You make the point that in many cases, being beaten up on the Internet has a strangely unreal quality to it. If you don’t look, it’s hardly there.
Unless your helpful friends tell you, “Oh, that was awful.” Sometimes people do look at you weirdly, and you realize that something has been said and you don’t know what it is. We can certainly toughen up and shrug it off. But the old notion of personal honor is something that we’re going to have to jettison in the digital age.
So the traditional idea of reputation is going down the drain?
Yeah, you can’t just escape the way you did in America in the nineteenth century. Just pick up and go somewhere else. It’s crucial not just for people my age, but for kids. A lot of stuff they put on social networking sites, or on this scummy Juicy Campus site—it may pop out ten years later, when you’re applying for a job in a conservative profession.
Let’s return for a moment to your history of snark, in which Tom Wolfe occupies a pivotal spot. You discuss both his amazing talent and the sense that there’s really nothing at stake. What we see in a piece like “These Radical Chic Evenings” (1970) is like a higher form of dandyism.
When he was young, Wolfe was celebrating and discovering aspects of American culture that had been buried or hidden. But then he turned to things like this, and if you examine that piece closely, there’s nothing in it but contempt and rage. He seems to be angry not just at the Black Panthers, but at the mainstream civil rights leaders. He makes fun of the way they dress, how boring and middle-class they are. There’s a strain of anti-Semitism, too. All of these rich Jews trying to maintain their credibility in their twelve-room apartments. But in retrospect, it’s Wolfe who looks like a schmuck, not the people who went to that party. The piece now seems to me incredibly well composed and incredibly sour and nasty. He’s got nothing, no reforming instinct, just his taste against theirs. It doesn’t sit well anymore. And it was a transit point for Wolfe: he went from being an exuberant cultural celebrator to being a right-wing sourpuss.
At one point you note the so-called “Pacemaker Principle,” whereby the old “get their slowness clocked, their verbal flummoxes written down, their sags and humps measured.” Among your examples is a shaft fired by Charles McGrath at Jim Lehrer, which seems a little paradoxical, given that McGrath himself is in his early sixties. Is snark now so reflexive that we’re all devouring our own peers?
That’s a classic example of what I was talking about at the beginning of our conversation—the anxiety that you’re not keeping up. You’re getting old, you’re not hip enough, so you make fun of somebody who’s slightly older. I was shocked to hear that Lehrer was deeply wounded by that comment. They do the same thing they’ve been doing for thirty years on that show; it does have a kind of reliability. Why put it down?
I found an additional irony in the fact that the Times Book Review was notably un-snarky under McGrath’s tenure, but has become more so under that of Sam Tanenhaus.
They want to get your attention. They’ve published some good pieces and some awful things, which should have been much more tightly edited. It’s going for impact. But if you’re going to do a tough, nasty piece, you have to edit it very carefully, and you’ve got to have a great writer doing it.
Let’s return to something we touched on earlier. You’re at pains to separate yourself from such articulate Luddites as Lee Siegel, who insists that the Internet is destroying our humanity. But could you say a few words about the Web’s role as snark’s mightiest megaphone?
Lee’s book [Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob] seemed to me excessively gloomy, an attempt to be eloquent about very small issues. Look, we’ve had a democratic revolution. Millions of people have gotten access to the presses, which were formerly controlled by the owners of the presses and their hirelings, like me. Suddenly, everybody can join. And that’s an incredible event in the history of democracy. But in the wake of any democratic revolution, you’re going to have an explosion of egotism and anger and pent-up rage. There’s an awful lot of that. You can ignore it, of course, unless you’re in a conversation about something that matters to you.
So where is this post-revolutionary hangover leading us?