Monday, August 11, 2008


There is a limit to what we can, within reason, be expected to endure, and sometimes even the smallest thing can tick me off. At the risk of demonstrating myself to be a short-tempered coot, I demand that the New York Times writers stop talking about what they and their sources are eating.

What do I mean? Good question. My response: Frequently, in 'features' sections of the NYT, like the New York Times Magazine, the stories involve longer interviews with sources who play major roles in stories. As if to demonstrate that these are real people, doing real things, with whom the journalist ACTUALLY interacted, and also so as to fill space (part of what Kevin Barnhurst has called "The New Long Journalism"), we find journalists sharing all kinds of information concerning what their sources are eating, and where

Take the recent article about internet trolls, from The New York Times Magazine, August 3, where we are told:
"We ate muffins at Terra Bite, a coffee shop founded by a Google employee where customers pay whatever price they feel like."
"We walked on, to Starbucks. At the next table, middle-schoolers with punk-rock haircuts feasted noisily on energy drinks and whipped cream. Fortuny sipped a white-chocolate mocha."
"Fortuny calls himself “a normal person who does insane things on the Internet,” and the scene at dinner later on the first day we spent together was exceedingly normal, with Fortuny, his roommate Charles and his longtime friend Zach trading stories at a sushi restaurant nearby over sake and happy-hour gyoza."

This is an informative story about internet trolls, and I write not to discredit the journalist (Matthias Schwartz), but to say two things:

a) The fear was, for a long time, that stories in news outlets would get shorter and shorter, as a result of competition with television. The web (though not all other parts of the internet) has given journalism a much more expansive shell for journalism, and stories are, in some cases, free to 'breathe', even to lounge around, have brunch, take a stroll through a leafy neighborhood, get lost in the basement of a bookstore, and eventually find their way home. In elite US journalism, we're seeing (and this is indirectly related to web journalism) long stories.

b) I think the bit where journalists tell us what they're eating, or what their sources are eating is irritating, and will be mocked in future times as a telltale sign of elite journalism of our current period. It's an obvious way to identify one's journalism as made by, and intended for, the upper middle-class (perhaps as 'objectivity' was a hundred years ago). And it's too clever by half.

Before I become Andy Rooney, I'm going to take my leave...

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Don't Hate Him Because He's Intelligent

There are all sorts of reasons that I could give as to why I think John Derbyshire has surpassed Gore Vidal and Ron Rosenbaum as the biggest asshole now working in American journalism, but I would suggest that this recent piece of his in the National Review serve as Exhibit A. At the top of the article, he cites a recent essay by William Deresiewicz in which Deresiewicz recounts having had some trouble talking to his plumber. This inability to communicate across class levels becomes, for Derbyshire, an anecdote supporting the idea of a natural elite, based mostly, he seems to think, on intelligence. So you see, when the hoi polloi start moaning about elitism, it's really just a complaint that some folks are smarter than them.

First of all, any time you start talking about "inherited" intelligence you beg all kinds of pretty basic questions: including, what intelligence really is, how we know we have measured it, how we could ever control for various environmental influences with any degree of influence to make any sort of claim about innate abilities, and whether it is the case that intellectual skills are represented by a single trait, or (more likely by far) that some people have mental capabilities that make them good for dealing with some sorts of tasks, and others have capabilities to deal with other sorts of tasks.

But the really rich irony here is that Derbyshire has completely misunderstood (or mis-represented) the essay that he quotes from. William Deresiewicz isn't arguing that he can't talk to the plumber because he, Deresiewicz, is just so damned smart. He's arguing that he can't talk to him because he is not competent to do so. There's no natural hierarchy at play here; there's a failure of the educational system. Which any reasonably intelligent reader might have guessed from the title of the essay: "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education."

One of the ways that Ivy League schools deform their students, Deresiewicz argues, is by pampering them both intellectually and emotionally, so that they get an undeserved sense of superiority:

"There are due dates and attendance requirements at places like Yale, but no one takes them very seriously. Extensions are available for the asking; threats to deduct credit for missed classes are rarely, if ever, carried out. In other words, students at places like Yale get an endless string of second chances...Elite schools nurture excellence, but they also nurture what a former Yale graduate student I know calls 'entitled mediocrity.'"
In other words, John Derbyshire, unafraid to speak the Truth that all us cowed liberals cannot accept--that there are truly superior people in the world, who are just more intellectually gifted than all the rest--isn't even bright enough to figure out the point of the stuff that he quotes. He has taken almost the exact opposite meaning from Deresiewicz's essay than the one the author obviously intended it to have. And then he's broadcast that perverted interpretation to his readers, most of whom probably won't probably bother to read the original. So now, an insightful, provocative commentary on the relationship between education and class in modern America gets turned into some lame defense of elitism, thanks to Derbyshire. What a tool.

This isn't really media commentary, but I had to get it off my chest.