Tuesday, July 16, 2013

No Country for Old Men

The Washington Post's Richard Cohen is the personification of the pompous windbag cliché. He always has been. And has he's gotten old, it's only gotten worse.

There was once a time when puffed-up jackasses like him strode across the media landscape like kings of the jungle, and to be honest it's difficult to describe to anyone below a certain age just how tedious this era was in journalism. But changing times and cultural shifts have taken a toll on the Richard Cohens of the world and now all you really hear from them is the forlorn cries off in the distance as they face down inevitable extinction. Sure, guys like Cohen, and Friedman, and Brooks still have jobs, but they're not the exalted voices from on-high they once were. The smart ones don't complain about it; they simply keep on keeping on, perfectly content in their gargantuan sense of self-importance and their continued big paychecks.

But Cohen can't do that. He needs the adulation of the masses. He needs things to be the way they were in the good old days, before independent women and a cultural distaste for people who believe that all black men should immediately be viewed as suspicious made things so confusing. That was the time when people actually cared what kind of wisdom an Interesting Man like Richard Cohen had to impart to the world. It's almost enough to make you cry.

Except that it shouldn't. Not ever. Because it's important to keep in mind that Richard Cohen is an asshole. A monumental asshole.

Only a monumental asshole could write an entire column on how it's not racism but "reality" to profile young black men immediately following the acquittal of the guy who profiled and ultimately killed Trayvon Martin. Only a monumental asshole would actually try to argue that it makes perfect sense that Zimmerman automatically assumed Martin was a threat just by the color of his skin and the clothes he wore.

Only a monumental asshole can write something like this:

"Where is the politician who will own up to the painful complexity of the problem and acknowledge the widespread fear of crime committed by young black males? This does not mean that raw racism has disappeared, and some judgments are not the product of invidious stereotyping. It does mean, though, that the public knows young black males commit a disproportionate amount of crime. In New York City, blacks make up a quarter of the population, yet they represent 78 percent of all shooting suspects — almost all of them young men. We know them from the nightly news...

There’s no doubt in my mind that Zimmerman profiled Martin and, braced by a gun, set off in quest of heroism. The result was a quintessentially American tragedy — the death of a young man understandably suspected because he was black and tragically dead for the same reason."

Richard Cohen is indeed a monumental asshole.

The Washington Post: "Racism vs. Reality" by Richard Cohen/7.16.13

In November of last year, I wrote a piece for Banter pegged off of something else shockingly ridiculous that Richard Cohen had written.

"The White Guy of a Certain Age's Lament" (Originally Published at the Daily Banter, 11.28.12)

I'm sure you probably already know this, but it's a really tough time to be a white guy of a certain age right now. Everything's just so upside-down and nothing's how it used to be, with white guys of a certain age lumbering across the face of the earth like mighty dinosaurs, perfectly, languorously content in their dominion over all creatures. There was the re-election of the weirdly named multi-cultural black man Barack Obama -- along with the denial of the whitest, most of-a-certain-age man alive, Mitt Romney -- and its heralding of the demographic shift that's wresting power from their hands and giving to welfare queens and leaf-blowers. At the same time, there was the backlash against the attempt by a popular and official collective of über-white men -- the GOP -- to restrict the reproductive freedom of women on the grounds that not having proper babies from white guys of a certain age constitutes indefensible promiscuity anyway.

But that's politics. The real battlefield for white guys of a certain age these days seems to be pop culture, which is telling them that they can't just "show up" and still be the subject of adoration, as they once were, while simultaneously reminding them at every turn that the various peoples of the globe have other interests besides their lengthy, fascinating tales of their own heroic exploits that involve the experience of just being white guys of a certain age.

Over the past 48-hours, we've been treated to two comically embarrassing screeds lamenting the changing face of American and world culture into one that devalues the traditional merits and interests of the white guy of a certain age. One is self-pitying and personally revelatory in ways I'm not sure the author fully intended; the other is bitter, pissy and amusingly detached from the times in a way that only a man who shouts at kids to get off his lawn can find civil.

The latter, of course, involves Bill O'Reilly, the recently self-knighted harbinger of doom for white-guys-of-a-certain-age culture and the official miserable, racist uncle to all of America. Last night, on his regular prime-time complaint box on Fox News, O'Reilly and hack shrink Keith Ablow attempted to dissect the immense popularity of Psy's Gangnam Style, which recently surpassed Baby, from the harmless and infinitely less confusing Justin Bieber, as YouTube's most-watched video ever and is on track to having over a billion hits. O'Reilly, as you might imagine, can't fathom the popularity of Gangnam Style, which he describes as "a little fat guy from Pyongyang or someplace... doing the pony."

His and Ablow's debate over the clip and desperate attempt to understand the viral phenomenon that's sprung from it -- which lasted more than five minutes -- truly has to be seen to be fully appreciated. Ablow decides to go all Kierkegaardian nihilism, saying that the song literally means and affirms nothing, which is why it's the perfect mirror for our current culture; he even argues that Psy is uttering gibberish instead of "intelligible words," which he believes confirms his theory. That the lyrics of the song are in Korean never even comes close to popping the provincial bubble Ablow, O'Reilly and Fox News's audience exist inside of; I guess they figure that if something is huge internationally it has to have come from America. Haven't those Asians heard how exceptional we are? Don't they watch The O'Reilly Factor? For his part, O'Reilly simply dismisses the whole thing as madness.

For the record, I couldn't care less about Psy or Gangnam Style -- like most internet fads, it's annoying as hell -- but I can appreciate that it was written by someone whose experience isn't mine and who was attempting to satirize a place I didn't even know existed and a lifestyle I've never seen for myself. K-Pop isn't my thing and neither is the often peculiar Asian appropriation of hip-hop, but I'd never argue that the song is about nothing just because I don't understand it. I'm also not an asshole to the nearly unsurpassable extent that O'Reilly and Ablow are.

But if you thought those two could turn a pop culture phenomenon into a full-on existential crisis, you haven't read Richard Cohen's recent and instantly legendary elegy to his fading place as an object of feminine desire. I wouldn't be surprised if Cohen really believed he was simply examining the changing face of masculinity during his write-up of the new James Bond movie in Monday's Washington Post, but let's be honest: He was lamenting the fact that he, 71-year-old Richard Cohen, can't score 20-something pussy anymore. In the column, Cohen mourns the death of what he calls the "sexual meritocracy" of years past, when guys like Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart could nail women much younger than themselves by virtue of little more than their "experience and savoir-faire" and their ability to, preposterously, "send out a suit for swift hotel cleaning." He compares these qualities, ones you can easily imagine him ascribing to himself, to those Daniel Craig displays in Skyfall. The result is a piece of intellectual resentment almost impossible to truly describe without hearing the voice of Family Guy's "Buzz Killington" in your head.

"Nothing about him looks natural, relaxed -- a man in the prime of his life and enjoying it. Instead, I see a man chasing youth on a treadmill, performing sets and reps, a clean and press, a weighted knee raise, an incline pushup and, finally, something called an incline pec fly (don't ask) ... Every rippling muscle is a book not read, a movie not seen or a conversation not held."

While I'm sure you can sympathize with the ways in which Daniel Craig is crushing Richard Cohen's self-esteem and taking all the women who would otherwise be gushing over his droll tales of hours spent painstakingly crafting didactic, faux-erudite columns for The Washington Post, it's ludicrous to make the assumption that because someone is physically fit, that person must be neglecting other parts of him or herself -- as if bettering your mind and body is a zero-sum game. It's basically Cohen bemoaning his loss of entitlement and being petty, jealous and essentially the real-life equivalent of William H. Macy's Quiz Kid Donnie character in Magnolia, sitting at the end of the bar pondering aloud why nobody wants to be with him anymore. On the plus side, he couldn't have written a column that's stronger catnip for the girls over at Jezebel if he'd tried.

Years ago, the late William F. Buckley wrote a series of novels about a character with the hilariously improbable name Blackford Oakes. Oakes is a rakish CIA agent and man of mystery who travels the globe foiling cold war-era plots and sleeping with beautiful women, despite having a pretty little liberal-arts lady back home in the land of the free who cares for him dearly but whom he must constantly condescend to lovingly and lecture about the true nature of the world. He's sexy, lethal, Ivy League-educated, and always a gentleman. In other words, he's exactly how a pompous bore like William F. Buckley imagined himself; he's Buckley's alter-egomaniac. Buckley's bombastically high opinion of himself didn't manifest in self-pitying public requiems, as Cohen's did -- it was turned into really crappy dime-store spy novels. Cohen should take up fiction. It would be less humiliating to him.

It's worth mentioning that both O'Reilly and Cohen have been accused in the past of inappropriate sexual conduct with women much younger than them. O'Reilly's target, infamously, was producer Andrea Mackris, whom he offered to "falafel" in the shower because she supposedly had "nice boobs"; Cohen's was a 23-year-old editorial aide named Devon Spurgeon (he also had an affair with Peter Jennings's wife back in the late 80s). See, there was a time when white guys of a certain age like them, as lords of the sexual meritocracy, could expect to exert their privilege and not only get away with it but have women fall willingly and effortlessly into their powerful, interesting arms. All they had to do was show up. They were the kings of all they surveyed and everything went their way and made complete sense to them at all times.

Those days, though, may be coming to an end.

We now live in a changing world, one where a pudgy Korean guy can be an American and global phenomenon and James Bond isn't just the coolest man in the world, he's also one of the hottest.

Yes, it's a tough time for white guys of a certain age. The good news is that they'll grow out of it. And besides, white guys still have it pretty great all the way around. Just ask anyone else.


Michael said...

Beautiful. Can't imagine how I missed the original version of the second part of the story.

Donal said...

I remember one decent Cohen column, three decades ago, called Contradiction Man, but he sounded awfully foolish in a piece reacting to Meg Ryan's faux orgasm in When Harry Met Sally. He seemed very offended that women might be faking it. Wrote a non-apologetic apology as I recall.

ntx said...

Because, of course, black-on-black violence in New York is exactly like white-on-black murder in the suburbs of Orlando.