A smarm vs. snark debate captivated the media, new and old, recently. Unlike most provocative or incendiary topics, this one has had staying power because it gets at the heart of the culture today. Also something darker and deeper — the way dissent is being stifled. Not in a big obvious way, but in a more subtle manner. Women, in particular, are being muffled. That’s the part that fascinates and disturbs me.
The topic was set off by an essay in Gawker by a writer and, yes, a thinker (a rare combination; so here is my first blast of complimentary snark, which is not an oxymoron), named Tom Scocca. He took vitriolic aim at the smiley-face troops who, he says, are smothering discourse under a blanket of aggressive niceness. He slams do-goody folks like Dave Eggers and the new book editor of BuzzFeed, who says he only wants to run positive book reviews.
OK, that’s silly and a tad scary — even to someone who writes books and has winced and raged at the occasional critical takedown. But anything that smacks of pre-emptive censorship even if there is a kind of worthy — or in the case of a writer like me, an ego-preserving — goal, is bad. On that, I agree with Scocca.
But the snarkians, those whose first reaction (and second and third) is always to go for that takedown, always to be pithily negative and witheringly contrarian, and the smarmians, the treacly, can’t-we-just-all-get-along brigade, are flip-sides of the same anti-intellectual coin in their dispositional needs for kind of virtue-soaked certainty that disallows genuine discourse.
Let’s deal with the downside of smarm first. It goes far beyond book reviewing. In the political realm, the sloganeers are always trying to make us feel like it is morning in America — which it might be for the 1 percent, but not the 99.