It is an open question whether history will some day record that a website named Gawker published a “long” essay by a writer named Tom Scocca on the topic of snark and smarm. The essay struck enough of a nerve in the right circle that, at the instant I am writing these words, there are tweets on the Internet explaining that the word smarm has just been trending on Twitter in Brooklyn.
Assuming we all know what snark is, smarm, Scocca explains, is a sort of pious secular jihad against snark—all moralizing sincerity, a type of performance art in which whatever is not uplifting and “positive” is scolded as a hit on us all. It’s like the cult of self-esteem, if “self” referred not to you or to me but to the real subject, the human race.
To be sure, snark and smarm are real, and gross enough. Not until his final lines, however, does Scocca venture a guess as to the root causes of the grotesquerie: “the fear that keeps the smarmers tossing on their bullshit-stuffed mattresses on the beds of bullshit they would have us all sleep in—is this: We are exactly the same size as you are. Everybody is.”
Equality, the great menace! To be bad is to be afraid of equality: Behind all the sloganeering and slang, that is the truth of the age.
Yet we fear to pursue this thought to its humbling conclusion. Even if we differ on who counts for us as rubes, we love to hate ‘em. The old-school way of hating rubes asks us to berate them into giving up their identity out of shame and disgust. Liberals hammer away at “privileged whites.” Conservatives belittle “the underclass.”
Now, the ethos of the Internet offers a new way to define rubes: as the people we ought to ignore. So BuzzFeed, in an act not lost on Scocca, chooses to end negative book reviews—no conflict necessary, and no effort at conversion either. “I do not want to wage war against what is ugly,” wrote Nietzsche. “I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer. ” Next time you watch a Yeasayer video on YouTube, consider: the Internet offers us Nietzsche for the people.
But Nietzsche understood resentment is a powerful, dangerous counterforce to any positivity police. In ignoring the rubes, our semiotic elite thinks they can eradicate the rubes’ swelling resentment, too. By all means, give up on fighting rubes into submission. But we’re in big trouble when we give up the dream of converting people through powerful, surprising conversations. Once lost, more social unrest, more hatred follows—not less.
Truth be told, the hope of destroying the rubes by ignoring them vainly ignores the most inescapable fact of our lives. Every day we are all super aware of just how equal we all are, and how more equal we are becoming. That is why income inequality is an obsession. In an age defined by equality, where the growing equality of conditions is an inexorable force in virtually every area of life, the idea that one important area of life might be anything other than openly hostile to equality drives us crazy.
When we’re all equal, obscurity feels like a death sentence.
You might object that economic inequality means growing equality elsewhere is a fantasy. But the evidence is all around us: whenever people become rich and famous, our instinct—our justified instinct!—is to think first: You’re just a person like me. You got where you got because of luck or privilege or the “right friends.” At another moment, in another place, you’d be where I am—or worse.
“Genius is perhaps not really so rare,” Nietzsche also wrote, “but the five hundred hands needed to tyrannize the kairos, ‘the right time,’ to seize chance by the forelock!”
It’s to be expected that many people want to blame this problem, so frustratingly beyond good and evil, on capitalism. But as Nietzsche knew, it’s a problem of being human—exacerbated by equality, which sets up invisible barriers to our advancement wherever we turn. (Doubt me? How’s the Internet doing as a tool of upward mobility?)
We’re not afraid of equality. We know we’re stuck with it.
What we do fear are the costs of equality. And our sense of which ones are unbearable is dictated by who we think we are.
The proof is right at the heart of Scocca’s essay. He notes that his insight into the rancid world of smarm emerged from a Twitter dispute “with an award-winning magazine journalist. This writer, a specialist in features and celebrity profiles, had published online a piece of advice to young writers, urging them to seek out as their subjects the obscure and unknown.”
And there it is. For a certain kind of smart person, the obscure must always be someone else. That kind of smart person cannot countenance the idea of obscurity as a fate. Or a choice.
But neither can an ambitious person of any kind. And as Rousseau told us long ago, equality breeds comparison, and comparison breeds competition. It’s not that we’re all turning snarky or smarmy. It’s that we’re all in a panic to escape obscurity.
When we’re all equal, obscurity feels like a death sentence. Obscurity seems to guarantee that our talents, our efforts, our lives, will be in some final way wasted. And not wasted the way geniuses or young people or any others blessed by nature waste things—generously, thoughtlessly, with a good conscience. Squandered no matter how hard we try, how mightily we labor for special attention.
We’re afraid of disappearing, and not just in an economic sense. So we furiously, continuously signal to ourselves and others that we aren’t even at risk of obscurity. After all, if we were really in danger of dropping into oblivion, we wouldn’t spend our precious time in endless online language games. We’d be off the radar somewhere, heads down, working. Casting our gaze at something that would really earn us a reputation—not casting our gaze at those around us.
Almost. If only it were that simple. There’s obscurity and then there’s obscurity, and the kind of obscurity feared by our peddlers of snark and smarm is, by and large, a lifestyle that occurs to lots of people outside the media as a perfectly ordinary life in the decent sense, one for which there’s lots to be grateful.
What our snarky, smarmy voices fear most is having to risk their identity on the prospect of living that life. That’s not me. A sensation with as long and proud a pedigree as Julien Sorel, the tormented, obscure egomaniac of Stendhal’s classic The Red and The Black. That’s not me—it can’t be!
Oh, but it can be. And in a world where so very little—from religion to philosophy—has effectively penetrated the emotional armor of the ambitious person who thinks they really are a beautiful and unique snowflake, that’s a lesson that’s going to hurt a lot more than even the snidest tweet or most scolding TED talks.