Culture

Among the Chimps

( the Twitter logo reflected in the eye of a woman in Berlin, November 7, 2Fabrizio Bensch//Reuters/File Photo)
On cue, Twitter demonstrates the thesis of my new book.

As you may be aware thanks to my merciless flogging of it, I have a new book out called The Smallest Minority: Independent Thinking in the Age of Mob Politics. It is about the way in which social media brings out the worst of the tribalism and idiocy in our contemporary politics by displacing almost all of the substantive discussion with a lobotomized — and, ultimately, useless — politics of white hats and black hats, good guys and bad guys, cowboys and Indians, Us and Them.

I enjoy writing books. I enjoy promoting them less. But we have had some fun with this one. On the back cover, where you’ll usually find blurbs praising the author to the moon, we have some more-critical assessments: “Truly reprehensible,” Paul Krugman, New York Times; “Shocking and brutal,” Ruth Marcus, Washington Post; “An ogre,” Jack Shafer, Politico. Because I have been asked: No, those are not made up. Neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post has reviewed the book, though both newspapers have taken an occasional energetic interest in my career, but you can read reviews here and here, and I will share others as they come; there are excerpts in the July 29 issue of National Review, in the July 18 edition of the Washington Examiner, and in today’s New York Post.

And, naturally, I’ve been doing a lot (for me, anyway) of radio and television interviews.

Television may be a dinosaur in the Internet epoch, but a dinosaur is a very big thing, and television is a mighty if doddering T. rex. Its power may be somewhat diminished both by division (the weird thing is that 10,000 television channels today collectively wield less power than three did before cable) and by multiplication (of competing media sources) but it still has an enormous cultural footprint. The cultural largeness of television compared to the written word can be a little bit depressing for a writer. I have produced a few books and dozens of cover stories (and I suppose thousands of online columns) for National Review, I write a regular column in the New York Post, and I have published articles everywhere from the Washington Post to Playboy (which would prefer to forget that ever happened) and The Atlantic (which would very much like to forget that ever happened). But after a two-minute hit on a cable-news program, I’ll get emails from people I went to kindergarten with, along with (de gustibus, etc.) the occasional romantic proposition.

And less friendly forms of communication, too.

On Friday, Joe Scarborough had me on Morning Joe and gave me a really generous amount of time. (Thanks for that.) It is always a little surreal to be identified as the controversial one at the table when I am seated next to the Reverend Al Sharpton. L’esprit de l’escalier: I wish I had turned to the Reverend Sharpton and asked: “Can you think of anybody who has said anything controversial but remains entirely welcome in so-called liberal media circles?” But I didn’t, which is why I am a writer rather than a television host.

Naturally, Twitter went ape after my appearance, which is the nature of Twitter, a place where people go to behave like chimps. (I do not exempt myself from that; social media never brought out the best in me, either, and my decision to stop using it is right up there with going to bed at 9:30 p.m. on the very short list of good choices I have made about my daily routine.) The usual banality and dishonesty were intensified this time around with the help of NARAL, which sent out a tweet claiming that I’d gone on Morning Joe and said some outrageous things about abortion and capital punishment, two subjects which did not in fact come up at all. (Here is the video. For those of you interested in my views on those subjects, here is an account of them I wrote for the Washington Post.) NARAL is of course not known for its honesty — it is a shill for the abortion industry that cannot even bear to keep the word “abortion” in its name — and neither are the rage-monkeys on Twitter.

NARAL’s lie had, as of this writing, been retweeted and liked about 5,000 times. Theater critic Adam Feldman of Time Out New York, whom I do not know and who probably does not share my politics, took the time to point out to NARAL that this lie is a lie. That was retweeted three times and liked nine times — and, of course, ignored by NARAL, which has declined to retract its libel or correct itself.

The ensuing performance-art/group-therapy Caffeine-Free Diet Maoist outrage circus has practically been lifted from the pages of my book. The lies are there, as is the stupidity: There have been calls to boycott CNN over my appearance (Morning Joe is on MSNBC) and sensitive middle-aged men have raged that they will burn their Dawson’s Creek DVDs in protest. (I use my middle initial in my byline partly as a courtesy to Kevin Meade Williamson, the gifted screenwriter behind Dawson’s Creek and much else, who must surely wish that I were named Bob. Occasionally, someone sends me a script or a treatment meant for him, and I always encourage those would-be Hollywood moguls to visit me at my office in Los Angeles as soon as possible to discuss the project. I don’t think the Scottish socialist and poetry publisher Kevin Williamson gets quite as much collateral damage.) Two reporters for Yahoo! — and it is difficult to believe that this story took two reporters — wrote the obligatory piece of lazy journalism, headlined: “Conservative commentator Kevin Williamson is in the hot seat again after an appearance on Morning Joe.” Which is to say: Two working journalists published a news article about a bunch of anonymous nobodies on Twitter sent into an emotional meltdown by an event that — in case you’ve missed this part—did not happen. The fact that there were two names on that byline — Gisselle Bances and Arjuna Ramgopal — means that Paul Krugman finally has some competition for the title of laziest man in journalism.

(Just how lazy is Professor Paul Krugman, recipient of the Nobel prize in economics? Here is how he handled the problem of having written a column about Larry Kudlow when his editors wanted a column about me. The clumsiness and unmistakable laziness of it is hilarious and astounding. None of my undergraduate students would have dared to turn in such a thing to me.)

As my book argues, people do not go to social media hoping to learn things about the world. They go to social media hoping that attention will be paid to them. That’s what social media is: a sad, sprawling bazaar in which attention is exchanged and bartered. There is no profit in it for anybody other than Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey and, to a considerably lesser financial extent, people like me. Social media is not about information. People go there hunting a feeling of significance, which they try to achieve by associating themselves in trivial ways with public events or public figures. A failed actor retweeted the NARAL fabrication, and then corrected himself and apologized for spreading disinformation, and then decided to uncorrect himself and declare that he’d been right all along. No one responded to any of it. (I suppose you could say that this is me paying him attention, but paying attention is my job. Twitter is about emotional investment; I am more like an oncologist, who doesn’t blame cancer for being cancer.) And no personal connection is too distant: As the rage-monkeys on Twitter howled, a man who says he used to work with me scolded Morning Joe for having me on the show, insisting that he himself would not have invited me. But, of course, no one asked him, and no one ever will. His tweet just sat there, without response, an item of no interest to anyone.

And that is what this performative outrage is really about.

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