CULTURE TOTEMS

Posted in Rants on March 5th, 2009 by Ed

Back in 1965 Tom Wolfe wrote a brilliant piece of satire taking aim at The New Yorker and its editor William Shawn. He made fun of the editor's quirks and lampooned the magazine for taking itself so goddamn seriously – you know, he wrote the kind of cultural criticism piece that The New Yorker did so well and so often. Shawn and the magazine went ballistic, threatening to sue for libel and attempting to get an injunction against publishing Wolfe's relatively tame satire. Additionally, a Who's Who of the literary world rushed to the defense of their hallowed institution, accusing Wolfe of a lack of manners and integrity (while curiously avoiding any criticism of his honesty, as everything he wrote was painfully true). Wolfe responded:

A lot of people are going to read the letters and wires by Richard Rovere, J.D. Salinger, Muriel Spark, E.B. White, and Ved Mehta, five New Yorker writers, and compare their concepts and specific wording and say something about – you know – funny coincidence or something like that. But that is unfair. These messages actually add up to a real tribute to one of The New Yorker's great accomplishments of the last 13 years: an atmosphere of Total Orgthink for many writers of disparate backgrounds and temperments. First again! But that is just an obiter dictum. What I really wish to commend these letters for is their character, in toto, as a cultural document of our times. They are evidence, I think, of another important achievement of The New Yorker. Namely, this wealthy, powerful magazine has become a Culture-totem for bourgeois culturati everywhere. Its followers – marvelous! – react just like those of any other totem group when someone suggests that their Holy Buffalo Knuckle may not be holy after all. They scream like weenies over a wood fire.

Wolfe dared to point out that The New Yorker had become staid, pretentious, and a sort of how-to manual for cultural dilletantes. It had ceased to be a fresh voice in literature and had become, as Wolfe loved to call it, the nation's foremost shopping journal. He was right, and many of the same things can be said of The New Yorker today. There is no better evidence that something has become a parody of itself than the inability to accept parodies in good humor.

Tom Tomorrow has stirred up the same kind of hornet's nest response by releasing a cartoon mocking blogging as a substitute for mainstream media journalism. And the blog-o-sphere, that great cultural critic and mocker of all things Media, is having a hard time taking it in stride. Some people are screaming, as Wolfe said, like weenies on a campfire, so much so that Mr. Tomorrow has been getting harsh criticism on his own blog (the existence of which shows that he has a better sense of humor than his critics).

Is the Internet so full of itself that it can't take someone pointing out that maybe – just maybe – blogging isn't going to replace real journalism? Have Glenn Greenwald and Salon.com and AlterNet and Daily Kos become the new Culture-totem, the taste-making things that pseudointellectuals and petit bourgeois everywhere conspicuously consume to regurgitate at a future cocktail party for valuable Social Cachet points? Of course they have. For as much as hipsters and yuppies love critiquing everything on Earth they seem incongruously humorless about themselves.

The idea that blogging will replace real journalism is as rooted in obtuse "the market can do it better" ideology as the idea that the stock market will replace Social Security, that casinos will fund our schools, or that the charity of billionaires will replace the welfare state. Whatever it is I do – that we do – it isn't journalism. It's commentary. It's dissemenation of ideas. But the ideas themselves, the things we chat about endlessly and examine from every angle, originate from actual working journalists with real experience. We take the fruits of their labor and add value. Sure, that added value can be significant but we'd be pretty useless without the raw materials journalists give us gratis.

Blogging is good at exposing weaknesses in arguments and getting people to notice news that they might not otherwise see. That is what we do. We say "Hey, this news item is important – pass it on" and "This news item is pure bullplop." We are not journalists and we can no more replace them than movie reviews could replace movies.

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