David Denby’s polemic against smart-alecky new media types attracted a lot of, well, snarky reviews when it arrived in bookstores a few years ago. Of course, the First Amendment has protected all manner of speech about public figures since at least the Times v. Sullivan decision in 1964. Denby points to exceptions, but most of the serious journalists that I know seem almost constitutionally incapable of abusing such freedoms. In my view, the uglier snark story concerns not professional journalists, but the cultural transmission of snark in which all of us post breathlessly and nastily on social media.
It certainly seems easy to take shots at celebrities, politicians, and even our own friends and family with mean little missives on twitter or facebook. Watching indie darling Bon Iver on Saturday Night Live last weekend, for example, I wanted to post something clever about his descent through Coldplay territory and into Hornsby range (Christopher Cross won Grammys too, you know). After seeing Midnight in Paris, I felt a similar urge to tweet a line about Woody Allen’s real genius being reflected in somehow rehashing Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure with actors lacking Keanu Reeves’ emotional range. The trouble with such snark is that it isn’t based on any real thought or analysis — it is snark for snark’s sake. I hadn’t critically engaged Woody Allen or Bon Iver (much less Keanu or Coldplay) or even thought more than two seconds about it. I can’t fathom the motives here — are we in it for the “likes” and retweets? Do we feel better about ourselves when we rip the famous or successful?
Iggy Pop once said that “nihilism is best done by professionals” and so, I suspect, are such off-handedly cruel attacks. As an aspiring rock writer in the 1980s, I appreciated both the romantic humanism of Lester Bangs and the hyperliterate sneak atttacks of Robert Christgau. Mr. Christgau’s wicked/smart capsule reviews, were peppered with mean and clever phrases like “idolization is for rock stars, even rock stars manqué like these impotent bohos” (on Sonic Youth) or “the words achieve precisely the same pitch of aesthetic necessity as the music, which is none at all” (on Radiohead) or “As bubble-headed as the teen-telos lyrics at best. As dumb as Uriah Heep at worst” (on U2). The quintessential Christgau review? The fictitious two-word appraisal of Spinal Tap’s Shark Sandwich — the very definition of snark.
But Christgau also did real analysis, as in this rumination on the Eagles: “Another thing that interests me about the Eagles is that I hate them. “Hate” is the kind of up-tight word that automatically excludes one from polite posthippie circles, a good reason to use it, but it is also meant to convey an anguish that is very intense, yet difficult to pinpoint. Do I hate music that has been giving me pleasure all weekend, made by four human beings I’ve never met? Yeah, I think so. Listening to the Eagles has left me feeling alienated from things I used to love. As the culmination of rock’s country strain, the group is also the culmination of the counterculture reaction that strain epitomizes.”
Most of the tweets I see on, say, the death of Whitney Houston or a politician’s fall from grace aren’t nearly so reflective, even when smart people are tossing them off. As a criminologist, I’m often trying to cultivate a little reflection and empathy in my students, so that they see criminal behavior as human behavior — and the person convicted of crimes as more than the personification of a single, awful act. David Carr describes this duality with staggering clarity in telling his own story: “If I said I was a fat thug who beat up women and sold bad coke, would you like my story? What if instead I wrote that I was a recovered addict who obtained sole custody of my twin girls, got us off welfare and raised them by myself, even though I had a little touch of cancer? Now we’re talking. Both are equally true…”
Carr isn’t being snarky, he’s just an unflinching professional reporter trying to tell a complex story. One-sided snark, in contrast, simply “piles on” people at their weakest moments. I’ll confess that after seven years of blogging, I’ve probably written my share of thoughtlessly cruel comments. Even when the object of your derision could not possibly be hurt by it, haven’t you felt a little pang of regret after posting or repeating something petty, malicious, or unfounded? It feels, to me, as though I’d just binged on really unhealthy food or drink. Back when I was known to enjoy a beer or two during a flight delay, I recall getting some cheap laughs with an over-the-top Greta Van Susteren impersonation (don’t ask) at the Detroit airport. Though nobody registered any dissatisfaction (and Ms. Van Susteren seems to be doing just fine, thankyouverymuch), I still feel rotten about it three years later.
So for now I’ll stand with Denby — in our bermuda shorts, watering our respective lawns — and his old-fashioned assertion that mindless hair-trigger snark might somehow deplete us. If every cruel line in the snarkstorm represents an ugly little human transaction, is it so far-fetched to suggest that their collective weight might be dragging us down?