On Smarm (the essay), Titus Andronicus (the band), Hamilton (the musical), and Earnestness (the essential political value)
There’s a way to live the values your forefathers gave you
Prepare to be told “That shit’s gay, dude”
I don’t write very often about culture, but at a time when the line between reality TV and real political power is obliterated and all that is solid is rapidly melting into air, I thought I might reflect on some influences that have meant a lot to me both before and after the 2016 election. They speak to an ethos that I’m trying to live up to and that is going to be vital for the American left in the struggle ahead.
A little over three years ago, Tom Scocca wrote an influential essay, “On Smarm,” for Gawker, the irreverent and indispensable media website deliberately bankrupted last year by Donald Trump’s tech billionaire supporter Peter Thiel. Scocca wrote in defense of online snark (“a hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt”) by portraying it as a justifiable reaction to smarm, which he described as “a kind of performance — an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.”
Savvy readers understood that Scocca was contrasting the snark of Gawker Media with the smarm of its more commercially successful rival, BuzzFeed, which at the time famously courted advertisers by discouraging “haters” from applying to editorial positions. But this was more than a media feud. It was a way to understand the dominant modes of online communication in recent years. This held true during the contentious 2016 election, when both snark and smarm were amply deployed by partisans of all stripes.
But now that Trump, who is too cruel for smarm and too stupid for snark, wields nearly unchecked power, those of us who have chosen one side or the other of the snark-smarm wars are going to have to find new ways of expressing ourselves.
Satan ain’t hard to see without craning your neck
He’ll be seventy-some inches tall
He’ll be chugging a beer and he’ll be grabbing his balls
He’s a remote explosive waiting for someone to call
He’s just eighteen for now but he’s going to murder us all
I first saw the band Titus Andronicus perform at an all-ages show in my hometown of Washington, DC in 2010. I had never heard of them before but was immediately smitten, and have seen them three times since in DC, Manhattan and Brooklyn while keeping their four albums in regular rotation. The best, most famous and most freshly relevant of these is their 2010 sophomore effort, “The Monitor,” which connects the American Civil War to the personal struggles of the band’s raspy-voiced, impressively bearded millennial front man, Patrick Stickles.
This is an audacious move, although perhaps not as much as it might seem at first glance. Sufjan Stevens found spiritual transcendence in the Lincoln-Douglas debates; Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum improbably yet convincingly linked his own surreal sexual anxieties to Anne Frank’s murder in Bergen-Belsen; even Paul Simon was able to situate a road trip to Memphis with his son after divorcing Carrie Fisher “down the highway through the cradle of the Civil War.” Why shouldn’t Stickles connect his mental breakdown at Harvard and chagrined retreat to his suburban New Jersey hometown to the Battle of Hampton Roads, all set to an epic punk soundtrack? Don’t knock it till you’ve listened, ideally while moshing.
I sense the enemy
They’re rustling around in the trees
Oh, I thought I’d gotten away
But they followed me to 02143 [the ZIP code of Somerville, MA, near Harvard]
The enemy is everywhere
But nobody seems to be worried or care
It took me a while to fully grasp this, but Stickles isn’t just indulging his inner history geek, nor is he grandiosely conflating his mental health issues with a conflict that killed hundreds of thousands of people. What he is doing is drawing on history to imagine a time when people were willing to die for principles and beliefs, and then contrasting it with an era in which we are surrounded by moral rot and incapable of motivating ourselves to do anything more than mock it.
Stickles’ enemy, the ubiquitous vulgar fratboy who is a few years away from embracing Trump’s all-American fascism, is either enabled or ignored by everyone around him. He’s just as present in the citadel of American intellectual life as anywhere else. Neither snark nor smarm will take away his power.
Solidarity’s going to give a lot less than it’ll take
Is there a girl at this college who hasn’t been raped?
Is there a boy in this town that’s not exploding with hate?
Is there a human alive that can look themselves in the face
Or say what they mean without drinking?
Or believe in something without thinking, “What if somebody doesn’t approve?”
Is there a soul on this Earth that isn’t too frightened to move?
What Stickles is searching for isn’t snark. Multiple times in his discography, he references “Seinfeld,” the (hilarious, deservedly beloved) sitcom that taught a generation of Americans that nothing matters and everyone is cynical and selfish, as a symbol of pervasive snark. He isn’t calling for smarm either. There’s nothing cute or self-satisfied about Titus Andronicus.
What he’s calling for is an earnest struggle in the best tradition of punk rock. He’s calling for people to speak bluntly, to be honest, to know themselves, to stand up for what’s right and to call out cruelty in unwavering terms. He’s asking again and again how a nation that fought a war and sacrificed a generation of men to end slavery has been reduced to meaningless complacency, even though the enemy remains everywhere. He’s calling for truth in a world where the very concept of truth is now in mortal danger.
Burr, I’d rather be divisive than indecisive
Drop the niceties
Which brings me to “Hamilton.” Thanks to a birthday gift from my late grandma, I had the great fortune to see Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop Broadway musical in July 2015, several months before the cast recording was released and the entire culture had a chance to weigh in. I loved the show, as seemingly everyone did back then.
This was well before the inevitable backlash from the left, a political category in which I generally include myself — I voted for Bernie Sanders in the New York Democratic primary and only supported Hillary Clinton in the general because I felt I had to, not out of any real admiration. That backlash is best summarized by an article by Alex Nichols in Current Affairs that criticizes “Hamilton” less on its own merits than for what it says about the Democratic Party elite that enthusiastically embraced the musical, to the point where Clinton cited its lyrics in her convention speech and Barack Obama had the original cast perform in the White House. Nichols also criticizes the historical Alexander Hamilton, who among other things was the founder of American financial capitalism and thus an odd hero for the left.
I’m not interested in defending the ideology or legacy of Hamilton, the complicated and contested historical figure, or the aesthetics of “Hamilton,” the musical (either a hip-hop Broadway show appeals to you or it doesn’t; Miranda and the original cast are immensely talented but not everyone has to like everything). But I do think the left is selling “Hamilton,” the fictionalized drama, short, because there are lessons that are relevant now, and that shouldn’t be misconstrued as liberal smarm.
Miranda has described the life of Alexander Hamilton as a hip-hop story, by which he means the story of a poor immigrant coming to New York from the Caribbean to make a name for himself and change the world by force of will. Both Democrats and Republicans have embraced Miranda’s telling of that story, because it seems to affirm a certain vision of America as a land of opportunity. It brings people of color into what’s actually a very conservative and patriotic bootstraps narrative. It’s understandable why a leftist would roll their eyes.
But hip-hop at its best is also about confrontation, much like punk at its best. And here is where Miranda’s fictionalized Hamilton has something to teach us in the Trump era.
The central conflict of the play is not between America and Great Britain, or between Hamiltonian Federalists and Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, but between Hamilton and his rival and eventual killer, Aaron Burr. Hamilton and Burr are intellectual equals but temperamental opposites. While Hamilton will pick a fight with anyone on principle, Burr’s advice from the beginning is “Talk less, smile more, don’t let them know what you’re against or what you’re for.” The contrast is drawn throughout the musical, as, for instance, when Burr refuses to help Hamilton write the Federalist Papers because he might end up offending a future patron, to which Hamilton responds:
Burr, we studied and we fought and we killed
For the notion of a nation we now get to build
For once in your life, take a stand with pride
I don’t understand how you stand to the side
Their rivalry culminates in the dispute that leads to the fateful morning in Weehawken. As Hamilton tells Burr with evident relish:
I am not the reason no one trusts you
No one knows what you believe
I will not equivocate on my opinion
I have always worn it on my sleeve
Burr, your grievance is legitimate
I stand by what I said, every bit of it
You stand only for yourself
It’s what you do
I can’t apologize because it’s true
Hamilton dies for his devotion to truth at all costs, while Burr lives but is haunted by the duel for all of history. It is possible to read this as a contrast between two imperfect approaches to life; indeed, owing in part to Leslie Odom, Jr.’s brilliant performance, many fans have found in Burr a complex and sympathetic figure rather than a villain. At the same time, it’s clear who Miranda identifies with and who he named his show for. Hamilton’s death may be a tragic waste, but it’s also the culmination of a short life spent frantically writing “like you’re running out of time” and imagining “death so much it feels more like a memory.” Hamilton is an uncompromising, unapologetic force of nature; Burr is an ingratiating careerist. Miranda is quite clear which approach is more likely to make history.
I’m prepared to be told this shit’s gay, dude, but my generation of Americans faces a challenge to rival those faced during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. America has never been closer to authoritarian rule. The new president is a buffoon surrounded by white supremacists and corporate vultures, backed by congressional Republicans whose sole reliable motivation is starving the poor to fatten the rich. The Democrats have shown little ability to effectively resist, despite the vast crowds in the streets of every American city and despite that no part of the current government or its far-right agenda enjoys any popular legitimacy.
Neither snark nor smarm will save us, even if both have their place. Our elected leaders won’t save us either, not without a push. Maybe nothing will save us. But the only way forward is to embrace a new ethic, one that doesn’t default to sincerity in the face of evil or irony in the face of innocence, one that demands the intelligence and integrity needed to tell the difference. We need to follow the example of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, as quoted by Titus Andronicus, who wrote this regarding slavery in 1831:
I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to speak, or think, or write with moderation. I am in earnest. I will not equivocate, I will not excuse, I will not retreat a single inch, and I WILL BE HEARD.