Part 4—How we got Trump-level dumb: For the record, this week's reports weren't supposed to be about Rachel Maddow.
(Having said that, we aren't among the cable star's biggest fans.)
Instead, this week's reports were intended to be about Janet Malcolm, "the nation's best magazine writer." But mostly, they're supposed to be about the intellectual standards of a well-known upper-class publication, The New Yorker.
By extension, it seems to us that these reports concern a broader subject. They concern the intellectual standards which have obtained, in recent decades, all through our upper-end press corps.
Those intellectual standards have been extremely low. Last week, they led us very close to the place often described as "rock bottom."
They led us to an astounding assessment of Maddow's weeknight TV show. At the start of Janet Malcolm's ridiculous profile of Rachel Maddow, the nation's best magazine writer strangely and weirdly wrote this:
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.Those are the second and third paragraphs of Malcolm's endless profile. We've posted those paragraphs three times now. We've done so, or at least so we hope, for an obvious reason.
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.
Those paragraphs help create a record of the level of journalistic intelligence which has obtained during the era which led us, on a long and winding road, all the way down to President Trump. So far, we've asked two questions about those paragraphs:
First, how could any journalist, let alone "the nation's best magazine writer," possibly offer such manifest dreck?
Also, much more significantly:
How is it possible that any publication, let alone the lofty New Yorker, could even consider putting such manifest nonsense in print?
Speaking directly just this once, those paragraphs describe the TV viewing experience of someone who no longer seems to be cogent. She doesn't just say that she's "mesmerized" by the Cialis and constipation ads which pay the bills for Maddow's program, though that would be crazy enough.
She also says that the Maddow Show is a nightly "piece of sleight of hand presented as a cable news show." She says this putative cable news show is actually an entertainment product—"TV entertainment at its finest"—designed to let liberals "enjoy themselves" during these dangerous Trump-riddled times. Most astoundingly, she goes on to praise this TV program's multimillionaire host for working this sleight of hand. She praises Maddow for giving us this delicious experience, which has melded in the journalist's mesmerized head with those Cialis ads.
Stating what is blindingly obvious, that passage seems to have been written by someone who may no longer be fully cogent. This leaves us grappling with the larger question:
Why in the world? Why would one of the nation's loftiest journals choose to publish such work?
Our answer to that is rather simple; this is where things have gone. This is where the culture has gone in the twenty years which have passed since we started designing this site, a move we undertook because we were already astounded by the low intellectual levels on display within our upper-end press.
There was no President Trump at that time, though we already had Speaker Gingrich. When we watched the press corps spend more than a year trying to answer a certain question, we felt the system-wide intellectual squalor could no longer be ignored.
What question were they trying, and failing, to answer? The question in question was this:
Was the GOP proposing cuts in the Medicare program? Or were they proposing that we simply slow the rate at which the program would grow?
For more than a year, we watched our nation's reporters and pundits, performing on Crossfire, trying and failing to answer that question. Twenty years ago this month, we had already decided that we were appalled as Hell and just couldn't take it any more.
Twenty years have passed since that time, and now we have Malcolm's profile. She's mesmerized by Cialis ads, which she has committed to memory, and by Maddow's sleight of hand, of which she heartily approves.
At The New Yorker, David Remnick seemed to think this manifest inanity made sense.
In case you haven't noticed it yet, you simply can't run a large modern nation this way. And yet, if we might borrow from the poet, "And yet, this is us." It has been so for many years!
Originally, we thought we could critique Malcolm's essay in one week of reports. We've come to believe that there's too much of value in Malcolm's essay for us to quit today.
We want to consider Malcolm's treatment of two of the dumbest TV shows of all time—the TV shows Maddow aired on October 29 and 30, 2014. The sheer stupidity of those shows was truly a Thing 1 and Thing 2 for the ages—and Malcolm seems completely unable to see this.
That said, we also want to consider a phenomenon to which Malcolm approvingly refers. That would be, in Malcolm's words, Maddow's "performance of the Rachel figure," an essential piece of the "sleight of hand" of which Malcolm approves.
Malcolm sees Maddow engaging in this "performance" during the time when she's on the air. Ir seems to us that Maddow may also have been "performing the Rachel figure" during her interviews with Malcolm, in ways which seem to have flown right past Malcolm's ear.
The "performance of the Rachel figure" is a basic part of the "sleight of hand" to which Malcolm refers. It's part of the "TV entertainment" which Maddow provides each night.
It's also part of the dumbing-down which has led our failing nation to its current perilous state. We're not sure if that dumbnified state is survivable at this point, but we think this ludicrous New Yorker essay helps us establish the historical record before Senator Corker's impending World War III quickly takes us all down.
Next week, we'll explore the various ways in which Maddow's "performance of the Rachel figure" seems to pop up in this long, ridiculous essay. We'll start with the ludicrous pair of performances from October 2014 which Malcolm introduces 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.”As Maddow favored us gullible liberals with that silly talk about the baby poop color, she was, of course, entertaining us. But unmistakably, she was also "performing the Rachel figure."
Along with the work of many other corporate employees, Maddow's performance of this figure has made us increasingly stupid. The work of these grabbers has made us so dumb that a magazine writer who's now 83 wrote the following manifest nonsense, which got published at the start of a very long essay in our loftiest mainstream journal:
MALCOLM: 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.That was published last week in The New Yorker. Our question:
How did our nation ever reach this baby-poop-colored point?
We'll continue exploring that question next week. Given the way we humans are thrown, your lizard brain may offer complaints every step of the way.
Coming Monday: "She had been hugging the biggest cannister. Now she removed its lid and put it on her head."