Politics

Unwelcome Guest

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"I have been hired, temporarily, to write about the news," NPR contributor Sarah Vowell announced during her first stint last July as a guest columnist for The New York Times. Her six attempts evidently pleased her employers at the editorial page because now she is back, again temporarily, to write about the news. So far this month we have been treated to her take on the president's State of the Union speech (she is displeased) and on torture (she is confused). Along the way the following bits of coruscating wisdom have emerged: The electoral victories of Hamas in Palestine and George W. Bush in America are alike; politicians are such hypocrites; TV violence is different from the real thing; and finally, it's so fun to name-check your friends in a big important newspaper (Hi, Kate and Brent!). Either because she thinks it is funny or because she really knows no better, Vowell has made a habit of substituting solipsism for understanding, and visceral reaction for cerebral reasoning.

Vowell's qualifications for the job are limited. She has spent nearly ten years as a commentator on the radio show "This American Life," where she applies what the San Francisco Chronicle has called her "nasal and high-pitched, somewhere in the neighborhood of Bart Simpson's sister Lisa" voice to programs about popular culture and history. She has published four books of humorous essays. She is young and has appeared on "The Daily Show." She is popular. But in all these successes she has not, so far as I can detect, demonstrated a sophisticated or, for that matter, unique, grasp of current events. This did not prevent the Times from recruiting Vowell to fill the pages of, as she calls it, "the most uppity newspaper in the world."

Vowell has made her own politics perfectly clear--"I am a capital-D Democrat"--but her allegiance is to whimsy. Not humor, which might expose the ridiculous, but whimsy, which merely makes light of it. And she is a true partisan. Of deaths caused by AIDS and poverty in Africa, she indignantly notes that it's "literally the dumbest thing I've ever heard." Literally? Dumbest? Really? Even the most correct of sentiments cannot withstand expression in such juvenile terms. Other times, Vowell simply free associates her way to a theory. What does she think of the Supreme Court ruling that allowed the Texas State Capitol to display a Ten Commandments statue? Well, "[t]he other night I was flipping channels and..." I'll spare you the next two paragraphs and tell you that our intrepid columnist discovered that human nature is imperfect.

Occasionally, of course, a subject so serious comes along that Vowell buckles down and provides a rigorous piece of analysis, like this explanation of the electoral college:

Or rather, to be accurate, last Nov. 2 they chose the rich guys and party hangers-on known as the electors of the Electoral College, and on Dec. 13, those folks
elected the president.

I won't quibble with the basic facts of Vowell's civics lesson. But I wonder who she thinks her pupils are. Small children? The staff of the Daily Worker's high school edition? Or could it be the holy grail of readership, Young People? No doubt that is who Times editors hope Vowell will attract. But when the paper's own editorial board set out to explain the electoral college for grown-ups less than a year ago, it managed, quite amazingly, to forgo all mention of "rich guys" and "folks": "[W]e have a system in which the president is chosen not by the voters themselves, but by 538 electors." To be accurate.

But for Vowell, the end game is not to be accurate or insightful or even funny. It is to be outraged. All her rhetorical might goes to expressing just how unhappy she is with the current situation in American politics. Here she is again seething about the Ten Commandments decision:

I'm guessing that my fellow citizens who want government employees drinking out of taxpayer-supported Ten Commandments coffee cups and using Ten Commandments ballpoints to take While You Were Out messages on Ten Commandments notepads hope and believe that daily reminders of biblical edicts will stave off the supposedly newfangled moral decay brought on by crummy TV shows and nontraditional marriage.

And here she bemoans, nominally, the State of the Union:

For there are American citizens who used to think that there could be no greater blow for representative democracy than a president worming his way into the White House thanks to one Supreme Court vote. That is, until the day said president was actually elected to a second term by an electorate that overlooked the previous four years of galling, irrevocable policies with upbeat, intelligence-insulting slogans--"Clear Skies," anyone?--to say nothing of entering into an ugly war based on lies that has made the world a more dangerous place when it wasn't exactly all Davenport, Iowa, to begin with.

Vowell has written elsewhere that she believes "the true American patriot is by definition skeptical of the government." I agree. But she seems also to believe that her patriotism increases in proportion to her skepticism. She offers no ideas or arguments, only self-congratulatory anger. This is a terrible message to her readers: that being upset is a sufficient form of political engagement.

The only explanation I have for Vowell's disastrous Times stint is that she fundamentally misunderstands what a newspaper column is. Yes, it's a place for opinions, for anecdote, even for accusation. And, by all means, let's have personality and humor, as well. But there are some things--coherence, relevance, eloquence--that are not suitably replaced by indignation and rambling accounts of your dreams (see "A Pat on the Back," July 6, 2005). A column is not a 750 word transcription of your id. The Times might, temporarily, tell her this.

Keelin McDonell is a writer for The New Republic.

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