7/18/2015

David BrooksI have an asymptotic opinion of David Brooks: it approaches respect, but never gets there. Just when he agrees with his PBS sparring partner Mark Shields on the obvious, like the predicament of a GOP being Trumped at every turn, he shoots himself in the foot, or puts it in his mouth. I've come to expect this rhetorical pas de deux. It's tough being a Republican shill and a New York Times columnist who occasionally blogs for Commentary. As Groucho Marx said: "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them...well, I have others."

But Brooks' latest faux pas, an op-ed piece about Ta-Nehisi Coates' new book Between the World and Me, redefines tone deafness. Under the scurrilous title "Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White," Brooks gives us passive-aggressive liberalism, socio-economic condescension and brittle revisionism.

The phrase "driving while black" (substitute any quotidian behavior) has real meaning for many, and it can be applied to any group: "walking while gay," "worshipping while Muslim," "driving while transgender." But the skilled polemicist Brooks subsumes the narrative of police brutality, to which the phrase really applies, under the rubric of cultural bigotry.

Knee-jerk reactions to African-American literature are commonplace. It's no great surprise that Brooks has also written for The Atlantic, Coates' current employer. However, it's surprising, even shocking, to see the consistent bias. Brooks' 2003 piece "People Like Us," its title a clumsy reference to the 1961 book Black Like Me, begins with this tour de raison: "Maybe it's time to admit the obvious. We don't really care about diversity all that much in America, even though we talk about it a great deal." He goes on to talk about paying "lip service to the melting pot," ending with an inflammatory Trumpism: "Look around at your daily life. Are you really in touch with the broad diversity of American life? Do you care?"

For the record, Brooks' colleague, chief book critic Michiko Kakutani, recognized Coates' brilliance for what it is. Correctly citing James Baldwin as Coates' inspiration, she calls his book "a searing meditation on what it means to be black in America today." Brooks unabashedly lifts the blurb, beginning his epistolary piece in similar fashion: "Your new book, “Between the World and Me,” (sic) is a great and searing contribution to this public education." The condescension comes quickly: "But the disturbing challenge of your book is your rejection of the American dream. My ancestors chose to come here."

After an obligatory reference to pogroms, Brooks continues: "Your ancestors came in chains. In your book the dream of the comfortable suburban life is a 'fairy tale.' For you, slavery is the original American sin, from which there is no redemption."

The puerile statements abound, building to a climax worthy of inclusion in revisionist Texas school books:

"I think you distort American history. This country, like each person in it, is a mixture of glory and shame. There’s a Lincoln for every Jefferson Davis and a Harlem Children’s Zone for every K.K.K. — and usually vastly more than one."

He's talking about a book Coates wrote as a letter to his son, a father's message meant as therapy for himself as a writer. But Brooks can't see this, and I fault him for that. Actually, I dislike him for that, and I'm not alone. This parody of his letter says it all (thanks to Richard Prince for finding it.)

I'll still watch PBS NewsHour, because it's a good take on Beltway antics. I can even stomach Brooks' apologia of the GOP, an asymptotic process as the party becomes decreasingly relevant to the American narrative. However, it's no longer about respect for Brooks, but tolerance - a sentiment with which he should become familiar.

6/22/2015

Call and Response - Glenn Ligon

"Her unpredictable bondage to the past, always a grim past, was one of the few sad facts about her." "The Golden Child" by Reynolds Price  

I am still processing the Charleston massacre. Last Wednesday, in the midst of celebrating the end of a consulting project, I saw the news on Facebook, a pattern of disconcerting headlines and images spreading like wildfire. Cushioned by alcohol, I could only work through the surface, the artifacts of violent murder we have all come to recognize, if not anticipate.

During the previous week, I had been polishing the opening of an essay on race, a personal take on an incident that happened in the summer of 2006, when Barry Hannah visited the Bennington Writing Seminars and read a story riddled with the N-word. Since that time, I had been struggling to understand the relationship between white Southern authors and their black characters. I had finally found an entry point, and felt encouraged by my progress. My only regret was that Barry, who passed away a few years after that reading, would not know that I had looked beyond the bluff of insult to see his love for black people, and his self-deprecation.

The next morning, my wife and I drove north to Maine for a much-anticipated vacation. As always, the weight of the world and its depredations eased with each passing mile. By the time we reached our destination, the aptly named Freeport, I had pushed all thoughts, indeed all stimuli, behind the scrim of Wyeth clarity, the white light suffusing that region.

Over the next several days, I checked the Web sparingly, chatting with one or two friends, posting a few photos. The local television stations carried the news, but it played out like a disjointed Kabuki play, the white-faced shooter standing with wooden dispassion in a jailhouse video feed as family members of his victims forgave him, an act I recognized as beyond my own sensibility, even in the white coastal light. I particularly enjoyed the words of one family member, who said God would welcome the shooter into his grace, and that he hoped that meeting would happen soon.

And then it hit me, like a blow to the stomach, that I could not continue the essay. How could I write an exculpatory piece about white writers using the N-word after learning that the shooter used the same word to address the one person he spared? No quantity of intellect, empathy or love could balance the vitriol; not now, and not by me.  

Racial hatred permeates our country, especially its Southern precincts. The use of racial epithets nourishes that hatred, no matter how idiosyncratic that usage might be. Young people of all colors use the N-word as a salutation, or term of endearment, but too many others use it as a weapon, to hurt and intimidate.  

I will revisit the essay when my anger and disgust have subsided, probably not in the near future, and definitely not without further introspection. There will be other words, in other venues, before that happens. 

photo: Valerie Bennett - Call and Response, Glenn Ligon

4/3/2015

Let me start by saying that I never dis the coast I'm not on. I spent half my life in California, but never made fun of my native New York the way some folks do in LA and the Bay Area. Fuck the snow and the subways. In the immortal words of Ratso, "Hey, I'm walkin' here."

Now that I'm back, I refuse to indulge in schadenfreude when I hear about earthquakes or wildfires. I turned the other cheek when friends on the west coast sent snarky weather reports during our recent east coast Snowmageddon. I did not retaliate then (OK, maybe a short burst to keep their heads down), nor will I now sink to the level of jokes about the drought, which is serious business indeed.

Still, I can't help noticing that the recent concern over the possible death of tech journalism seems a bit overblown. Just my two cents, five years into my repatriation, but the Darwinian process at work here, or more accurately in Silicon Valley, leaves no room for handwringing.

The term "reality distortion field," originally used to describe the singular confidence of Steve Jobs in the face of any challenge, becomes especially onerous when discussing journalism. It's one thing to prosecute a campaign of selective optimism when designing products that are not only new but revolutionary. One has to think outside the box, if only to avoid measuring its walls. But when the coverage of such innovation transcends the arc of integrity, when distorted reality is peddled as the truth, then it's time to call foul.

In the early Nineties, two magazines, Upside and Red Herring, covered tech with a fresh approach, a mix of fact, opinion and insider gossip. Those of us who lived in the Valley got it, and we weren't too concerned with those on the other coast who didn't. At some point, the term "tech journalism" transcended the brand of fact-driven reporting pioneered by folks like Tim Bajarin.

At the end of that decade, The Industry Standard, a well-read weekly with punchy articles and dot-com hiring announcements that read like blurbs in the Hollywood trades, sailed off the cliff with the rest of the lemmings.

GigaOm, founded in 2006, appeared to be a return to old-school credibility, its tripartite revenue model of blog ads, research subscriptions, and conference tickets an apparent indication of smart brand management. Along with TechCrunch, and later Business Insider, GigaOm's reporting was first-rate, prescient when possible, always reliable. Over time, I became annoyed with the periodic headlines that touted research reports whose price, on click-through, seemed a bit high. After clicking into an ad for one of its conferences, I realized that the reports were cheap by comparison. Still, I thought it was just me.

Apparently not.

The end was quick and unexpected. GigaOm shut down on a Monday, stunning the ecosystem as founder Om Malik reported that "assets are now controlled by the company's lenders." The conjecture was immediate as pundits on both coasts weighed in, and the impassioned exit interview of Matthew Ingram, star GigaOm columnist, led the chorus of employee statements that no one had seen this coming.

Three weeks later, a piece on the blog BGR decried the growing publicity for video streaming app Meerkat. Tero Kuittinen, an equity analyst based in New York, stated flatly that the hype around Meerkat's fundraising ahead of Twitter's competitor app Periscope was "the creation of a handful of West Coast tech bloggers."

Predictably, the Valley returned fire. Frank Meehan wrote from Palo Alto that Kuittinen "could be as guilty of 'jumping the gun' as the journalists he accuses of hyping Meerkat in the first place." As a venture capitalist with skin in the game, Meehan's response nevertheless seemed more objective than Kuittinen, a failed game entrepeneur by his own admission.

The real story revolves around the definition of tech journalism.

Financial journalism thrives predominantly on the east coast, where the emphasis is on the markets, and a handful of major institutions. Secrecy is the by-product of an industry where big deals like mergers and acquisitions are only trumpeted after the fact. Certainly, the lack of disclosure during financial meltdowns suggests a code of silence taken too far, but generally speaking, the money raises itself, and the products, such as they are, don't need to be hyped.

These days, when people talk about tech journalism, they really mean west coast financial journalism. Yes, PCWorld does have a business section, but its focus is on technology and politics. When your main focus is on Sand Hill Road, and where its money flows, you're a financial reporter, my friend. To those who would point east, I concede that Jim Cramer of TheStreet.com is no shrinking violet, but he knows the boundaries of hype, and respects the regulators who police it. Back here, we can't afford to distort reality. Boring? Possibly. We're workin' here.