I don’t like to slag off (semi-)liberal writers, but what, exactly, keeps Timothy Noah employed?
He’s a typical mainstream journalist lifer, rotating between right-wing news outlets (US News & World Report, The Wall Street Journal) and center-left magazine-style venues (TNR, Slate). He managed to change sides on the Iraq war not once but twice, and recently won the Hillman Prize for advocacy journalism for his magazine series (and now book) on income inequality in the US. He’s everywhere on the commentary and opinion blogs. And he writes an opinion column for TNR in which he attempts to be profound. It’s the latter that catches my attention right now.
When have you ever thought to yourself, about any important issue, “Well, as Timothy Noah says . . .”? Apparently Timothy Noah thinks that to himself with some regularity, and it bugs me. Particularly, it bugs me not simply because he writes drivel but because he’s getting paid to write that drivel and I’m not. I mean, we’re used to the gratingly stupid shit that comes up on the wingnut welfare circuit – National Review, World Nut Daily, CNS News, Regnery, and their “think” tank sponsors – but if lefties (more or less) are getting paid to write obvious inanities, hell, I can do that.
Here’s Noah on three burning issues of the day:
Clinton on Caro on Johnson
“I think it’s pretty clear that [in his review of Robert Caro's biography of LBJ] Clinton is not addressing these remarks to you, or me, or Caro, or Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, or Times executive editor Jill Abramson, or any other Times reader save one (though the rest of us are welcome to listen in). He’s addressing them to the 44th president of the United States.”
“Opportunity should not be bought and sold, even (perhaps especially) to benefit causes that purport to be charitable.”
The Hunger Games
“I’ve been struggling to understand why it is that I found The Hunger Games, which I saw last week with my teenage daughter, morally repugnant.” [Seriously, Tim? This required a lot of thought for you?] “Nowhere in the film is it suggested that if 12 moral individuals were told to kill one another for no reason other than to amuse the masses, then the only choice consistent with any notion of ethics that I’m familiar with would be to refuse and be executed.”
This ceaseless stream of platitudinous superficialities gets you a paycheck from The New Republic (as Chloe Sevigny kept repeating every five minutes in the movie Shattered Glass, “the inflight magazine of Air Force One!”). Apparently all that is required is an marginal ability to read, and no ability to understand anything.
The Clinton review is obviously political exhortation. Do you think Bill Clinton sits around doing literary criticism just for the hell of it? When he writes “power ultimately reveals character. For L.B.J., becoming president freed him to embrace parts of his past that, for political or other reasons, had remained under wraps”, he couldn’t be clearer what he’s talking about. And since there’s only one person in the entire world who is in a position to use the lessons from a Democratic president’s efforts to pass landmark progressive legislation, it’s not like identifying this person requires some kind of blinding insight. The suggestion that LBJ was a master interpersonal politician, and that Clinton emulates him and Obama does not, is hardly any more original. Noah offers absolutely nothing to this discussion. He’s like that annoying guy in the movie theater who insists on saying what’s happening on the screen, because he thinks you won’t understand it if he doesn’t explain. Shut up, Noah – you’re in the way.
On the fact that unpaid internships at powerful and prestigious institutions are actually being auctioned off – that’s right, it’s gone beyond rich kids working for free to get access and privilege; they’re now paying to work for free so they can get access and privilege – Noah’s only observation is that this undermines “meritocracy”. (That he uses that word, and apparently believes in what it means, ought to be proof enough of his establishment hack status.) The unfairness of the “internship” game in itself, or the nexus of class and political power or business opportunity, get no recognition in his two-paragraph piece. The fact that such institutions care so little about “merit” that they’re willing to guarantee positions without knowing who will buy them apparently implies nothing to Noah. Nothing about this situation moves him to criticize, or analyze, or even seemingly notice, the bankrupt system it feeds and arises from; he just thinks it’s bad to actually sell access outright – why restricting access only to those who can afford to pay to work for free is worse than giving access away only to those who can afford to work for free is an exercise for a much subtler thinker.
It’s the Hunger Games bushwa that really prompted this. Noah states outright that – while sitting next to his teenage daughter – he couldn’t figure out what bothered him about a film featuring teenage girls (and boys) being hunted and killed for sport. After putting a lot of thought into it, and consulting better writers, he finally comes up with this thin gruel: because the audience empathizes with the kids, but also enjoys the movie, “The Hunger Games wants to have it both ways”. See, the film fails to have a strong message. Well, honestly, since I haven’t seen the film I don’t know if that’s true or not, but neither does Timothy Noah. For one thing, he seems to think the film’s message is something about the draft. (“Perhaps there’s an intended parallel with the forced recruitment of child soldiers, or, more provocatively, with any government’s drafting of young adults . . . . But the first is an obscene form of savagery . . . . And the second has been necessary in the past” . . . what was that about trying to have it both ways, Tim?) From the reviews I’ve read of the books and the film, it seems obvious to me that the film is about power politics, not combat taken literally. A ruling class lives in luxurious self-indulgence while exacting tribute from a much larger population enslaved in a desperate struggle for subsistence, occasionally dragging some of them off for reality-TV blood sports: sound familiar at all? Taking the plot literally, focusing only on the violence, misses the actual conflict it portrays. For another, he works in an awkward reference to Rodin’s sculpture of the Burghers of Calais as his personal moral cry from the heart, appealing to the author and producers to throw in some refusal-to-participate-in-evil as a moral touchstone. Except that Burghers of Calais isn’t about the refusal to participate in evil; the Burghers sacrificed themselves, but they were never asked to do anything bad, so the choice being made there is completely different. Noah understands Rodin just as well as he understands this movie, which is to say not at all. Which, again, raises the question whether, in thinking that the problem with a movie about forcing teenagers to hunt on another to their deaths for the amusement of the upper class is that it might be too much fun to watch, Noah has put his finger precisely on the crux of the matter. I’m tempted to think it’s the hunting-each-other-to-the-death thing, and the upper-class-kills-lower-class-for-fun thing. Either way, though, it’s obvious that Noah has a painfully literal comprehension of everything he sees on the screen, and we have to believe either that this movie is really that dumb, or he’s not really seeing all there is to it.
That last point is pretty much what we have to believe about everything he writes. In just the last week he’s produced three short pieces in which he persists in saying that everything he sees really is just what it looks like. Sometimes he’s right (yes, Clinton was throwing a hint to Obama!); sometimes he’s wrong (no, The Hunger Games really isn’t just about the military draft). But when he’s right he has nothing to add (if it’s what it looks like, we can just look at it; nobody in the world needed Noah to point out the Obama parallel in Clinton’s book review), and when he’s wrong . . . sheesh.
But I don’t really mind. I just want The New Republic to know that, if it’s blindingly obvious literalism and a complete lack of critical insight they want, well, I’ll do my best.
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