My wife went to a yoga class in Dutchess County the other day and came back with an idea. The teacher was an actor from L.A. who liked to hold forth on the dangers of coffee to the “internal organs,” and had ambitious schemes about the yoga positions he’d teach the local yokels. My wife suffered all this for three weeks till the teacher was leading the class in headstands. She asked him, “Since when are headstands in the primary series?” The teacher strutted over to her mat, and they had a discussion of various schools’ primary series. Then he patted her on the shoulder: “Rebel.”
It wasn’t the first time someone had said this sort of thing to my wife, but it left her unsettled. On the drive home she thought that the entire universe–or our universe of the privileged and cultured, anyway–could now be divided into two great camps. You were either a suckup or a fuckup. She was forever a fuckup, penalized for opening her mouth, doomed to underachieve.
Of course there have always been suckups and fuckups. Long before my wife discovered this divide, Jane Austen and Highlights magazine did, with Sense and Sensibility and Goofus and Gallant. What’s new is how sharp this break is. In Sense and Sensibility , Elinor is the sensible sister noted for her “coolness of judgment,” and Marianne is the romantic sister who gives herself over to her grief.
Marianne, who was sensitive, made out all right in the end. But in the new climate of everyone being a freelancer, of giant media corporations, of political correctness and good times, good times, good times, it seems like all the white marbles have rolled to one side of the box and all the black ones to the other side.
As Miramax did last year with Shakespeare in Love , and Dreamworks did this year with American Beauty , sucking up has never been so vital to moviemaking. There was something sad about the fact that Alan Ball, the American Beauty screenwriter, couldn’t just put his dark vision out into the world. Instead, he was compelled by Dreamworks to put on a fake smile in the weeks leading up to the Oscar vote.
“I took him up [to a Santa Barbara festival] the night before to go to the tribute, got him seated in the front with all the board members, then took him to a private dinner [for Anthony Hopkins] at Citronella, where for two hours it was, ‘This is Alan Ball from American Beauty ,'” publicist Bruce Feldman told the Los Angeles Times , estimating that 30 to 40 academy voters reside in Santa Barbara. “Look, if you show up at a dinner, it doesn’t make anybody vote for the guy. But it’s human nature to be influenced by personal contact. We figured five, 10 or 25 votes could make a difference. Who’s to say that it wouldn’t?”
There was something equally sad about the judgmental response in the media the night of Super Tuesday, after John McCain flared, “Please get out of here,” to MSNBC correspondent Maria Shriver after she asked him an inane question. Aren’t people allowed to be unpleasant now and then? Even to a celebrity? Sadder still was the nodding acceptance when Major League Baseball ordered Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker to undergo psychological treatment for his outburst about the No. 7 train. Yes, Mr. Rocker’s comments were corrosive, even offensive. But some of his statements were also amusing, and in mandating tolerance, the cultural establishment seemed to have lost its own sense of tolerance, its respect for the dissatisfied mind with its crotchets and prejudices.
The division had worked its way down into the language. You could always tell a suckup from the line, “Sure, you can use my name with So-and-so’s.” But fuckups elicited a different cliché, a polite way of telling them to shut up: “I don’t know if you want to go there.”
My wife’s idea settled over me like a black cloud.
Partly it was trying to figure out which side of the divide I fell on. I scored high on the suckup scale. I’d gone to Harvard (10 points for Princeton, 8 points for Harvard, 7 for Stanford and Brown, 6 for Yale, 2 for Penn, my wife’s alma mater, and 0 for SUNY Stonybrook). I’d never smoked, didn’t have a chemical problem. I knew how to do a hustler’s lunch, had done some fawning to powerful editors in my time. But I also got major fuckup points. I undermined my fawning with uncomfortable comments (-3). I had never won a prize or fellowship that would get me to England (-8). At key moments in my career I’d seemed to sabotage myself by speaking out (-15). I often thought my boss was a moron (-8), I spent too much of my day thinking about how many kids died at Waco and the Administration’s refusal to take any responsibility for them (-10).
You couldn’t really be integrated. The heart of the idea was that suckup (seeing the glass half-full) and fuckup (half-empty) had once coexisted, fitfully, in the cultural bosom. But now they were being sorted out harshly.
There had been a time, for instance, when Bob Woodward, the Harvard Law School grad who had a suckup’s view of power, and Carl Bernstein, the wildly undisciplined fuckup who had an imaginative understanding of power, had gotten along great, but now they had been sorted out sharply. Mr. Woodward occupied a prominent place in Washington society, was a ceaselessly hard worker still employed by The Washington Post , and wrote not-very-thoughtful bestsellers dependent on respectful relationships with powerful sources. Mr. Bernstein was a chronic screwup, bumping along on reputations both of his brilliance and his roving eye, a freelancer making money from talks about his days of yore at Sweet Briar College, UNLV, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, the University of Southern Mississippi, etc., and now and then putting out books that were completely off the radar screen.
That division was desperate and lamentable: Mr. Bernstein’s view of the world was actually more interesting than Mr. Woodward’s, but he had been cashiered. All the fuckups had been cashiered, and they knew it. When Mr. Rocker got a standing ovation this spring from 10,000 people at his first pitching appearance, it was pure resentment, us-against-them, silent majority versus meritocracy. The fuckups’ backlash.
What has brought this about? Part of it was obviously the restructuring of employment. It used to be you could be a lifer; even if you were a weirdo you could take home a paycheck. Now people moved from job to job, there was tons of trained talent, and employment was an endless audition where you crowded the boss’ door, hoping to stay on. How many people do you know who are gifted and competent but have trouble getting work because they are thought to be office poison or they don’t smile, or are likely, in the choice words of one media mogul I know, to commit an auto-da-fé?
In the good old days there had also been more humility about work. People had other things in their lives–religion, community, counterculture. But for adults schooled in the wind sprints of the S.A.T.’s, work was everything. Ambition and success were wholly sanctified. This explains one of the most puzzling suckup phenomena of the Clinton years, the fact that virtually no one resigned from the Administration on principle, despite a hard rain of ethical and human-rights abuses. Taking a stand would mar your résumé, make you a doubtful hire. One man who has sought, retroactively, to derive credit for a principled walkout, George Stephanopoulos, actually made sure that he was safely employed by at least three prestigious institutions before opening his mouth.
Mr. Stephanopoulos had found work in the world of media-business-entertainment. A terrifying machinery seems to govern success in that world, and the sensitive person’s heart shrivels at the prospect. The most extreme example of suckup and fuckup is Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. Kurt the incredible talent and fuckup who understood that he was forever trapped by a world of celebrity and marketing, and opted out, choosing to annihilate himself rather than ride around in fancy cars forever. And Courtney, a tougher creature, who knew how to make herself over and clean herself up and could do the fake smile–Courtney whose brilliant, Kurt-influenced breakthrough album, Live Through This , gave way, in his absence, to a lusterless, overproduced second album whose name I forget.
The same changes have trickled down to the rest of us. Lately I ran into an Ivy League friend who is now a major editor. He said that he had recently faced a distinct choice between marketing his publication or putting more time into making it a better publication. He went to his publisher, who told him to do the marketing. Or there is Lillian Ross’ shameful book about the New Yorker, Here But Not Here , which included fatuous passages about how Tina Brown was the second coming of William Shawn and what a warm and friendly family the Newhouses are. Few commented on these passages when the book was published (focusing instead on her love affair with Shawn). One who did pick up on them, former New Yorker editor Robert Gottlieb, writing in The Observer , went on to excuse her because she was, after all, trying to keep her contract. Is that really any excuse for lying to a reader?
The most vivid description of the cultural transformation is contained in John Seabrook’s new book, Nobrow, the Culture of Marketing–the Marketing of Culture . Mr. Seabrook is a writer for The New Yorker (and a friend), and his wry and surprisingly detached scenes of the brokering between editorial and advertising under former editor Tina Brown are so outrageous this book should be on the bedside tables of fuckups and suckups alike. For instance, there is the meeting between Mr. Seabrook, Ms. Brown and Steve Wynn, in which Ms. Brown is trying to get a conference scheduled at Mr. Wynn’s Bellagio hotel even as she gets Mr. Seabrook to write a profile of the casino operator.
Mr. Seabrook turned that assignment down, but saw the suckup in him rise when he helped pull off a New Yorker “Next” conference, the bald purpose of which was to cultivate Michael Eisner, then of Disney, and various movie stars. “Whether you were a theater artist working for Disney, … a young computer artist working for Lucasfilm, or a writer for The New Yorker , your creative independence would no longer be staked on your resistance to the marketplace,” Mr. Seabrook observes. “Your independence depended on your ability to attract a corporate patron. That’s what we were doing here–patron whoring.”
Still, Mr. Seabrook was somewhat appalled, and on the ride to the airport, he asked another writer what he thought of Mr. Eisner, expecting the man to say he’s the Antichrist. When the writer said that Mr. Eisner is “brilliant,” Mr. Seabrook notes, “My head snapped backward as though I’d been struck by a whip.”
Mr. Seabrook purports to come to peace with this new arrangement of power and content. There are more artists than ever … the old idea of the independent artist is itself a romance … the business of America is now art …
I’m not convinced. And anyway, Nobrow only glances on what to me is the most surreal and sinister aspect of this transformation, the political one. Editors and publishers will tell you that there has never been so much good news in memory. The economy is strong, the stories on the front page are generally upbeat. But that observation is a tautology. The reason there’s so much good news is that the culture industry is now dominated by glass-half-full people who look on the world in positive terms. The media bosses don’t want troubling news, and they’ve hired people who respect that desire–suckups who see their bosses as good people to work for, and who are themselves deeply invested in the new economy.
The more critical faculties have been farmed out of town, to perform their autos-da-fé out of sight. Indeed, Bill Hillsman, the Minneapolis adman behind the victories of fuckups Paul Wellstone and Jesse Ventura, says that Governor Ventura’s win came as such a giant surprise because the two establishment political parties, in Minnesota and nation-wide, have tried to make the independent vote invisible through polling methods that write off or misrepresent the fuckup segment of the population.
I don’t mean to ride the suckups. They can surely take credit for the surging economy and widespread prosperity. They are probably more healthy and well adjusted than the fuckups. Mr. Woodward looks about 45, Mr. Bernstein looks like he’s pushing 60. Suckups possess that angst-free ability to look on their self-promotion as something that is good for everyone. Just read Cokie and Steve Roberts’ book, From This Day Forward . Their marriage and careers move along in a warm, filthy bath of connections and promotion. Her mother, a powerful Congressman’s wife, gives him the recommendation to get his job with James Reston … The President and everyone else they will ever cover comes to their wedding … Steve trots around in Harvard sweatshirts … She covers events that her mother and daughter are both involved in … And all this they narrate with pride! Everyone is happy. Everyone in the establishment, down to Terry Lenzner, their friend and Mr. Clinton’s defense artist.
That’s why we need fuckups. Because suckups lack critical intelligence about their world. The Robertses both possessed that quality once, in the 60’s. But now it’s been suppressed. Criticism is self-destructive.
And it knocks down the stock. In Katharine Graham’s splendid autobiography, Personal History , she describes the terrible cost to The Washington Post of taking on the establishment in Watergate. A White House spin machine vilified the Post as crazy, for months the newspaper felt lonely, and the publisher prayed that her reporters–driven by a theory that today would be written off as a conspiracy–were right. Now and then even Mr. Woodward and Mr. Bernstein made errors that gave the Administration ammunition.
Most important, the Post suffered as a business. The Nixon Administration challenged licenses on Post television stations, and the assault on the paper’s credibility sent the stock price tumbling from $38 to $16. Today it is simply impossible to imagine a major media company sticking with a story that was costing the company half its value. It wouldn’t happen. The suckups wouldn’t let it begin to happen. Yet back then Ms. Graham did not change course.
My wife told me that profile in courage, she has Ms. Graham’s book. She even met Ms. Graham once, at a corporate retreat. She played tennis with her. Nothing came of it, of course.