The hunting of the snark

Every once in a while an established journalist or media pundit likes to bemoan the loss of common courtesy and proper English as the internet progressively intersects with the real world.  Nobody knows how to speak anymore, and we’ve all turned into pale, lumpen slugs with no social skills, devoting ourselves to either talking to or harassing total strangers online, using the time our ancestors would have used working, tending farms or being community leaders.  They like lamenting those largely non-existent “good old days,” when we all had Emily Post-approved manners and spent all of our free time being upstanding members of society.  Most importantly, we left pithy, snarky social commentary to the experts, like Oscar Wilde, or more recently, Fran Lebowitz.  So seems the main complaint of New Yorker film critic David Denby, in his new book Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal and It’s Ruining Our Conversation, which, just going by the title, seems to be a whiny, chiding screed on how the unwashed, uninformed masses have developed the audacity to criticize other people, occasionally other people we don’t actually know, and who may be perceived as better than us.

Not surprisingly, Denby puts most of the blame on bloggers.  It’s understandable that professional writers such as himself would believe that blogging has made journalism less SRS BZNS and more of a playground where anyone can participate.  After all, the only credentials one needs to be a blogger is the ability to set up a website; a journalism or English degree is a plus but not a requirement.  Yet, bloggers are now earning press credentials and book deals.  Wonkette’s Ana Marie Cox makes appearances on MSNBC.  Denby believes that just anybody having the ability to publicly criticize other people, particularly well-known people, takes the social value out of wit and irony.  Apparently you have to earn the right to voice your opinion, and as far as David Denby is concerned, most of us still have far too many dues to pay.

Without actually reading the book myself, I pose this question to Denby: well, so what? People are mean on the internet? Alert the fucking presses.  The fact that ordinary citizens are making fun of Tom Cruise? So what? This is really the end of polite society? Regular women have the audacity to criticize powerful women like Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton? Woe is us! I’d say it’s more the glorious beginning of the little people getting tired of the bullshit Hollywood and Washington heaps on us and finally having a platform to speak up about it.  Is Perez Hilton this century’s Dorothy Parker? Hardly, but that doesn’t mean we’re still in an era where only a small, exclusive group of individuals has the entitlement to point out what’s wrong in the world.  Denby tries to play it both ways, lamenting snark’s impact on conversation and personal interaction, yet minimizing it by claiming that most snark is rooted in jealousy and self-loathing.  Well, which is it? Is it negatively changing the face of communication and the media, or is it just a way for a bunch of sad little people to anonymously get out their aggressions? One doesn’t seem to really associate with the other.  Personally, I’m glad we’re past the era of people like Andy Rooney passing off the grumbling “what’s the matter with these kids today” rants of a tired windbag as “humor,” even though that’s the kind of thing Denby seems to regard as part of those much-beloved good old days.  Sure, there’s a lot of garbage passing itself off as funny on the internet, but there’s a lot of tremendously well-written, raz0r-sharp, scathingly hilarious work to be found as well (like Deadly Stealth Frogs–add it to your blog rolls now!).  Denby just can’t seem to accept that the playing fields for humor and criticism are evened out now.  Not everybody can do it well, but everybody gets to take a shot.

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