Stuff We Don’t Like

By any accounts, it's an amazing play. Powell cuts left in front of the quarterback, fake handoff, the confusion gives the QB another solid second or two of coverage, after which he rifles it ten yards upfield right back to Powell, who spins in place, jumps a tackle. and proceeds to swipe left and right through basically the entire defensive backfield fifty-nine yards for the touchdown. A minute-twelve left on the clock, and the TD will bring them up by three, four if they make the extra point. Powell knows it, knows he's the hero of the moment, and so he can't resist slamming the ball down into the end-zone turf and pulling and pulling his hand across his throat in a gesture of mockery. So, of course, his little violence-inciting act of grandstanding draws a ten-yard penalty, no loss of down, but lighting only strikes once and they're back where they were, only ten yards worse off and they're going to be making fun of him tonight on the ESPN wrap-up.

What makes people take that one step too far, that extra unneceesary gesture that turns triumph into humiliation? I don't know, but I wince every time I see it happen. I think there's some sort of ingrained human instinct for not letting well enough alone, for wanting to turn every victory into a personal confirmation. And invariably, the result of that last little throwaway gesture is to undermine everything that made it possible, to reinterpret a perfectly respectable accomplishment as a purely personal issue.

Every time that "credibility" is at stake, this temptation makes itself known. I can't count the number of wonderful critiques of "cred" or of the absurdity of the whole notion of "selling out" that I've seen ruined by this urge. All is going along swimmingly, the author is making a perfectly good case for non-economic artistic criteria or saying something entirely intelligent, and then whoa, in the second-to-last paragraph, they need to remind you of their credibility, and here comes a listing of bands the author liked back when no one had heard of them all so nobody will believe this highly articulate critique could possibly be motivated by anything so base as the author's uncoolness. And yes, one thinks, the author is cool, they do buy into the system they've just been so loudly denouncing, and whoops, there goes the whole objective force of their argument.

It works the "other" way, too: the tirade at the high-school cafeteria table that ends with a quivering "who wants to be a part of your stupid club anyway?" will be forgotten soon enough, but not the plaintive desperation of that final question. Every criticism of modern art containing the sentence "my kid could do this" misses the point; Komar and Melamid (organizers of the recent "art by elephants" exhibit) would be more than happy to explain why. If you're going to make fun of the elitism of humor magazines, any critique containing an article "funnier" than the articles published in said magazine is, by this very inclusion, toothless. Refusing to stoop to your adversary's level carries a moral authority that, once surrendered, is extremely hard to regain.

The specific trigger for these musings is Rodney Rothman's recent article from The New Yorker about his weeks pretending to work for a dot-com, sneaking into the office on the pretext of being "from the Chicago branch", making inconsequential small talk, trying to look busy, and "surviving" a round of layoffs. In one of those wonderful O'Henry-esque twists, it turned out that Rothman made up a few parts of his story. Did he fake the big stuff -- his cover story, the layoffs, the anonymity of the office? NO! He lied about the small stuff: specifically, he hid the fact that his mother worked at the firm, and also he fabricated a story of a massage at the office.

Rothman's little escapade reminds me of a moment at the end of A Man for All Seasons, when the condemmed More turns to his betrayer and asks, almost with a smile, "Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . but for Wales?" It profits a reporter nothing to perjure the truth for a murder . . . but for a massage? Rothman had his story, he had enough to prove whatever points he wanted to make, and he had to go and make up the massage? And now, of course, his "credibility" is shattered and everyone's laughing at him, but this doesn't change one bit those parts of his story The New Yorker stands by, the whole arc of his imaginary job. One almost feels sorry for him, to have had what I've seen called "the ultimate New Economy story" slip away from him over such a silly screw-up.

Almost. I disliked the article when I read it, though probably not for the reasons most of the Rothman-bashers out there dislike it. My complaint with "My Fake Job" is that it was too easy, that it comes from a reportorial universe where all conclusions are foreordained and the purpose of journalism is merely to confirm one's prejudices. Reading the article, you could keep a checklist of standard dot-com jokes, marking off each hoary "fact" as Rothman rediscovers it. Dot-coms don't actually do anything! Check. Technology is dehumanizing and people at technology companies don't know one another! Check. Dot-coms are in trouble, no questions why, and here come the layoffs! Check. Nobody knows what's going on at a dot-com! Check. Dot-com life, in true Dilbertian style, is best if you hide and pretend to be busy! Check. And so on and so forth.

The question as I see it, comes down to a big old economy "so what?" Rothman is a sojourner in the world of public perceptions of technology companies, out to maintain the charade of his own belonging. Much of the article is given over to his paranoia that his deception will be discovered, to his attempts to stave off any attention from his "coworkers." Usually when reporters go undercover at a workplace, it's to find something out. How do the line employees feel about management's cost-cutting mesaures? Is someone mixing sawdust into the cat food? How do day-traders handle the stress? Rothman went undercover at a dot-com to find out what, exactly? How well Rodney Rothman can hide? How well Rodney Rothman can mimic the mannerisms and speech patterns of people he's making no effort to understand? What the interior of a technology company looks like if you close your eyes and stick your fingers in your ears? Invisible Man is motivated by a harsh social critique and by the frustrated rage of the narrator's desire for something, anything, of an identity; Rodney Rothman wants to be invisible.

It's a funny story, I'll give him that, but it's not journalism in any meaningful sense. I think this is why Rothman felt so free to play fast and loose with the details: he's telling a shaggy-dog story, and the point is laughter, not information. I'm not defending dot-coms, here, but I'm not attacking them either. I don't have anything to say on the topic right now, and my point is that Rothman doesn't, either.

A bit harsh, perhaps, and a bit in line with my usual "X sucks, but not for the reasons everyone else says it sucks" schema of writing, but still, something I had to say. Of course, I freely admit to hypocrisy here, to being just like Rothman when it comes to hiding. The difference being, perhaps, that unlike him I make no special claims to openness. 7'12'00