Part 5—"The Rachel figure:" How many ways does Janet Malcolm love the Maddow show?
It's hard to count the ways. That said, in an endless profile in the October 9 New Yorker, Malcolm mentions only three specific Maddow programs from this calendar year—and in one of those specific programs, Malcolm says a Maddow show "failed to please." That was "the notorious show of March 14th," in which Maddow turned the uninformative contents of Donald J. Trump's 2005 tax returns into an endless tease and a song-of-self.
Malcolm describes only three programs from this calendar year. Somewhat oddly, without real explanation, she also mentions a pair of Maddow shows from October 2014. It seems fairly clear that Malcolm saw something significant in these programs, which aired on October 29 and 30 of that long-lost, long-ago year.
Malcolm seems to see great significance in these programs—but why? Her description of those back-to-back programs begins like this:
MALCOLM (10/9/17): The [October 29, 2014] show began with Maddow placing on her desk, one by one, a graduated set of ceramic kitchen cannisters. “Here in our offices at 30 Rockefeller Center, in our office closet, actually, we have, sort of randomly, a really hideous complete set of kitchen cannisters,” she said, drawing them to her with an impish smile. “A full set of mushroom-ornamented, baby-poop-colored, made-in-China ugly kitchen cannisters. They take up a lot of space, but I can’t get rid of them. We bought these hideous kitchen cannisters when a producer on our staff stumbled upon them while out shopping and realized—photographic memory—that these were an exact match to one of the best campaign-ad props thus far in the twenty-first century. Look.” A picture then appeared onscreen, showing a woman sitting in front of a display of the same mushroom-ornamented cannisters that live in the office closet at MSNBC. The woman was Sharron Angle, a Nevada Republican, who had tried to make a political comeback after an unsuccessful attempt to unseat Harry Reid in his Senate race in 2010.We'll interrupt Malcolm's essay here. Throughout, we'll use the double-N spelling of "cannister" which The New Yorker seems to prefer.
Let's summarize what we've heard so far about the first of that three-year-old pair of programs. We've heard that Maddow started her program that night with "an impish smile." She then began discussing herself, or at least she began discussing the internal dynamics of her show, which she referred to as "we."
According to Maddow, her show had purchased a set of "hideous kitchen cannisters" at some time in the previous few years. According to Maddow, a producer had "stumbled upon them while out shopping" and had realized that they were "an exact match to one of the best campaign-ad props thus far in the twenty-first century."
The show's producer had a photographic memory, we were inevitably told. For undisclosed reasons, Maddow told us that the hideous, unused cannisters "live in an office closet at MSNBC" but she "can't get rid of them.
This is all part of the Maddow Show style, in which viewers are perhaps made to feel that they're being treated to an insidery view of the workings of a cool club. Along the way, we were treated to the inevitable low-IQ touch. The hideous cannisters are "baby-poop-colored," we were inevitably told.
As it turned out, the hideous, baby-poop-colored cannisters matched a set which had appeared in a campaign ad for Sharron Angle, who lost a high-profile Senate race to Harry Reid in 2010. The hideous cannisters had appeared in a campaign ad in 2011, when Angle launched a run for a seat in the House, a campaign she later abandoned.
As Maddow continued this night, she linked Angle and the hideous cannisters to a campaign which was then underway—to the 2014 Iowa Senate race of Republican Joni Ernst. Maddow offered some critical commentary on Ernst's campaign, which Malcolm briefly summarizes in her New Yorker piece.
This was just the beginning of Malcolm's treatment of those Maddow shows from October 2014. As noted, Malcolm discussed only three shows from this calendar year in her endless profile of Maddow. As such, the cannister shows from 2014 constitute a full forty percent of the Maddow shows she chose to discuss in her recent piece.
It's fairly clear that Janet Malcolm saw some sort of significance in those cannister shows. It must also be said that it's hard to discern what it was, or why the three-year-old shows were ever discussed at all.
Back to Malcolm's profile. According to Malcolm, Maddow closed the opening segment of that first show by making yet another disparaging reference to those "hideous kitchen cannisters." This led to a segment in the next night's show, a segment Malcolm chose to describe, for unknown reasons, at considerable length.
Malcolm devoted a good chunk of time to the events of the following night (October 30, 2014). Here's the way her manifest piddle began:
MALCOLM: The next night, an unsmiling Maddow addressed her audience thus: “O.K., so last night I may have crossed the line. I went a little too far and said something that offended some of our viewers, and rightly so. It was not my intention to offend. So we’ve got a Department of Corrections segment coming up. Anybody who likes to watch this show because you like to yell at me while I’m on the screen, you will like this next thing that I’m going to have to do. Mea culpa on the way.” Sitting in front of a sign that read “DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS,” Maddow recapitulated her narrative of the page Joni Ernst took from Sharron Angle. “Tonight, I have a correction to make about that. I will tell you, though, that this correction has nothing to do with Joni Ernst.” In fact, the “correction” was not a correction at all. Maddow had made no factual errors. She had merely betrayed her youth. She had not lived long enough to know that you do not mock people’s things any more than you mock their weight or accent or sexual orientation. “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” William Morris wrote in his famous dictum. Morris knew very well what was hideous. But he knew enough about human nature to insert that inspired “believe.”There's so much piddle in that paragraph that an observer barely knows where to begin. Yet this plainly is the way Maddow staged one segment that October night, and this is the sort of brain-damaged dreck which now appears in The New Yorker.
Let's run through what Malcolm has said about that program so far:
For starters, few readers will have any idea who this William Morris is, or why he would have offered his "famous dictum" about what you should have in your house. Let us fill in that blank:
According to the leading authority on his life, Morris was "associated with the British Arts and Crafts Movement" of the 19th century. As such, "he was a major contributor to the revival of traditional British textile arts and methods of production."
None of this has much to do with Maddow's presentation that second night, in which she apologized, or pretended to apologize, for the previous night's misconduct. In real time, we commented on the sheer inanity of this ridiculous, time-wasting segment. That said, we assume the segment was at least largely tongue in cheek, a possibility Malcolm doesn't seem to have considered.
In Malcolm's apparent view, Maddow had actually offended some viewers the night before with her comments about the hideous cannisters. In Malcolm' apparent view, Maddow was conducting a serious attempt to apologize for her bad judgment, which Malcolm attributed to Maddow's youth.
Just for the record, Maddow was 42 years old at the time these programs aired. At any rate, as Malcolm continued, she described Maddow's supposed mea culpa:
MALCOLM (continuing directly): Maddow’s disparagement of the mushroom cannisters brought her a torrent of mail. She read aloud from it: “I was insulted that you referred to the cannisters as ugly, as I had bought that set many years ago. I wish I still had my cute, adorable cannisters.” “Hey, Rachel, my mother has a set, too—we could use a matching set.” “If by hideous you mean the most awesome cannisters of all time then you are correct.” More messages appeared on the screen: “hideous??? What ever do you mean?” “Those were my grandmas mushroom canisters! She had matching pots, s&p, spoon rest, napkin holder and a wall clock.”We'd assume that these complaints were largely tongue in cheek. We'd make the same assumption about Maddow's silly resort to her DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS. But as she journeyed back three years in time, Malcolm seemed to read things differently.
She seemed to think that Maddow had really apologized for really offending an actual torrent of viewers. She continued along, describing what happened next:
MALCOLM (continuing directly): “I have been aesthetically swayed,” Maddow said, setting down the sheaf of letters. “Yes, I once believed that those mushroom cannisters were hideous, in the context of threatening armed violence against government officials, à la Sharron Angle in Nevada and Joni Ernst in Iowa. I also do still kind of think they’re hideous here at my office. But in real life, on your shelf, on your kitchen counter, in the recesses of your childhood memories, the Merry Mushroom cannisters your mom bought at Sears in the seventies—which also happened to match your Merry Mushroom curtains—those mushroom cannisters really aren’t hideous. They are lovely. So thank you for fact-checking me on this. I sincerely regret what I now believe is an error. I love your mushroom cannisters and your kitchen—I love all of it.” She had been hugging the biggest cannister. Now she removed its lid and put it on her head. “Sorry.”Yes, that actually happened. Also, this was the end of Malcolm's treatment of those shows from 2014.
Yes, that actually happened. After Maddow finished her pointless discussion of the aesthetic worth of the cannisters, she removed the lid of the biggest cannister of them all and deposited it on her head.
"Sorry," she said, as she mugged and clowned about this inane, stupid topic. This was part of "cable news" in the last few months before Donald J. Trump launched his drove toward The Oval.
Reading Malcolm's endless profile of Maddow, we can't tell you why Janet Malcolm devoted so much time and so much space to these cannister shows from October 2014. She seemed to think that Maddow was conducting a real apology for a genuine offense—an offense which reflected the 42-year-old TV star's youthful failure of judgment.
In our view, it's important to know how we've reached the point where such inanity can appear in The New Yorker. For today, we'll offer this one suggestion about those Maddow shows, and possibly about Malcolm's reaction to them.
We don't know why Janet Malcolm included those shows in her endless profile of Maddow. Having said that, we'll offer this:
In those two programs, it seems to us that Maddow was engaged in what Malcolm calls "her performance of the Rachel figure." Tomorrow, we'll start to make a pair of suggestions:
This repetitive type of performance art is a major part of Maddow's popular program, which Malcolm approvingly describes as "TV entertainment at its finest" and also as "sleight of hand." It's also part of the way our culture has been dumbed down to the point where Donald J. Trump is now president.
What does Malcolm mean when she refers to Maddow's "performance of the Rachel figure?" Your question strikes us as very important. We'll start with that question tomorrow.
Tomorrow: "The Rachel figure?" What's that?