Thursday, December 01, 2005

THE CULTURE WAR'S REAR ECHELON. Writing is a hard dollar in any case, so I can understand why a lot of marginal scribes have over the years flocked to National Review, the Claremont Institute, etc: they're always hiring, it seems. I have myself written utter hogwash for corporate clients, so I will not judge these factota on moral grounds. (Oscar Wilde could. When a friend of his whose hackwork offended Wilde shrugged, "A man must eat," Wilde replied, "In your case, I fail to see the necessity.") But as a professional, even as a mercenary, I find myself increasingly offended by the increasingly low quality of their work.

Not that it was ever good. During the Reagan-era goldrush of right-wing propaganda gigs, tractability trumped talent -- prickly Old Guard authors like Karl Hess gave way to faux-contrarian bloviants like R. Emmett Tyrell (who, with the aid of a thesaurus, impersonated an author just badly enough to convince the sub-literate that he was one, and thus emblematized his profession and his age).

But nowadays it's even worse. Consider that it took two authors to write this. Most of the piece summarizes the plot of a comic book -- and while this job is poorly performed, it at least gives the reader some tangible details and images; the passages that are (apparently) meant to analyze the comic book actually make it harder to tell what the thing is doing or trying to do:
If satire is the stuff of Jonathan Swift — intelligent, probing, witty, sharp, and scathing — then Liberality falls woefully short. It is, in fact, none of those things. Walking a blurry line between oblivious self-parody and conscious self-deprecation, it is a hysterical, hilarious romp through a nightmarish right-wing fantasy land...

Regardless of how Liberality's humor is intended, it's there in spades. On the back cover of one of the comic books, Hannity's metal fist clenches a squirming caricature of an Arab terrorist by the throat, holding him up in a gesture of triumphant contempt. Purposefully or not, it is the perfect culmination of this carnival of colorful absurdity.
How does this sort of thing get published?

Desperation is a possibility. Figure that every young toff who announces himself to the wingnut network by joining the local YAF or Protest Warriors chapter will eventually be recruited by agents of Scaife or Moon. These lads and lasses cannot be forever happy working in the mailroom. They know that to break out, they either have to blow George Roche (or his not-yet-disgraced equivalent), or publish something high-profile enough to make a name and a place on the path to editorships and junior analyst slots.

Think how many essays this must engender! And think what sort of people are writing them: Bible-college yearbook editors; clench-fisted debate-club nerds; and, probably more than anything else, political hacks who sincerely believe that literary greatness, like everyone and everything else they have yet encountered in their short lives, must fall to their energy and powers of persuasion.

For the most part these are young people who lack both the experience to comment sensibly on real-life experiences, and the patience or depth to comprehend theoretical abstractions. And, like nearly everyone else in these United States, they think that first-class writing is distinguished not by clarity but by opacity.

So they pick topics that will not get them called for ignorance -- because their editors don't know about them, and nobody else cares about them: comic books, movies, TV shows, celebrity bloggers, etc. On such bare themes the young Turks hang words, metaphors, subordinate clauses and apothegms in (their articles suggest) whatever order they happen to come to minds only hazily acquainted with the rules and traditions of English composition.

Like all amateur artisans, they lay their materials on thick. When they make a mistake or intuit how lost they are, they just add more. Eventually the accretion is so monstrous that it seemes singular: maybe, the budding authors muse, this is what they mean by style.

Such monstrosities pour over an editor's transom. The editor sighs; there is no money in the budget for remedial education, and he has no time to educate all the sprats himself. He keeps hoping they'll get better; but they don't. They spend their free time horsing around. The males try to mack on the females, and the females try to make each other jealous. The editor wonders why they didn't go into advertising. Maybe if Rupert Murdoch owned an agency...

Meanwhile his boss -- a moneyed crackpot who lives in a Georgian mansion in North Dakota and practices incessantly at his private rifle range to prepare for the coming Mexifornian invasion -- looks in: any new talent coming up?

The editor hands over some of the less deformed creations. The boss scans the copy of one, cannot make heads nor tails of it. This is not unusual, but it seems even worse today; maybe, he thinks, it's time for a new contact lens prescription.

Nonetheless he sees keywords of which he approves -- Hannity, Liddy, Limbaugh, Rand -- and that pleases him. That's usually as much as he needs to see when reviewing the magazine, certainly: he will trace the conservative signifiers just far enough to assure himself they are connected with flattery, and the liberal signifiers far enough to assure himself they are wedded to scorn.

In this respect, all is well with the article; if he cannot quite follow the through-line, he figures, it may be a "youth" thing. The kids have their own language; funny books, iPods and so forth. Who is he to judge? The boy wouldn't be aboard if he weren't right on the issues.

And his approving grunt cues the dawn of a brilliant career.

It may of course be simpler than that. Maybe the places are like monkey houses before the advent of humane zoo management: a chaos of screams, leaps, and masturbation. Maybe the cause is not so much editorial desperation as depravity. Maybe the stuff is generated by computer programs while the interns and tyros lay around the office smoking crack.

But speculating on it sure beats the snot out of reading it.

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