The Hunting of the Denby
As I was finishing up David Denby’s new book, I received, as one does in the Internet age, the news that T-Shirt Hell, the company whose contribution to the last election was the “Retarded Babies for Palin” T-shirt, has decided to throw in the towel. The owner says he “can’t take the stupidity anymore.” No, not the stupidity of his T-shirt slogans, but of the hate mail he receives.
You’d think he might have anticipated that a nanosecond after the Muse descended to deliver the “Retarded Babies” thigh-slapper. But no, it wasn’t the hate mail over the Palin shirt but a more recent offering: “It’s Not Gay If You Beat Them Up Afterwards.” The proprietor feels he shouldn’t have to “explain the irony or the social commentary of the slogan because anyone with half a brain should be able to handle that on their own.”
Unfortunately, his inbox was swamped by hectoring prigs:
That is highly inappropriate and very very morally wrong. . . . People are fighting for equality and a chance to be themselves without fear of being beat up because of who they are, yet here is an established website promoting hate and violence.
So the T-Shirt Hell guy is outta here. He’s had it. What’s the point of being offensive if people are going to get offended by it? That’s downright un-American. Offensiveness is the highest form of patriotism, as Thomas Jefferson would have said if he’d wanted to increase the T-shirt sales at Monticello.
I have a measure of sympathy for the chap. “It’s not gay if you beat them up afterwards” would be a droll aperçu if you were sitting around with the boys shooting the breeze about some fellow’s conflicted sexuality. In the right context, it could be a funny line in an off-off-Broadway play. But the idea of wearing it on your chest day in, day out just to drive to the mall and push your cart round the Price-Chopper seems, I dunno, not quite right.
So I confess to some misgivings about the mode of public discourse in 21st-century America.
I am, therefore, amenable to the premise of Snark, * a 144-page treatise by the film critic of The New Yorker (no, not Anthony Lane; the other one). Where I part company with David Denby is with David Denby. With the best will in the world, he doesn’t seem the obvious go-to guy for a “polemic in seven fits.”
What’s a “fit”? It’s the sub-division of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting Of The Snark. Carroll’s nonsense had eight fits, but Denby sputters to a close after seven—that’s all the fits that fit, and even then you feel maybe three or four of them don’t really fit. Snark’s sub-title is “It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation,” but he never quite pins down what “it” is. It’s not “nasty comedy, incessant profanity, trash talk, any kind of satire, and certain kinds of invective,” all of which he claims to be in favor of, but rather “the bad kind of invective.”
“Perhaps,” says the author on page one, “a few contrasts will make the difference clear.” So he contrasts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert with Penn Jillette and Adam La-Duca. Just for the record, Messrs Stewart and Colbert are kings of the late-night “ironic” news shows that form the primary source of information on current events for 79 percent of Americans under the age of 30 or whatever it’s up to now. By “contrast,” Jillette is one half of Siegfried & Roy—no, wait, Penn & Teller, the Vegas illusionists. And LaDuca is, er, a student who used to be president of the Pennsylvania Federation of College Republicans and now has a Facebook page.
Why a bigshot New Yorker writer is hanging out on the Facebook pages of obscure Pennsylvania students, I have no idea. But that sounds rather snarky, so let’s move on. The point is: These are apples and sausages. One might usefully contrast two liberal satirists starring in their own nightly TV shows with two conservative satirists starring in their own nightly TV shows, but unfortunately there aren’t any of the latter. Hence, the author’s complaint that a Pennsylvania student’s Facebook page isn’t as devastatingly witty as The Daily Show. Golly, maybe Adam LaDuca has a smaller writing staff than Jon Stewart.
Anyway, Denby says that Stewart “describing Karl Rove as having a head like a lump of unbaked bread dough” testifies to his defense of “civic virtue” and conviction that “this is not the way a national government should behave” (his emphasis). By “contrast,” there are no redeeming civic virtues to Penn Jillette’s primary-season jest:
Obama did great in February, and that’s because that was Black History Month. And now Hillary’s doing much better ’cause it’s White Bitch Month, right?
“The remark was bonehead insult, but insult of a special sort,” says David Denby. “It spoke to a knowing audience—to white people irritated by black history as a celebration, and to men who assume an ambitious woman can safely be called a bitch.” Stripping away “the layer of knowingness,” the author pronounces: “Jillette’s joke was snark.”
Really? I’m wary of joke exegesis, particularly since I went on trial for “flagrant Islamophobia” last year at the British Columbia “Human Rights” Tribunal and had the unlikely honor of a Vancouver courtroom solemnly calling “expert witnesses” to decode my own gags. So, without wishing to tie myself in knots, insofar as there is a joke here, isn’t the joke that there’s no joke? That Penn can’t be bothered making one? The master illusionist sets up the expectation of an amusing punchline merely as a form of misdirection. Rather as if Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, instead of doing all that “to lose one parent” shtick, simply told Jack, “Boy, you are one f**ked up loser.”
But, as I said, this CSI Catskills is a mug’s game. As for the author’s detection of racism and sexism, I would argue this kind of prissiness makes inevitable the rise of “snark.” I would doubt Penn Jillette is much exercised by Black History Month one way or the other. White Bitch Month? Had Joe Biden been Obama’s principal rival, Jillette would have attributed his success to Hair-Plugged Blowhard Month. Dennis Kucinich, Dorky Hobbit Month. John Edwards, Preening Oleaginous Adulterous Narcissist Metrosexual Month. That’s it, that’s all.
But, in the broader culture, the Denbys of America’s conviction that everything is “coded racism” may partly explain why a glibly anodyne, detached pseudo-cool is now the only safe mode of satiric discourse. Speaking of which, let us skip ahead to the very last page, in which the author gives us the ultimate example of “What Is Not Snark” and enjoins us to go forth and do likewise. Here it is, Stephen Colbert saluting President Bush at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner:
I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message: that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound—with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.
This, says Denby, is
a classic of comedy and of citizenly virtue. Why? Because it’s not snark. It’s irony, an apparent act of kinship with the President that is actually a violent unseating of the President. Also it’s courageous—Colbert spoke the words to the President’s face and suffered the freezing disapproval of the audience.
Oh, phooey. The audience didn’t exactly “disapprove.” In fact, I’d wager they mostly agreed with Colbert, but because they’re a bunch of ghastly media creeps and suck-ups, they didn’t dare give anything more than a tentative titter. As for “violently unseating” the President, I’ll bet Bush chuckled away merrily—because, while Colbert came not to praise Caesar, he didn’t come close to burying him. The form of his “irony” renders it unthreatening.
Mimicking the hollow boosterism of sonorous media baloney requires some skill, but if you’re in the business of “violent unseating,” it’s utterly inadequate to the task. And, after what feels like a somewhat dutiful slog through Juvenal, Swift, and Pope, you would expect Denby at least to be aware of the limitations imposed by the shriveled range of cultural reference within which the contemporary media “ironist” must operate. It’s fun to riff off the conventions of cable news or American Idol, but it’s limiting. Observational humor requires folks to stick around long enough to observe.
Back in the 90’s, David Letterman did a Top Ten list about a Clinton/Yeltsin summit. It wasn’t going down so well, so, midway through, the host stopped to explain it to the audience: “The one guy eats, the other guy drinks. That’s all you need to know.” Indeed. Denby’s “layer of knowingness” is really a wafer-thin veneer—knowingness for the unknowing. Bush? Dumb. McCain? Old. Palin? Hang on: Also dumb. When Denby bemoans “the feebleness of snark” by citing Maureen Dowd’s arthritic walker-dependent “running jokes” about “Poppy” Bush and “Babysitter” Cheney, he is, almost, on to something: This is sophisticated cynicism for the gullibly naïve.
Nevertheless, it is surely ironic that a writer who coos at every opportunity his appreciation of irony (“the most powerful of satiric weapons”) seems to lack the vital precondition for irony—the ability to imagine the other. Why is Bush so obviously a buffoon and Gore so profoundly a “serious man”? Well, because Denby voted for one and despises the other. Say what you will about the creators of the British magazine Private Eye, to whom he devotes considerable space, but they’re equal-opportunity jeerers. In American terms, Richard Ingrams, Private Eye’s founder, would be reviled as a homophobe, a racist, and an anti-Semite. When co-owner Peter Cook’s comedy partner Dudley Moore went off to California in the late 1970’s to romance Bo Derek in 10, Cook was sympathetic: “I suppose if you’re a lower-middle-class midget from Dagenham with a club foot, being a Hollywood star must seem quite a good deal.”
Forget insults like these to the vertically challenged and limbically impaired through which the contemporary ironist must, as in matters racial and ethnic and orientational, perforce tiptoe on eggshells; the snark too far for Denby is Private Eye’s dissent from pop-culture orthodoxy. It was, he says, an “astounding mistake” to mock the Beatles because, after all, Sgt. Pepper is (stop me if you’ve heard this before) a “revolutionary album” with “its startling layered and textured sound.”
Oh, dear. Is that some half-remembered cliché from Hi-Fi Groover’s “100 Eight-Tracks You Must Hear Before You Die”? To the contrarians at Private Eye, the universal acclaim for the Beatles was all the more reason to lob a shoe. Forty years on, Denby’s civically virtuous, conventionally wise irony circuit is obliged to operate without narrower constraints.
“Scratch a writer of snark,” he writes, “and you find a media-age conformist and an aesthetic nonentity.” But because of his inability to differentiate “snark” from “irony” by anything other than political disposition, he comes over like a judge defining “obscenity”: He knows it when he sees it, but if he sees it and it turns him on, it’s “erotica,” or “irony.”
For my own part, I find the divide between Colbertian “irony” and Dowd-esque “snark” less of a chasm than Denby imagines: Both are part of a self-referential present-tense culture bobbing around in circles on the surface, and it’s foolish to argue degrees of precedence between flotsam and jetsam.
So David Denby cocks a snook at snark and sounds merely snippy. As for the definition he fails to nail down, my edition of Oxford gives “snark” the noun only as Lewis Carroll’s “imaginary animal.” The verb (derived from the Norwegian snarka) is defined first as to “snore,” and second as “to find fault [with].” In attempting to find fault with snark, Denby has produced a bit of a snore.
* Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation. Simon & Schuster, 144 pp., $15.95.