THE BLOG
10/10/2012 06:50 pm ET Updated Dec 10, 2012

The United States of Snarkiness

Our writing has degenerated. We are crass without being creative.

When I was young, I knew the New Yorker was a sophisticated periodical. As much as I aspired to have the patience to read John McPhee's renowned 10,000 word articles on plate tectonics, continental drift and rocks in that magazine, I really wished I could comprehend the cartoons on its pages.

I felt I was grown up when I began to chuckle at New Yorker cartoons. The scribbles were cool, understated, knowing.

Yet over time I have wondered whether I have set the right standard.

I have always enjoyed the movie reviews in the New Yorker. The late Pauline Kael was an original. Her writing allowed a viewer turned reader to reflect on the show even if he hadn't seen it yet. Her writing about the 1967 release Bonnie and Clyde or the oeuvre of George Lucas -- she liked the former as much as she disliked the latter -- was entertaining as well as informative.

But when I look at the cinema section now (or the quick descriptions of restaurants or even news items at the front), I see that the dominant characteristic is varying degrees of snarky. The author's point seems at least in part to demonstrate his own superiority to the director's artistry (or substitute chef or politician -- perhaps as to the last group, the author is justified).

We are meant to understand that the critic is better than the creator. Or more clever anyway.

Oh, I do read it. However, I doubt I would re-read it.

The same is true with the high-brow Economist. Too show-iffy: the turn of phrase for its own sake, as if it had been written by undergraduate debate champions.

It's even worse on the internet. The general tone of most blogs seems to be ironic at best and sarcastic at worst. The emotional range is limited.

That isn't even taking into account the anonymous postings to discussion sections. The term ad hominem hardly captures their quality. Most comments aspire to be personal attacks.

I say this as a fan who applauds the snarky, ironic and sarcastic -- well, and as a blogger myself. The problem is if everything is contemptuous and nothing is sincere or serious, the message becomes monotonous.

The power of invective lies in its rarity and quality. Oscar Wilde quips work because the rest of us aren't him. We shouldn't bother to try. We instead ought to remember the importance of being earnest.

In the 1987 movie Roxanne, a riff on Cyrano de Bergerac, starring Steve Martin and Darryl Hannah, there's a scene that shows why amateurs shouldn't hazard the insult. The protagonist, played by Martin, has the same anatomical problem as Cyrano: an outrageous nose (he cannot have surgery because he's allergic to anesthesia). Early in the comedy, two wannabe tough guys at the local bar start to ridicule Martin's proboscis. Rather than become defensive, he shows how inept they are by taunting himself much more effectively.

When a kid on the street does karate moves to me, howling and hissing, pulling back his eyes in a slant, and chanting "ching chong" something or the other, I am offended -- as someone with a sense of humor, not as an Asian American. I want to say, "Geez, if you're going to 'dis me, at least get some new material. I've seen this a hundred times before. You're not even good at it."

Yet calls for civility in public discourse seem to romanticize the past. I like to read history. I enjoy everything about the Founding Fathers.

They were about as rude to one another as possible in their pamphlets, but they were smart. Before and after the American Revolution, the political was personal with a vengeance. Libels led to duels.

Presidential candidate Thomas Jefferson was vilified for his relationship with his slave and lover, Sally Hemmings. The terms that were used are troubling not only for what they reveal about racial attitudes of the era, but also for the truth that has been confirmed since. (It turns out, as verified by genetic testing of their descendants, that Jefferson and Hemmings had children together. He held them in bondage though in a favored status.)

The difference between then and now is they argued about actual principles. Our concerns seem to be whether as consumers our cravings are satisfied or if as an audience we are being entertained sufficiently.

The other crucial distinction is that civic leaders in fact had relationships with one another. Jefferson and John Adams competed with one another in vicious terms until they became friends through their lifelong correspondence, to the point of dying on the same fateful day.

So I look at the calls imploring better behavior on the web with a sense of futility. I doubt we actually aspire to the niceness forced by etiquette, or that it is possible to achieve by admonition. To the contrary, we are struggling to create a genuine feeling of community as best as we can. We have managed only half of what the Revolutionary cohort created: we have the contentious spirit without the communal goodwill.