Keelin McDonnell’s New Republic essay, “The Case Against Sarah Vowell”, would be completely worthless, had he not raised the perfectly valid point that Vowell is unable to convey political events with any sophistication.
Vowell’s recent New York Times columns represent yet another move in the ongoing political commentary shift from serious thinkers to humorists like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and, of course, Vowell. Taken as humor pieces, this trio’s collective contributions certainly represent entertaining diversions. There would be nothing wrong with this, provided that those who watch The Daily Show or who listen to This American Life actually understood that what they were watching was entertainment, rather than deep political thought. But it seems clear to me that more people are willing to take The Daily Show‘s “news” as gospel because it entertains them or perhaps because the current television news outlets simply cannot offer a perspective outside of the martial, tickertape headine and multiple windows model.
As intellectual material, however, the collective oeuvre of Stewart, Colbert and Vowell can be categorized somewhere between some high schooler gushing over a dogeared copy of Atlas Shrugged and a starry-eyed undergraduate who believes that Chomsky is God.
Take, for example, Vowell’s February 5 column, “Gimme Torture,” in which the subject of torture is conveyed through the prism of Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer on 24. Rather than examining how the troubling notion of Bauer, a Dirty Harry-like character who throws the Constitution and due process out the window on a weekly (i.e., hourly) basis, might just be a tad pernicious in getting 24‘s many viewers to remember basic civics (without even mentioning a pro-Patriot Act commercial which aired during the episode Vowell describes), Vowell offers the banal conclusion that she’s “a little less gulty” ordering a DVD set of 24. The essay is certainly amusing, but Vowell eschews using her comic gifts to point out how the show’s tone, much less the commercial, might influence some viewers to feel a little less bad about sacrificing civil liberties.
Perhaps the problem here is that political essays in America are, for the most part, fairly predictable affairs, whether they come from left or right. We all get on the same soapboxes. And inevitably, we all pluck the same unsubtle chords.
To address Bernard Henri-Levy’s recent concerns, I really don’t think that the Left is asleep, nor do I believe that the political essay is necessarily dead. But I do think that the shift to humorists or novelists offering “political writing” for their newspapers — even the half-baked “political fiction” to be found in Stephen Elliott’s Politically Inspired, which is more of an exercise in deferring serious thinking by exploring such predictable associations as a story of Bush in the guise of a Minnesota schoolboy — is counterproductive, if not destructive, to real discourse.
The problem is that when one writes a political essay these days, one is expected to adhere to a predisposed thinking pattern. The American Left, in particular, being so fragile and regularly maimed by its lack of mobilization, risks offending its peers, much less specific groups. One is expected these days to assume that a reading audience will agree with everything you state, rather than questioning another person’s points, much less one’s own, in a civil manner. And for all the tyrannies of the Bush administration, how tyrannical is this kind of groupthink?
I had hoped to talk to Vowell about these issues when she rolled through town, but her very friendly publicist explained to me that these Times pieces were keeping her quite busy. Perhaps the explanation here is that Vowell is working with harder deadlines than she was accustomed to. But I don’t think so. I think the New York Times has set the bar considerably lower than the Baltimore Herald Tribune or the Baltimore Sun ever did for H.L. Mencken. Because today’s m.o. is to entertain. And coming to grips with the sober realities of torture, political corruption and the venal actions of politicians, left or right, seems incompatible with this apparent necessity.
(via Chekhov’s Mistress)