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The Meta-Media Madness Top 10

10. The End Is Endlessly Nigh. When Janet Jackson’s bare breast made its special guest appearance at the Super Bowl, the postgame -hysteria made you understand why H.L. Mencken coined the term "booboisie." Networks replayed the footage over and over. The right organized an e-mail campaign by parents shocked that their innocent kids could be exposed to such filth (the kids looked up from their Jenna Jameson downloads and yawned). And professional moralists decried the end of civilization, just as they did when Michael Jackson strutted atop his car outside his molestation trial, when towel-less Nicollette Sheridan jumped into Terrell Owens’ arms on Monday Night Football, when Ron Artest and his fellow Pacers charged into the stands in Detroit, when . . .

9. What’s the Matter with What’s the Matter with Kansas? Exactly a hundred years ago (give or take a few weeks), Joseph Conrad published Nostromo, his masterpiece about greed, politics and corruption in a small banana republic. "There is no peace and no rest in the development of material interests," says one of its characters. "They have their law and their justice. But it is founded on expediency and is -inhuman." In 2004 the left was baffled why so many citizens of our own banana republic would vote for a president who champions powerful material interests rather than ordinary people. This perplexity made a best-seller of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which deftly explained the Republicans’ strategy: Even as it promotes the interests of the economic elite, the right speaks the lingo of cultural populism, bashing the "liberal elite" on questions of abortion, gay marriage and religion. But Frank can’t explain why this trick works. As a good neo-Marxist, he assumes that people ought to vote their rational self-interest. Yet if the last 50 years has taught us anything, it’s that, even though society is ruled by material interests, human beings are irrational creatures whose fears, dreams and spiritual yearnings far outstrip any form of social engineering.

8. The Plot Against Literature. While 73-year-old Tom Wolfe was being pilloried for being hopelessly out of touch in his university novel I Am Charlotte Simmons — live by the zeitgeist, die by the zeitgeist — his 71-year-old contemporary, Philip Roth, scored a coup with The Plot Against America, a novel about fascist sympathizer Charles Lindbergh beating FDR in the 1940 presidential race. Both books became best-sellers, but Roth’s inspired lengthy, thumbsucking ruminations on its story’s parallels to the Bush years. Trouble is, all this attention went to one of Roth’s lesser novels, an attenuated piece of sentimental pulp clad in the style of a major writer. As alternative history, it’s far less compelling than, say, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle; as literature, it can’t approach the brilliant audacity of Roth’s own Sabbath’s Theater, which didn’t get one-tenth the press. In these days when even literary publishing is caught up in the same blockbuster complex as Hollywood, one thing is clear: A novel is better off seeming timely than being great.

7. Terrible Swift Sword. Although some savant idiots (including me) wrote that Fahrenheit 9/11 might well swing the election, that agit-prop documentary had far less impact than the anti-Kerry commercials by the ironically named Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Not that most of us ever saw those TV spots. We didn’t need to. The Swift Boat campaign grasped that its ads need merely raise charges against Kerry’s Vietnam service and the mainstream media would do the rest. Which is precisely what happened. Petrified of appearing partisan and drowning in the most benighted possible notion of "objectivity," the networks spent endless hours presenting bogus accusations and truthful responses as if they carried equal weight. And worse. Who can forget the morning when CNN’s party-girl anchor Daryn Kagan — who may become Rush Limbaugh’s fourth wife (really) — referred to "the medals that John Kerry might have won"? Whoa, Nelly. If you think the Swift Boat ads weren’t genius, consider this: Kerry’s medals became more controversial than Bush’s National Guard shenanigans, and on Film Threat’s anti-Hot List, "The Frigid 50," Michael Moore just checked in at number one.

6. Really Desperate. Concocted from more borrowed DNA than a genetically modified tomato — you’ve got your Twin Peaks, your Six Feet Under, your Sex and the City — ABC’s hit show Desperate Housewives makes The O.C. look as densely imagined as The Great Fire, the National Book Award–winning novel that Ryan was inexplicably reading after a botched date a couple of weeks back. No matter. Although not a little insulting to women, especially those who are getting on in years or poundage, Desperate Housewives prompted the level of ecstasy you only get from a media burning to jump on this year’s model of bandwagon. Entertainment Weekly splashed the show on its cover in only its second week, yet this premature ejaculation was soon surpassed by the panting cover spread in the November 29 Newsweek, which wondered why it took so long for the networks to "put together a decent show about women and their real lives" (yes, one admires the Dreiserian realism of Wisteria Lane) and declared the show "something of a miracle." Something, indeed. Of course, the standard of miraculousness has obviously declined in days when the image of the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast sells on e-Bay for $28,000.



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