Conor Friedersdorf has a piece out today, headlined “Europe’s Increasingly Targeted Jews Take Stock.” (No doubt the head was written by editors.) In it, Friedersdorf spends the requisite amount of time showing Grave Concern about the increasing threat to Europe’s increasingly threatened Jews, who are threatened, at an increasing level. Near the end, he helpfully includes the caveat: “The degree of danger that Jews in Europe actually face is beyond my knowledge.” Or to paraphrase, the phenomenon that is the sole justification for my piece may or may not be occurring, I just don’t know. It’s an excellent little bit of postmodern maneuvering: I’ll take my Muslim-throngs-are-advancing-across-Europe clicks, please, but don’t take my word for any of this.
If you’re interested in looking at some actual facts about the constantly-expressed fear that Europe’s Muslims are creating an atmosphere of stifling anti-Semitism, rather than just read the assertion one more time, you might start here.
Why does a professional journalist get away with this? For one thing, it’s just a product of a consequence-free culture in professional writing. But I really think a lot of it has to do with The Atlantic, and the way in which institutions become so enamored of their own history, they become indifferent to their present. Friedersdorf’s piece is part of a genre that the magazine specializes in, which is the chin-scratching reflection on moral issues of vast import, which have left these writers introspective, concerned, and stuffed with portentous feelings of doom. It’s precisely the way you write when your publication can’t stop bragging that it once published Twain and DuBois, instead of taking stock of the fact that it currently publishes David Frum and Jeff Goldberg. (Apparently ruining American foreign policy brings you a lot of cred there.)
The Atlantic comes into a lot of criticism around these parts, and it’s for this reason: I just can’t stand the pompous invocations of noble history intermingling with the grubby realities of the pageview-obsessed present. Yes, cool, you’re protecting the sacred flame of American letters. You’re also publishing delightful larks, like this hilarious banter from Goldberg, Senior Editor of Being Terrible at Journalism, and James Hamblin, Associate Editor of Resembling an Infant! Remember your old buddy Curveball, Jeff? Ho ho! We are engaged in insouciant comedy! The Atlantic is like the National Honors Society came to life as a magazine, except for when it decides to be Buzzfeed.
The Atlantic, in other words, is rather like two other impossibly self-important institutions, the Yankees and Saturday Night Live. Barry Petchesky has a great thing out today on how the Yankees are becoming a real-life version of the Onion joke. The YES Network is seriously some of the creepiest propaganda I’ve ever seen in my life; most dictatorships would be embarrassed to run with that kind of marketing campaign. Every time I watch a Yankees game I’m overcome by the smell of Old Spice. Even if they weren’t so eminently hateable otherwise, the endless, self-satisfied, smug voiceovers by company men droning on over shots of second base dappled by the sun would send me screaming for the exits. No thanks. I stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance when I was like 10.
Even worse, though, is SNL. SNL wants simultaneously to maintain this bogus reputation for badassery and being anti-establishment while constantly celebrating its past. I’m pretty sure when you stuff a theater full of a thousand self-important celebrities and leaders so they can ritualistically kiss your ass, you don’t deserve a lot of street cred anymore. It’s amazing: they constantly distract you from how many awful sketches there are by saying “Remember when Belushi was a samurai? That was awesome!” Sometimes I think the only reason they bother to run new shows is so that they can include the clips in retrospectives 10 years later. It’s America’s greatest comedy institution, but the comedy itself just jeeps receding endlessly into the past or the future. Meanwhile, Kenan Thompson is in a dress and half the cast is laughing at their own unfunny jokes. And I hate to hurt anybody’s feelings but if you actually go back and watch the whole episodes from the 70s all the way through, you realize how bad so much of it was. Now here’s Bill Simmons with 10,000 words asking whether Church Lady is overrated or underrated. I would have watched the 40th anniversary special but then I remembered I would rather run steel wool across my tonsils.
You could throw MTV into this mix, too. The problem, in all cases, is not caring about history. It’s self-mythologizing. It’s spending too much of your time telling people about why your enterprise is a very big deal because of the very big deal it’s always been.
By now, most everyone acknowledges that the great blog revolution never actually happened. A few good ideas got out there, some people who wouldn’t have otherwise been heard got an audience, a lot of commiserating happened. But mostly people got bought out or otherwise absorbed. I don’t blame them. You gotta pay the rent. But nobody but really committed nostalgics believe in the old dream of a light-on-its-feet, antiestablishment digital media that can act as a counterweight to the stentorian, self-absorbed old media. That’s OK; the dream was probably bogus and self-aggrandizing to begin with. But one thing that I really, really wanted to actually occur was the death of the immense, ponderous pomposity that has been such a part of media. The real cruel fate is not just the rise of Planet Listicle, endless throngs of minimum-waged 20-sometimes out to make it big as writerers in sexy NYC, churning out gifs and LOLs like some terrible culture-destroying contraption. I am ready to turn off my brain and sink into my vat of chemicals as Fusion directly accesses my brain’s zinger area. No, the true horror is that this stuff will come right alongside some 26 year old intoning gravely about the pressure he feels to maintain some stuffy old rag’s claim to profundity. That, folks, is where I sit back and wait for the meteor. Heaven help us.