Magazine | January 23, 2017, Issue

Varieties of Ridiculous Experience

Here’s a headline that popped up in my social media today: “Leslie Jones condemns Simon & Schuster over Milo Yiannopoulos book deal.”

I say sincerely that I’d pay up to five American dollars for a widget or an app that automatically removes headlines of this sort from my life, or at least renders them something like “I don’t care condemns I don’t care over I don’t care.”

As it happens, this dispatch on the second-least-bad part of Lady Ghostbusters and a traveling outrage salesman, respectively, appeared in the The Onion’s AV Club, the non-satirical (though still, allegedly, funny) arts-and-entertainment section of that publication, where I was once an intern, a feature writer, and, for about twelve seconds, a sports columnist. (Go ahead and Google your heart out for the archives of my AV Club sports column, “The Mercy Rule.” They actually purged it from the Internet after they nixed it. I mean they practically poured salt on the servers.)

I wrote a Happy Warrior lament sometime back about the fading Onion of my youth. It’s still excellent, of course, but its salutary cynicism and silliness about politics have given way, increasingly, to lecturey jokes that are cleverer, but not necessarily better, than your Samantha Bees or John Olivers. I think part of that is turnover on the writing staff — the gonzo Gen-X midwesterners who founded the paper being replaced by Ivy League Millennials who sometimes forget that satire that isn’t funny first is really just whining.

But there’s something bigger at play, too, this whole supernova of the political that gives even the most innocuous cultural artifacts an ideological timbre, that turns every public utterance into a manifesto. On the comedy side, that means every political joke has to have its papers in order and its privileges checked. On the AV Club side, that means inviting readers to form battle lines over every book contract.

This is one of the ways “fake news” really operates, by reporting on epiphenomena as if they were material. I understand that some people must care what Jones thinks about Yiannopoulos (though I can’t imagine what it must be like to be someone who does), and I even get that these things can have consequences (most likely Yiannopoulos will sell a few more books). But when you get down to brass tacks, what’s been reported is that a middling celebrity had an emotion.

To a certain extent, treating the emoting of middling celebrities as newsworthy becomes self-fulfilling, an ostensive act. This is annoying in the context of an entertainment blog, at least for anyone who’d prefer to consume comedy and virtue-signaling separately. But it can get a lot worse. Take the middling celebrity who is our president-elect. Whole divisions of major press operations are dedicated to covering each 140-character ejaculation of his stream-of-consciousness, public Twitter diary. His tweets aren’t executive orders, or veto signatures, or authorizations for the use of military force.

On the other hand, they already move markets, shake embassies, muck up the best-laid plans of the leaders of coequal branches of government.

I used to think the worst social media could do was the comments section on YouTube. What a fool was I. As if the Gutenberg press achieved its greatest infamies in printing bawdy limericks.

This is the reason I’ve reduced my social-media output to next to nothing since the election. It occurred to me that social media almost never matter at all. And the few times they do matter, they matter for the worst reasons.

I do think there’s something to the “fake news” stuff, by the way. I understand the criticism made in a hundred different ways by friends and colleagues on the right — that self-appointed arbiters of truth in the mainstream media will equivocate on “fake news” until their voices go hoarse, that the fact-checking (or “fact-checking”) doyens will say Alex Jones is the same as the Wall Street Journal editorial board is the same as any unkind word uttered about the Affordable Care Act.

But “fact-checkers” malfunction in a very particular fashion — namely by interpreting messy, ambiguous, and value-laden fact patterns in just the way that most flatters a certain kind of center-left episteme.

Yet there remains a kind of “fake news” that malfunctions in a much simpler way — namely by being knowingly and maliciously false. It’s true that lots of uncareful people on the left will refer to both the economic literature on the deleterious effects of a minimum wage and to Internet reports that Hillary Clinton sold children into sex slavery from a ping-pong bar on Connecticut Avenue in D.C. as “fake news,” but I don’t think that just because they fail to make the relevant distinction we should make, too.

Warrior’s Note: I wrote my last column, before the election, from the presumption — nay, the assurance — that Hillary Clinton would win. On that, as on so much else, I was profoundly wrong. This is me acknowledging that I don’t know anything about America and likely never did. So read the above with that in mind.

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster has been news editor of National Review Online since 2009, and was a web site editor until 2012. His work has appeared in The American Spectator, The American ...

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