f you dare, spend some time browsing the Instagram accounts of popular self-appointed fitness and health gurus. Featuring perfectly lit shots of chia seed–sprinkled oatmeal with organic berries, along with many pictures of their killer abs, the images are supposed to be inspirational. Who wouldn’t want to emulate these beautiful happy people who always seem to be exercising outdoors (and who are brought to you with the help of sophisticated photo filters such as Perfect 365—a favorite of Kim Kardashian’s—that apply photoshopped makeup to images of your face so you can look amazing when you post that #iwokeuplikethis selfie).
What we’re talking about here is a phenomenon called “smarm.” Broadly speaking, smarm is a form of extremely ingratiating behavior—unctuous attempts to curry favor while remaining insistently “positive.” It’s always been around in mild form (mainly in the world of advertising), but in recent years it’s been on the rise in popular culture, journalism, and, more immediately, in politics.
Smarm’s imperial assault on the larger cultural conversation became evident a few years ago when the website BuzzFeed announced that it would no longer publish negative book reviews.
The decision was heralded by the site’s bosses as though it were a virgin birth. “Why waste breath talking smack about something?” the editor who announced the decision told Poynter news. “You see it in so many media-type places, the scathing take-down rip.” You can see the smarm at work in this statement, too, namely the earnestness combined with a thinly veiled sense of superiority about those other “media-type places.”
In an exuberantly entertaining dissection of BuzzFeed, published on Gawker, Tom Scocca pointed out that the smarm at work here is “an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves . . . . Why, smarm asks, can’t everyone just be nicer?”
Why indeed? Last year, Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington circulated a memo (inspired by a trip to Davos, naturally) demanding that her staff “double down” on covering positive stories rather than negative ones. Huffington said she wanted to “start a positive contagion by relentlessly telling the stories of people and communities doing amazing things.”
Recently, news broke that Arianna Huffington is expanding her empire by launching a media company called “Thrive” (Smarm peddlers love using positive one-word names for their ventures, preferably ones with just a whiff of compulsoriness—is “thrive” a suggestion or a demand?)
A culture that values sensitivity and diversity without figuring out how to adequately define either needs ways to monitor the behavior of others. Smarm has emerged as a kind of coping mechanism for a world beset by trigger warnings, safe spaces, and hypersensitivity.No less an authority than the Columbia Journalism Review defended “positive” approaches like that of BuzzFeed’s cruelty-free books section: “The explicitly positive tone is one way to set BuzzFeed’s vertical apart from the plethora of other literary sites and review sections,” the CJR noted enthusiastically. BuzzFeed editor Isaac Fitzgerald concurred: “I think BuzzFeed really works hard to get you to click and wbe satisfied by what you get and share it with other people. You don’t want to disappoint your reader because you want them to tell their friends.” Click and be satisfied: the new mantra of our smarmy age.
It’s not just BuzzFeed. This bias toward “positive” news that makes people feel happy has spread like kudzu across the cultural landscape. As University of Pennsylvania marketing professor Jonah Berger told the New York Times a few years ago, “When you share a story with your friends and peers, you care a lot more how they react. You don’t want them to think of you as a Debbie Downer.” Increasingly, the arbiters of culture online push people towards a feel-good, Upworthy world of the relentlessly positive. And how can more than half a billion people (that’s the number of Instagram visitors) be wrong?
Except that they are. Recent research shows that spending lots of time devouring the smarm of others actually makes you unhappy. Researchers from Utah Valley University found that the more time you spent on Facebook, the more likely you were to feel that others were happier and life was unfair. Another study, conducted by German researchers, described Facebook as a place where “invidious emotions” and a “rampant nature of envy” plagued heavy users. This is the dark side of smarm. All that happy uplifting content just makes you feel worse.
In a therapeutic culture such as ours, which is focused on personal well-being more than personal responsibility, it’s not surprising that we find smarm so compelling. We seem to worry less about the state of our souls than we do the minimalism of our closets or the carbon footprint of our last vacation.
But smarm is thriving for another reason as well. A culture that values sensitivity and diversity without figuring out how to adequately define either needs ways to monitor the behavior of others. Smarm has emerged as a kind of coping mechanism for a world beset by trigger warnings, safe spaces, and hypersensitivity to gender, race, and ethnic differences.
Or, as Scocca noted, in words that could be used to describe contemporary student activists on campus, “It is scolding, couched as an appeal to goodness, in the name of an absent authority.” If you can’t say something nice—or, more to the point, if can’t figure out if something you think is nice might be misconstrued as transphobic, racist, or sexist—just favorite that kitten video!
Smarm also provides an ersatz feeling of community. Today, more people are living alone than ever before, but at least they are all on Facebook. Why fret about a fractured nation bowling alone when you can read this or that “powerful story” on Upworthy? In the vacuum left by traditional behavioral norms and mores, smarm has emerged as our common cultural currency.
As for disagreement? Criticism? Smarm culture tends to call out as “haters” anyone who disagrees with liberal mainstream views. Do you have a problem with the government’s policy on transgender bathroom access? You’ll be dismissed as an extremist ranter with that favorite smarm catchphrase: Haters gonna hate. In a culture where being liked and followed and pinned and retweeted is the most important currency, saying something disagreeable (that is, out of the liberal mainstream) isn’t just curmudgeonly; it can be career-threatening. This is why the Internet, which promised to give authentic voice to the previously silenced, has instead given us a world in which mommy bloggers spend their days curating upbeat posts about the challenges of potty training in order to get kickbacks from diaper companies.
The Smarmer-in-Chief at present is Hillary Clinton. She and her followers insist we all respectfully acknowledge how she is “making history” even if we disagree with her politics (that’s smarm). She is praised (by Gawker!) for “shutting down the haters with one simple tweet” when she tells Donald Trump: “Delete your account.” That’s smarm, too, incidentally, a way of saying, “Oh, you’re so negative.”
The oppressive cheer of smarm helps explain the rise of Donald Trump, whose politically incorrect bombast is seen by his supporters as an appealing antidote to the smarmy liberalism and entitlement of Hillary Clinton. Trump supporters loudly and angrily reject the feel-good rhetoric of smarm. The anger it provokes in them is cathartic. The smarm peddlers eager to dismiss Trump, his supporters, and their anger as “childish” should take note of what has happened to our political culture: If you look closely at what Trump voters find most exhilarating about their candidate, it’s his willingness to say anything. In a culture increasingly overwhelmed by smarm, this seems about as close to bravery as you can get in contemporary public discourse. It’s false bravery, of course, especially on the part of Trump supporters who claim the mantle of political incorrectness to provide a cover for the actual hatred they spew. But that doesn’t invalidate the larger desire to cut through the crap, take off the blinders, and get at the truth. They who sow the smarm shall reap the whirlwind.
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The Harm of Smarm
Must-Reads from Magazine
While the nation’s attention is focused on the Carolina coast, something very odd is happening across the country in Sunspot, New Mexico.
Sunspot is hardly a town at all–the nearest stores are 18 miles away. It’s actually a solar observatory 9,200 feet up in the Sacramento Mountains. It is open to the public and has a visitor’s center, but don’t visit it right now. On September 6th, the FBI moved in and evacuated all personnel using Black Hawk helicopters. Local police were told to stay away. The only explanation being given by the FBI is that an unresolved “security issue” is the cause of the evacuation.
The sun is the only astronomical body capable of doing major damage to planet earth without actually hitting us. A coronal mass ejection aimed at the earth could have a devastating impact on satellites, radio transmission, and the electrical grid, possibly causing massive power outages that could last for weeks, even months. (It would also produce spectacular auroras. During the Carrington Event of 1859, the northern lights were seen as far south as the Caribbean and people in New England could read newspapers by the light.)
So, there are very practical, not just intellectual reasons, to know what the sun is up to. But the National Solar Observatory right now is a ghost town, and no one will say why. Such a story should be catnip for journalists.
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It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you.
Americans awoke Thursday morning to a familiar noise: The president of the United States waxing conspiratorial and declaring himself the victim of a nefarious plot.
“3,000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” Donald Trump declared on Twitter. He insisted that the loss of life in the immediate aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria topped out in the low double-digits and ballooned into the thousands well after the fact because of faulty accounting. The president did not claim that this misleading figure was attributable to flaws in the studies conducted in the aftermath of last year’s disaster by institutions like George Washington University or the New England Journal of Medicine but to a deliberate misinformation campaign orchestrated by his political opponents. “This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible,” Trump insisted.
If, for some mysterious reason, Trump wanted to attack the validity of these studies, he might have questioned the assumptions and biases that even their authors admit had an unavoidable effect on their confidence intervals. But Trump’s interest is not in accuracy. His desire is to shield himself from blame and to project his administration’s failings—even those as debatable as the disaster that afflicted Puerto Rico for the better part of a year—onto others. The president’s self-consciousness is so transparent at this point that even his defenders in Congress have begun directly confronting the insecurities that fuel these tweets.
Donald Trump has rarely encountered a conspiracy theory he declined to legitimize, and this tendency did not abate when he won the presidency. From his repeated assertions that Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 election was a “hoax,” to the idea that the FBI shielded Hillary Clinton from due scrutiny, to the baseless notion that “millions and millions” of illegal-immigrant voters deprived him of a popular vote victory, all of this alleged sedition has a common theme: Trump is the injured party.
The oddest thing about all this is that these are the golden days. Trump-era Republicans will look back on this as the halcyon period in which all of Washington’s doors were open to them. The president’s ostensible allies control every chamber of government. The power his adversaries command is of the soft sort—cultural and moral authority—but not the kind of legal power that could prevent Trump and Republicans from realizing their agenda. That could be about to change.
The signs that a backlash to unified Republican rule in Washington was brewing have been obvious almost since the moment Trump took the oath of office. Democrats have consistently overperformed in special and off-year elections, their candidates have outraised the GOP, and a near-record number of Republicans opted to retire rather than face reelection in 2018. The Democratic Party’s performance in the generic ballot test has outpaced the GOP for well over a year, sometimes by double-digits, leading many to speculate that Democrats are well positioned to retake control of the House of Representatives. Now, despite the opposition party’s structural disadvantages, some are even beginning to entertain the prospect of a Democratic takeover in the Senate.
Until this point, the Trump administration has faced no real adversity. Sure, the administration’s executive overreach has been rejected in the courts and occasionally public outcry has forced the White House to abandon ill-considered initiatives, but it’s always been able to rely on the GOP majorities in Congress to shield it from the worst consequences of its actions. That phase of the Trump presidency could be over by January. For the first time, this president could have to contend with at least one truly adversarial chamber of the legislature, and opposition will manifest first in the form of investigations.
How will the White House respond when House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings is tasked with investigating the president’s response to a natural disaster or when he subpoenas the president’s personal records? How will Trump respond when Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler is overseeing the investigation into the FBI’s response to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, not Bob Goodlatte? Will the Department of Homeland Security’s border policies withstand public scrutiny when it’s Mississippi’s Bennie Thompson, not Texas’s Michael McCaul, doing the scrutinizing? How will Wall Street react to a Washington where financial-services oversight is no longer led by Jeb Hensarling but Maxine Waters? If the Democrats take the House, the legislative phase of the Trump era be over, but the investigative phase will have only just begun.
In many ways, this presidency behaved as though it were operating in a bunker from day one, and not without reason. Trump had every reason to fear that the culture of Washington and even many of the members of his own party were secretly aligned against him, but the key word there is “secret.” The secret is about to be out. The Trump White House hasn’t yet faced a truly adversarial Washington institution with teeth, but it is about to. If you think you’ve seen a bunker mentality in this White House, you haven’t seen anything yet.
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Podcast: Google and Kavanaugh.
Will Google survive the revelations of its political bias, or are those revelations nothing new? We delve into the complexities of the world in which important tech companies think they are above politics until they decide they’re not. Also some stuff on the Supreme Court and on polls. Give a listen.
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Smeared for doing the job.
When then-presidential candidate Donald Trump famously declared his intention to be a “neutral” arbiter of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territories and put the onus for resolving the conflict on Jerusalem, few observers could have predicted that Trump would run one of the most pro-Israel administrations in American history.
This year, the Trump administration began relocating the U.S. embassy in Israel to the nation’s capital city, fulfilling a promise that began in 1995 with the passage of a law mandating this precise course of action. The administration also declined to blame Israel for defending its Gaza border against a Hamas-led attack. Last week, the administration shuttered the PLO’s offices in Washington.
The Trump administration’s commitment to shedding the contradictions and moral equivalencies that have plagued past administrations has exposed anti-Zionism for what its critics so often alleged it to be.
This week, Department of Education Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus announced his intention to vacate an Obama-era decision that dismissed an alleged act of anti-Semitism at Rutgers University. Marcus’s decision to reopen that particularly deserving case has led the New York Times to publish an article by Erica L. Green full of misconceptions, myths, and dissimulations about the nature of the anti-Israel groups in question and the essential characteristics of anti-Semitism itself.
In reporting on Marcus’s move, Green declared the education activist and opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement a “longtime opponent of Palestinian rights causes,” a designation the paper’s editor felt fine printing without any substantiating evidence. You could be forgiven for thinking that BDS itself constituted a cause of “Palestinian rights” and not an international effort to stigmatize and harm both Israel and its supporters. If you kept reading beyond that second paragraph, your suspicions were confirmed.
Green contended that Marcus’s decision has paved the way for the Education Department to adopt a “hotly contested definition of anti-Semitism” that includes: denying Jews “the right to self-determination,” claiming that the state of Israel is a “racist endeavor,” and applying a double standard to Israel not “expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” As Jerusalem Post reporter and COMMENTARY contributor Lahav Harkov observed, this allegedly “hotly contested definition” is precisely the same definition used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. In 2010, the IHRA’s working definition was adopted almost in total by Barack Obama’s State Department.
Green went so far as to say that this not-so-new definition for anti-Semitism has, according to Arab-American activists, declared “the Palestinian cause anti-Semitic.” So that is the Palestinian cause? Denying Jews the right to self-determination, calling the state of Israel itself a racist enterprise, and holding it to nakedly biased double standards? So much for the two-state solution.
Perhaps the biggest tell in the Times piece was its reporters’ inability to distinguish between pro-Palestinian activism and anti-Israeli agitation. The complaint the Education Department is preparing to reinvestigate involves a 2011 incident in which an event hosted by the group Belief Awareness Knowledge and Action (BAKA) allegedly imposed an admissions fee on Jewish and pro-Israel activists after unexpected numbers arrived to protest the event. An internal email confirmed that the group only charged this fee because “150 Zionists” “just showed up,” but the Obama administration dismissed the claim, saying that the organization’s excuse—that it expected heftier university fees following greater-than-expected attendance—was innocuous enough.
Green did not dwell on the group, which allegedly discriminated against Jews and pro-Israeli activists. If she had, she’d have reported that, just a few weeks before this incident, BAKA staged another event on Rutgers’s campus—a fundraiser for the organization USTOGAZA, which provided aid to the campaign of “flotillas” challenging an Israeli blockade of Gaza. USTOGAZA’s links to the Turkey-based organization Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), which has long been associated with support for Hamas-led terrorist activities, rendered the money raised in this event legally suspect. Eventually, as Brooke Goldstein wrote for COMMENTARY, even BAKA conceded the point:
After community members demanded that Rutgers, a state-funded university, hold an investigation before handing over any money to USTOGAZA, the school responded by offering to keep the money raised in an escrow account until a suitable recipient could be found. In June 2011, BAKA sent out an e-mail admitting the University had, after “much deliberation” and despite their initial approval, “decided that they are not willing to release the funds to the US to Gaza effort” due to concerns of being found liable for violating the material-support statutes.
Rutgers prudently limited BAKA’s ability to participate in on-campus events after these incidents, but the organization that took their place—Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)—is no better. The Times quoted officials with the Center for Law and Justice who praised Marcus’s move and cited SJP as a source of particular consternation, but the reporters did not delve into the group’s activities. If they had, they’d find that the organization’s activities—among them declaring that “Zionists are racists,” supporting anti-Zionist individuals despite credible accusations of child abuse, and endorsing Hamas’s governing platform, which labels the entire state of Israel “occupied territory”—fits any cogent definition of anti-Semitism. This is to say nothing of the abuse and harassment that American Jews experience on college campuses that play host to SJP’s regular “Israel apartheid weeks.”
Some might attribute the Times’ neutral portrayal of groups that tacitly support violence and people like Omar Barghouti—an activist who “will never accept a Jewish state in Palestine” and has explicitly endorsed “armed resistance” against Jews, who he insists are “not a people”—to ignorance, as though that would neutralize the harm this dispatch might cause. But the Times piece has emboldened those who see Israel’s Jewish character as a threat both to its political culture and our own. That worrying sentiment was succinctly expressed by New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz: “You don’t have to be a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause to question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.”
The benefit of the doubt only extends so far. Even the charitably inclined should have discovered its limits by now.