Yeah, you remember. Anyway, here’s what I thought about it last week.
Actually, wait: what’s below is pretty long, and thus probably needs some contextualizing. I have contributed a couple pieces to the website Paul Shirley started, and which he then just about blew up last week with his spectacularly ill-tempered, ill-informed, ill-advised and generally illness-inducing Haiti-needs-to-get-bootstrappin’ rant.
Obviously the whole deal was kind of a bummer for me — I found out that his piece existed when everyone who has contributed to the site was CC’ed on a “hey, fuck right off” email from a, uh, concerned reader, and have received emails from people I know since then wondering what I was doing anywhere near something like this. I wrote a (predictably lengthy) critique/contextualization of Paul’s piece for the site, which he opted not to run, since he would like (oh, how he would like) to move on and see the story blow over. Which it kind of has, although Deadspin had a post this morning sifting through his old ESPN music stuff for telltale traces of dickery. I don’t know whether I’ll write for his site again, but considering that my name was right there alongside his hatefuck opus, I felt like I should probably respond someplace. You know, to address my imaginary public.
So, then: GC has okayed me posting my long and only tenuously relevant take on Big Shirl’s fearlessly critical anti-analysis of our hemisphere’s unluckiest nation. Here it is, and thanks to GC for letting me drop the word-bomb.
Poor Microsoft Word “ crash-prone, counterintuitive, unloved in its ubiquity, and the last to know when new words enter the language. When I type the word “contrarian,” MS Word helpfully underlines it in red. This is its way of telling me that I have just used a word that is not a word “ I get the same thing when I write “berrylicious,” for instance. And yet just because it’s not in MS Word doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist “ “compassionate libertarianism” and “groundbreaking romantic comedy” aren’t underlined, for instance, and yet both are strictly as notional as a Yeti-led illuminati that meets in Atlantis. Trust this: as surely as certain types of Skittle are indeed berrylicious, contrarian is a word and an actual existing thing. You even know what it means. Or you know it when you see it, at least. It’s all around you.
There are legitimately contrarian people active in our world as well, and doubtless you’re able to identify them as well. They’re the people at the party arguing the badness of something good or the goodness of something bad at someone’s departing back. There are a great many impolite, non-MS-Word-sanctioned names for this particular person, but contrarian is one that limits its critique to that person’s argumentative technique, and which is useful to us here. The idea is this: you take a position that’s in conflict with what’s generally believed to be so “ the more glaring and seemingly inarguable the conflict the better “ and you argue it.
Will you win this argument? That depends, really, but it’s kind of beside the point: contemporary contrarianism is less about the argument than the arguing. At an abstract level, it’s easy enough to defend this: it can be bracing and helpful to have expectations challenged, and the more thoroughly received the bit of perceived wisdom, the more it could stand a good windmill-tilt. I’m not necessarily making that defense myself “ I am, in fact, preparing to do the opposite “ but, sure, I see it. And anyway, contrarianism circa now is less about challenging conventional wisdom than it is about contrarianism itself. That is, it’s mostly about its own cheap heat. And therefore, fundamentally, about nothing much at all, defensible or otherwise.
At the websites-trying-to-make-money level, the click-through is the thing “ this is as true at loathsome n’ useless hit-beggars as it is at your more respectably contrarian venues (including some that I’ve written for myself), although you’ll generally find more than Drudge-baiting scandal-manufacture/outrage-fuel at your Slates and New Republics. It, by which I sadly mean just about everything we do, is finally a business, so, sure, there’s some calculation in play every time someone sits down to write. And pissing you off is indeed a way to hold your interest. It’s a matter of degrees, but that calculation itself is not as cynical or as irritating as the 300-pages-of-jabs-to-the-ribs school of contrarianism you see in, say, Freakonomics. There, we get Very Provocative Theses of an uninformed (but very well educated) guy concerning how global warming maybe doesn’t exist and anyway could be stopped by a miracle invention because capitalism is magic “ for actual example “ made by someone who knows nothing of what he writes, and argues solely from a place of abstracted self-amusement. The challenge is the thing; the argument, the actual mustering of something beyond build-to-suit anecdotes, is secondary, if it’s there at all. There is nothing inherently wrong with an intellectual provocation. But there is something wrong “ something empty, childish, poor “ with doing it just for yuks, or out of some aggrieved boredom or idle ill-informed cruelty or simple wish to argue for arguing’s sake. Which is a long way of bringing me to Paul’s piece about Haiti.
Paul’s piece was obviously provocative, and a look at the number of comments it has drawn “ 585 as I write this “ would suggest that it succeeded in a certain sense. It got people talking, or typing; made them mad or (ugh) amused them. And yet success on those terms does not “ in this case and in general “ preclude what is otherwise a stunning and hugely objectionable larger failure. I like Paul, as a person and as a writer, and I can tell you that he’s not an ideologue and certainly not an idiot. But his piece is really one of the nastiest and most vacant and ungenerous pieces of writing I’ve ever read by someone whose work I enjoy. It’s on him to explain himself, if he wants to do so, or to apologize or not apologize “ I’ll say that I found the piece embarrassing and embarrassingly wrongheaded, personally. But it’s not without precedent.
The worst type of contrarianism “ the contrarianism-of-self-amusement, which is basically a provocation for provocation’s sake, an argument beamed directly from an internal wish that everyone would just stop being so stupid — is all over Paul’s piece, but it’s to be found most clearly right there up top, in the “maybe I’m naughty for even writing this” disclaimer. It’s a sign that what follows isn’t going to be up to the seriousness of the task. If you want to argue that Haiti is not a good investment, I guess you can do so “ David Brooks did it in the New York Times, and Anne Appelbaum did it at Slate “ but it’s not a coincidence that the two people between those em-dashes are kind of assholes. It’s a callous argument, and one that overlooks a whole world of bloody and very real context about Haiti itself, a nation that was born in debt (and which eventually paid off the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars to France, the nation from which it won independence in a national slave revolt) and which has suffered at the hands of a litany of meddling global powers ever since. But it’s an argument you could make, I suppose.
Let’s leave aside the moral ugliness of ignoring the human facts of Haiti’s ruin “ its status as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (as Paul mentions) is a reflection of a morass of moral and political problems, but it’s also a provocation in its own right. As with New Orleans post-Katrina, Haiti’s circumstances stare America’s fat middle right in the face, demanding a childish culture take a break from trying to figure out what plasma TV would look best on the wall in the bathroom to consider the astonishing fact of extreme poverty’s simultaneous nearness and distance to us here. It is not a rhetorical problem or an abstract thing; it’s a real-life actual-existing problem. The ruin of Haiti, the total system failure that was on display there even before the ground moved beneath it, exists in a different universe than the isn’t-that-interesting whimsy of Freakonomics-style devil’s advocacy.
But Paul’s piece isn’t a sports-media what-if orgy “ call them “rosterbations:” those speculative reorderings of a team’s roster through a series of improbable trades and free agent signings, with a big dumb QED on top, that run through the way sports gets talked about online. Paul’s not suggesting ways in which Haiti could lift itself, up, up, up, until it looks (as Brooks half-argues) like Barbados. Paul’s piece reads even nastier and pettier and dumber than that. It reads like he’s annoyed at Haiti for being so incredibly abject. I can’t imagine he really thinks this, but it’s difficult to draw any conclusion after reading the piece.
If the essay is not quite a suggestion that Haiti take a good long look at itself and figure out how or why it got hit by an earthquake that buried 150,000 people alive, it’s not nearly far enough from that to be in a comfortable moral place. It’s not worth going point-by-point on Paul’s essay, which is both terribly callous and not terribly well thought-out. The grisly gist of it, though, is a sort of half-assed crypto-libertarian critique in which Haiti’s failures are Haiti’s fault alone “ which is just ignorant “ and thus render the outpouring of global money and sympathy somehow co-dependent, the sort of thing that just encourages nations to get as abject as possible. As if the money we donated was arriving on shrink-wrapped pallets and then being distributed to Haiti’s people in great fistfuls destined to be spent on foie gras and blu-ray players. And as if there was no broader moral consideration here at all.
So, I’m scolding, now. (This, incidentally, is another thing that bugs me about contrarianism “ its facile rhetorical bravery moves put people defending actual facts in the role of Prof. Nannystate Soy-Latte, leaving the person arguing the Multifariously Untenable Position TBD in the heroic Rugged Individualist position) And Paul’s piece is so self-evidently unserious and obviously under-reasoned that, again, it’s not really worth running down everything that’s objectionable about it. But while it’s an individual failure on his part “ and on the part of whichever Flip Collective member edited the piece without telling him to spike the fucking thing or start over “ it’s also part of a broader failure of seriousness in the discourse. I suppose the stars-and-sentimentalism of a telethon fits into that failure “ that’s an emotional appeal, too “ but if both come from a recognizably human place, at least telethon sentimentality reflects the human attributes we’re pleased to see surface in ourselves.
Contrarianism, finally, is about play, both on the part of the writers who construct their mock arguments and the readers so apparently eager to consume those empty intellectual calories. Paul’s failure to consider the earthquake’s repercussions in any morally or intellectually serious way reflects this fundamental unseriousness in all its ugliness. If we’re so hard up to feel something like interest in anything that we need some joker to provoke us with some bullshit riffs about how it maybe isn’t the way it seems, then the realities under the surface noise of the discourse just aren’t hitting home for the writer or the reader. Contrarian arguments “ or the basic contrarianism-for-contrarianism’s-sake, the in-your-face stuff which is the dominant contrarian mode at present, and the category in which Paul’s piece best belongs “ do not really challenge intellectual complacency so much as they flatter it. In their bloodless, self-amused abstraction, these arguments challenge readers with the prospect that the way you feel about The Thing may not be superior to this other way to feel. They do not, however, suggest or demand or reflect any serious thought about The Thing itself. Which is to say that they’re not really challenging at all, and actually quite easily and quite reasonably dismissed.