Reading is Not a Form of Political Action: Why Harper’s Subscribers Will Not Survive the Revolution

The Mendacity of Hope
The Mendacity of Hope

There is nothing so insufferable as someone who mistakes being offensive for being original. I should know; I make at least ten insufficiently thought-out provocative statements a day, usually in the name of trying to be funny. Yesterday, these included:

1. Men with short moms always date tall women;
2. Old West people cared a lot about candle games because they didn’t have anything better to do;
3. All women ever talk about when they are alone is Leif Garrett and yeast infections;
4. The State of the Union is on at different times on different coasts (total lie);
5. Everybody should quit trying to have relationships and just go on tennis dates;
6. Everybody in the band Petra is ugly in a way that nobody else has ever been before in human history;
7. Baby Boomers, on average, have had way more sexual partners than members of Gen X and Society of the Serpent.
8. All cats want to work at least eight hours a day, and they will if you give them the right platform;
9. The recession is making people want to dye their hair all the time;
10. Weevils are different from boll weevils (this is actually true, but I wasn’t totally sure, so technically this was an intellectually irresponsible claim to make.)

Most of these statements are not particularly true or even verifiable; for me, therein lies their charm. In his short essay, “The Case Against Women,” satirist James Thurber makes the fairly trenchant point that women are hateful because they never get anything quite right–for instance, they never have exact change, and they’re prone to slight misquotations and other mistakes: “They will tell you to take the 2:57 train, on a day that the 2:57 does not run, or, if it does run, does not stop at the station where you are supposed to get off. Many men, separated from a woman by this particular form off imprecision, have never showed up in her life again. Nothing so embitters a man as to end up in Bridgeport when he was supposed to get off at Westport.”

Thurber is exaggerating for comic effect, of course, but there is a kernel of truth buried in his accusations. I think that women often enjoy exaggerating for dramatic effect (and by “women,” I kind of mean “women,” but maybe I just mean “me.”) It stems back to one’s teenage years, where everything either was described as either eternal or impossible. Your mom was Always Completely Unreasonable and you were Never Allowed to Do Anything. Your life could only be described as either The Worst Existence That Anyone Has Ever Had to Suffer Through or The Best, Most Charmed Existence Possible . Usually, your life was The Worst, but even this had a kind of excitement to it–after all, if anybody ever made a movie of your life, surely the audience would be impressed by the length and breadth of your suffering.

Being an adult (or at least, an adult-aged individual), is a lot more boring than being a teenage girl. The stakes are somehow lower. Having roasted chicken for dinner is no longer The Best; it’s just Quite Good, and waiting in line for coffee isn’t The Worst, it’s just Sucky.

Why Are You So Obsessed With Me?
Why Are You So Obsessed With Me?

All of which goes to say that making the occasional broad generalization can be enlivening to the soul, especially if it outrages someone. You get to recapture the defiant joy of such Famous Teenage Girl Wars as I Don’t Have to Sit With You for Dinner Constantly if I Don’t Want To, a justly renowned skirmish that occurred when your mom wanted All of Us to Eat Dinner as a Family, Just for Once. It was an absolute pleasure to inform your parents that Nobody Else in Your Grade Has to Eat Dinner with Their Family on Weeknights–in Fact, Nobody Even Knows Anybody Who Has Ever Heard of This Happening, Anywhere. Indignantly, your parents attempted to rebut that they ate dinner with their families on every weeknight as a matter of course, only to be crushed by the withering assertion that They Don’t Count, and also the query, Why Are You So Obsessed with Me?

These battles were fun because you didn’t really care about the outcome–you were just into the Zen of battle. The secret to winning every battle is to engage only with enemies who are more invested than you are–that way, you win even when you lose.

This is why making intellectually irresponsible statements can be so incredibly fun–you don’t really care about whether Moravia was once the most powerful country in the world; you just care about freaking out the person who knows that Moravia was never the most powerful country in the world. That is because the person who forgot more about the history of Moravia than you ever knew is either a nine-year-old girl or a middle-class white guy that subscribes to Harper’s.

If there’s one thing that nine-year-old girls and Harper’s subscribers like to tell you about, it’s rules. They’re desperate to inform you of what you are and are not allowed to do; and if they observe any infractions of the rules, they’re desperate to tell on you. We know that nine-year-old girls are like this because of various cognitive growth patterns that they are experiencing at that particular stage of development, which generally have to do with building the brain’s capacity for logic and reason, which cause them to see the world in more black-and-white terms than they will later in life; however, we have no explanation for what is wrong with the Harper’s subscribers.

Nine-year-old girl . . . or Harper's subscriber?
Nine-year-old girl . . . or Harper's subscriber?

Everybody’s tired of “pop culture critics” (i.e., sad nerds) writing “think pieces” (i.e., rants) about this topic. What can be said about Harper’s subscribers that Bust’s infamous “Wimpster” article didn’t say better? Isn’t criticizing today’s young Harper’s subscribers for being more sensitive than earlier generations of Harper’s subscribers secretly anti-feminist, because it validates right-wing reactionary assumptions about how the whole politically correct revolution was actually a bunch of anti-male propaganda that will result in everybody getting murdered by a handful of thugs when the apocalypse hits, because our brave young Harper’s subscribers will be too limp-wristed to lift their shotguns in defense of our helpless womenfolk and toddlers? Aren’t young women who complain about Harper’s subscribers simply get installment loans direct lenders credence to jerks like Christopher Hitchens, who like to run around positing that the reason “Twilight” is so popular is that what women really want, deep down, is to get murdered by a slick Vice subscriber instead of doing it with a kindly Harper’s subscriber ?

The answer to all of these questions is no. Blaming Harper’s subscribers is always the right thing to do. The Harper’s subscribers of this world are not more sensitive than Vice subscribers; they’re just more sneaky. If political correctness forces Harper’s subscribers to be more sneaky about their sexism, it’s good, because it means that they are at least slightly ashamed of it. The apocalypse will turn out okay because of this: while “cultural critics” have been sitting around obsessing about Harper’s subscribers, the women of America have been busy taking up all the slots in college, dominating the workforce, and watching the heck out of Golden Girls . And the popularity of shows like CSI: Rapin’ and Law and Order: More Rapin’ prove that everybody–men, uncles, ladies, moms, babies, and grandmas–likes to sit around pretending that they are rapists/killers/emotionally troubled cops. Does this prove that your grandma wants to be a rapin’ cop? No–it just proves that she thinks they are cool, and all “Twilight” proves is that teenage girls think monsters are cool as well. This is because most teenage girls are monsters. I cannot emphasize this enough.

Anyway! The point I am building toward, unwrapping petal by petal to reveal the mighty Georgia O’Keefe stamen quivering in the center of this enormous flower of generalizations, is this:

Harper’s is evil. Maybe as evil as teenage girls; I don’t know. It’s hard for me to get my mind around that much evil.

Harper’s is evil because its whole point is to make dudes feel so hopeless that they do nothing except bring up things they read in Harper’s at parties in order to make other politically engaged people (i.e., women and other Others) feel dumb and similarly hopeless. “Oh, are you actually voting?,” they sneer, as they take a judicious slurp of Negro Modelo. “How quaint!”

If questioned about what, exactly, is so quaint about voting (or whatever the political action in question is), they inevitably reply with some garbled regurgitation of an essay they read in Harper’s. The title of the essay is usually something like “Totally Fucked: A Harper’s Polemic,” or “State of the Union: Deathy.”

A great example of this phenomenon is “The Mendacity of Hope,” a recent essay by the even more recently departed editor of Harper’s, Roger Hodge. It’s an annoying essay that you can’t read if you don’t have a Harper’s subscription (although a weird, poorly formatted version of it is here, if you want to read it.) Hodge starts out with a cool blanket attack on Obama for not being a unicorn Jesus:

“A year and more has passed, yet we have not been delivered. Some believed that Barack Obama had come to restore the Republic, to return our nation to the righteous path. A new, glorious era in American politics was at hand. If only that were true. We all can taste the bitterness now. Obama promised to end the war in Iraq, end torture, close Guantánamo, restore the constitution, heal our wounds, wash our feet. None of these things has come to pass.”

First of all, this is an facile way to begin an attack on Obama’s presidency. It’s not fair to accuse Obama of sucking because he hasn’t immediately changed everything about American government, because that is an impossible task for one person to undertake. By setting the bar so incredibly high for Obama to “succeed,” Hodge is setting Obama up to fail miserably. Evaluated in such harsh terms, would even a Lincoln or Washington live up to Hodge’s expectations?

Living up to expectations
Living up to expectations

Hodge then narrows down his attack on Obama to a critique of the president’s foreign policy. This is very clever. Obama’s foreign policy has been less than stellar, and provides fertile ground for scathing criticisms. However, Hodge didn’t start out by attacking Obama’s foreign policy; he started out by attacking his entire presidency. Yet Hodge never explains his arguments against Obama’s entire presidency, just against his foreign policy. His initial generalizations trick the reader into siding with Hodge on Obama’s failure to come up to scratch on being a magical pony; and Hodge’s critiques of Obama’s foreign policy cause the reader to retroactively condemn Obama’s entire presidency, because Hodge effortlessly switches rhetorically back and forth between the two. Yet he never touches upon the other aspects of Obama’s presidency, focusing instead on Obama’s weakest points. This is not objective analysis.

Hodge then goes into a fairly astute inventory of how Obama has failed to end the war, close Guantanamo, or restore due process and other legal principles which the Bush administration repealed in order to be all “24” all the time. All of this is quite useful and valid critique, but then Hodge u-turns into an ad hominem attack on the president and his supporters:

“That Obama is in most respects better than George W. Bush, John McCain, Sarah Palin, or Joseph Stalin is beyond dispute and completely beside the point. Obama is judged not as a man but as a fable, a tale of moral uplift that redeems the sins of America’s shameful past. Even as many casual supporters begin to show their inevitable displeasure with his “job performance,” and his poll numbers decline, the character and motivations of the president remain above question. He is a good man. I trust him to do the right thing.”

This is fairly crazy and there’s a lot to unpack here. First of all, it is a logical fallacy that the fact that Obama is not a crazy hawk like Bush, McCain, Palin or Stalin doesn’t matter. It matters a great deal. If people hadn’t supported Obama by voting for him, we would have McCain (or maybe Palin) as President right now, and it would be raining blood. In fact, many Americans wish it was raining blood, so the ability of the President to limit bloodshed at this point has very real, non-abstract consequences: it means that less people are being killed.

Secondly, the fact that Obama is being judged as a magical unicorn is not Obama’s fault. The reasons he is being judged as a unicorn are many, some of them having to do with his being the first black president (and thus carrying an unimaginable burden of expectations, due to our weird racist country), others stemming from other sources, among them rabid media hyping. Which is exactly what Hodge was engaging in at the beginning of this essay. Although he was trying to be biting and witty, he was also couching his coming critique of Obama on a mythic level (one that included specific references to Jesus), in order to make his take-down of Obama all the more epic.

Quit screwing up Obama's foreign policy, Hugh Laurie.
Quit screwing up Obama's foreign policy, Hugh Laurie.

The third weird thing about this paragraph is Hodge’s appropriation of what he imagines to be the voice of Obama’s supporters. I’m not sure I understand what people’s opinions of Obama’s character have to do with Obama’s foreign policy. Obama is not doing a lousy job at foreign policy because people admire him, and so conflating Obama fever with Obama’s policy failures is to lay the blame for both at Obama’s feet, which again is not particularly fair. Furthermore, it is condescending and a little strange for Hodge to go into a little fantasy about the mind of the Obama supporter. In his mind, Obama supporters all speak like Forrest Gump. It’s hard not to read this critique as having less to do with what Hodge thinks of Obama’s foreign policy and more to do with his dislike of enthusiastic, hopeful Obama-supporting youth. Hodge is entitled to his opinions, but it’s an unfair jab to slip in.

Hodge goes on to tell us what he really thinks of Obama supporters:

“It is not surprising that unsophisticated children, naive Europeans, and Democratic partisans continue to revere the heroic former candidate, despite everything he has done and left undone.”

Oh man. What are we going to do with all these naive Europeans and unsophisticated children, I mean Democratic partisans? The implication here is that if you support Obama, you must be some kind of brain-dead French teenage hippie, not a Smart White Texan-American like Roger Hodge. Has Roger shamed you out of your Obama support yet, young white dudes? Has he convinced you that voting for Democrats is so gauche?

“Puzzling, however, is the fact that Obama, until fairly recently an obscure striver in the Chicago Democratic machine, continues to inspire perfervid devotion among intellectual liberals who know their history. Even they say: Be patient. Give him time. It’s hard to change the government. Or, more cynically: He’s the best we can do. Thus, his most sophisticated admirers assume the burden of Obama’s sins, bite their tongues, and indulge the temptation to frame his shortcomings as our own. Obama is not to blame; we are to blame. Obama has not failed us; America has failed him.”

I actually think that these are really great arguments in Obama’s favor. And I hate how Hodge once again frames his arguments against them with classist sarcasm. Roger is just so confused about how smart, middle-class white men could still support Obama! After all, they’ve got book-learning, unlike blacks and poors. “Intellectual liberals who know their history” is obviously code for “white people who went to college,” in case you were wondering. And by appropriating the voice of the Obama supporter (i.e., “Be patient. Give him time”), Hodge makes that supporter sound dumb in the same way your little brother used to make you sound dumb when he parroted everything you said in a high falsetto voice. It didn’t matter that the content of what you were saying wasn’t ridiculous; once it was reframed as satire, it became ridiculous. Pointing out that a year isn’t a very long time to reinvent the American political system isn’t stupid; neither is pointing out that, in a two-party system, Obama was by far the more attractive option. I hate those geniuses who decide that the way to destroy the two-party system is to vote for some no-hope candidate during a major election. Anybody who was really serious about that would work on electing third-party candidates to smaller offices while simultaneously seeking campaign reform. Instead, these jokers like to smugly not vote at all, or else vote for somebody unelectable and then gloat about how they’re “taking down the system.” Nader-supporting wonderboys like this helped hand over the country to criminals in 2000.

It's true!
It's true!

Finally, I will never argue against anyone who points out that Obama is not our country’s dad. For the record, Obama is not, in fact, our country’s dad. It’s not “assum[ing] the burden of [his] sins” to admit that. We aren’t really supposed to look to a magical paternalistic leader to save us all; Hodge of all people should agree with that. No lone person could or should assume the burden of fixing our country–the onus is on us.

After that, Hodge starts bitching about some book he didn’t like. This takes up the bulk of the essay. It’s called “Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State,” and it’s all about how the executive branch of government came to have too much power. Hodge agrees with the author, Garry Wills, up to a point–he thinks that various historical and technological events caused the executive branch to get all swelled and perverted, but he actually thinks that the whole government system was totally fucked from the start, and cites some song and some historical dude in order to prove it. All of this is fairly interesting and astute, as usual–Hodge isn’t dumb–but it’s not necessarily to the point. He’s trying to establish a historical precedent for what he sees as Obama’s fuck-ups, but weirdly, he disagrees with Wills’ ultimate conclusion, which is that any president would have a difficult time wielding this enormous executive power in an ethical way. Wills’ describes the problem thusly:

“Perhaps it should come as no surprise, that turning around the huge secret empire built by the National Security State is a hard, perhaps impossible task . . . A president is greatly pressured to keep all the empire’s secrets. . . . He becomes a prisoner of his own power. As President Truman could not not use the Bomb, a modern President cannot not use his huge power base. It has all been given him as the legacy of Bomb Power, the thing that makes him not only Commander in Chief but Leader of the Free World. He is a self-entangling giant.”

This pisses Hodge off, for some reason–he sees it as Obama apologetics, even though he totally agrees that the executive branch is out of control. I don’t understand how this is logical, unless and except is Hodge is personally pissed off at Obama for nebulous reasons. Then Hodge gets mad that Wills pointed out that if Obama tried to immediately end the Afghan war, he’d never get re-elected. Hodge is mad because, as he points out, Obama never promised to end the war immediately. I’m not sure how this adds up to Obama being a big liar, but Hodge somehow does the math, including another cool ad hominem attack on Obama’s character:

“Let us grant that Barack Obama is as intelligent as his admirers insist. What evidence do we possess that he is also a moral virtuoso? What evidence do we possess that he is a good, wise, or even a decent man? Yes, he can be eloquent, yet eloquence is no guarantee of wisdom or of virtue. Yes, he has a nice family, but that evinces a private morality. Public morality requires public action, and all available public evidence points to a man with the character of a common politician, whose singular ambition in life was to attain power; nothing in Barack Obama’s political career suggests that he would ever willingly commit to a course of action that would cost him an election.”

obama-paintingRoger Hodge, I just don’t understand what Obama’s morality has to do with his foreign policy, just as I didn’t understand what Clinton’s panty shredding had to do with his political performance. As for politicians wanting to get re-elected–of course they do. And let’s not pretend that the Afghanistan foreign policy wouldn’t be far worse if Obama doesn’t get re-elected; frankly, I somehow don’t trust that President Palin or Beck would wake up one day and decide to pull all the troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq tout de suite.

Hodge ends the essay by saying that Obama is a big power-grubbing jerk and we should all be against him.

“The Mendacity of Hope” is the perfect Harper’s essay. It begins from a carefully situated position of negativity, calculated to make the reader feel as much despair and horror as possible, producing this reaction through false dichotomies spun out of the finest unrealistic, idealistic pixie dust. All politicians except Dennis Kucinich are The Worst! The Constitution is The Best, except that we Never Follow It. Things are always going to be Totally Fucked, because of History and also Giant Semi-Abstract Ineffable Systems. Like all good Harper’s essays, it manages to not only make you feel as if the present is totally ruined, it also makes you feel retroactive fear about the past and anticipatory dread regarding the future. It talks about how even the smartest people in the world are totally dumb and misguided, and it describes mythical masses of people who are even more misguided and dumb. The purpose of all this negging is to trick you into agreeing with it, after which you get to feel a small, bitter glow of satisfaction that you, at least, as not as dumb as the rest of these proles. By the end of it, you feel like killing yourself in some dramatically depressing fashion, like walking into the ocean or shooting a bunch of heroin with Fisher Stevens. You feel like you’ve accomplished something just by getting through that Harper’s essay, and you take out the pain of the experience on others by lecturing them pedantically at cocktail parties and barbeques. People start becoming afraid to talk to you, and like all outsiders, you try to make this a mark of pride instead of shame, so you become a Harper’s subscriber. Soon you’ve succumbed to yelling at people who drink out of paper cups and drying your armpits with magical crystals and having open marriages and never, ever voting. You’ve become the most evil thing of all–an adult-aged teenage girl. And this is why Harper’s is evil.

Please understand, I’m not arguing against education and journalism and careful thought. I’m not asking that people blindly believe in their elected leaders, as if they were Gods. I’m just sick of this Thoreau bullshit. I like Thoreau, but he was a giant emo. He was just another nature writer libertarian weirdo until Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X got inspired by his ideas and decided to put them into action. The fact is that reading is not a form of political action, and I think that Harper’s likes to try to trick you into thinking that it is.

Giant emo.
Giant emo.

Harper’s subscribers love the idea that ideas are more important than action, and that the person having the ideas is more important than the person executing them. This is how they justify the current sad capitalist structure, wherein a dude plays his Wii in an office and has an idea once a week while a bunch of ladies go around actually organizing things and figuring out how to make the idea happen. They love the idea that you are effective when you are just sitting around maintenance-masturbating and having thoughts, that you can somehow get credit for it. But it isn’t true. Ideas are not particularly valuable. Anybody with sufficient time and energy can sit around having them, and even then they don’t matter unless elbow grease is put behind them.

Intellectual currency needs to be devalued and re-evaluated. In a world this complex and info-filled, it’s easy to turn everything into an abstraction. When everybody is so busy, they end up assigning intellectual value to the things which are the most heavily guarded, i.e., inaccessible. In other words, “It feels bad to read Harper’s, therefore Harper’s must be an important smart magazine and I must be achieving something just by forcing myself to absorb it.”

What’s an intelligentsia? What’s it for? What’s the ultimate point in assigning things levels of intelligence and value instead of engaging with them? Why does it ruin a band for you if somebody dumb likes it? When does “cultural criticism” become identity politics or identity protection? When does “guarding” culture change into fighting culture? If you’re defending your culture from the rabble, it’s already dead.

Remember, kids: “Public morality requires public action.”

(All the Obama/unicorn paintings are by Dan Lacey, who sells them as posters on his blog.  I don’t personally know him; I just think they are cool.)

5 thoughts on “Reading is Not a Form of Political Action: Why Harper’s Subscribers Will Not Survive the Revolution

  1. I just read the good parts of this I think. But, whatever else it said, I’m pretty sure the good parts are responsible for me renewing my Harper’s subscription. I don’t think I ever thought about that subscription as much as you, but it does give me this warmth from this tiny nihilistic ember inside. Somehow I just know I’m right. Part of that rightness is in applying the Harper’s editorial tone to the Harper’s editorials and knowing that they’re wrong. I’m gonna keep reading cuz I’m a college educated white guy, and I like the way the other white guys (and some white ladies and John Edgar Wideman and the ghost of Edward Said) write sentences. And I liked that article about the way rubber duckies from sunken Chinese shipping containers end up riding the ocean currents and end up in Antarctica or the article about urban homesteading in inner-city Detroit and Bill Wasik’s thing about hipster culture and flashmobs–all of which, it’s true, are written in a style that the editor thinks is probably inaccessible to non-college educated people. The editor’s wrong, but I blame the exclusivity of the audience more on the magazine’s marketing, and the self-identification of it’s readers than on the editorial choices per se. Also, once you grant that the people writing in Harper’s are writing exclusively for a college-educated liberal market, you have to acknowledge a little bit more heterogeneity in the tone and content of the features. I pretty much never read the L. Lapham pieces over the last 9 years because I got so weary of the liberal cult of the omnipotence of the feckless destroyer god GW Bush. So tidy and simple. But so what. I’m not sure how broadly that speaks of all of the other contributing writers. I’m guessing that secretly, or outside of the arena of d.i.y. digital polemic, you’ve liked a bunch of things in the magazine, but that you have the liberal bloggers taste for fractious rhetorical sparring, which is cool. On the other hand I can’t see any reason for me to defend a magazine dominated by ivy league white dudes, so that may be reason enough, regardless of what that implies about editorial choices in the magazine . . . .

  2. Also I’m not sure I want to make the choice between that French style excoriating of the philistine masses (which you attribute to Harpers) and American style guilt of the “conscious” intellectual (which I attribute to you). I agree with you about the dubious value of the anointed “idea” makers, as a labor niche. I don’t think that there is something special about the ability to generate ideas. Linguistic variation and generative originality are special human traits–according to certain lefty American intellectuals. More often than not, the women in the typing pool have better ideas, and, more crucially, an empirically based analysis of the institutions they work in. But I think you are presenting an unnecessary opposition between “ideas” and “action.” It makes me a bit tummy-sour when you say “ideas are not particularly valuable.” That’s a profoundly disappointing thought, especially coming from someone who cares about them. Forgive me for being so bland as to re-state something we probably would both agree with, but I think the equitable society is one in which everyone has time to form ideas and an equal opportunity to air them, and to be heard.

  3. It’s absolutely true that not all of the content in Harper’s is lousy–to be honest, even a crap Harper’s piece is usually well-written and thought-provoking. And if Harper’s actually had to shut down, I’d be sorry, because it provides one of the best venues for quality non-fiction and journalism today. Since I don’t want Harper’s to fold, it follows that I don’t really think people should quit subscribing to it. To be honest, that Detroit article is making me want to move to Detroit–I’ve been talking about it for months. It’s really aspect of Harper’s that masochistically bemoans “the liberal cult of the omnipotence of the feckless destroyer god GW Bush,” (as you put it so eloquently) that I object to. There’s something really schadenfreude-y about it that is creepy, and I hate it when people engage in political S&M regarding the inflated crimes of their dehumanized “opponents.” Reminds me of old ladies who love following the latest “young blonde gets killed ‘n’ raped” case on Fox news–they watch this coverage compulsively, because they’re Just So Horrified and It’s So Sad. When liberals fantasize about Dick Cheney’s big, swinging executive power cock and how it raped the nation, it’s just as prurient and weird. There’s a difference between acknowledging a crime and fetishizing the details.

    Also liked this: “a style that the editor thinks is probably inaccessible to non-college educated people. The editor’s wrong, but I blame the exclusivity of the audience more on the magazine’s marketing, and the self-identification of it’s readers than on the editorial choices per se.” This gets into some major branding issues. (Branding is the major philosophical question of our time, which is really sad.) Without going all Marshall McLuhan 101, I’m not sure how you separate Harper’s editorial policies (i.e., choices about content and tone,) from its marketing, at least in the sense of identity it creates in its readers. For better or for worse, being a Harper’s reader Means Something, and what that means is an aggregate of how it represents itself in the marketplace, as well as the actual nature of its product. I don’t like how Harper’s represents what being a Harper’s Reader means, because that brand can be summarized as “a cool smart person who understands special things that the rabble don’t.”

    Roger Hodge wrote an interesting essay that touches upon this very topic, called “The Noughts”: http://www.harpers.org/archive/2008/09/0082151. I was going to discuss this essay in the above screed, but was already worried about length (as well as losing coherency–I’m not necessarily as clear as I like to think I am.) Anyway, “The Noughts” is a long polemic against a lot of things, among them the government, social systems, and media. I found it pretty hard to parse–I think he’s trying to talk about how the Left and Right no longer share an objective reality that they can agree on, but there’s a lot of cream of mushroom soup in this particular casserole. The essay comes into more focus when he starts complaining about the media. To wit, Hodge complains that:

    “Aggressive, ill-informed, irrational, and largely unsupported opinion predominates in our age of infectious autosatire (on millions of blogs, yes, but also on television and radio talk shows, in op-ed columns, news analysis, and “expert” commentary) and threatens, in a corollary of Gresham’s law, to drive out all other modes of articulate human expression.”

    This raises the question of who, exactly, is qualified to express their opinions. Hodge goes on clarify who the holders of these unqualified opinions are:

    “The television host convinced that Iran will somehow succeed in launching World War III, the Christian firm in his belief that Jesus wants him to be rich, the president who sees into the soul of a Russian dictator, the public-radio essayist who just loves ketchup, the vice president who argues that his dear leader possesses the inherent authority to suspend laws at will—all of these individuals, we say, have a right to their opinions, no matter how meaningless or delusional or divorced from traditional canons of American governance. Apparently it’s bad taste to point out that a prominent public figure is either lying or insane. And given the right publicity campaign, with a consistent message from the White House staffers and congressional aides who feed the news cycle, any narrative, no matter how fraudulent, can begin to command the front pages. (“Just look at the improved situation in Iraq!”)”

    Some of these things are not like the others. If some NPR person wants to do a story about ketchup or Rexella Van Impe wants to rant about World War III and the Second Coming, I don’t see how that it equivalent to Cheney violating the Constitution. One of these things is an epic crime; the other is just entertainment. And if the media fails to investigate and report on the truth about the Iraq war, instead parroting the White House party line, that’s not Rachael Maddow’s or some blogger’s fault. The ability of more people than ever before to express their opinions is not destroying journalism. What’s destroying journalism is the fact that analysis pieces are cheaper to do than investigative pieces, since those require actual reporting. That’s a money issue, not a post-modern Information Age one.

    Hodge then says the solution to this situation is either to retire to a bunker (seriously) or:

    “What we need is an experimental subject, an “I” sufficiently armed with narrative powers both literary and historical, gifts of irony and indirection, and the soothing balms of description and implication, to go forth and find stories that might counteract the unhappy effects of our disorder. What distinguishes such dispatches is what might be called the radical first person: the individual consciousness of the writer becomes paramount. The reader is thereby privy to the writer’s experience and receives direct confirmation of its truth value. What results is not mere consumable opinion, the mystical commodity of mediated capitalism, but the raw material of a considered judgment, whether aesthetic, political, or ethical. In that judgment lies the cure for our affliction.”

    I hope this doesn’t mean what I think it means. What I think it means is that we need Super Smart Special People to explain life to us all the time. This isn’t very far off from all that Philosopher-King bullshit that made Ezra Pound into a Nazi. If I were to propose a solution to our Krazy Information Age, I’d say that teaching courses in critical thinking and media in public schools would be a good start. I don’t think we need Special People to tell us how to evaluate information; instead, we need to learn how to evaluate information for ourselves. In other words, we need to learn how to think. And in a weird way, this gigantic glut of opinion that Hodge is complaining about is, to a certain extent, a healthy sign–among other things, it means that the Internet has made it possible for anybody to get a blog (or comment on one.) It’s noisy and messy, but it also means that people are interacting with the media more than ever before, which is actually a good thing–it can help us get closer to becoming our own Magical Dads.

    My beef against Harper’s comes from this concept of the Mighty Philosopher King Dad handing down knowledge to the lucky masses from the Mount. To be fair, this is mostly a Roger Hodge and Lewis Lapham thing, i/r/t Harper’s content. I’m excited to see where the mag goes, now that Hodge has been fired.

  4. Re: “Branding is the major philosophical question of our time, which is really sad.) Without going all Marshall McLuhan 101, I’m not sure how you separate Harper’s editorial policies (i.e., choices about content and tone,) from its marketing, at least in the sense of identity it creates in its readers. For better or for worse, being a Harper’s reader Means Something, and what that means is an aggregate of how it represents itself in the marketplace, as well as the actual nature of its product. I don’t like how Harper’s represents what being a Harper’s Reader means, because that brand can be summarized as “a cool smart person who understands special things that the rabble don’t.””

    Rather than having much of an effect on our elitist institutions or on the fate of those deliberately excluded from the Harper’s market, I think this branding is more a liability for the actual Harper’s reader who buys into it without being able to afford it (good marketing) because it closes their door on a lot of other, equally worthwhile sources that may not have the same cachet.

    Marketing is a really democratic process, to the degree that we have any Democracy at all anymore. Politicians set policy in Our Interest, and the philosophers of marketing define our metaphysical Needs. But the Politician needs our vote and the Marketing Wiz needs our willing, word-of-mouth promulgation. We are all willing participants in marketing, otherwise it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. The Ideal Harper’s Reader, the one who is the likely Shell Oil investor being wooed by those sponsored 10 page pseudo-academic, pseudo-conscientious “round-table” discussion inserts or Singapore Air ads with the demure subservient stewardess bowing with a moist hand towel, will not survive the Revolution. But many of the actual readers will. The irony is that from the perspective of the Business Department, the Singapore Air handjobs are the readers who count, but from the perspective of the Editorial Department, they are not the ones who give the magazine it’s clout. Poor people who can read do. Look at me and you. It’s kind of like the way mediocre rich kids get clout from going to ivy league universities even while those universities can only maintain their own reputation in the long term by admitting people, on scholarship, who are actually smart. What’s troubling is that anyone who sets a copy of Harper’s in their lap on an international flight becomes “a cool smart person who understands special things that the rabble don’t,” regardless of whether they are among the smart rabble in the Virgin economy class or the dumb smart-set in the first class sleeper suite of a Singapore Air 747.

  5. This is a very interesting article about Hodge’s firing and the history of Harper’s: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/01/business/media/01harpers.html?pagewanted=1&emc=eta1. I didn’t realize that Harper’s is actually a non-profit. Basically, the magazine used to be an actual magazine, but when it was threatened with folding in 1980, this 24-year-old rich kid journalist named Rick MacArthur made his family’s foundation buy it, turning it into a non-profit. He got rid of Michael Kinsley, who was then editor, and reinstalled ol’ Lewis Lapham (who MacArthur had a crush on) in the position. (Kinsley was also, somehow, editor of the New Republic at the time, and went on to found Slate.) Lapham then did a redesign that has remained largely unchanged since the 80’s. The article is great because it is extremely skeptical of MacArthur and his weirdness.

    Also, this gem: ““The business side is run like it’s Esquire in 1968, and the edit side is run like it’s Amnesty International in 1987,” said one editorial staff member. “That’s a very difficult environment for cross-pollination to take place in.””

    Speaks very much to your points about the subservient stewardesses.

    In all seriousness, though, it’s fascinating to me that MacArthur as a young kid was able to buy his way into intellectual relevance (or at least proximity to it.)

Leave a Reply