Magazine | January 23, 2017, Issue

Varieties of Ridiculous Experience

Milo Yiannopoulos speaks during a news conference in New York City, February 21, 2017. (Reuters photo: Lucas Jackson)

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 is a former news editor of National Review Online.

In This Issue

Articles

Features

Books, Arts & Manners

Sections

Politics & Policy

Letters

Beliefs of the 99 Percent Kevin D. Williamson attempts (“Superman Politics,” December 31) to articulate complex economic policy for the 0.4 percent “who follow these things closely.” That makes me part ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ We hope that in retirement Harry Reid keeps up his workout routine. ‐ Republicans intend to pass what they’re calling an “Obamacare-repeal bill” early. It will get rid of Obamacare’s ...
Politics & Policy

Poetry

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White House

The Trivialization of Impeachment

We have a serious governance problem. Our system is based on separation of powers, because liberty depends on preventing any component of the state from accumulating too much authority -- that’s how tyrants are born. For the system to work, the components have to be able to check each other: The federal and ... Read More
U.S.

‘Texodus’ Bodes Badly for Republicans

‘I am a classically trained engineer," says Representative Will Hurd, a Texas Republican, "and I firmly believe in regression to the mean." Applying a concept from statistics to the randomness of today's politics is problematic. In any case, Hurd, 42, is not waiting for the regression of our politics from the ... Read More
Culture

Feminists Have Turned on Pornography

Since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the feminist movement has sought to condemn traditional sexual ethics as repressive, misogynistic, and intolerant. As the 2010s come to a close, it might be fair to say that mainstream culture has reached the logical endpoint of this philosophy. Whereas older Americans ... Read More
Elections

Put Up or Shut Up on These Accusations, Hillary

Look, one 2016 candidate being prone to wild and baseless accusations is enough. Appearing on Obama campaign manager David Plouffe’s podcast, Hillary Clinton suggested that 2016 Green Party candidate Jill Stein was a “Russian asset,” that Republicans and Russians were promoting the Green Party, and ... Read More
PC Culture

Defiant Dave Chappelle

When Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special Sticks & Stones came out in August, the overwhelming response from critics was that it was offensive, unacceptable garbage. Inkoo Kang of Slate declared that Chappelle’s “jokes make you wince.” Garrett Martin, in the online magazine Paste, maintained that the ... Read More