August 11, 2004

A Dissent into Madness In

A Dissent into Madness

In the past few years, we, the crack young staff of “The Hatemonger’s Quarterly,” have grown increasingly enamored of the quarterly Dissent, the journal founded by the late Irving Howe. To be sure, Dissent, as an avowedly socialistic periodical, isn’t exactly up our political alley. Still, the magazine, under the auspices of the brilliant philosopher and essayist Michael Walzer, is one of the best-argued organs of leftist opinion in America.

Or, we should say, it was, up until the most recent issue appeared. In said number (Summer 2004), Mr. Walzer appears to have taken some time off and allowed the less stellar Mitchell Cohen to run the magazine. The results are unfortunate: Pro forma articles by Harold Meyerson, Shalom Lappin, and Marshall Berman. (Some might say that Marshall Berman has never met an argument he didn’t ruin. We’d say he’s never met an argument. Period. Perhaps one day someone will introduce him to an argument. What a glorious day that will be!)

But surely the most disastrous piece comes from the pen of one Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College. Now, we, the crack young staff of “The Hatemonger’s Quarterly,” know what you are thinking: “American Studies” is a high-toned way of saying “ideologically motivated history produced by dubious radicals.”

Sarah Lawrence, moreover, is a whilom enclave of hippies. It’s the sort of school that used to be hip when “pot” smoking among collegians was daring and avant-garde; by now, it’s gone downhill faster than Lance Armstrong. These days, Sarah Lawrence is Smith College--but for women.

Due to Mr. Mills’ pedigree, there was good reason to be mighty suspicious of his arguments. But, we thought to ourselves, this is Dissent—a journal run by one of the cleverest men of the Left.

We must say, moreover, that Mr. Mills’ piece, entitled “Television and the Politics of Humiliation,” begins on a high note: Its author rightly lambastes the sordid world of so-called “reality television,” dilating on its tendency to bring out the worst in human nature.

Bravo! Bravo! We, the crack young staff of "The Hatemonger's Quarterly," prefer television programs with more intellectual heft--like "Who's the Boss." But wait, dear reader: The article gets worse, much worse. The esteemed Mr. Mills ends his article thus:

None of this [reality television] is good news for the Democrats or the left. At a time when the election debate over the economy should be about the race to the bottom that is occurring as the result of the outsourcing of middle-class jobs and the growing number of families without health insurance, the worst possible television culture is one that tells us empathy has no place in our lives. It is a development that even the new liberal talk radio will be hard pressed to take on, for what humiliation TV represents is the rise of a pop culture in which schadenfreude has been so artfully disguised that it gives the illusion of being without political content.

Oh, dear. After a perfectly reasonable excoriation of “reality television” (a.k.a. “humiliation TV”), Mr. Mills lets loose a gaggle of tired left-wing shibboleths. This final paragraph is so rebarbative that you might think the editors at Dissent forgot to read it. Or, they momentarily imagined that they were the staff of The Nation.

It is true, no doubt, that “even the new liberal talk radio will be hard pressed to take on” the visual disgrace known as “reality television,” precisely because the new liberal talk radio, with its three listeners, will be hard pressed to take on anything—including advertising revenue. Just ask erstwhile funnyman Al Franken about his stellar salary from WLIB. It appears as if more people yearn to hear scratchy versions of “Volare” on AM radio than the insightful commentary of such intellectual luminaries as Janeane Garofalo. Who would have thunk it?

Alas, Mr. Mills’ coda is chalk-a-block with tired platitudes. And mistakes: He means “sympathy” when he writes “empathy.” Come on, Mr. Mills: We know that, according to our lit-crit friends, language is just a social construct, but couldn’t a professor—even a professor of “American Studies”—do better than this?

Yet certainly the most ridiculous aspect of this literary peroration is its insinuation that “reality television” is somehow good for Republicans. According to Mr. Mills, such right-leaning characters as Robert Bork and Irving Kristol should be hooting and hollering over the success of “Joe Millionare” and “The Swan.” Sure, they are moral abominations. Yet as long as they help starve the poor—clearly the political goal of the Right, as Mr. Mills would blithely tell you—these shows are simply heavenly.

Perhaps Mr. Mills should spend a half hour of his time watching “The Real World” along with, say, Gertrude Himmelfarb. We think he’ll find that she isn’t as impressed as he supposes.

Posted at August 11, 2004 12:01 AM | TrackBack