Last month, Isaac Fitzgerald, the newly hired editor of BuzzFeed's newly created books section, made a remarkable but not entirely surprising announcement: He was not interested in publishing negative book reviews. In place of "the scathing takedown rip," Fitzgerald said, he desired to promote a positive community experience.
A community, even one dedicated to positivity, needs an enemy to define itself against. BuzzFeed's motto, the attitude that drives its success, is an explicit "No haters." The site is one of the leading voices of the moment, thriving in the online sharing economy, in which agreeability is popularity, and popularity is value. (Upworthy, the next iteration, has gone ahead and made its name out of the premise.)
There is more at work here than mere good feelings. "No haters" is a sentiment older and more wide-reaching than BuzzFeed. There is a consensus, or something that has assumed the tone of a consensus, that we are living, to our disadvantage, in an age of snark—that the problem of our times is a thing called "snark."
The word, as used now, is a fairly recent addition to the language, and it is not always entirely clear what "snark" may be. But it's an attitude, and a negative attitude—a "hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt," is how Heidi Julavits described it in 2003, while formally bestowing the name of "snark" on it, in the inaugural issue of The Believer.
In her essay, Julavits was grappling with the question of negative book reviewing: Was it fair or necessary? Was the meanness displayed in book reviews a symptom of deeper failings in the culture?
The decade that followed did little to clear up the trouble; if anything, the identification of "snark" gave people a way to avoid thinking very hard about it. Snark is supposed to be self-evidently and self-explanatorily bad: "nasty," "low," and "snide," to pick a few words from the first page of David Denby's 2009 tract Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation. (I bought the Denby book used for six bucks, to cut him out of the loop on any royalties.)
But why are nastiness and snideness taken to be features of our age? One general point of agreement, in denunciations of snark, is that snark is reactive. It is a kind of response. Yet to what is it responding? Of what is it contemptuous?
Stand against snark, and you are standing with everything decent. And who doesn't want to be decent? The snarkers don't, it seems. Or at least they (let's be honest: we) don't want to be decent on those terms.
Over time, it has become clear that anti-negativity is a worldview of its own, a particular mode of thinking and argument, no matter how evasively or vapidly it chooses to express itself. For a guiding principle of 21st century literary criticism, BuzzFeed's Fitzgerald turned to the moral and intellectual teachings of Walt Disney, in the movie Bambi: "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all."
The line is uttered by Thumper, Bambi's young bunny companion, but its attribution is more complicated than that—Thumper's mother is making him recite a rule handed down by his father, by way of admonishing her son for unkindness. It is scolding, couched as an appeal to goodness, in the name of an absent authority.
The same maxim—minus the Disney citation and tidied up to "anything at all"—was offered by an organization called PRConsulting Group recently, in support of its announcement that the third Tuesday in October would be " Snark-Free Day." "[I]f we can put the snark away for just one day," the publicists wrote, "we can all be happier and more productive." Is a world where public-relations professionals are more productive a more productive world overall? Are the goals of the public-relations profession the goals of the world in general?
Perhaps they are. Why does a publicist talk like a book reviewer? If you listen to the crusaders against negativity—in literature, in journalism, in politics, in commerce—you begin to hear a recurring set of themes and attitudes, amounting to an omnipresent, unnamed cultural force. The words flung outward start to define a sort of unarticulated philosophy, one that has largely avoided being recognized and defined.
Without identifying and comprehending what they have in common, we have a dangerously incomplete understanding of the conditions we are living under.
Over the past year or two, on the way to writing this essay, I've accumulated dozens of emails and IM conversations from friends and colleagues. They send links to articles, essays, Tumblr posts, online comments, tweets—the shared attitude transcending any platform or format or subject matter.
What is this defining feature of our times? What is snark reacting to?
It is reacting to smarm.
What is smarm, exactly? Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.
Smarm would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can't everyone just be nicer?
The most significant explicator of the niceness rule—the loudest Thumper of all, the true prophetic voice of anti-negativity—is neither the cartoon rabbit nor the publicists' group nor Julavits, nor even David Denby. It is The Believer's founder and impresario, Dave Eggers. If there is a defining document of contemporary literary smarm, it is an interview Eggers did via email with the Harvard Advocate in 2000, in which a college student had the poor manners to ask the literary celebrity about "selling out."
It is also no accident that David Eggers is full of shit.
In reply to the question, Eggers told the Advocate that yes, he was what people call a sellout, that he had been paid $12,000 for a single magazine article, that he had taken the chance to hang out with Puffy, and that he had said yes to all these opportunities because "No is for pussies." His response builds to a frenzied peroration:
Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not 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.
Here we have the major themes or attitudes of smarm: the scolding, the gestures at inclusiveness, the appeal to virtue and maturity. Eggers used to be a critic, but he has grown out of childish things. Eggers has done the work—the book publishing, the Hollywood deal-making—that makes his opinions (unlike those of his audience) earned and valid opinions.
It is no accident that he is addressing undergraduates here; he tells the Advocate that before he sent back his reply to its questions, he had already delivered a version of the text as a speech at Yale. He is explicitly performing, for an audience of his inferiors. ("The rant is directed to myself, age 20, as much as it is to you, so remember that if you ever want to take much offense.")
It is also no accident that Eggers is full of shit. He is so passionate, and his passion has such rhetorical momentum, that it is almost possible to overlook the fact that the literal proposition he's putting forward, in the name of large-heartedness and honesty, is bogus and insulting. Do not dismiss ... a movie? Unless you have made one? Any movie? The Internship? The Lone Ranger? Kirk Cameron's Unstoppable? Movie criticism, Eggers is saying, should be reserved for those wise and discerning souls who have access to a few tens of millions of dollars of entertainment-industry capital. One or two hundred million, if you wish to have an opinion about the works of Michael Bay.
And now here is Dave Eggers 13 years later, talking to the New York Times about his new novel, The Circle, a dystopian warning about the toxic effects of social media and the sinister companies that produce it:
I've never visited any tech campus, and I don't know anything in particular about how any given company is run. I really didn't want to.
Someone has come a long way from "do not dismiss a book until you have written one." But Eggers was never laying down rules for himself. He was laying down rules for other people.
A pause, now, for some inevitable responses:
- What did Dave Eggers ever do to you?
- Surprise, a Gawker blogger who's never accomplished anything is jealous of Dave Eggers.
- Dave Eggers has inspired more people and done more good than you could possibly dream of.
That's it. You're getting it. That's smarm.
But let's get at the deeper substance. What defines smarm, as it functions in our culture? "Smarm" and "smarmy" go back to the older "smalm," meaning to smooth something down with grease—and by extension to be unctuous or flattering, or smug. Smarm aspires to smother opposition or criticism, to cover everything over with an artificial, oily gloss.
Falsity and hypocrisy are important to this, but they are pieces of something larger. Consider the phenomenon that the philosopher Harry Frankfurt identified, in his 1986 essay and 2005 book* On Bullshit, as bullshit.
Smarm should be understood as a type of bullshit, then. It is a kind of moral and ethical misdirection.
Bullshit, Frankfurt wrote, was defined by the bullshitter's indifference to truth:
The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides...is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it.
The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.
Smarm should be understood as a type of bullshit, then—it expresses one agenda, while actually pursuing a different one. It is a kind of moral and ethical misdirection. Its genuine purposes lie beneath the greased-over surface.
Take the following example, courtesy of the former Bush administration press secretary Ari Fleischer. You almost certainly have an opinion about Fleischer, but consider this purely as a matter of technique, how he frames a complaint as if his partisan credentials have nothing to do with it:
Fleischer is ostensibly remarking on a failure of "civility"—a central theme of smarm—while in fact delivering a smear against the writer of the op-ed (to which he does not link). What the piece had claimed was simply that, in addition to the publicly known security brief that had warned George Bush in 2001 of al Qaeda's intention to attack the United States, there were other, still-classified briefings, that had offered further warnings.
Fleischer had no interest in engaging with the content of those claims. He was attacking an "implication," which he claimed was the work of a "truther." The fairly well-documented fact that the Bush administration was insufficiently prepared for the September 11 attacks is lumped in with the insane conspiracies saying that the administration perpetrated the attacks itself.
And Ari Fleischer is disgusted and wounded by it all. To say nothing of disappointed, that the New York Times—those hypocrites—should have betrayed the promise of a more civil world.
Notionally crossing the aisle, we find the former Clinton administration chaff-thrower Lanny Davis, who was the target of this fairly concise and accurate tweet:
And who replied with a condensed smarm tantrum:
Again, there's the woundedness—"personal attack," "name-calling." Lanny Davis, cynical mouthpiece for any crook who'll hire him, insists on the importance of "subst." "I want 2 debate issues," he writes, as the character limit closes in, sparing him the burden of mentioning any actual issues.
We have popular names now for the rhetorical tools these flacks are deploying: the straw-man attack, the fake umbrage, the concern-trolling. Why are those tools so familiar? It is because they are essential parts of the smarmer's tool kit, the grease gun and the rag and the spatula.
Where does the grease go? Smarm hopes to fill the cultural or political or religious void left by the collapse of authority, undermined by modernity and postmodernity. It's not enough anymore to point to God or the Western tradition or the civilized consensus for a definitive value judgment. Yet a person can still gesture in the direction of things that resemble those values, vaguely.
The old systems of prestige are rickety and insecure. Everyone has a publishing platform and no one has a career.
That gesture can almost serve as a source of comfort. The old systems of prestige—the literary inner circles, the top-ranking daily newspapers, the party leadership—are rickety and insecure. Everyone has a publishing platform and no one has a career.
Smarm offers a quick schema of superiority. The authority that smarm invokes is an ersatz one, but the appearance of authority is usually enough to get by with. Without that protection, to hold an opinion is to feel bare and alone, one voice among a cacophony of millions.
In another meditation on the problem of negativity, published on the New Yorker's website in September, the critic Lee Siegel wrote that he had abandoned hostility in his own work, because it is unsuited to these times:
[U]nlike a positive review, a negative one implies authority, and authority has become something ambiguous in our age of quick, teeming Internet response, where all the old critical standards and parameters are in the process of vanishing and being reinvented. Fifty years ago, Dwight Macdonald's excoriations were sanctioned by a tight-knit community of readers and thinkers. In our time of dizzying reconfiguring, a Macdonald takedown, so assured in its acerbic judgments, would not have the resonance it once did. The source of its vituperative authority would not just be opaque. It would be non-existent.
In theory, this might produce a more humane and rounded criticism. In practice, though, Siegel is describing a ratchet, one which has already been tightening for a while. Sympathy begets sympathy, to the benefit of things that don't deserve to be sympathized with. The ascendent forms of cultural power depend on the esteem of others, on the traffic driven by Facebook, on the nihilistic embrace of being liked and shared.
Julavits, too, addressed the critic's loss of influence in her essay, and acknowledged that snark was not an irrational response to the prevailing tone of the book industry:
[P]erhaps this is the only sane response to a publishing world prone to over-exaggeration and generalization of a hysterical sort. ... [N]o matter how or what they write, they are always "distinctive new voices in fiction," they are always "startling" and "stunning" and "fiercely original"...If snark is a reaction to this sheer and insulting level of hyperbole, fine.
Fine, but not fine. Here is David Denby:
Snark is the expression of the alienated, of the ambitious, of the dispossessed.
Yet David Denby is against it, or mostly against it. After nine pages of hand-wringing on that theme, he decides that he cannot fully dismiss the works of Juvenal, even though Juvenal was a real meanie:
Reading Juvenal convinced me that invective at its utmost pitch of fury—sustained and unrelenting, and formally composed—can amount to something great. It may be a lesser form than satire, but, at its best, it is very far from nothing.
Thanks, Dave. Big of you, there. Juvenal needed it.
Snark is often conflated with cynicism, which is a troublesome misreading. Snark may speak in cynical terms about a cynical world, but it is not cynicism itself. It is a theory of cynicism.
The practice of cynicism is smarm.
If negativity is understood to be bad (and it must be bad, just look at the name: negativity) then anti-negativity must be good. The most broadly approved-of thing about Barack Obama, in 2008, was his announced desire to "change the tone" of politics. Everyone agreed then that our politics needed a change of tone. The politicians who make speeches, the reporters and commentators who write the articles expressing the current state of political affairs, the pollsters and poll respondents who ask and answer questions about politics—in short, the great mass of people who do anything that could conceivably generate something that could be called a "tone" of politics—all were dissatisfied with the tone.
What carries contemporary American political campaigns along is a thick flow of opaque smarm.
One of the silliest or most misguided notions that David Denby frets about, in denouncing snark, is that "the lowest, most insinuating and insulting side threatens to win national political campaigns." This is more or less the opposite of the case. What carries contemporary American political campaigns along is a thick flow of opaque smarm.
Here is Obama in 2012, wrapping up a presidential debate performance against Mitt Romney:
I believe that the free enterprise system is the greatest engine of prosperity the world's ever known. I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk-takers being rewarded. But I also believe that everybody should have a fair shot and everybody should do their fair share and everybody should play by the same rules, because that's how our economy is grown. That's how we built the world's greatest middle class.
The lone identifiable point of ideological distinction between the president and his opponent, in that passage, is the word "but." Everything else is a generic cross-partisan recitation of the indisputable: Free enterprise ... prosperity ... self-reliance ... initiative ... a fair shot ... the world's greatest middle class.
Certainly the middle class. Always the middle class. "I will keep America strong," Mitt Romney said in one of the debates, offering his competing political vision, "and get America's middle class working again." Is a middle class that's out of work still the middle class? It is if you're running for president. When Obama did turn his attention below that stratum, he identified the people there as "those who are striving to get in the middle class."
Everyone (or everyone of good faith) must be assumed to basically be in harmony. In his first inaugural address, Obama announced that he—"we"—had "come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics...[I]n the words of scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things."
Maybe, as the last five years might suggest, those dogmas weren't really quite worn out. But to openly disagree with a political foe, let alone to make an openly mean remark, is to invite a smarmy counterattack. "In the nature of a campaign," Mitt Romney told a debate audience in 2012, "it seems that some campaigns are focused on attacking a person rather than prescribing their own future and the things they'd like to do."
Romney clambered up to a new higher ground, deploring the divisiveness of dwelling on his divisiveness.
Romney was responding to the response to the disclosure of his private fundraising remarks dismissing 47 percent of the electorate as unreachable parasites. Romney had been caught in breach of the agreement never to speak divisively—and so he clambered up to a new higher ground, deploring the divisiveness of dwelling on his divisiveness. He had been attacked as a person, the kind of person who would write off 47 percent of the public. How low could the Obama campaign get? What ever happened to changing the tone?
This content-free piety is so deeply expected that when Obama did toss a few barbed lines Romney's way, Gawker took offense, describing his use of "Romnesia" as "too juvenile and jokey to be coming from the president"—even if it "usefully carries an important anti-Romney message." Heaven forbid that substance should come at the expense of tone. A presidency is a serious thing.
There are no depths that political smarm cannot plumb. In 2000, at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, I witnessed an unforgettable performance: Windy Smith, a 26-year-old with Down syndrome, was brought out onstage before the cameras to tell the American public that she, personally, wanted George W. Bush to become the next president. A Bush presidency, she said, "will be a happy time for America."
Was it? Did it turn out to be a happy time for America? Is that a mean or disrespectful question? If it is, whose fault is that?
The evasion of disputes is a defining tactic of smarm. Smarm, whether political or literary, insists that the audience accept the priors it has been given. Debate begins where the important parts of the debate have ended.
Michael Bloomberg is almost incapable of acting out interpersonal niceness, per se, as mayor, but smarm is at the infuriating core of Bloombergism and all its related forms of "centrism" and technocracy. Bloomberg's agenda, as perceived by Michael Bloomberg, is to do whatever is practical to improve the city, to make the city a nice place to live. To oppose his agenda, then, is to reveal oneself as impractical and harmful.
Ian Frazier, writing in the New Yorker about homelessness in New York, exactly captured the Bloomberg mood:
He works for the city for a dollar a year, he gives away his money by the hundreds of millions, and he manifestly has the city's happiness and well-being at heart. Every rich person should be like him. His deputies and staffers twinkle with the pleasure of participating in his general beneficence, as well they should. "You can't make a man mad by giving him money"—this rule would seem to be absolute. And yet sometimes people in the city he has done so much for still get mad at Bloomberg and criticize him. At the wrong of this, the proper order of things is undone, and the Bloomberg twinkle turns to ice.
As Frazier writes, the Bloomberg administration, acting under rational technocratic theories, has done everything it could to disincentivize people from being homeless—except for providing them with homes, or promoting the development of affordable housing stock for the poor. Yet the advocates for the homeless keep harping on the fact there there are more homeless people in the city than ever before.
Through smarm, the "centrists" have cut themselves off from the language of actual dispute. In smarm is power.
In this, as in so many other parts of contemporary politics, members of the self-identified center are in some important sense unable to accept opposition. Through smarm, they have cut themselves off from the language of actual dispute. An entire political agenda—privatization of government services, aggressive policing, charter schooling, cuts in Social Security—has been packaged as apolitical, a reasonable consensus about necessity. Those who oppose the agenda are "interest groups," whose selfish greed makes them unable to see reason, or "ideologues." Those who promote it are disinterested and nonideological. There is no reason for the latter to even engage the former. In smarm is power.
The New York Times reported last month that in 2011, the Obama Administration decided not to nominate Rebecca M. Blank to be the head of the Council of Economic Advisers, because of "something politically dangerous" she had written in the past: In writing about poverty relief, she had used the word "redistribution."
The Times quoted a passage from the dangerous work, which was written 19 years before Blank was in position to be treated as a political liability:
A commitment to economic justice necessarily implies a commitment to the redistribution of economic resources, so that the poor and the dispossessed are more fully included in the economic system.
This is, of course, a simple—essentially tautological—statement of fact. If one wishes to improve the condition of the poor, one must arrange for money to be directed toward them. This is true no matter what one's theory of helping the poor may be, even if the money is to be spent on bus fare to send people to harangue the poor about reforming their morals and working harder, or it is being paid to police to harass the poor into orderliness.
But to admit the fact is to imply that someone ought to spend that money, which implies a conflict between the desires of the people who have the money and the people who do not. Smarm will not allow it. Here is the ideology of "Don't be a critic" metastasized far beyond any blame or influence of Dave Eggers. Though the Times did not go further into exactly what Blank had written, the online version of the story did link out to her paper. Here are some more examples of unacceptable political discourse, under our current rules:
God's people are directed to tend to the needs of these most marginalized groups and to be sure that they receive their just share of the community's resources [Deuteronomy 10:17-18]. There is to be a regular redistribution of property and the forgiveness of past debts [Leviticus 25:1-55; Deuteronomy 15:1-11].
Repeatedly, the covenant of the Old Testament focuses on the needs and rights of those who often are excluded from the community. The rules of God's household demand that the poor (Exodus 23:6, Deuteronomy 15:7-11), the stranger (Exodus 22:21-24), the sojourner (Deuteronomy 10:19), and the widow and orphan (Exodus 22:22) all be accorded special protection and access to the livelihood of the household for the sake of God's grace to Israel ("for you were strangers in the land of Egypt [Exodus 22:21].") The Sabbath and Jubilee Year urge a just ordering for overcoming exploitation through property redistribution and care of the earth.
At some point, in a piece like this, convention calls for the admission that the complaints against snark are not entirely without merit. Fine. Some snark is harmful and rotten and stupid. Just as, to various degrees, some poems and Page-One newspaper stories and sermons and football gambling advice columns are harmful and rotten and stupid. Like every other mode, snark can sometimes be done badly or to bad purposes.
A civilization that speaks in smarm is a civilization that has lost its ability to talk about purposes at all.
Smarm, on the other hand, is never a force for good. A civilization that speaks in smarm is a civilization that has lost its ability to talk about purposes at all. It is a civilization that says "Don't Be Evil," rather than making sure it does not do evil.
A Fable From the Age of Smarm
Once upon a time, in the high hills of West Virginia, there lived a young man named Jedediah Purdy. Jedediah was fond of animals and of taking long walks through the woods; he liked to eat fruit that was not entirely ripe. His parents had gone into the hills to get away from electricity and the corruptions of civilization, to raise their children apart from "the hollowness of mainstream living," as the New York Times Magazine put it. They built their own home and slaughtered their own pigs.
The New York Times Magazine had discovered Jedediah, in 1999, by way of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., which was making Jedediah a published author at the age of 24. Jedediah was, for the purposes of the Times Magazine and Knopf and perhaps his own purposes, a representative or leader of what seemed to be a nascent movement against what was then being called "the ironic sensibility." (The Believer and Julavits's essay were still over the horizon, and for lack of the word "snark," people were using "irony.")
Jedediah, accustomed to the simple gracefulness of country life, had been turned against irony by a traumatic experience on arriving at Harvard College in 1993. The Times Magazine described it:
There is a custom at the university of screening "Love Story" for incoming freshmen, who gleefully heckle the film. You can guess the gibes: Ali MacGraw's first appearance is met with shouts of, "You're gonna get cancer!" When she steps into a cab, somebody yells, "To the morgue—and step on it!"
Appalled by such cavalier treatment of a serious illness, Purdy stomped the perimeter of Harvard Yard, then dashed off a letter to The Crimson. "I felt this was a hideous practice," he says. "Placing this at the beginning of the orientation seemed an induction of students into a cold, self-satisfied manner."
Mocking the use of cancer as a tearjerking movie plot device may not be precisely the same thing as mocking actual cancer. But Jedediah, or the version of Jedediah in the pages of the Times Magazine, worked in broad themes. People responded to those broad themes. The piece was a sensation. Perhaps irony was bad. Perhaps it was sanctimony that was bad. "The glumly virtuous young Purdy could have used a little ironizing himself," David Denby recalls, in Snark.
Joe Lieberman! If you would know smarm, look to Joe Lieberman.
Fantastically annoying as Jedediah was in the profile, it is possible, from a distance, to reread it with sympathy. The young Jedediah is very, very earnest, partly unaware and partly over-aware. The commodification of his earnestness was a game being played around him.
The Times Magazine writer, Marshall Sella, hit quite directly on one of the rules of the game:
[A] 24-year-old composer of "a defense of love letters" is just the sort of veal that reviewers live to snack on...
Jed Purdy has shielded himself from this sort of abuse with an unwitting trap. It's simple: if you rail against Purdy's plea for a better world, you become precisely the lost soul for whom he grieves.
Everyone becomes something. A year later, Jedediah Purdy was in the Times under his own byline, writing for the opinion section about the 2000 presidential campaign, arguing that "America wants to grow up"—that a country weary of "the adolescent behavior of the Clinton administration" was looking for ways to embrace maturity. As evidence, he adduced George W. Bush's invocation of "a responsibility era," (at the convention where Windy Smith endorsed him) and Al Gore's ultimate gesture toward seriousness:
Mr. Gore seemed to answer Mr. Bush's challenge by naming a running mate who is more associated with positions of moral responsibility than almost any other politician today. In fact, if there has been a criticism of Senator Joseph Lieberman this week, it is that he becomes sanctimonious about higher purposes.
Let's pause here to say: Joe Lieberman.
Joe Lieberman! If you would know smarm, look to Joe Lieberman. It is easy to forget, having seen the openly nasty and vindictive and whiny ending of Lieberman's career, what a hero he was to the right-minded—how respectable, how responsible, how devoted to doing what was considered proper. He was the incarnation of smarm, in every self-righteous and self-serving detail: an independent statesman whose independence consisted of breaking with his party whenever the party threatened to be on the wrong side of 51 percent of public opinion (or at least what the Washington wisdom thought public opinion should be) or on the wrong side of the money.
To complete the tale, Joe Lieberman got his J.D. from Yale Law School. Jedediah Purdy is now a professor at Duke Law* and has been a visiting professor at Yale Law, the school at which he got his own J.D., after he graduated from Harvard, after he graduated from Exeter. For this, pigs were butchered. Such are the fruits of renouncing the mainstream.
"As the Bush administration went on," David Denby writes, "the insufficiencies of snark became mortifyingly obvious."
Irony of course had been killed on 9/11, as everyone recalls. The thing that people were calling "irony," that is. Obviously the other kind of irony, the kind that left stage blood all over the ancient Greek orchestra floors, was just getting started. A tsunami of smarm was rolling across the planet: "our freedoms" ... "an axis of evil" ... "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud" ... "enhanced interrogation techniques" ... "ticking time bombs" ... "the Patriot Act" ... "the Protect America Act" ... "unlawful enemy combatants" ... "asymmetric warfare."
"Dangerous lies and irresponsible snark were part of the same despairing mood," Denby writes.
Part of the same... mood, you say. Basically organically connected and mutually reinforcing and jointly culpable. It was snark—the "impotent nihilism" of Maureen Dowd—that made Gitmo happen, when you get right down to it.
Maybe the more earnest and deeply committed protesters could have done something about it all, if Bloomberg hadn't locked them up in advance?
But mostly: ROTFL, motherfucker.
The sin of snark is rudeness, the anti-snarkers say. Snark is mean. And meanness and rudeness are the worst misdeeds in the world. So Robert Benmosche, the chief executive of AIG, told the Wall Street Journal that the hard-working, heavily compensated employees of his disastrously run company were being persecuted—that the critics of AIG, "with their pitch forks and their hangman nooses," were "sort of like what we did in the Deep South. And I think it was just as bad and just as wrong."
The plutocrats are haunted, as all smarmers are haunted, by a lack of respect. On Twitter, the only answer to "Do you know who I am?" is "One more person with 140 characters to use."
Ever since the global economy imploded, the people who imploded it have been talking this way. The plutocrats are hurt that anyone should resent the power of wealth. They spent the past election fretting aloud about "class warfare," which under the rules of smarm means any mention of the fact that classes exist, and that some classes have more or less money than others.
Why should it not be pleasing to learn that these people's feelings are so tender? That even as they fly their helicopters over the broke and frustrated masses at whose expense they have profited, they perceive that they are despised?
The plutocrats are haunted, as all smarmers are haunted, by the lack of respect. Nothing is stopping anyone—any nobody—from going on a blog or on Twitter and expressing their opinion of you, no matter who you think you are. New media and social media have an immense and cruel leveling power, for people accustomed to old systems of status and prestige. On Twitter, the only answer to "Do you know who I am?" is "One more person with 140 characters to use."
So the smarmers deplore the coarseness of the tone, or try to invoke the old credentials, or both. Niall Ferguson, the prizewinning Harvard historian now practicing the craft of a tendentious magazine hack, came unhinged on his blog after people pointed out his magazine work had been done sloppily and dishonestly:
What exactly are his credentials? 35,550 tweets? How does he essentially differ from the cranks who, before the Internet, had to vent their spleen by writing letters in green ink?
(Elsewhere in the same post, he wrote that his critics had breached their duty to "exchange ideas in a humble and respectful manner.")
To actually say a plain and direct word like "corrupt" is more outlandish, in smarm's outlook, than even swearing.
These terrible snarky people even go on television, sometimes. CNBC let Salon's Alex Pareene on the air, and he dared to describe JPMorgan Chase as "corrupt"—to the shock and disdain of the hosts, who could not imagine why a bank that was facing at least $11 billion in fines (later amended to $13 billion) for wide-ranging misbehavior could be characterized that way. (To actually say a plain and direct word like "corrupt" is more outlandish, in smarm's outlook, than even swearing. A disagreeable attitude is one thing, but a disagreeable fact is much worse.) "The company continues to churn out, you know, tens of billions of dollars in earnings and hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue," Maria Bartiromo said. "How do you criticize that?"
Well, Pareene said, among other things, JPMorgan had given jobs to the children of Chinese officials to curry favor, as reported in the New York Times—"Oh, the New York Times, oh, OK," Bartiromo replied, incredulous. Oh, that thing.
Talk about something else, smarm says. Talk about anything else. This young man is in possession of secret official computer files that document the routine lawlessness and boundless intrusiveness of the American surveillance state. An unaccountable power is monitoring the entire global flow of information—which amounts, in contemporary practice, to monitoring thought itself. Illegally.
- Edward Snowden broke the law.
- Edward Snowden is a naif, who has already foolishly betrayed his nation's most vital secrets.
- Edward Snowden is an unstable, sensation-seeking narcissist.
- Edward Snowden isn't telling us anything we don't already know.
- Edward Snowden is a traitor.
So what if Snowden is telling the truth? Just look at the way he's telling it.
Obviously there are personal stakes and connections here. I get my paychecks (deposited into an account with the corrupt JPMorgan Chase megabank) from Gawker Media. Writers criticizing snark and negativity tend to bring up Gawker as a deplorable case in point.
And Denby's book on snark does, besides singling out my employer, directly disparage multiple friends or colleagues of mine. Smarm, which is always on the lookout for bias and ulterior motives, would insist on noting this. Reading Denby's criticism of the people I like is to some extent irritating emotionally, but mostly it's irritating because the reason these people are my friends or colleagues is that I have found their outlooks—their work—congenial. They have seen the viscous creeping of smarm, and they have said something about it.
Denby singles out, as "high-twit nonsense" and "gibberish," this passage by former Gawker editor and Awl co-founder Choire Sicha:
The American desire for fucking has become, locally, the Brooklyn-based or -bound desire for a book deal and a brownstone. Men, finding that they cannot really get status or security from the ownership of women very often, find their very selves disparaged. Like most of us, they get their status first from consumption, and the way out is to become a maker of consumables; a high-class published author.
This is, as I read it, a fairly correct account of certain social and cultural dynamics of smarm—the ways that ideas of "authorship" and "Brooklyn" are being acted out by people, as a bulwark against insecurity. We have a whole word here at Gawker, "writering," to describe the tribe of writers whose principal writerly concern is being writerly, and who spend all their time congratulating one another on their writing and promulgating correct rules for writing. Denby expects his readers to find the passage he quotes self-evidently absurd. Presumably, his audience holds a different set of assumptions about the world.
1989: A young black man—a movie character, who is played by the film's director—picks up a trashcan across the street from a pizza parlor. The entire film has been building to this scene, slights and resentments and misunderstandings and injustices accumulating on a hot day till the young man's friend is dead outside the pizza place, in the hands of police, and an angry crowd has gathered. The young man carries the trashcan in his arms, past the crowd, and heaves it through the pizza-parlor window.
A white man in his mid-50s—two decades older than the filmmaker with the trashcan—watches the movie. His job is to write film criticism. He sees the trashcan go through the glass, the crowd riot, the pizza place burn. A pivotal moment in movie history, in pop-culture history, in the history of America's imagining of race.
Anger is upsetting to smarm. But so is humor and confidence.
The middle-aged white movie critic writes that the filmmaker is "thoroughly mixed up about what he is saying." He is, the critic writes, "playing with dynamite in an urban playground. The response to the movie could get away from him."
Someone's response to the movie certainly did get away from someone:
Rather than attacking the police, the rioters attack a symbolic target, and that part of the movie is hard to justify... The end of the movie is a shambles, and if some audiences go wild, [the filmmaker] is partly responsible.
That was what David Denby had to say about Do the Right Thing: that Spike Lee would be to blame if the movie made black people riot. There are many, many things that can be noted about this piece of writing (e.g., Denby was more moved by the loss of Sal's Famous than by the death of Radio Raheem), but one of them is simply that it's not artistic judgment.
In the moment of crisis, Denby chose to deliver his verdict not on the film as a film, but on whether it represented responsible and appropriate social behavior—and whether black audiences could be trusted with it. Keep this in mind when David Denby puts himself forward as an expert on the terms of appropriate and inappropriate response.
Anger is upsetting to smarm—real anger, not umbrage. But so is humor and confidence. Smarm, with its fixation on respect and respectability, has trouble handling it when the snarkers start clowning around. Are you serious? the commenters write. Is this serious? On Twitter, the right-thinking commenters pass the links around: Seriously?
Are you serious?
Are you? Serious? Seriously?
But yes, yes we are.
If you can't say something nice, say something anyway. Make it something nice. In the age of rampant runaway snark, the Newest Media are doing something else entirely. Adam Mordecai, an editor-at-large for Upworthy, explained to Quora readers what his site's headline-writing philosophy is:
Don't depress people so much that they want to give up on humanity. Negative headlines breeds negative shares.
Don't curse in your headlines. Moms hate it (and are the biggest sharers on the internet by a significant margin [...]
Don't make people take positions they might be uncomfortable with. For example, "I Really Hate All White People" is going to not get shared, whereas, "An Open Letter To Pasty People" is far less hostile and more likely to get shared.
Don't use terms that overwhelm, polarize or bore people. I never use Social Security, The Environment, Immigration, Democrats, Republicans, Medicare, Racist, Bigot, etc... You can talk about issues without giving away what they are.
The result of this approach, the Upworthy house style, is a coy sort of emulation of English, stripped of actual semantic content: This Man Removed the Specific and the Negative, and What Happened Next Will Astonish You. Even Upworthy's fellow participants in the ongoing SEO race to the bottom are horrified. But it works, in the sense that people who do not want to think about actual things or read any information will reliably share Upworthy stories.
When you hear a voice say "Everyone's a critic," listen for the echo: "Everyone's a publicist."
People want to be uplifted, and through social media people want to demonstrate to other people that they are the kind of people who appreciate being uplifted. Negativity is a bad market niche, according to no less a figure than Malcolm Gladwell—a known expert, in theory and practice, on the marketing power of popularity:
[T]here's very little negative stuff you can put in a book or an article before you turn most of your audience away. Negative stuff is interesting the first time, but you'll never re-read a negative article. You'll re-read a positive one. Part of the reason that my books have had a long shelf life is that they're optimistic, and optimism permits that kind of longevity.
One curious fact about this long view is that it's quite untrue. I can't recall ever, unless compelled by duty, rereading a Malcolm Gladwell article. What I have reread is Mencken on the Scopes Trial, Hunter Thompson on Richard Nixon, and Dorothy Parker on most things—to say nothing of Orwell on poverty and Du Bois on racism, or David Foster Wallace on the existential horror of a leisure cruise. This belief that oblivion awaits the naysayers and the snarkers shouldn't survive a glance at the bookshelf.
When you hear a voice say "Everyone's a critic," listen for the echo: Everyone's a publicist.
Smarm is particularly well-suited, as a rhetorical and emotional register, to outright frauds—James Frey, Jonah Lehrer, Mike Daisey, David Sedaris—with their appeals to "emotional truth" or humorism or sheer artistic ambition too large to be contained by mere dumb lowly fact. Their lies and the exposure of their lies become intellectually interesting, to them; it all becomes terribly revealing about the clods who were lied to, the poor sad literal-minded clods. Are they not the same people who were loved? Are they not telling the same stories that were loved? (Sedaris's audience says: Yes, yes, you are, tell us more.)
Or they talk about their children. How bad can you be if you have children?
Whether a work is true or lasting or any good is beside the point; smarm makes sure to put it beside the point. So we have an entire class of art or entertainment that relies on other art, parasitically, for its protection or certification. Julia Child, through decades of hard work, became a beloved and admired figure, so how could Julie & Julia be greeted with anything but love and admiration? "Swan Lake" is essential to the classical canon, so Black Swan must be taken seriously (and Natalie Portman, having let it be known that she put herself through ballet training, is essentially a prima ballerina). Where the Wild Things Are is a supreme masterpiece of children's literature, so your children will certainly be enriched by exposure to Dave Eggers' screenplay and YA-novel adaptations of it.
When we detach ourselves from the logic of smarm, it becomes possible instead to read Julie & Julia as a chilling portrait of sociopathy, and Black Swan as hysterical junk, and Eggers's Wild Things as a false and creepy enactment of somebody's idea of what childhood ought to be about. (I'm relying on the New Yorker excerpt on that last one, because God knows I'm not reading or watching the whole thing.)
It is nearly impossible to keep smarm values at bay. Even well-meaning people fall into them.
It's nearly impossible to keep smarm values at bay, though. Even well-meaning people fall into them. Publish a long, serious article and wait for the discomfiting benedictions to roll in from Longform and Longreads: Here is a piece of writing that has attained a certain length—a form that you can read, secure in the knowledge that someone did a lot of typing, and that you are doing a lot of reading. Everyone recognizes that there is virtue, or an approximation of virtue, in doing a lot of reading. Share it, this quantity of reading.
If any one thing gave rise to this essay, it was a long-running dispute that I had, on blogs and Twitter, with an award-winning magazine journalist. This writer, a specialist in features and celebrity profiles, had published online a piece of advice to young writers, urging them to seek out as their subjects the obscure and unknown.
Find-the-overlooked-person is an old saw in feature writing. At its best—Jimmy Breslin interviewing JFK's grave digger—it encourages real attention to the subjects, while at its worst it feeds into a messianic tendency for certain writers, who believe that it's their attention and their prose that gives meaning to the lives of common folk. In this case, though, it was more or less the opposite of what this award-winning writer did for a living, and I said as much, in a blog post. The argument escalated from there.
The reason it escalated, I eventually realized, was that we were speaking in completely different terms. He was giving instruction to aspiring writers—as Eggers had given instruction to literary-minded college students—that was itself aspirational, a guide to the feelings that a person ought to have about being a writer. A writer, the writerer proclaimed, ought to take an interest in ordinary people. I was describing what he actually did.
He took this to be malice, personal malice. His friends and supporters agreed that I, and the people who agreed with me, were motivated by envy of his career and his gifts, that we were cynics, snarking from the sidelines (a powerful recurring metaphor, those sidelines, for this class of writer, who is by implication in the game). One woman who criticized him (his female critics seemed to have an especially hard time getting through), he dismissed as "a dabbling writer" and a "graduate student."
Eventually, as a final statement— Do you know who I am?—he published a list of his clips. Some of the stories were good; some were bad. As far as I could tell, though, when it came to the original question of a writer's duty to illuminate the obscure, not one of them was a story about someone who was not famous, or who had not at least been part of a nationally reported news event.
The idea of success, or of successfulness, hangs over the whole subject of smarm. It is not true, after all, that the crisis of postmodernity has left us without any functioning system of shared values. What currently fills the space left by the waning or absence of traditional authority, for the most part, is the ideology and logic of the market.
Market reasoning is deeply, essentially smarmy. We live, it insists, in a world that is optimized by the invisible hand. The conditions under which we live have been created by rational needs and preferences, producing an economicist Panglossianism: What thrives deserves to thrive, be it Nike or sprawl or the finance industry or Upworthy; what fails deserves to have failed.
Immense fortunes have bloomed in Silicon Valley on the most ephemeral and stupid windborne seeds of concepts. What's wrong with you, that you didn't get a piece of it?
We all live our lives, we're told, on these terms. If people really wanted a better world—what you might foolishly regard as a better world—they would have it already. So what if you signed up to use Facebook as a social network, and Facebook changed the terms of service to reverse your privacy settings and mine your data? So what if you would rather see poor people housed than billionaires' investment apartments blotting out the sun? Some people have gone ahead and made the reality they wanted. Immense fortunes have bloomed in Silicon Valley on the most ephemeral and stupid windborne seeds of concepts, friends funding friends, apps copying apps, and the winners proclaiming themselves the elite of the newest of meritocracies. What's was wrong with you, that you didn't get a piece of it?
Of course this is tyrannical. Of course this is false. Everyone is aware that market judgments are foolish and unfair. But what can you do about it?
Three years before Dave Eggers wrote back to the Harvard Advocate, another manifesto spelled out a related ethos for the age. Its purpose was more lowbrow and more openly ruthless than Eggers's defense of artistic ambition, but it struck remarkably similar notes:
The good news—and it is largely good news—is that everyone has a chance to stand out. Everyone has a chance to learn, improve, and build up their skills...
Forget your job description, Ask yourself: What do I do that I am most proud of? Most of all, forget about the standard rungs of progression you've climbed in your career up to now. Burn that damnable "ladder" and ask yourself: What have I accomplished that I can unabashedly brag about?...
Most importantly, remember that power is largely a matter of perception. If you want people to see you as a powerful brand, act like a credible leader. When you're thinking like brand You, you don't need org-chart authority to be a leader. The fact is you are a leader. You're leading you!
The key to making it in the new era, Tom Peters explained to the readers of Fast Company in "The Brand Called You," was to manage impressions, just like commercial brands do—"don't sell the steak, sell the sizzle." It was the dawn of a new credentialism, on the authority of the self and the money that the self could hustle, ready to inspire the meritocrats of the Valley.
Recall that what set Eggers off, in his exchange with the Advocate, was the letter writer's impolite reference to "selling out." Him? Dave Eggers? He was getting the money he needed—deserved—to pursue the brave and thrilling projects he picked out for himself (Tom Peters: "A project-based world is ideal for growing your brand... Today you have to think, breathe, act, and work in projects"). He was giving money away to charities. How dare some snotty college kid cast aspersions on the success he had made?
Why, the whole idea of selling out was a terrible, bitter lie, told by "wimps" to justify their wimpiness. That was a peculiar position to take if you had just lived through the '90s, as Eggers had, a decade that saw Disney eat Miramax and Creed sell more copies of its first two albums than Nirvana had sold of Bleach and Nevermind. But again, Eggers wasn't making a point. He was taking an attitude. He was naming an enemy.
The critics—the snarkers—are haters, smarm says. The snarkers are driven by "their resentment," Denby writes. Their resentment. ("It's Personal," his subtitle says.) They are "pipsqueaks" and "brats." Young. Malcolm Gladwell, another target for the haters, has a conversion narrative interchangeable with Eggers', if more quizzical in tone:
I am everything I once despised. When I was 25, I used to write these incredibly snotty, hostile articles attacking big-name, nonfiction journalists. Now I read them and I'm like, "Oh my God, they're doing a me on me!"
Above (or beneath) it all, they are little. Eggers writes of his former critical self, "I was a complete, weaselly little prick." He asks: "What kind of small-hearted person wants an artist to adhere to a set of rules, to stay forever within a narrow envelope which we've created for them?" He answers, and answers, and answers: "the lazy and small ... small and embittered ... narrow-hearted ... the tiny voices of tiny people."
The actual answer, and his actual fear—the fear that keeps the smarmers tossing on their bullshit-stuffed mattresses on the beds of bullshit they would have us all sleep in—is this: We are exactly the same size as you are. Everybody is.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]