To Buy a Vowell

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)


  1. Thanks for writing this. I, too, enjoy Stewart, Colbert and, to a lesser extent, Vowell as humorists but I find it alarming that people cite them as news sources. Also, I don’t like the notion that one’s liberal credentials are revoked if you don’t happen to be a huge fan of the Daily Show.

  2. Sarah Vowell’s point, if I caught it right when she read that piece at her LA appearance last week, was that we can intellectually be against torture but her entertianment heart pumped at it on “24.” I think this is a more nuanced perspective than the stuff we read on Alternet.

    And I am a fan of the Daily Show, which I think does a tremendous job of making Bush look like the ass he is. Their demographic slants very college-grad — remember in 2004, when Daily Show watchers knew more about the election than people who read the newspaper?

    I think most people who like satire understand the satiricalness of it. Or maybe I hope.

  3. Do we have actual evidence of people saying that they get their news from places like The Daily Show, Colbert, Vowell? Seems like one of those memes that just got out there without any real evidence of such.

    As Carolyn above points out, you need to know what’s going on to understand the satire, so they’re obviously being informed elsewhere. The cultural influence of these people is vastly overstated as well. The DS gets something like only a million and a half viewers a week. Miniscule in the grand scheme of things.

    Let the entertainers entertain. With this post and your going on about The Office, it seems like you’ll only let yourself admit that something is okay as long as you can justify that it’s “serious” in its entertainment.

    In short, lighten up dude.

  4. I’m a fan of Sarah Vowell, as she does a good job, I think, of conveying interest in and fascination with American history without resorting to the inscrutable jargon-speak that corrupts so much academic writing. (As Louis Sullivan put it in a quote referenced in Assassination Vacation, “[T]hus ever works the pallid academic mind, denying the real, exalting the fictitious and false, incapable of adjusting itself to the flow of living things, to the reality and the pathos of man’s follies, to the valiant hope that ever causes him to aspire; that never lifts a hand in aid because it cannot.”)

    I can’t tell you how many historians I know/read/work with manage to reduce the most compelling of current events into unreadable ruminations on agency, transnationalism, the subaltern, or whatever pomo platitude is currently in vogue. If Vowell leans too far toward the snarky in her political writing, at least she tries to convey — in clear, concise, easily understandable language — a living US history, the idea that our current situation is rooted in past events and policies (See, for example, her discussion of Iraq and the Spanish-American War/Phillippines in AV.)

    That being said, to be honest, I haven’t been reading her NYT articles, but I doubt they can be much worse than David Brooks’ output.

    Regarding The Daily Show and other satiric outlets for news, the problem to my mind isn’t that people take what they hear on DS to be news — ’cause, most of the time, it is. The problem is that the mainstream, non-satiric media has basically given up trying to report this administration’s policies with anything close to a critical eye. (Just look at Miller/Russert/Woodward in Plamegate, or compare the “journalistic” lack-of-outrage in the NSA coverage to the breathless Monica days.) So DS and Colbert is the best we’ve got right now — When the going gets absurd, the absurdists get going.

  5. I am someone who arranges his Saturday afternoons around This American Life. Having said that, I’ve found Vowell’s columns close to unreadable. Brooks, or perhaps Tom Friedman, may be an apt point of comparison. The formula is always the same: take a weighty, serious issue and then from a single personal experience (Brooks), visit to an exotic place (Friedman), or piece of the pop-culture zeitgeist (Vowell), draw a sweeping conclusion designed to show how smart/funny/hip/outraged/ironically detached you are. Punch is kidding himself if he thinks people will keep paying extra for this shit.

  6. First off, the Vowell critique is pretty spot-on, and it’s nice to see someone actually call into question her abilities. I’ve never found her funny, and her insights are, well, not terribly insightful.

    As for the notion that people get their news from Stewart et al: Few probably do, given that even the Yahoo page where I get my e-mail has a handful of up-to-date news headlines, but if they do, so what? At least they’re getting it somewhere. Sure, ideally young people would read the NYTimes, watch the nightly news, etc. But in the absence of that, getting even a bit of news from otherwise-entertaining programs — with contextualization that, while juvenile, often strips away the spin to reveal the truth beneath — is better than nothing.

    What is sad is that the Times can’t find someone who can be entertaining AND insightful. Come to think of it, in Vowell’s case, either trait would be an improvement.

  7. To respond to a few of the comments here:

    1. I don’t see the nuance in pointing out the obvious. The point is that, in the column in question, Vowell’s entertainment vs. thoughtfulness about civics is there from the get-go. It doesn’t strike me as particularly provocative satire. If it does to some folks, I suspect it’s because American writing isn’t nearly as satirical as, say, British writing. (Check any of the Fleet Street papers on a regular basis and you’ll see how serene the New York Times is by comparison.)

    If anything, I’m thinking that Vowell can offer a more nuanced perspective by offering more examples (such as the pro-Patriot Act commercial that aired) which points out (1) that the experience is on some level pernicious and complicated and (2) that this is a great example with how the media and its DVD box set tie-ins works with the American public as a form of consumerism/propaganda that we (and even Vowell) is accustomed to.

    2. To elaborate on my claim that more people are getting their news from “The Daily Show,” have you not read any of the countless articles pointing out that “The Daily Show regularly trumps CNN in the ratings? If that doesn’t indicate a seismic shift, consider that John Kerry selected “The Daily Show” to respond to the Swift Boat charges. Not “60 Minutes,” not Larry King, not any of the major news sources.

    3. I find it interesting that the defense for Vowell and TDS here is largely, “Well, it’s better than nohting.” This suggests that even those of us here (myself included) who enjoy Vowell and TDS have become so accustomed to being entertained that the idea of being informed in a sober matter about sober events is nearly an impossibility. I mean, outside of FAIR, nobody’s picketing the major news outlets for greater accountability.

  8. I’ve got no dog in the Vowell fight, but surely as rigrous a thinker as you, good DrMabuse, knows that the Daily Show doing better ratings than CNN as evidence of young Americans turning to Mr. Stewart and pals for their news is pretty weak.

    1. It isn’t true. Many more people grab news on CNN during the day than watch the Daily Show. A head to head competition between The Daily Show and say Anderson Cooper may be close, but as we know, Anderson ain’t the only source for “news” on CNN during the day. I’m willing to bet that The Daily Show ranks well behind all network news broadcasts, cable news stations, the Internet, newspapers and blogs in terms of primary source of news. Tens
    (hundreds?) of millions of people get news, a million or so watch The Daily Show. Even if none of the DS viewers got news before the show, it would be a speck.

    2. Seismic shift? Seriously man, you’re sounding like you write for the Times and are looking for a peg on which to hang a non-story.

    3. John Kerry went on the DS because it would be a highly sympathetic audience, (as shown by their bashing of the Swift boaters prior to Kerry’s appearance) and the DS ratings are irrelevant to getting coverage for that appearance because it would get covered in the traditional media.

    Let it stand, then, that the “People get their news from the Daily Show” theory is about as reliable as one of Chris Matthews’ bloviations on hardball.

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