I wasn’t going to do my regular “the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is gross and unseemly” post this year, but now I guess I am. Because I just, I mean, wow.
It’s actually gotten worse since the Bush years, and I blame that entirely on Twitter, because now it’s just that much harder to be a news junkie around this time of year and not be inundated by this #nerdprom* inanity. And look, I’ve come to expect, and even not really mind, a certain level of this–I can understand and not get too miffed about Ana Marie Cox doing the whole fangirl routine, because that’s sort of her shtick. But I was genuinely bummed to see folks like David Weigel and Hendrik Hertzberg, serious thinkers who I really thought floated above this stuff, doing the same.
On further reflection, though, I should have expected it. Because yeah, DC’s biggest circlejerk is tone deaf and ethically suspect, but it also sounds–the interminable speeches at the dinner itself aside–incredibly fun and gratifying on a level it’s hard to imagine unless you’ve been there before.
I got a little taste of that last night when I volunteered at the annual PEN America conference. There was a reception going on at an author’s East Village townhouse and I was in the kitchen, helping the catering crew. I was there because I have a tremendous amount of admiration for the organization, and not–so I told myself–to get a whiff of that rarefied New York lit scene aroma. After all, I had ingested plenty of received wisdom about the hollowness of material success, the sometimes nasty competitiveness of that whole culture, the danger of allocating any brain space at all that could be spent on writing to considering the acclaim that writing could possibly bring, and so on.
And yet. And yet there I was in the kitchen, staring into the living room, watching Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens, probably many other accomplished writers I wasn’t cool enough to recognize, and a bunch of gorgeous women in nice dresses all rub elbows and exchange witticisms. It was fucking hypnotizing. Right then I would have done anything to be out there in a nice blazer with a glass of white wine in one hand, charming the beautiful literary people with that one funny anecdote of mine. Since I’ve never actually tried crack, heroine, or meth, I think it’s fair to say that I had just taken a hit of the most addictive substance I’ve ever encountered, and pulling back from that would have required a herculean feat of detachment. I didn’t have it in me.
Of course, that hit I took was the equivalent of rubbing a little bit on your gums. Going to the WHCD is more like burying your face in a giant mound, Tony Montana-style.
So to Glenn Greenwald, John Cole, Digby and the others who say that some of those people at the dinner should know better: yeah, they should. And yeah, it’s their job. But it’s easy for those of us on the outside to criticize, and I think we need to grapple in a serious way with just how not-easy it is for people who agree with us in the abstract to avoid getting seduced when they’re confronted by glamour and validation from authority. We’re all weak, and I’m not sure what can be done about that.
*That was the hashtag all the cool kids used for the dinner this year, for those who remained blissfully insulated.