Entry from July 31, 2010

In today’s New York Times, Gail Collins laments that “the dissolution of the boundary between entertainment and politics is old news. Now we’re dissolving the boundary between reality and entertainment.” And then, perhaps reflecting that the dissolution of the boundary — always assuming that boundaries, being imaginary lines, are the kind of things that can be dissolved, particularly when they are between “reality” and something else — between reality and entertainment is also old news, she adds: “Or perhaps reality and reality.” Got that? The descent into incoherence is smooth enough to suggest that she is trying to be funny (and, as usual, failing), but the import of the column is that all this Reality TV she keeps hearing about is very confusing to people with her common-sense yet at the same time intellectual approach to politics and culture. Celebrities and TV stars running for office! Politicians going on TV shows like “The View”! “Snooki” from Jersey Shore being interviewed by Meghan McCain! Whatever next? It’s a crazy old world, all right, and she is handsomely paid for noticing the fact on our behalf.

But the amused and bemused observer is herself part of the craziness, isn’t she? Why else would she be writing about Snooki instead of something important? She wants to eat her cake and have it too. It’s a sign of something a bit off in our civilization that so many column inches not in People or The National Enquirer are being filled with words about a bubble-brained nonentity like Snooki, she suggests, while devoting a few more inches to her herself. The real question she should be asking is why do New York Times readers want to read about Snooki — or Mel Gibson or Lindsay Lohan or whichever celebrity it is that’s in the news this week — even in the entertainment pages, let alone on the op ed page? My guess is that they, like Ms Collins herself, enjoy feeling superior to such people at the same time that they are advertising their pop cultural bona fides by knowing who they are in the first place. I mean, it’s not as if, 50 years from now, anyone is going to notice Gail Collins’s vital contribution to the scholarly corpus on Snooki Polizzi.

Very well, then. Why do these presumably well-educated, thinking people — for why would they be nosing their way into the Times op ed pages if they did not at least aspire to serious thought? — require such a cheap self-affirmation? I’ll go out on a limb here and say that it is not possible for there to be any real distinction either in knowing who Snooki is or in proclaiming one’s social superiority to her and her “guido” and “guidette” friends. Ah, but there may be a negative distinction in not knowing and not proclaiming these things. Not to know would be unhip, than which there is no more damning epithet in today’s media vocabulary. I remember first noticing this four years ago in the Times’s own Book Review section when Walter Kirn considered the unhipness of the word “manly” as a sufficient refutation of Harvey Mansfield’s learned and closely-argued book on Manliness. So far as I know, I was the only reader to complain. More interestingly, not to proclaim with some regularity one’s social and intellectual superiority to Snooki — and Reality TV and all the rest of Ms Collins’s subjects today — might give rise to the suspicion that one had not quite earned one’s place in the intellectual meritocracy that comes with a subscription to The New York Times.

What Ms Collins is selling, in other words, is the paper’s brand name, which would also account for at least half of Maureen Dowd’s columns and all of Frank Rich’s. Their targets may be Sarah Palin or George W. Bush or Glen Beck or John Boehner but the principle is the same: you read us because you, like us, are smarter than the people we write about. As it happens, Mr. Boehner also gets a look-in from Ms Collins when she notes that both he and Snooki were once the butt of a joke of President Obama’s to do with tanning beds. It is necessary to mention this because, during his appearance on “The View,” the President denied knowing who Snooki was! Could this have been an affectation of being unhip? I’d prefer to think that it’s even worse than this: that some speechwriter wrote that joke for him about Snooki, and he simply read it off the teleprompter and promptly forgot all about it and her. Could it be that he really is unhip? Oh, how I hope so! Think of what it would mean to the hip-disadvantaged Americans who can’t bear to watch “Jersey Shore” — or any other Reality TV. Think what a boon it would be to our culture if such shows were consequently taken off the air! It might leave Gail Collins nothing to write about, but it would be an incalculable blessing to the rest of us.

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