Friday, April 25, 2008

In the Penny Press!

Lots and lots of indignation in the Penny Press this time around - indignation, outrage, and at least one article intended to produce those reactions.

Nothing more effectively produces bitterness in 2008 America - at least, the tiny parts of America that bother to read anything, let alone magazine articles - than the subject of President George W. Bush and the religious-nutjob core base that still believe in him. This uniter-not-divider has, as has been commented on many times by many voices, succeeded in dividing this country along virtually all of its faultlines, more deeply than any single individual - President or otherwise - has ever done in the country's history, and although his job-approval ratings (those fickle things - we know all about them here at Stevereads) are abysmal, that dividing will go on long after John McCain has taken over his job. The gap between the haves and the have-nots in America has never been wider or more invidious; the distrust the average citizen feels toward the government has never been greater or more richly deserved; the faith Americans feel in the future of their country - both its safety and its morality - is shattered almost beyond recall. And there are two open-ended wars going on, each of them relentlessly chewing up a whole generation of undereducated, prospectless young American hillbillies (the dead dying for absolutely no purpose, the living inflicted with a vast category of mental problems, the fallout of which will be decades in the sorting out). There is, in short, plenty to be bitter about.

In this week's Rolling Stone, the always-reliable Matt Taibbi journeys to the heart of one of those divides, going undercover to the 'evangelical front lines' - in this case the evangelical empire of John Hagee (whose presidential endorsement John McCain so gratefully absorbed). Taibbi dons a dim disguise and boards a bus to a revivalist camp outside San Antonio. Amidst much good prose (and some lamentably excessive sexist phrasings), Taibbi comes to the nub of such evangelical outreaches:

In these Southern churches there are few wizened old sages such as one might find among Catholic bishops or Russian startsi. Here your church leader is an athlete, a business dynamo, a champion eater with a bull's belly, outwardly a tireless heterosexual - and if you want to know what a church beginner is supposed to look like, just make it the opposite of that. Show weakness, financial trouble, frustration with the opposite sex, and if you're overweight, be so unhealthily, and in a way that you're ashamed of. The fundamentalist formula is much less a journey from folly to wisdom than it is from weakness to strength. They don't want a near-complete personality that needs fine-tuning - they want a human jellyfish, raw clay that they can transform into a vigorous instrument of God.

Taibbi enters into their day-long confessionals, takes part in all their revelations, and in the end has nothing but dire divulgements about the big-tent religious emergencists who currently hold sway in our government. He's stark about it:

By the end of the weekend I realized how quaint was the mere suggestion that Christians of this type should learn to 'be rational' or 'set aside your religion' about such things as the Iraq War or other policy matters. Once you've made a journey like this - once you've gone this far - you are beyond suggestible. It's not merely the informational indoctrination, the constant belittling of homosexuals and atheists and Muslims and pacifists, etc., that's the issue. It's that once you've left behind the mental process that a person would need to form an independent opinion about such things. You make this journey precisely to experience the ecstasy of beating to the same bit grisly heart with a roomful of like-minded folks. Once you reach that place with them, you're thinking with muscles, not neurons.

We'll come back to neurons in just a bit, but first we move to the current issue of GQ, which interviews former G.W. Bush political mastermind (and thoroughly indictable unnamed co-conspirator) Karl Rove. In the interview, we learn a redacted version of Rove's opinions on the ongoing presidential election (he's delighted with the Democrats' prolonged infighting and picks them apart in what we must allow is the 'classic' Rovean style), but the most arresting moment happens early in the piece, when interviewer Lisa DePaulo says: "But when people say you've created this climate of fear ..." To which Rove instantly replies, "I laugh."

Even the obligatory indifference of the professional freelancer is rocked by this - DePaulo blankly repeats, "You laugh?" It isn't enough, of course. It could never be enough. No length of months at the Hague in full view of the world could ever make it enough. When asked about the climate of fear he alone orchestrated in modern America - a climate in which every single person with dusky skin is considered a terrorist, a climate in which such strident xenophobia is considered basic patriotism, a climate in which municipal buses now play repeating loops, warning loops urging everybody on board to actively suspect everybody else on board - Karl Rove laughs.

Of course, in addition to the outwardly provocative there's that which provokes through its very sincerity. An example of such must surely be the Gossip Girl homage in last week's issue of New York magazine, and we suppose it's just faintly possible its sincerity is in question. The article, "The Genius of Gossip Girl," boldly proclaims that show to be the greatest teen drama in the history of television - and a harbinger of a whole new kind of TV, one freed from nightly schedules and the usual idea of ratings ... TV gone viral, as it were.

The piece is a hoot to read. It's underlying premise is that the dark Sith Lords of the CW network are intentionally spotlighting their batch of hot young stars, giving them money, assuring them clothes and party invitations, in an effort to conflate them with the characters they play on the show - in other words, product-placement done with live human beings. By all accounts the strategy is a success; certainly it's not hard to get the actors to come up with quotes their characters on the show could easily say, such as when Penn Badgley is asked about their newfound level of celebrity and comes out with this:

I think the last time people treated anybody like this was demigods like in the time of ancient Greece.

And the article goes on about one of demigod Badgley's co-stars:

But he [Badgley] doesn't have it nearly so bad as Chace Crawford, whom Penn (self-deprecatingly, adorably) calls the show's 'designated hot guy.' After some haggling involving mentions of well-lit public places, Chace agreed to meet us for a chaste lunch at Chelsea's Empire Diner. When he walked in, wearing black Levi's skinny jeans and a Diesel hoodie that hit his slender wrists just so, the restaurant's flamboyant waiters shrieked and hugged him. They later said it was because he was a regular; but shrieks and hugs are a natural reaction to someone who looks like him. (We should know: by the end of our own conversation, our voices had gone up at least two octaves. Only Mariah Carey's dog could hear us.)

Of course, the article at least has to mention the ongoing Internet drama surrounding Crawford's sexuality - both his co-star roommate and former 'N Sync member JC Chasez have felt called upon to issue public protestations that Crawford is straight, but the rumors continue to fly (including, just last week, the eruption of a 'Missed Connections' posting on Craigslist that would only be from the actor if he's as dumb as he looks, which seems impossible). This shouldn't be so: Crawford showed up wearing skinny jeans ... Crawford is, therefore, gay. But however the issue gets settled, he certainly can't be known to be gay, not with scadloads of money riding on Gossip Girl - the whole point of this human product-placement is that the actors seem to be just like their characters, and vice versa. If the 'designated hot guy' is revealed as seeking other hot guys, he'll be out of a job about a nanosecond before the CW is out of a hit.

Of course, not everything in the Penny Press this time around was gossip and glamor - although the underlying theme of indignation manages to stay true. In the TLS, for instance, Michael Bentley can't help but utter an aside about the book he's reviewing - an aside that will be ruefully familiar to editors everywhere:

... the reader, deprived of colons and semicolons, enters a world waist-deep in present participles, and has to cut some of them down from their rope before the subject of the sentence becomes clear. An old-school subeditor could and should have served the author better, and at least helped get the quotation marks to face the right way.

And in the same issue, but on a considerably higher temperature of indignation, Raymond Tallis offers a long and feisty essay refuting A.S. Byatt's earlier TLS piece in which she tried to use contemporary neurophysiology to frame the fascination she feels for the poetry of John Donne. Tallis is having none of this and roundly takes both Byatt and the entire cross-discipline fad in literary criticism to task, asserting that there is more to both humans and reading than this cross-discipline approach dreams of:

...neuroscience groupies reduce the reading and writing of literature to brain events that are common to every action in human life, and, in some cases, in ordinary non-human animal life. For this reason - and also because it is wrong about literature, overstates the understanding that comes from neuroscience and represents a grotesquely reductionist attitude to humanity - neuroaesthetics must be challenged.

This is a valiant defense of a doomed viewpoint - of course the totality of the reading experience is neural - what else could it be? The only reason neuroscience (and by extension neuroaesthetics) looks reductionist in 2008 is because it's still in its infancy, but that's hardly the discipline's fault. What Tallis is doing here, probably without knowing it, is bringing God into the picture, retreating to the tired, familiar old redoubt that has served humanity so well since Darwin and Freud undertook to dethrone it: there is more to me than physiology. When I read, this line of thinking says, I'm doing more than just firing neurons.

But the only reason anybody wants to assert this is because when you're reading (especially if you love reading), it feels like you're doing so much more than firing neurons. Tallis' faith is to be commended, but accompanying his article there's a picture of an MRI scan taken of a person's brain in the act of reading, and you'd be amazed at the sight of it: hardly any part of the great dark enfolded mass is lit up ... just a little bit of orange around the edges, that's all that signifies the whole-body transport to Middle Earth or Lonesome Dove or Vanity Fair. Four times that area is lighted up while, for instance, a lunkhead UMass frat brother is charging down a soccer field, ball in play. That doesn't feel right - it feels somehow unjust, and Tallis is reacting to that as much as anything else. Byatt will no doubt respond; this could be the beginning of a protracted back-and-forth hootenanny of the kind the TLS was once famous for - we shall see.

And we shall see, when we take up the Penny Press again! In the meantime, the tardy among you might take this opportunity to go back and review our review of Gossip Girl - the book, that is. You know you want to.


Beepy said...

A lovely post. If only I had some coffee to go with it, it would have made the perfect mid-morning treat.

You know, I think that Gossip Girls might be on its way out. I get asked for the Clique series a lot more often now. I think that Steve should Read and compare.

Sam said...

Coincidentally, one of my favorite Matt Taibbi pieces is about Karl Rove.

JEaton said...

Agreed, Beepy, a very fine post. And I'm not just saying that because I DID have coffee with it.

steve said...

You're all so good to me!

And yet I still loathe you all.

It's a mystery.