Annus Horribilis

12.31.13

The Year in Awful: Worst Columns of 2013

Outraged scribbling on ‘Duck Dynasty,’ Miley Cyrus, and Paula Deen are all off-limits—but a misanthrope could find plenty of horror this year from Russell Brand, Salon, and The Nation.

2013 was, to lift a phrase from Queen Elizabeth, a year I shall not look back on with undiluted pleasure. It was an annus mirabilis for the hideous (Putin, Assad, Cyrus), an annus horribilis for just about everyone else. Indeed, if the year didn’t imbue you with a deep and abiding dislike of politicians, pundits, and pop stars, then you weren’t paying attention, had long ago determined that they were all loathsome anyway, or just might consider lowering your Klonopin dosage.

You see, the problem with the 24-hour news cycle is that one must fill it with news, a word with ever more definitional elasticity. So when tallying the worst writing of 2013, let us declare off-limits all that outraged scribbling about Paula Deen’s downfall, the god- and gay sex-fearing Duck Dynasty clan, the repulsive yet brilliantly named Sydney Leathers, and the spastic gyrations of Miley Cyrus’s hips (which, to satiate the pageview gods, has been analyzed with Zapruder film-like attention to detail and variously determined to be sexy, sexist, racist, or pathetic).

With blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and all the other platforms I have forgotten about, we were promised a great democratization of media, a Gutenberg press in the hands of everyone who could muster an opinion about anything. And the media has been democratized (please spare me the heavy breathing about the sinister Koch brothers, Murdoch, Buffett, Bezos, Omidyar, and Soros), which has brought us more entry-level journalists, more stupid journalism, and a permanent public record of every half-witted brainwave from every impulsive Twitter user. 

So when asked to suggest some of 2013’s journalistic highlights, I came up with a depressingly thin list. But I could talk for days about all the dreadful columns, stupid pundit effusions, and reckless tweets. And allow me a few caveats: I realize that might say more about my misanthropy and poor choice of reading material than the poverty of our intellectual culture. And yes, I surely have written a few stupid columns myself, by what’s the fun in looking back at one’s own errors?

Instead, I watched in wonderment as serious magazines and newspapers hung on every revolutionary word of actor and self-appointed pundit Russell Brand, who in 2013 decided he was the monster who has turned on his creator, attacking capitalism, celebrity culture, and corporate control of the media (while skillfully not rejecting the lucrative paydays they provide).

There he was on CNN, mumbling something about the NSA, contributing clotted and overstuffed columns to serious journals of left-leaning opinion such as The Guardian and The New Statesman—which he “guest edited” recently—and finishing it all off with a lovey-dovey appearance on The Alex Jones Show. Need I point out that all the attention  isn’t because Brand is an original, or even coherent, thinker, but because he is...Russell Brand?

Try, if you will, to digest these paragraphs from a recent Brand column on the supposedly corrupt British parliamentary system, surely a contender for the worst column ever published in a mainstream newspaper:

“That politics is bereft of altruists, philanthropists and idealists but instead throbs and bristles with stunted show-offs, who, granted flatter abs and cuter noses, would be jiving and caterwauling on Britain’s Got Talent or staring with glum vacuity down the barrel of a camera in a mock corridor in Holby City.”

I suspect someone bought Brand a thesaurus for Christmas.

“This pith squirt stings because we want our politicians to be motivated by high ideals and compassion and not to secretly seethe every time Harry Styles impeccably saunters through the public mind with hair that gently binds his scalp to the heavens and mankind to the angels.”

It’s a perfect distillation of online commentary at the close of 2013: a writer being an asshole on Twitter, then coming to his senses and deciding instead to be reflective and insufferable in column form.

Is Harry Styles impeccably sauntering through your mind, too?

Brand later informs readers, those drooling sheeple conditioned by corporations, that the British Parliament “is a deeply encoded temple of hegemonic power.” What any of it means is anyone’s guess. But we expect this type of thing from those made fabulously wealthy (and guilty) by Hollywood, and it’s terribly gauche, after all, to be moneyed, cultured, and not call for a revolution against “the system,” as Brand repeatedly has.

While Brand takes the top spot for Awful Column of the Year, honorary mention must collectively go to the once-interesting Salon.com, which now reads like the Evergreen College student newspaper. At a loss for what to write about? How about undergraduate analyses of popular culture through the prism of race, class, and gender? Is Breaking Bad sending coded messages of white supremacism? Is liberal comedian Patton Oswalt a racist? How about a helpful analysis of The Legend of Zelda, a video game celebrating its 15th anniversary, which concludes that “the ways it deals with class, race, gender and animal rights are all deeply problematic.” (The same writer followed up with an apparently serious column on the best “video game for vegans”).

Also deserving of mention: the sensitive chap who made a rather unfortunate comment on Twitter, calling writer Olivia Nuzzi a “social-climbing mercenary hobag.” His subsequent horror at his own insensitivity, of course, provided fodder for a column! On the environmentalist website Grist.com, he offered an effusive apology, which no one demanded because no one noticed the initial offense: “Looking back on it with a few hours’ perspective, this is a classic outbreak of White Dude Privilege Syndrome. Let’s walk through it and see what we can learn from it.” How about we don’t. This is, somehow, a perfect distillation of online commentary at the close of 2013: a writer being an asshole—possibly a sexist asshole—on Twitter, followed by the same writer coming to his senses and deciding instead to be reflective and insufferable in column form.

If I can be allowed an award for the most clueless and obvious commentary of 2013, the prize would surely go to this impossibly stupid column on CNN.com opposing the legalization of marijuana: “Why are some of the people who petition for legalizing marijuana so passionate about it? Because when you smoke pot, you get loaded. You fry your brain. That’s why the patients I see in my treatment center call it ‘getting baked.’ Pot is all about getting really high.”

And let us not forget this confused piece of moralizing from David Simon, creator of The Wire, who deemed Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations a “faux-scandal” and dismissed “the Guardian and those who are wailing jeremiads about this pretend-discovery of U.S. big data collection...” Or Pat Buchanan celebrating the conservatism of Vladimir Putin. Or the New York magazine story suggesting that a depressed Brooklyn restaurateur swimming in debt might have committed suicide in response to the gentrification of his neighborhood. Or the Nation magazine writer who claimed that “the biggest problem Venezuela faced during his rule was not that [Hugo] Chávez was authoritarian but that he wasn’t authoritarian enough.”

And on and on. But shall we end this parade of intellectual atrocities on a positive note? The Australian literary critic Clive James, who is shamefully almost unknown in the United States, is suffering from leukemia and emphysema but still manages to produce coruscating reviews like his brutal attack on Dan “Da Vinci” Brown’s novel Inferno. A sampling: “Generally [Brown] believes that a short paragraph will add pace, just as he believes that an ellipsis will add thoughtfulness. Groups of three dots appear in innumerable places, giving the impression that the narrative…has measles.” Or: “Your enjoyment will eventually depend on how much you, in your role as a symbologist, can revel in the task of decoding the text to lay bare the full extent to which the author can’t write.” As they say, read the whole thing.

Let’s hope James survives another year, so I can leaven the 2014 Awful Writing awards with a bit of wit, humor, and good writing.