Before anybody throws himself off a bridge over things written on the Internet, let’s clear a few things up regarding Tom Scocca’s essay, “On Smarm,” which was the occasion of a grand hullaballoo last week. I love this essay: it crystallizes so many things, so elegantly and so hilariously. Its central premise is a little blurry, however, in a way that has sown confusion and grief in certain quarters. Freddie DeBoer, contributor to The New Inquiry, lost his muffin in its entirety; unable to confine himself to writing one zillion comments on the article itself, he wrote a blog post about it too. DeBoer claims that smarm vs. snark is “yet another cultural competition, elites like Scocca leveraging their cultural status to try to enforce their own take.” Cool kids, blah blah.
Already there are reams of commentary springing up in response to Scocca all over, at Thought Catalog, at the Daily Beast, most of it reducible to “I like sincerity!” or “I’m a satirist!” But it is the poet and essayist Jim Behrle who appears to have been cut the deepest; he’s been berserking on Twitter for days on end. Behrle differs from the majority of Scocca’s critics in that he has a worthwhile point to make.
It’s no accident that a poet would be going crazy over this thing. A poet’s interface with the world is instinctive; his insights, a matter of feeling. Scocca is a cerebral, analytical writer. You could describe the conflict this way: intuition versus introspection. Behrle is a man of feeling and Scocca, a man of reflection.
Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.
The form of virtue, without the substance. There are whole worlds to unpack in that idea. Can we ever be sure that someone else’s assumption of virtue is fake? If so, how? If calls for civility, for integrity—for feeling and for sympathy—are to be considered suspect (“smarmy”), in and of themselves, what is to become of us? Specifically, what is to become of the poet, who approaches us with no critical armor, no theory, no formula—who demands this very absolution from us in advance?
Behrle appears to believe that goodwill itself is threatened by a critical posture as uncompromising as Scocca’s. Another poet, Leonard Cohen, suggested roughly the same thing, speaking in Warsaw in 1985.
I don’t know which side everybody’s on any more, and… I don’t really care. There is a moment when we have to transcend the side we’re on and understand that we are creatures of a higher order. It doesn’t mean that I don’t wish you courage in your struggle. There is on both sides of this struggle men of good will. That is important to remember… on both sides of this struggle. Some struggling for freedom, some struggling for safety.
Scocca might seem to be refusing to grant the possibility that anyone might simply mean exactly what he says. But I don’t believe that Scocca means that all calls for civility are fake. I take him to mean that a lot of them are fake, and self-serving, and we that live in a time that is letting that kind of fakery off the hook altogether too easily, and too often. Do I ever agree with that contention!
Can we, should we call out corruption? YES. Many, maybe millions, felt the same elation I did recently on watching Alex Pareene reduce that delusional nutcase Maria Bartiromo to a stuttering, impotent rage on the subject of Jamie Dimon and JP Morgan. It was great! And you bet I’m perfectly comfortable calling Maria Bartiromo a delusional nutcase, and a corrupt lickspittle headed to the world headquarters of corrupt lickspittles, Fox News, because that is what I think she is, and Scocca is right, this needs saying.
But, but! Shouldn’t we be giving everyone the benefit of the doubt? Is Scocca planning to outlaw generosity, humanity, kindness? Maybe he doesn’t believe in even the possibility of integrity!
I one million percent do not think that anybody ought to be a law-breaking plutocrat, nor the lap-dog of law-breaking plutocrats. But Behrle’s point of view demands that I think it over very carefully before condemning Maria Bartiromo, and Jamie Dimon, and never forget that they are human beings.
The poet’s insight keeps us sane and honest, keeps us questioning our own motives, keeps us human.
Smarm, on the other hand, is never a force for good. A civilization that speaks in smarm is a civilization that has lost its ability to talk about purposes at all. It is a civilization that says “Don’t Be Evil,” rather than making sure it does not do evil.
How would we go about making sure that we don’t do evil? I want to try. And I think that you need both Behrle’s approach and Scocca’s in order to get there. It’s a question of balance.
So let’s extract the babies from the bathwater of smarm.
Scocca starts to do this himself, at the start of his reflections on the “sincere young man” of a 1999 Times profile, anti-ironist Jedediah Purdy, who’s since become a professor of law at Duke.
Fantastically annoying as Jedediah was in the profile, it is possible, from a distance, to reread it with sympathy. The young Jedediah is very, very earnest, partly unaware and partly over-aware. The commodification of his earnestness was a game being played around him.
A correct observation. But a little later, we find Purdy, in 2000, praising Joe Lieberman, and that is more than Scocca can stand. Frankly, it’s more than I can stand, too, but it’s worth thinking about exactly why that is so irritating. The fireball of rhetoric rockets past a significant assumption, which is that Jed Purdy’s praise of Lieberman is evidence that Purdy has been played for a fool, and smarmed out of all common sense. The undergraduate who didn’t approve of mocking Love Story became the man who would earnestly believe in the pieties of Joe Lieberman—pieties that would be revealed, in time, as the crassest, nastiest, nakedest hypocrisy. Well, hmm. Yes, and no.
Because Lieberman was revealed to be a hypocrite, does it follow that Purdy is also a hypocrite? So far as I can make out, Purdy’s earnestness was the real deal, not smarm. I’m willing as all hell to indict Lieberman as the arch-smarmorer of ever, but I can’t find it in myself to accuse Jedediah Purdy of anything graver than being 24-years-old in 1999.
As progressives and conservatives alike head into the knee-weakening season of being mocked for their deepest convictions in grandparental dining-rooms all across our great nation, it is worth remembering exactly why we will bite our tongues in response and refuse, in our millions, to take the bait. Why we will resolutely stuff our mouths with fruitcake, just to be on the safe side. There is such a thing as real civility, and calls for it are not always self-serving, nor cynical, nor hypocritical, nor smarmy.
Real civility is the acknowledgement of the validity someone else’s diverging path. The ability to respect those holding convictions with which we may disagree most violently, not just because this person is our cousin whom we love very dearly and would spring out of jail or fight to the death for, despite the fact that this cousin will persist in voting the wrong way. For some mysterious reason, others have gone into the fold of anarchism, Catholicism, or communism or whateverism. They get to do that! It’s okay.
Civility is that gift, of the benefit of the doubt that we should have, if we are to have the sharpest, most critical sense of ourselves, the very thing I believe Scocca is calling for. Because he is not just calling against, he’s calling for. For awareness and respect for the truth, if we can find it, and ultimately, for respect for one another.
I believe Behrle and Scocca agree on that part, however messy or imperfect the expression of it may sometimes get. To clarify: if you see yourself as the champion of truth, of good nature and civility, you might easily betray those exact values in the process of fighting for them. It might even be impossible not to.
In contrast to the poet, the critic may prefer to proffer his convictions veiled in a layer or two of mockery. Unvarnished earnestness can seem, to me at least, to be a little presumptuous, because, who knows what your listeners may believe? So maybe you deliver your beliefs with a few caveats, say in the form of jokes; just enough to make room for everyone else in the room to laugh. This is shorthand, a way of saying: It’s okay for you to disagree, I’ll respect that, and I don’t think so much of myself that I’ll come to blows over this issue.
But there are certain things that even a dyed-in-the-wool ironist won’t equivocate over, or cover up, or joke about. When the joker finally comes clean. Scocca saves that moment for the end of “On Smarm.” For the whole piece, he’s expressed his upset with Dave Eggers, who has continually exposed himself as an elitist in egalitarian’s clothing. Scocca offers exact evidence for his indictment, which is that Eggers is a writer who would use these phrases: “the lazy and small… small and embittered… narrow-hearted… the tiny voices of tiny people.”
Scocca counters this with his own conviction: that we are all human, all equal, all “the same size.” It is a good thing to be able to call someone else out on that kind of fakery, provided you are careful, and honest, and provide evidence for others to judge. The substance.
But Scocca leaves a lot of room for explaining how to prove that you mean what you say, and how much latitude anyone should be granted at the outset. It’s the exact nature of the substance that Scocca hasn’t yet attended to. With any luck, that will come in a forthcoming book.
Maria Bustillos is a journalist and critic in Los Angeles.