August 3, 2004
DNC and Out in Beverly Hills

Eric Alterman's Radical Pique: Mmmmmmmmm. These are nice.

As any first year journalism student worth his or her Bartlett's knows, someone once said, "The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." What's usually left off from that quote is the second part: "Attend lavish parties thrown by the comfortable, enjoy the free drinks and delicious appetizers, then stab your hosts in the back with the little stick on the chicken satay."

Take Eric Alterman's September Atlantic article, "The Hollywood Campaign." Alterman seems to have spent most of spring lingering on the periphery of every industry party in Bel Air, Malibu, and Beverly Hills, visiting the sets of shows like The West Wing, and generally acting like a quiet, very judgemental member of every lefty stars' entourage, taking notes between sips of vintage wines.

It certainly reads like a fun assignment, much better than William Langweische's last few reports for the magazine. But the east coast red meat-loving lefty's time among the west coast lotus eaters seems to have bred some contempt in Alterman, the liberal liberals love to hate. His piece, replete with one of those oh-so-Grosz Steven Brodner caricatures of stars like Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, is one of the most condescending portraits of Hollywood values since Nick Nolte plunged into Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler's pool in Paul Mazursky's Down and Out in Beverly Hills.

The comparison to Mazursky's film is especially apt, since Alterman draws similarly broad and contemptuous portraits of the people he encountered out in La-La-Land. Here's Alterman on Laurie David, environmental activist and wife of Larry David:

A pretty, brassy Jewish girl from Merrick, Long Island, whose close friends describe her as "pushy," David is one of those people who carry energy as if it were a communicable disease.

So, she's a JAP? Not just that, a hypocritical JAP: "Laurie David, who dedicates herself to fighting for improved fuel-economy standards and reviles the owners of SUVs as terrorist enablers, gives herself a pass when it comes to chartering one of the most wasteful uses of fossil-based fuels imaginable: a private plane. (She's not just a limousine liberal; she's a Gulfstream liberal.) "

So, she's a hypocritical JAP? Add to that, cheap:

Before joining ACT's finance committee, David sought entrŽe with a donation of $100,000. A number of Hollywood activists think she is taking a larger than warranted role, given that her wealth would allow her to be far more generous. These people, none of whom are willing to be named, told me that David tried to get away with giving ACT a mere $10,000, but was told that ten times that amount would be the minimum for the role she planned to play.

I'm sure Laurie's famously press-averse husband (squirm through Scott Raab's Esquire profile or James Kaplan's New Yorker piece to see just how little he likes being interviewed) is pleased he granted Alterman all that face time now.

Here's Alterman's description of political consultant Marge Tabankin:

In a town known for its obsession with thinness, Tabankin looks not unlike a kinder, gentler Bella Abzug, with warm green eyes and an inviting smile.

Yes, but is she jolly? And does she wear muumuus, Eric?

It's not just women who come in for a bashing for their unpleasant adherence to ethnic stereotypes or their weight. Alterman has some things to say about Hollywood's liberal men, too. Take screenwriter/checkwriter Steve Bing, who gets the old compliment followed by insult treatment:

And then there is the dashing Steve Bing, who manages to maintain his boyish, almost adolescent good looks despite a few lines on his face and a head of closely cropped gray hair. A film producer and real-estate heir, he has been nicknamed "Bing Laden" and called a "spermicidal maniac" by London tabloids, owing to his various romantic entanglements. (When the actress Elizabeth Hurley announced that she was pregnant with Bing's child, he issued a news release claiming that she had chosen "to be a single mother" and stating that their relationship was a non-exclusive one. He began proceedings to force a DNA test, which resulted in his accepting responsibility for the child. Bing also sued the billionaire corporate raider Kirk Kerkorian for invasion of privacy after Kerkorian had an employee grab some dental floss out of Bing's garbage in an attempt to prove that Bing was the father of his ex-wife's daughter.)

Wait, did I drop my copy of The Atlantic and pick up Vanity Fair (circa July 2002)?

With its sprawling scope and condescending tone, Alterman's piece evokes another, far superior, critique of wealthy liberals: Tom Wolfe's oft-referenced (but, based on the references, little read) Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers. Both pieces portray the wealthy as guilty, eager to please, easily fleeced babies swaddled by all that money.

Yes, it's fun to mock these people (South Park made great sport of Rob Reiner last year and has also bashed Barbra and ripped Redford), but it's too facile, too laden with envy and aspiration to hit the mark. Here's what Alterman concludes about the incongruity of millionaires and billionaires feeling disenfranchised in Bush's America:

On occasions when I've mentioned such contradictions and blind spots to smart Hollywood fundraisers, the response has been not so much explanation or excuse as a plea for indulgence—as if one were, after all, dealing with children, children who are very good at sharing.

Harsh, to be sure. Hopefully these "children" will forgive their mean new friend Eric, who came to their parties, behaved politely, and then said such hurtful things about them in the schoolyard the next week. As any parent will tell you, some kids play nice, and others never will.

After fifteen pages of Alterman's letter from Los Angeles (homeboy should change his title from 'senior fellow at the Center for American Progress' to senior longfellow!), I was reminded of another famous quote about journalism that every first year student can recite by heart as well. It's from Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer, and it's so succinct, so canonical, it should be written in calligraphy on every J-school diploma:

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up on day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction writing learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and 'the public's right to know'; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.

And let's not forget that delicious chicken satay. Mmmmmmm. Those are nice.

Posted in a Shallow fashion.

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