Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Short-Fingered Vulgarian

If you're too young to remember Spy magazine, it's been scanned into Google, and I suggest you binge read. Google quotes Dave Eggars on the magazine's short-lived run, "There's no magazine I know of that's so continually referenced, held up as a benchmark, and whose demise is so lamented." 

But if you need a reason to read it, Donald Trump said, "It's a piece of garbage."

Donald Trump wasn't just bullishly ranting. He knew exactly why he thought Spy was garbage: Spy dedicated its existence to eviscerating Donald Trump. For a good backstory on Spy and why it loathed Donald Trump, Mark Ames published a worthy read on Pando about a time when humorous editorials were less in line with Onion parodies or satirical news feeds from John Stewart or Stephen Colbert. 

Spy was ruthless. As Ames points out, Spy didn't relent when it's target had fallen, they kept on kicking, and did so with journalistic precision that today's most trusted news outlets could never hope to achieve. Their articles were researched, well written, and downright callous. Their contributors could have easily been called bullies; that is if each politician, tycoon, or celebrity hadn't been guilty of every misdeed Spy put to paper. These people had it coming, and Spy was there to air their dirty laundry. It might not be a coincidence that Spy's closure in 1998 coincided with the proliferation of reality television, sensationalized cable news, and a return to political correctness.

For good reason, Gen X can be considered both the best and worst generation, at least of those we remember. It invented political correctness in the late 1980s, an apolitical juggernaut that hypocritically spawned a two dimensional false ideology that every disenfranchised group be dumped in its own bucket, and that none can do wrong. The rise of social media has allowed political correctness to return en masse online, and on the campaign trail it falsely implies that when a Trump or Cruz is wrong for America, a Clinton or Sanders must me right. 

It's pure reactionary ignorance that doesn't just allow us to avoid questioning the actions of our reluctantly favored candidates, it demands we not question them. If we cross party lines, even for a quizzical moment, political correctness says we've abandoned our ship.

But Gen X also invented the tool for combating this blindness. The generation gave us Seinfeld, South Park, and Spy magazine, resources that turned political correctness upside down and attracted an audience through comedy. 

We have very few voices today who offer this kind of intellectual reprieve, and when they speak out, they're often criticized as being unsympathetic. Camille Paglia recently pointed out a similar dissatisfaction with comedians like John Stewart and Stephen Colbert, not so much in their inability to land a blow, but in the hypocrisy in only combating politics on the opposite side of their personal wall.

To Spy, greedy tycoons, corrupt politicians, and celebrity heirs were all equal offenders in dumbing down America, and gave the '80s and '90s what it needed to fight the rhetoric of political correctness. In the '90s, the Clintons were not immune to Spy in the way that they are to liberal comedians today. Looking at the covers of Spy magazine, the words "informed" or "unbiased" might not come to mind, but the articles refused to choose sides or even acknowledge that sides existed. 

Although Spy closed in 1998 and has since only managed to release an anthology in 2006, Spy has recently received quite a bit of press, likely to Donald Trump's chagrin. If you want to know why everyone is talking about the size of Donald Trump's hands, it goes back to a Spy article printed more than 25 years ago. As the Wall Street Journal or New York Times might refer to a subject as "investment banker" or real estate mogul," Spy took to other, more colorful accuracies. "Queens-born casino operator" is my personal favorite. 

But it was Graydon Carter's moniker, "the short-fingered vulgarian," that really got under Trump's skin. To date, Graydon says he still receives mail from Trump himself, clippings with a photo of Trump's fingers circled in gold marker, thus proving the length of his digits. Were it not for the man's longstanding hatred for Spy magazine, this might signal a man with a good sense of humor about himself. But Spy wasn't in the business of making friends with its targets, and Trump clearly knew this. From Hillary Clinton to Justine Bateman, Spy was relentless in its attacks on those in positions they didn't earn, didn't deserve, or were simply too stupid to understand. 

It's completely understandable that the archives of Spy have resurfaced in the face of Trump's inexplicable rise to political prominence. In 1987, Spy printed, "Please, God, let him run. If Donald Trump runs for president, God, we promise we will never make fun of the pope again. Or Pat Robertson. Well, the pope, anyway." The truth is, Trump's rise to political prominence isn't inexplicable, it has been expected, and Spy wasn't the only outlet that knew it. 

While peddling his biography, Trump: The Art of the Deal in 1988, he told Oprah Winfrey that he'd consider running, and that he "wouldn't go in to lose." It's easy to watch the debates and assume that this is all a game to him, a reality TV show to one reality TV star. After all, a mogul of Trump's caliber understands the value of media stock during an election year, and the Republican debates aren't disappointing their audiences, or their advertisers. But success in reality television is granted by a self-awareness that your vapid superficiality is building your brand, and your bank account. A Kardashian or Jenner can't succeed without a sense of humor, even one that's feigned. To that, Trump isn't a reality television star, he is reality television, and the Republican candidacy his network.

To pour through the pages of Spy's twelve year run, we don't just see a man who embodies the quote "Greed is Good" or a television personality content with amassing a fortune. We see a man who views this nation his empire, and Manhattan his Rome. This is not Rupert Murdoch or Jack Welch, a billionaire resigned to enabling a system in their favor through their vast wealth. This is a man who wants to tear down the system to make it his own. To Trump, he is not a presidential candidate, but a king petitioning his right to the throne. 

Eighteen years ago, we had a voice that was willing to panoramically hold our candidates, our celebrities, and those who crossed that line accountable for their belligerence, ignorance, and greed. Today that voice is buried beneath the heap of the web; unintelligible, unfindable, and nonsensical. The most marketable rise to the surface and find a home on MSNBC, Fox, or Comedy Central to sell ads or fall flatly - and hypocritically - satirical. Snark and irony have replaced a biting, investigative knowledge of reality. 

Today's answer to discourse is not a comprehensive understanding of how appalling all of our politicians, tycoons, and celebrities truly are, but a completely rebellious upheaval. Cynical shortsightedness has become our undoing, and it's forced us to choose between tyrants, zealots, and fear mongers, with no avenue to question the lesser of our evils without retaliation in the name of sensitivity or devotion. 

Politics is - and should be - somewhat brutal. Trump, with all his faults, knows this. Sanders, the inevitable flip side, knows it too. But the voters, having slumped into a post-Spy world of unicorns vs. dragons, are too afraid that questioning our own team might result in a loss. We shouldn't be asking why Trump is running for president. Everything about that makes sense. We should be asking why we're forced to choose between a dynasty, the establishment, and those with no clue how to make their claims happen. 

The answer is "us," and our inability to make a declarative statement without a high rising terminal. 

Yes, we're pissed off, and that's why Trump and Sanders actually have a leg in this race. But we're not pissed off because of the establishment, one that's been running for better or worse for the last 240 years. We're pissed off because we've fostered a culture that celebrates our worst citizens, defies our desire to reason, and above all, refuses to allow us to question anyone, even our preferred leaders, without blowback. 

Whatever happens in November, it doesn't matter who our president will be. Whatever his Napoleonic needs, the Constitution will not allow Trump to be dictator. We are a Senate, a Congress, a Supreme Court, and nearly 400M citizens who should know that we are a people with the right to call into question the deplorable acts of those who influence public opinion, whether it's a Trump, a Clinton, or a Kardashian. 

What we need is Spy magazine. 

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