Thursday, August 19, 2004

A Milestone in American Letters 

This is just astonishing. I think this may very well be the worst piece of English prose published in a nationally-distributed news periodical during the past decade. Courtesy of Jonathan Alter, "writing" for Newsweek about the deeper meaning of the McGreevey outing/scandal. From "The Layered Lives We Lead":
Too many of us increasingly live our lives according to some external narrative that we think represents "success" or "acceptance" but has little to do with who we really are. In other words, ordinary Americans are becoming more and more like politicians. That's right--the very profession we claim to despise has turned into one of the templates for modern life. It's not just that we occasionally make promises we can't keep and tell convenient white lies and are a little too eager to please those who might do us some good. That has always been true, which is why our elected officials may represent us better than we know. What has changed is that the outer-directedness of politicians--their relentless need to be in touch and feed off other people--is now leeching into the larger culture.
It's like Vogon-poetry-bad. Nearly le-chien-bad. (OK, I won't go that far.) If you can stand any more:
Today, with cell phones and instant messaging like umbilical cords, the whole dorm would riot if someone managed to cut the connection. Even the meek have inherited the BlackBerry.
Yep, you read that correctly: "the meek have inherited the BlackBerry." (In case you didn't catch that, Alter is "alluding to" the Bible in order to make a kind of "joke.")
But these are different lives than led by earlier generations--stretched thin between outer and inner selves, self-absorbed without being self-knowing.
I have to ask myself: what would I do if one of my students handed in an essay with a sentence like that? (Other than do a quick Google search to see if s/he was plagiarising from Newsweek.)
The character flaws that allowed Bill Clinton or Jim McGreevey to exercise such appalling judgment are particular to them and ultimately unfathomable. All we know for sure is that neither Clinton's shame, nor McGreevey's, will prevent others from making their mistakes over and over again; human folly (or cries for help) trumps rationality on a regular basis, especially if we manage to stay in touch with everyone except ourselves. When life spins ever faster, the odds increase of its spinning out of control.
This prose is straight out of something Orwell quoted. It should be used to teach from. Alter deserves a laurel. A shining shit-laurel.


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