When I was young enough that I could — and often did — count my age on my two hands, my grandfather gifted me a subscription to National Geographic. This was welcome, since I was an avid fan of the kids-as-geography-gumshoes quiz show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? and I had every intention of growing up to be Indiana Jones. By my tweener years, when the innate Apollonian rationalism in every young man’s brain starts to exert its influence, my cultural waypoints were MacGyver and James T. Kirk, and I brought a careful, cogent, and ultimately successful case to bar in the court of Gramps, arguing that my gift subscription could and by rights should be transferable to Popular Science. And lo, I had many a fine month with Pop Sci’s rockets and robots. Indeed, my grandfather’s gift outlasted the man himself, and each year, well into high school, I’d receive a letter informing me of its renewal courtesy of the late, great Dick Sander.
But around age 14, as the opposite sex reached the peak of its awesomeness (in both the classical and contemporary senses of that word) and self-esteem became a direct function of other’s-esteem, there came suddenly a moment when no question seemed to matter but the question of how to be a man, and how to be one as quickly as possible. And in the course of the single-minded search for the answer to that question I developed an infatuation with another, quite different glossy: Hearst’s Esquire.
Adolescents look for archetypes for their nonconformity, and I wanted desperately to cut the figure of the bookish rogue: Worldly and witty, yet austere and aloof. Not a dandy, but a Romantic; not a politician, but a statesman. In the pages of Esquire I found a handbook of applicable affectations and ready-made opinions with which to accouter this bare personage, recipes for, as Fitzgerald put it, the “unbroken series of successful gestures” that constitute personality. There were capable-looking gentlemen in well-cut clothing; PG-13 women I could get past the motherly censor; tight, aspirational sentences about Man at His Best (the magazine’s motto) that might have been written by Hemingway had he been a self-help guru. And there were arts and letters, whiskey and tobacco, leather briefcases and straight razors — all the essential furnishings of the wannabe sophisticate, 15 going on 40.
But while Esquire made for great reading during that long wait in the lobby of manhood, I’ve found I have less and less use for it as I actually go about the business of being a man. I’ll admit I carry a vestigial subscription even now — I’ll be damned if I know who pays for it — but the amount of time I spend reading the thing has dwindled to the point that there resides on my coffee table a stack of the half-dozen most recent issues, spines uncracked, some still preserved in their mail-order cellophane wrap.
It is possible Esquire has always been blah, and that I have simply managed to outgrow its peculiar pretensions. Or even that I am not beyond Esquire’s appeal but in a hole in the middle of it, falling into the interregnum after youthful longing and before middle-aged nostalgia. I wasn’t sure, because I’d never really bothered to sit and figure out exactly what it was about the magazine that I’d begun to find at turns annoying and irrelevant.
That was, until I saw Esquire’s February cover. Billed as “an ISSUE for our DIVIDED TIMES,” it ominously promised “Bill Clinton and 78 other things we can all agree on.” And behold, there sat Bill, puffy-eyed and sporting a wizened half-smile atop a three-piece suit, with stark white two-inch letters reading “AGREE” superimposed on the better part of his torso. All caps, sans serif, unpunctuated. No question mark of doubt. No colon of qualification. And I realized I was being commanded to agree with, and about, the man who rendered “agreement” de minimis, who singularly showed how tenuous was the connection between “agreement” on x and anything like a sincerely held belief about x. And I was being commanded to do this by idiots.
I’ll save you the trouble of reading the lengthy interview with the ex-prez. Starting from the interviewers’ premise that “there is now no figure of greater consensus in America” than Bill Clinton, we learn that, contra the political tranquility we’re told characterized the greater part of his presidency, the “vituperative energy” driving contemporary American politics is due to the failure of conservatives to be center-left technocrats. The only question is whether conservatism as actually practiced is contingently or essentially insane. (Sample question: “Was there a moment when the Republicans could have turned away from the anti-intellectual, antiscience, no-tax-increases-of-any-kind kind of thing?”) To his, um, credit, Clinton allows that the cretinization of the Republican party was avoidable, and that it might yet be reversed not if, but when, President Obama wins reelection. Obama’s reelection will also dissolve the question of why (“aside from his race,” but of course) the 44th president has it so much worse than the 42nd. Not to worry, says Clinton. Once Obama has a general-election opponent, the mainstream-media coverage “will tilt back toward” him and “won’t be as anodyne and evenhanded as it has been.”
Let that last one kick around awhile, and remember that the right-honorability of Slick Willy is just one of the things “we can all agree on.” Here are some of the other 78.
No. 3: Chris Christie would be less popular if he weren’t fat. No. 5: The Electoral College should be abolished. No. 11: President Obama has “accomplished more in his first three years than any of his five predecessors.” No. 28: Ezra Klein is awesome. No. 29: Ezra Klein is awesome. No. 30: Ezra Klein is awesome. No. 35: “The New York Times [is] the only essential newspaper left.” No. 58: “Most people shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a handgun.”
I’ll give you a second to stop reflexively nodding. This is the stuff, obviously, of a blandly conventional liberalism. A liberalism for people who are mainly here for the celebrity profiles and sartorial tips, and really want only enough politics to frown thoughtfully over during post-work drinks. And that’s fine. What makes it dumb, and dangerous, is calling it an American consensus.
Some magazines — like the one you’re holding — are explicitly ideological. Everything we write exists against a background of broadly agreed-upon first principles and the repository of knowledge built up from them. You may not think a given argument herein is sound, but there will be an argument, and the name on the cover will let you know under which initial assumptions it proceeds. But in the truncated politics of Esquire, first principles are dispensed with, and every conclusion is presented as conventional wisdom. Nothing is argued for, everything asserted. This would be one thing if Esquire were content to preach to the converted, if its editorial tone were less grandiloquent, the sweep of its edicts less ambitious. Maybe then I could still get a kick out of it. But Esquire purports to speak not just for coastal yuppies with four-year degrees and a dressed-up, watered-down machismo. No, it claims to speak for “the things we can all agree on,” for Man at His Best. And it’s not just prepackaged MSNBC/Bill Maher politics that Esquire tries to pawn off as the thing all the cool kids are doing. It’s an entire culture, a fully formed Weltanschauung.
Take, for instance, the pleasures of the flesh. The Hoover Institution’s Mary Eberstadt, in what is surely in the running for observation of the young century, has written that the ways we think about food and sex have undergone a complete inversion in the last few decades. Food, once unfussed over and subject to no tribunal beyond the tastes of the kitchen table, is now governed by a complex of social mores and taboos. Eating is tribalized, politicized, even eroticized. Sex, on the other hand, is now casual — not just in some of its instances, but in its totality. Laissez-lay. The most aberrant of bedroom proclivities is no more controversial than one’s preference in ice-cream flavors. And so Esquire, evangelizer of both orthodox and protestant methods of steak preparation and hermeneutician of vintage cocktail recipes, employs Stacey Grenrock-Woods, a former Daily Show correspondent, as its sex-advice columnist. Say what you will about Dan Savage (Rick Santorum’s most famous detractor), but at least he dispenses advice. Woods more often than not takes her correspondents’ earnest sexual queries as opportunities to indulge in second-rate vaudevillian non sequiturs.
Not that Esquire suffers from a want of sex. By my rough count George Clooney gets the cover in the odd months, and in the evens there is a rotation of the half-clad eye candy from the latest Michael Bay action extravaganza. But rather than objectify these women like a Maxim, which, for all its artlessness, is at least honest with itself, Esquire objectifies them with a condescension that has become so ingrained it might now be unconscious. It has internalized the central operational lesson of going on four generations of men: that the sexual revolution redounded to the benefit of none more than the cad. That it takes two (or preferably three) for a woman to celebrate her sexuality. That “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby — so why not slip into something more comfortable?”
From monthly features like “A Funny Joke from a Beautiful Woman,” to the sweaty-palmed profiles of barely legal starlets, to its help popularizing the psyche-twisting methods of pickup artistry known as “Game,” Esquire has become golden-age Playboy with higher-cut décolletage. It is the 21st-century realization of Hefner’s 1950s dream: a compendium of just enough swank and pseudo-intellect to bed a girl who’s taken a couple of women’s-studies classes.
It’s not all terrible. Esquire’s long list of contributors includes too many great prose stylists and insightful journalists to name individually, and in digging through my back issues I found most contained at least one long-form essay or piece of journalism promising enough to be worth reading.
But it seems like it’s getting worse. Even newer columns like lit-critic Stephen Marche’s pessimistic “A Thousand Words about Our Culture,” presumably brought in to be a kind of doomy-gloomy ballast to the bubblegum and popcorn that increasingly pervades the rest of the issue, are awkwardly situated at best. To wit: Only a Ph.D. could be possessed of the combination of gall and ingenuousness required to scold us at length about how we have reached the “apotheosis of advertising” on pages flanked by sticky samples of Bleu de Chanel and editorial “advertainments” for $5,000 crocodile-skin man-purses. Marche should know that his paycheck is contingent on Esquire’s selling you clothes that would look ridiculous if you moved five years in any direction in timespace.
And that, at least, is something we can all agree on.