Saturday, March 07, 2009

Two Barrels of Bile

Since the pile of "books to write about" is holding steady at nearly a dozen, I'm going to try to shove more things together and see if that helps work down the pile. So here are two books that are both, essentially, screaming "look at all those idiots" at the top of their lungs. I read them back-to-back, so I'll stick them back-to-back here.

Just How Stupid Are We? by Rick Shenkman (Basic Books, May 2008, $25.00)

Shenkman used to go by the less-breezy "Richard," probably when he was still trying to get tenure and writing books like Legends, Lies, and Cherished Myths of American History, but at some point in the past decade or so, he moved to Seattle and settled into being "Rick." Just How Stupid has a similar tone to Shenkman's earlier books (the ones I've read, at least), but the rhetoric is a bit louder this time and the conclusions are a bit broader.

I haven't seen a generic "all you people are morons" book for quite some time, which might mean that I haven't been paying sufficient attention. They were reasonably common in the early to mid '80s, but -- under the political pressure of the Clinton Administration and the Republican Contract with America -- speciated into liberal and conservative strains at about that point. So there were ever more similar books, but they were all clearly "all of those people are idiots who are ruining America" books. The culprits varied, by time as well as by political affiliation, but it was always the other side.

Shenkman is clearly a liberal, but he's a bit more even-handed; he believes Americans as a whole, and voters in particular, are irrational, easily manipulated, deliberately ignorant, unwilling to accept compromise, and utterly superficial. He runs around those topics for nine chapters, pulling out examples from recent history but also talking about the great stupidity of the 19th century American as well. In the end, he gives a few tepid prescriptions -- to the liberals, of course, since that's where his heart is.

I agree, pretty much, with his diagnosis -- people are stupid and easily led, particularly in large groups -- but have less faith in his solution. I suspect that politics, in the US as elsewhere, will be dominated most of the time by liars, thieves, cheats, and those intensely in love with themselves. And I don't see much hope in getting around that.

I don't actually recommend reading Just How Stupid Are We?; if you know anything about Shenkman and read the title, you already know what the book will tell you. A much better bet, even though it's now fifteen years old now, is P.J. O'Rourke's Parliament of Whores, which covers much of the same territory in more depth and with more bile and verve.

It's Not News, It's Fark by Drew Curtis (Gotham Books, May 2007, $20.00)

Since you're reading this on the Internet, it's a fair bet that you've heard of Fark. You might be a huge devotee of the snarky news aggregator, or you might be -- like me -- someone who vaguely knows that it exists and what it does, but haven't spent much time there. Curtis is the creator of Fark, and this book is an explanation of his theory of the Mass Media -- they're lazy and have a justifiedly low opinion of the American public -- with plenty of examples drawn from the vast Fark archives.

Curtis divides the world of bad news stories into several categories, with mostly self-explanatory, sarcastic titles: Media Fearmongering, Unpaid Placement Masquerading as Actual Article, Headline Contradicted by Actual Article, Equal Time for Nutjobs, The Out-of-Context Celebrity Comment, Seasonal Articles, Media Fatigue, and Lesser Media Space Fillers. After an introduction to what Fark is and what it does -- and a quick set of definitions of each category -- each one of those categories gets a chapter, with a list of actual examples. Curtis writes about the story, and then reprints some of the better comments from Fark at the time.

He also has a "how to make things better" chapter at the end, but admits that the way to make news better would be to make more boring news -- and there will always be someone ready to make exciting stupid news that will be more popular than the smart boring news. He also thinks that the Internet will kill local TV, which I find a bit unlikely -- but that might just be because I live near New York, center of the universe, so the media world revolves around stuff I care about already.

It's Not News, It's Fark has the characteristic tone of the smart-guy side of the Internet: informed but bored, sarcastic because that's easier than being witty, overly fond of running jokes and cultural references. It's quite entertaining for anyone who has already lost any illusions and preconceptions about the power and goodness of the mass media.

No comments:

Post a Comment