another’s efforts as never radical enough.

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