Entry from January 19, 2009

As an analysis of what happened, not only to The New Yorker but American culture itself over the last 20 years, I recommend an article titled “Literary Elite Dazzled by Their Own Creation” by David Burchell in The Australian of today’s date, which is an illustration of how a foreigner may understand us better than we understand ourselves. Noting that the magazine was established by Harold Ross in the 1920s with the express purpose of eschewing “what is commonly called the highbrow or radical,” Mr Burchell sees a major turnaround in the 1990s under the leadership of that “astute celebrity-hunter and trendsetter,” Tina Brown, who

understood that the old Left had pretty well died as an organised force, but that a vague tincture of self-righteous leftism had permeated the professional classes so thoroughly as to have become the new cultural default position. You didn’t have to belong to a union or have suffered at any point in your life to make fun of suburban social conservatism or to ridicule the attitudes of your presumed intellectual inferiors. And somehow this ironical attitude could be reconciled with the archest moral hauteur, a tone of voice that, magically, was capable of being turned on and off like a tap. This was Brown”s great commercial discovery and she milked it for all it was worth. So, by the accession of George W. Bush in January 2001, The New Yorker had been made battle-ready for that catastrophic political encounter we’ve come to call the culture wars. The genteel diction and luxuriant paragraphs remained, but they were now devoted to debunking the unschooled citizens of the so-called red states, or to mocking the verbal infelicities of the Commander-in-Chief. The trademark leisurely essays charting the American heartland were elbowed out by high-pitched exercises in Bush-baiting.

He goes on to note the peculiar inappropriateness of this kind of carefully-cultivated intellectual arrogance to the kind of maudlin Obama-worship that has more recently been characteristic of the magazine in general and of its political correspondent, Hendrik Hertzberg, in particular — even from the point of view of the new President himself, who is

definitively not a culture warrior. In his The Audacity of Hope, he recalled of the 2000 and 2004 elections that he “sometimes felt as if I were watching the psychodrama of the baby boom generation played out on the national stage.” And he expressed nostalgia for the old-world civility of those senior members of Congress who took him under their wings in his freshman years. Observers routinely note Obama’s canny knack of suspending political judgment on a wide range of subjects and deferring to any of a range of other views in the room. An ice-veined pragmatist, he’s about as far from the model of the modern New Yorker staffer as might be imagined.

Thus, when Mr Obama recently championed the ability of Americans to have “disagreements politically and yet treat each other civilly” it may have been more than just “official politeness”.  For “it was equally surely directed towards those teared-up and weeping masses huddled in the salons of lower Manhattan.”

My favorite bit of the article, however, comes when Mr Burchell describes Mr Hertzberg, “one of that legion of individuals for whom the contest between political ideologies seems to have become reduced to a competition over education levels and IQs” and whose initiation into the culture wars took place in the rarefied precincts of the Harvard Crimson, in a parenthesis thus:

(His whole career “has been so marked by advantages gained from Harvard’s old-boy network,” Hertzberg confessed some years back, that he had only recently got over a “debilitating” sense of undeservingness.)

That, in contrast to the crude “Bush-baiting” of recent years, is the sort of stiletto-like irony that might have adorned the pages of The New Yorker of old.


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