Part 2—The very best thinking we have: As recently as 2013, Janet Malcolm was headlined at Slate as "the country's best magazine writer."
Plainly, that was a matter of judgment. But we want you to keep it in mind.
As you keep that assessment in mind, we're going to ask you to be honest this once. Be honest:
When you read the first three paragraphs of Malcolm's profile of Rachel Maddow, won't you admit, if you're being honest, that something seems to be "wrong?"
Malcolm's endless profile of Maddow appears in the October 9 edition of The New Yorker, the country's brainiest upper-end mainstream publication. The profile was written by our best magazine writer, in our brainiest magazine. Having said that, please be honest, if only this once:
Doesn't something seem to be "wrong," or quite possibly "odd" or "off," in this passage, comprising the profile's second and third paragraphs?
MALCOLM (10/9/17): Maddow is widely praised for the atmosphere of cheerful civility and accessible braininess that surrounds her stage persona. She is onstage, certainly, and makes no bones about being so. She regularly reminds us of the singularity of her show (“You will hear this nowhere else”; “Very important interview coming up, stay with us”; “Big show coming up tonight”). Like a carnival barker, she leads us on with tantalizing hints about what is inside the tent.Just this once, we're asking you to be honest. Is there anything in that third paragraph (the second paragraph we've posted) that doesn't seem to be odd, off or peculiar—that doesn't suggest that something seems to be "wrong" in a sense we all understand?
As I write this, I think of something that subliminally puzzles me as I watch the show. Why do I stay and dumbly watch the commercials instead of getting up to finish washing the dishes? By now, I know every one of the commercials as well as I know the national anthem: the Cialis ad with curtains blowing as the lovers phonily embrace, the ad with the guy who has opioid-induced . . . constipation (I love the delicacy-induced pause), the ad for Liberty Mutual Insurance in which the woman jeers at the coverage offered by a rival company: “What are you supposed to do, drive three-quarters of a car?” I sit there mesmerized because Maddow has already mesmerized me. Her performance and those of the actors in the commercials merge into one delicious experience of TV. “The Rachel Maddow Show” is a piece of sleight of hand presented as a cable news show. It is TV entertainment at its finest. It permits liberals to enjoy themselves during what may be the most thoroughly unenjoyable time of their political lives.
Is there anything in that third paragraph that doesn't seem off-kilter? Remembering that this is our best magazine writer, writing in our brainiest magazine, in a piece an editor waved into print, let's quickly summarize the things this savant has said:
The writer has said that she is so "mesmerized" by Maddow's performance that she "stays and dumbly watches the commercials" each night as Maddow takes the commercial breaks which fund her gargantuan salary.
The writer doesn't just "dumbly watch" the Maddow Show's commercials. She says she's "mesmerized" by them as well as by Maddow, to the point that she can recite them by heart.
The writer hasn't merely memorized these nightly commercials. She seems to love them as much as, and in the same way that, she loves Maddow's performances.
She quotes one part of a constipation ad which she says she especially loves. Her constipation contact high seems to extend to the Cialis ad, which proceeds "with curtains blowing as the lovers phonily embrace."
Just this once, let's tell the truth. We've only reached the third paragraph of an endless New Yorker profile, but already something seems strangely wrong. And that's before the writer offers her own conception of the peculiar state of affairs she describes.
The conception this best writer offers goes almost exactly like this:
According to our best magazine writer, The Rachel Maddow Show melds with its stupid commercials to produce "one delicious experience of TV." Because it will seem that our best writer can't possibly have said something like that, let us quote her as she talks about Maddow, in the third paragraph of an endless profile David Remnick was willing to publish:
"Her performance and those of the actors in the commercials merge into one delicious experience of TV."
Dearest darlings, it's delicious! Delicious all the way down!
Be honest just this once! Doesn't that sound exactly like the type of experience we liberals have mocked, for many decades, as the quintessentially dumbnified "Amerikan" TV experience? Doesn't it seem that something is odd, off, peculiar, wrong when we find this peculiar experience lauded in our brainiest high-end magazine?
We aren't quite finished with our account of what our best writer said in that third paragraph. In that third paragraph, she makes statements about the Maddow Show which echo the things we ourselves have long said—but she's praising the show as she makes these remarks, while we have long offered these assessments as condemnations:
Our best writer says, in that third paragraph, that The Rachel Maddow Show "is a piece of sleight of hand presented as a cable news show." That's what we have long said!
She says that this corporate "cable news show" is actually "TV entertainment at its finest." After that, our best magazine writer seems to define the purpose of this entertainment product:
"It permits liberals to enjoy themselves" during these dangerous, horrible times. These are the things we've been saying for years! Now, though, our best magazine writer has, in best TV entertainment style, stated these condemnations in the form of a mesmerized statement of praise!
Just this once, tell the truth, while giving your lizard a break. Doesn't it actually seem to be odd that anyone would say such things, let alone our best magazine writer, in the lordly New Yorker, published by David Remnick?
Before our week is through, we're going to revisit one aspect of Remnick's "performance" during the years which have finally conspired to bring Donald J. Trump to power. But just be truthful this one time:
Doesn't it seem to be odd, perhaps even "off," that a magazine writer could be saying such things? Isn't it peculiar to read such things in our brainiac journal, The New Yorker?
Malcolm is getting a contact high from those Cialis ads! She's mesmerized by the ads every night. Roaches crawl about on her dishes as she ingests their content, while finding herself "subliminally puzzled" by the conduct she describes.
And it isn't just odd that these weird events take place each night in Malcolm's home. When she typed up her peculiar account of these highly peculiar events, editors at The New Yorker decided to put it in print!
TV's a "vast wasteland," we were told long ago. Now, our brainiest upper-class journal is telling us that this wasteland has become our liberal world's entertainment-based salvation!
Before the week is done, we're going to look at other things Malcolm says in her profile. As she continues, she cites four specific Maddow programs from this awful political year.
Remarkably, we specifically reviewed all four programs at this site. But we singled out three of those programs because they were so god-awful bad. Malcolm praises their inanity as emblems of Maddow's brilliance.
We plan to suggest that this odd profile brings us face to face with the total collapse of the imagined world of the liberal intellectuals. We plan to suggest that it captures the flight of the professors and the demise of the journalists, a long, slow disappearing act which has now left us with Donald J. Trump, who may soon destroy the world.
We plan to make that suggestion as the week proceeds. For today, let's examine the brilliance of Malcolm as she was building her reputation as, in the words of that recent Slate headline, "the nation's best magazine writer."
How brilliant has our upper-end brilliance actually been all these years? Let's ignore the juries who ruled that Malcolm just made shit up. Instead, let's consider her semi-famous book, The Journalist and the Murderer, which opened with our best writer's most famous extended passage.
The book was published in 1990. The leading authority on the book offers this overview:
The Journalist and the Murderer is a study by Janet Malcolm about the ethics of journalism, published by Alfred A. Knopf/Random House in 1990. It is an examination of the professional choices that shape a work of non-fiction, as well as a rumination on the morality that underpins the journalistic enterprise. The journalist in question is Joe McGinniss; the murderer is the former Special Forces captain Dr. Jeffrey R. MacDonald, who became the subject of McGinniss' 1983 book Fatal Vision.It wasn't published by Weinstein Books. We're going to give her that!
When Malcolm's work first appeared in March 1989, as a two-part serialization in The New Yorker magazine, it caused a sensation, becoming the occasion for wide-ranging debate within the news industry. This heavy criticism continued when published in book form a year later. But The Journalist and the Murderer is now regarded as a "seminal" work, and its "once controversial theory became received wisdom." It ranks 97th on the Modern Library's list of the 100 best non-fiction works of the 20th century.
That said, Malcolm opened her book as shown below. The claims were exciting but dumb:
MALCOLM (1990): Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and "the public's right to know"; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.Is that what happened when Joe McGinniss, already a well-known journalist, agreed to write a book in collaboration with Jeffrey MacDonald, who was at the time accused of murder?
The catastrophe suffered by the subject is no simple matter of an unflattering likeness or a misrepresentation of his views; what pains him, what rankles and sometimes drives him to extremes of vengefulness, is the deception that has been practiced on him. On reading the article or book in question, he has to face the fact that the journalist—who seemed so friendly and sympathetic, so keen to understand him fully, so remarkably attuned to his vision of things—never had the slightest intention of collaborating with him on his story but always intended to write a story of his own. The disparity between what seems to be the intention of an interview as it is taking place and what it actually turns out to have been in aid of always comes as a shock to the subject.
Malcolm says yes, McGinnis says no; for ourselves, we have no idea. But who could possibly open an essay with the claim that every journalist behaves in the manner described? Not just McGinniss, but Krugman as well. Also, Rachel Maddow.
Who would make such a sweeping assertion? Such assertions are spectacularly dumb—but in 1989, that's the way our best magazine writer began an essay in The New Yorker which was later published as her best-known book.
The portrait was exciting, but remarkably dumb. Who would have published such work?
Back in 1989, The New Yorker did. It helped make Malcolm semi-famous among our utterly useless savants and swells.
Last week, The New Yorker chose to publish Malcolm's latest set of pensees. She started with the Cialis high which is getting her through the nights of this spectacularly failed post-rational age.
Tomorrow: "Easily visible from space." Also such high praise as this:
"She had been hugging the biggest canister. Now she removed its lid and put it on her head."