As I posted last week, I don’t begrudge anybody who hasn’t been directly following the recent grotesqueries posing as our current chief executive’s impeachment trial. It’s hard to look directly at something as awful as this; as long as you follow through by doing your own thorough research (using multiple reliable sources, obviously), I think it’s fine to first learn about something through the jokes the wags are making on Twitter. It takes away a little bit of the sting to know that other people are as horrified as you are, and are somehow finding the strength to jest in the face of it. And every once in a while, the humor manages to find a deeper truth beyond the simple facts of history.
Unfortunately, even this sort of refracted gaze wasn’t enough to mitigate the horror of Alan Dershowitz arguing against the very concept of the rule of law last week. True to the approach I outlie above, I first realized the celebrated attorney had done something Very Very Bad by spying a joke on Twitter that pointed out that, upon being acquitted of murder, Claus von Bulow had had the good sense to go away. (For my younger readers, I’m referring to a famous murder case in which Dershowitz served as defense attorney. It was made into an Oscar-winning movie called Reversal of Fortune, which I still quote from time to time and which you may not be familiar with because it’s thirty years old now and dear god I’m old.) Not only did this not do anything to alleviate my sadness at the peril my nation is in – but it isn’t even true. Claus von Bulow didn’t go away.
For a while, the man wrote travel reviews for New York Press.
For a long stretch of time, New York City had two major, city-wide alternative free weekly papers. (Now we have none because everything is awful.) There was the venerable Village Voice, and there was the free-wheeling New York Press. The Village Voice was the place for more detailed (and almost always liberal-slanting) news coverage, and more comprehensive arts coverage. The Press, on the other hand, prided itself on having the most outspoken essayists and opinion writers it could find.
And outspoken is putting it mildly.
If you’re a film lover, you’ve probably clicked on a wildly contrarian review from Armond White at some point in your life. (He’s the one who refers to the Toy Story movies as the death of cinema, but hails Zach Snyder’s superhero movies as spiritual masterpieces. For starters.) For years, along with Matt Zoller Seitz (now safely ensconsed at the more respectable New York magazine), White contributed to the Press. So did a gentleman named Taki Theodoracopoulos, who nowadays runs an avowedly white supremacist website with weird Mad Men-style retro graphic design. Hell, at one point I remember them carrying freakin’ Pat Buchanan, sounding every bit like Pat Buchanan. There were other perspectives, of course – Alexander Cockburn and Dave Eggers were contributors; my friends were fond of the the down-on-his-luck first person tales of Jim Knipfel, a.k.a. Slackjaw. As readers, we just sort of rolled our eyes at the circus of it all.
But think about it. Armond White, Taki, Pat Buchanan, and Claus Freakin’ von Bulow not only in the same periodical, but on the same two page opinion spread. That’s not an editorial section, that’s a comic book rogue’s gallery. That’s a particularly wordy Arkham Asylum game.
And in looking over its legacy, it’s an incubator of what we nowadays call the “alt-right.”
All the hallmarks were there – not just the politics, but the smirking, bratty tone, the way that anti-establishment irreverence was curdled into contemptuous nihilism. For years, long before their fever dreams came to fruition, we could read their fantasies and their cultural takes and their freaking tales of traveling Europe (Mr. von Bulow got around once he’d been acquitted).
And we did nothing.
We didn’t realize what this was turning into, what these guys would be capable once their platform evolved from a half-page column in a free paper (which, honestly, was mostly used by dog walkers to pick up their pets’ leavings) to a Twitter feed. We didn’t know what was in store. We had things to do.
People don’t talk much about New York Press these days; the late Andrew Breitbart seems to have commandeered the spotlight when it comes to the history of this particular movement. But the Press was there, and it was read, and it turned out to have been a great unheeded warning.
Remember this, the next time you look askance at some joke on Twitter. The truths may be deeper, and more terrible, than you realize.