The question of how to resist the bloviator about to befoul the highest office in the land is a painful and complicated one, so we should forgive those among us who, while thinking their way around Trump’s unlikely ascent, have turned manic, maudlin, or even plain stupid. These, as the fellow once said, are the times that try men’s souls, and a bit of inanity is a perfectly reasonable response when the president-elect spends his days staring at himself on cable TV like a bored house cat glaring at his reflection in the milk. What we shouldn’t stomach so easily, however, are exhortations that deny not only Trump but the entire enterprise of liberal democracy, especially when they’re dressed, as so many ideological wolves so frequently are these days, in the sheep’s clothing of progressive piety.
Such a specimen came around the other week courtesy of The New Yorker’s Alexandra Schwartz. The critic was fuming about a lucrative book deal between Simon & Schuster and Milo Yiannopoulos, a simpering ninny and Trump enthusiast who, like the candidate he so revoltingly calls Daddy, finds meaning and a sense of self-worth only in shouting obscenities and reveling in the outrage that ensues. Feminism, Milo had previously opined, is cancer, and birth control makes women crazy and ugly; his harassment of the actress Leslie Jones got him booted off Twitter, inspiring the book’s patently idiotic title, Dangerous. How to respond to such cheap and obvious provocations? You may ignore them, or you may wish elegiacally that ours was a society that did not grant such creeps prominence, or you may even moralize and thunder that no self-respecting citizen should buy the damn book. But Schwartz went a different way, shooting not only the pianist but his publisher, too.
“One wonders just when the Simon & Schuster executives came courting him,” reads one representative passage. “Was it his targeting of Leslie Jones for being black and female that made them think they had a star on their hands?”
Maybe it was! Or maybe the same publishing house that will soon grace us with Penthouse Variations on Anal is interested mainly in publishing things that some may find off-putting but others consider a bit of good fun.
The thought had apparently crossed Schwartz’s mind, and she found it deeply upsetting. Simon & Schuster, she noted, publishes not only Milo and Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, but also, under a new imprint called Salaam Reads, a recently launched series of Muslim-themed children’s books. And that’s wrong! “That the Beck book,” Schwartz wrote, “with its dire message about the danger that Islam poses to America, and Salaam Reads, with its presumably positive, inclusive one, could both flourish under the same publishing umbrella seems improbable, even hypocritical.”
Who, exactly, might find a panoply of voices and ideas so offensive? Schwartz’s next paragraph offers a clue when it speaks of “the Simon & Schuster publishing apparatus as a structural seesaw,” a phrase that sparkles with all the subtle elegance of dialectical materialism and that sounds as if it was copied directly from the notebook of some antsy commissar trembling lest Stalin accuse him of incorrect thinking. Just as the old Marxists could not conceive of life being anything more than the clash of classes over the means of production, so the new intellectuals can’t imagine a world in which ideas, even really dumb and bad ones, honestly compete. To her credit, Schwartz does spend a moment considering the possibility that “some sort of Robin Hooding is at work,” and that Simon & Schuster may only be publishing the noxious Milo to pay for such approved masterworks as Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! (sample chapter title: “When the Killer Wears a Badge”), but she dismisses the possibility as unlikely before ending with the ominous statement that “Simon & Schuster is going to have a lot to answer for.”
I bring all of this up not to pick on Schwartz; all of us who write regularly for a living strike out often, and often do so grandly. I bring all of this up because the piece is a perfect embodiment of our cultural moment, a layer cake of intellectual and moral sponginess. With uncommon starkness, Schwartz’s piece makes it clear that the problem here isn’t Milo—who is vile, but hardly the vilest we’ve got—or even the young nabobs who not so long ago had the good taste of being scandalized by a better class of fire-breather—think Norman Mailer or Germaine Greer—and now make do with such numbing dross. Rather, the problem is that The New Yorker, a magazine that was once a beacon of stylish prose and good reporting, seems, in recent years, to be striving ever more earnestly to put virtue first and banish unapproved or disturbing thoughts. That this sterling publication, to which so many of us have looked for so long for clarity and courage, can now do no better than publish a piece that not for one moment seriously considers the premise that even inflammatory and insipid books may deserve an audience if they can find it in the unfettered market, a piece so rigid in its refusal to observe a complex situation through anything but the narrow prism of tired tropes, a piece so devoid of genuine curiosity and so magnificently unaware of its own sanctimonious and self-congratulating worldview, almost makes you wonder if there’s any hope for us at all.
We need great newspapers and magazines, now more than ever, to help us through this storm. What we can’t afford are bien pensants who approach the smallest provocations by debating whether they should outright boycott a major publishing house for signing on an author they dislike or simply accuse it of racism and misogyny. We deserve better than that. The only antidote to Milo’s dumb bile isn’t another flavor of dumb bile, but smart, incisive, insightful, and honest writing, the kind that is never produced by commissars whose horizons are fenced in by the sharp tips of party lines.
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