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Snark Attack


This raises a tricky question that Denby, like most of snark’s critics, never addresses: Where exactly did all this snark come from? Did we simply transform overnight into a nation of venal assholes? I’d argue that slackers adopted irony not as a pose of hipster cynicism but as a defense against inheriting a two-faced world. When no one—from politicians to pundits—says what he actually means, irony becomes a logical self-inoculation. Similarly, snark, irony’s brat, flourishes in an age of doublespeak and idiocy that’s too rarely called out elsewhere. Snark is not a honk of blasé detachment; it’s a clarion call of frustrated outrage.

Take this small example from Denby’s book: In pining for the tough-talking wit of Rosalind Russell and her ilk, he writes, “Whatever its miseries, the country in the thirties and forties was at peace with itself spiritually: We were all in the same boat.” Now, you could calmly point out Denby’s lazy generalization as he reimagines a time of widespread inequality as an idyllic epoch of snappy-pattered togetherness. Or you could respond, “Denby, you dumbass, not only were we not all in the same boat, we weren’t even at the same water fountains.” Sometimes the snarky response is the correct response.

This seems truer than ever before. Consider how much of our public speech—in politics, celebrity, sports—is composed of spin, prevarications, and barefaced lies. If you’re looking for a telltale moment from the last election as to the state of our political discourse, don’t look toward Sarah Palin’s mean-girl snark attacks at the Republican Convention (as Denby does) or to the columns of Maureen Dowd. Look instead at that unguarded moment when commentator Peggy Noonan let slip her true feelings about Palin’s nomination into a hot mike—in contradiction to what she’d just said live on-air. Or consider the oft-made but pertinent point that postdebate commentators reside in “Spin Alley.” When we live in a world where professional analysts on TV can be trusted to simply say what they actually believe, then I think we’ll find that snark will start to turn its own volume down.

Snark is not a honk of blasé detachment; it’s a clarion call of frustrated outrage.

Yet in snark Denby sees a symptom and calls it a disease. In a particularly tin-eared moment, he defends, of all people, Tom Cruise. Given the wealth of legitimate snark victims, why pick the star who best personifies the meticulous image-grooming and draconian information control that’s come to characterize modern celebrity? Surely Denby is not blind to the damage done to journalism, and society, by a culture of habitual lies. (Maybe not. He goes on to stick up for Barry Bonds.) Later, Denby notes with patrician dismay that a blog named With Leather declares itself to be “all about the assholes and idiots in the world of sports.” He priggishly clucks at this “mix of adoration, envy, and resentment,” without even a nod to the world of sports being, self-evidently, full of assholes and idiots. Or that there’s a lucrative industry built up around camouflaging that fact from fans, who, not surprisingly, are then drawn to blogs like With Leather.

That’s the recurring blind spot in the criticism of snark. Can it be nasty? Definitely. Is Perez Hilton a repugnant Horseman of the Apocalypse? You bet. Is snark scattershot in its application? Of course—all too often it’s applied like a clawhammer to the soft skulls of undeserving targets. Does the reflexive glibness practiced at certain outposts of the Internet (which, contrary to Denby’s sensationalism, flourish mainly in the niche of media and celebrity gossip; snarky blogs about economics, business, politics, and technology are the rare exceptions) produce, in the regular reader, a wearying hopelessness, building up in your system like mercury poisoning? Yes, I’m afraid it does—though no more so than the wearying hopelessness that might come from watching too much Nancy Grace.

Charges against snark are valid, especially when backed up with cherry-picked evidence. But you could make the same accusations against all strains of humor, throughout history, when misapplied. In targeting snark, Denby sights a trendy straw man, but he misses the important point that snark is not an idea; it’s a conduit—an outrage delivery device. He claims that snark is the favored voice of a generation “who know, by the time they are 12, the mechanics of hype, spin, and big money,” and about this, he’s exactly right. But instead of moving on to denounce the toxic pervasiveness of hype, spin, and big money, he blames the refuseniks who rail against it, claiming that everything seems “lifeless and unreal to them.”

Current events are certainly unreal but snark’s response is hardly lifeless. Snark is not the poison; it’s a home-brewed antidote. It’s the angry heckler at the back of the room. But Denby can only hear the hecklers, not the ridiculous act they’re heckling. When you are living in a nation awash in bullshit, it should not be surprising when people cry out, The nation is awash in bullshit! and maybe throw in an extraneous And your mother dresses you funny! It should also not be surprising, I guess, when people like Denby, ensconced on their porches, their conversations interrupted, tut-tut and tell those people to keep their voices down.

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