Trolfoons and Their Hosts

Posted: March 2, 2014 in Blogosphere, Debate, Manners, Media, Tacky
Tags: , , ,

Morris Berman came forward with an interesting bit about the New Monastic Individual (NMI) first described in his book The Twilight of American Culture. He wrote two additional books to complete his second trilogy: Dark Ages America (also the title of his blog) and Why America Failed, taking from the latter the initials WAF to denote followers, commentators, acolytes, and habitués of his blog using the term Wafer. I hesitate to quote too liberally, since Prof. Berman sometimes puts up copyright notices at the ends of his blogs; I’ll redact this at the slightest whiff of an infringement challenge:

  1. Wafers recognize that 99% of those around them, if they are living in the United States, are basically stupid and nasty. This is not said so much as a judgment as a description: it’s simply the way things are, and these things are not going to change any time soon. Wafers know this, and they accept it.
  2. The lives of Wafers are driven by knowledge, not fear or fantasy. They are living in reality, in short, not drowning in the mass illusions of contemporary America.
  3. Wafers are serious about their lives. They are not here on this earth to waste time, to piss their lives away on other people’s agendas, as are most Americans — right up to and including the president. Their goals are truth, love, and joy, and they are dedicated to pursuing them.
  4. Finally, Wafers feel sorry for non-Wafers, and if they can, try to help them. They recognize, of course (see #1), that most cannot be helped; but if they come across someone who shows signs of potential Waferdom, of awakening to the three points mentioned above, they try to fish them out of the drink, so to speak, and set them on the path of dignity, intelligence, integrity, and self-respect. Noblesse oblige, that sort of thing.

Numbers 1–3 are well and good. I’ve been a subscriber since Twilight was published. Evidence for the negative assessments is obvious and easy to obtain. Carving out a special place for a few Wafers to congratulate themselves (no. 4), however, strikes me as pissy and ungracious. But this isn’t precisely what I want to blog about. Rather, it’s how a former intellectual model of mine has fallen into disgrace, not that he would recognize or admit it. (This is IMO worse than the irrelevance complained about at his blog.) Prof. Berman was among the first to awaken in me a real curiosity in deeper stories behind cheap façades offered by most historical accounts, which form a dissatisfying consensus reality. I don’t possess the academic wherewithal to emulate him, but I’m a critical reader and can synthesize a lot of information.

So here’s the problem: Prof. Berman offers first-rate cultural analysis in his books but then behaves like a boor at his blog. Well, not like a boor; he is a boor, and a bully, and a troll. The previous entry at his blog is material recycled from another of his books, A Question of Values. I don’t care that it’s recycled. After all, the essays in the book are themselves sometimes recycled from his blog. But then come other, less analytical blog posts and a profusion of comments laden with sophomoric references to deli meats and sundry other memes he’s been pushing over time. Of course, one man’s humor, irony, and snark are another man’s fighting words. I founder there frequently because, in my earnestness, I’m unwilling to take ghoulish jokery with the necessary ironic detachment but take it instead at its more literal face value. Frankly, it’s ugly stuff: bullies picking on the weak for not being able to take a presumed joke, which is something frat boys learn early on. (In fairness, I learned it, too, but discarded it as I grew up.) If, like me, one takes his remarks at face value, the ugliness is obvious (see this intro to the Wafer code quoted above):

Many people have asked me what it takes to become a Wafer; what is the “Wafer Code,” so to speak, or what are the basic characteristics of a Wafer. I understand their eagerness, because the world offers no higher status than Waferdom [elitism]. Many lurk on this web site, yearning to be Wafers [self-congratulation], and many more are, as we all know, trolfoons [insult]: they don’t have the elementary courtesy or emotional intelligence to approach the site politely [insult], and so get condemned to Utter Darkness [disenfranchisement]. They keep knocking on the door, gnashing their teeth, but to no avail. They are essentially anti-Wafers, the lowest of the low [degradation]. Many others are like those who press their noses against the windows of an elegant restaurant [envy baiting], seeing all the Beautiful People inside [self-congratulation], wishing they could join in the fun, but somehow cannot cross over into Waferdom. (This is, after all, the only blog in the entire world worth paying any attention to [delusions of grandeur].) My heart goes out to them … [false sympathy]

Plus this tag afterwards:

As the saying goes, although many may be called, few are chosen [elitism]. Let us, then, continue on the Sacred Path of Waferdom [delusions of godhood]. Life offers no greater achievement. [self-aggrandizement]

It’s ugly through and through. Yeah, sure, maybe there’s an ironic, PoMo humor if one counts oneself among the initiates. But that makes it no better, really. In fact, the very things Prof. Berman criticizes in one blog entry about the TV show Seinfeld (a constant stream of potshots and putdowns, among other things) he turns around and does in the next. Prof. Berman’s tone and taunts are obvious provocations, yet he pretends to be surprised and entertained when fools rise to his bait. He calls them trolfoons, which I expect is a portmanteau of trolls and buffoons. Yet Berman himself is a troll (about 45 comments into this comments section):

… perhaps it’s only a momentary breather, but the est-buffoons seem to have abated. They may have gone the way of the Civil War trolls, I dunno. But this has filled me w/a deep dread, because w/o being attacked by trolls and buffoons, I really don’t know what can fill the Void, and I become suicidal. So I’m thinking that we should pick some target at random and insult it, see what happens. Two possible candidates I’ve already mentioned are

1. The Latvian Orthodox Church
2. Vegans

Wafers are invited to add to this list. When we arrive at a consensus, we can then formulate a nice insult, lie back, and watch the attacks roll in. My purpose in living will be restored.

Thank you all for participating in this exciting project.

Undoubtedly, the comments section at any blog or media outlet attracts its share of commentators exhibiting behind the shield of anonymity (or not!) some of the worst behaviors imaginable, plus an astonishing intellectual vacuity and/or topsy-turvy style of argumentation. Perhaps it’s escaped Prof. Berman’s notice that he’s likely chasing chimeras. In the moderated comments section, he refuses to publish troll rants but continues to rail against submissions he receives in response to his troll-baiting, which shows a remarkable failure to understand the medium in which he promulgates his message. It’s hard to know for whom to feel more sorry: the ignoramuses or the intellectuals who besmirch them with haughty displays of erudition. (Prof. Berman can be agreeable if it suits him, but he can never be wrong. He shuts down commentators even in purely interpretive and speculative comments, such as the one where a fellow suggests that perhaps Berman is misreading Seinfeld because the show’s humor arises out of a very specific (if caustic) attitude found among NYC comedians and may not in fact be a nasty, full-bore microcosm of America.)

I suspect Prof. Berman is secretly envious of Gore Vidal’s infamous line, “Stupidity excites me,” which is quoted at Dark Ages America with some regularity. But Vidal was a fundamentally different sort of public intellectual from Prof. Berman. Vidal was a populist (of sorts), wrote fiction and screenplays, ran for public office early in life, and was dynamic in his many public appearances, which is to say, he interacted with his interviewers — sometimes with exceeding controversy — while displaying an acerbic wit and knack for turning phrases that only comes along infrequently in public life. Prof. Berman’s public persona is academic and by comparison restrained — except at his blog. His public appearances are speeches read from a script, and the Q&A sessions afterwards are tame. None of that takes away from Prof. Berman’s accomplishments, but his boorish behavior certainly does.

  1. Eric says:

    In our culture we seem to be stuck with either smarmy phony bullshit or belligerence. Communication overall seems to descend ever more rapidly into crude and vicious tweets across all social classes and media, but there are still plenty of intelligent articulate people around; they absorb cultural norms and act them out in different guises but the agenda is often the same: power, humiliation, status over others, shutting down discussion with threats. The traditional conversational skills, like honesty, humor, humility, have even become so twisted and distorted that they are often just more weapons used to attack and degrade.

    It isn’t hard to find youtubes of round tables/conversational dialogues/academic discussions where what comes across is violence, regardless of the big words and mellow affect or lofty topic and impressive professional titles. (Of course in your real life you may have opportunity to attend these events and experience in full body just how violent, tense and stressful they can be, far beyond what comes across on a little screen on video!) In normal every day life it is a searing experience to realize that you’ve been suckered by someone who is as hostile to you as a mugger, you just didn’t know it because they hid it with wit, charm, skillful use of language. You learn to develop a level of suspicion and even a caustic demeanor in order to protect yourself from repeated humiliation. It becomes incredibly difficult to know when to trust someone, no matter how cultured and articulate and genuine they can come across. Better to be skeptical until further evidence over time has been gathered.

    I don’t have to say anything about the stupendous ugliness of so much of what is online at every level. I’m not sure how anyone, no matter how saintly, can maintain an attitude that isn’t callous to some degree after even a short time online. And of course the web is so often the place of last refuge for lost souls, a reaching out in hopes of finding some kind of connection that seems utterly impossible in the real meat world. That too is a burden that ends up requiring a response that might be quite unlike what a person would do if confronted with that kind of need from a live human being. Engaging in online life sometimes seems to be a horrendous mix of brutal sociopathic hardness and dishonesty, alongside shockingly vulnerable pleas for help through total exposure and self revelation. Just an extreme version of the hideous society all around us, IMO.

    I’ve had the chance to meet Berman very briefly in person several times at readings he’s done and he is the first to say very plainly to his audience that he is ‘not a nice person’, which of course is unusual enough that I suspect most people just laugh and shrug it off as exaggerated self deprecation. But maybe it is more than that and he means it.

    Berman is a refugee from American academics, as well as american culture. I think it would be unfair to imagine we can know his motivations for some of the lofty snark that can come across on his blog, but his ability to communicate in this way was likely a skill he attained in his professional life. He has now left his old cultural context, but certainly it has shaped him, no way to escape that (which is true of all of us).

    If you go back and read Berman’s first trilogy (something extremely worthwhile btw), its interesting to compare the tone of those books with his more recent writing. I think there is a lot of biography that we can never know but would probably explain the changes. Being a social critic during societal collapse HAS to change a person, even scar them substantially, how could it not?

    Perhaps his bluntness about not being a nice person is also his way of letting people know, as he also does in some of his blog posts, that he is not going to be/not trying to be anybody’s friend, mentor, guru, big brother/daddy, or otherwise play caretaker for the many lost souls that find some comfort in his writing and on his blog. He seems to be extremely private about his real life and the people in it that he says keep him sane. I wonder how he comes across in his communication in spanish and in his home context in the real world among his friends, I suspect it is quite different.

    Over time I’ve decided that I’m actually more comfortable with Berman and his hostility towards his fans (at times) and the broader culture than I am with the sort of guru trajectory that you so clearly pointed out seems to be a path too well trodden among some alternative writers and bloggers. (I rarely read the Archdruid anymore, my revulsion has gone beyond just intellectual to something more physical.) At least Berman is funny even when he is snarky and I rarely find him arrogant in an offensive way, just blunt.

    I claim no authority to know the man, in fact I would be cringing under the toilet if I thought there was any chance he would ever read this lol, he certainly doesn’t need me or anyone else to apologize for or defend him! But since there just aren’t that many voices out there worth paying attention to, and I’ve struggled with some of what you pointed out in your post, I thought it would be worth sharing some of my thoughts. Nobody gets a free pass, but I try to allow for flaws in those I admire, especially those who most likely have accrued war wounds and shell shock from the stance they have taken.

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment. Lots there to chew on.

      It is clear that you have a better grasp of the nature of the Internet and open fora or quasi-open (moderated) fora than, say, Prof. Berman. I’m all for allowing flaws, but he’s gone a little ’round the bend, no? My opinions don’t count for much, but I would still recommend Berman’s books heartily, though I definitely stopped reading the blog with any regularity. When the Wafer Code came up, I was so put off by his approach I had to rant, but I’m not trolling onto his site.

      • leavergirl says:

        Nicely done… reminds me of other such fora… for example, Kingsnorth of Dark Mountain fame writes like an angel, but treats people like a vicious bully – esp. women, esp. out of sight. Is it mere hypocrisy, or is it actually that some people are good at creating the magic words that enchant us so they could entrap us in their self-serving schemes? Both, methinks.

  2. Brian Miller says:

    I’ve been thinking similar thoughts, but about JMG’s blog for the past year. There has been a slide into snarky self-referencing that I find off-putting. The constant “I find it humorous”, a kind of smug assurance that everyone else is either “driving too fast or too slow” for him. In his case since these comments are embedded in the writings themselves it is less forgivable.

    One might be slightly more forgiving of those who reveal a snarky side in their comments. But, only slightly….

    • leavergirl says:

      Heh. JMG is way too full of himself for comfort. And as for snarky comments of others, he generally does not let them through. Not much of a taste for attitudes critical of his ideas, or for full bodied discussions. Deferential fawning is always welcome though. ;-)

      • Brutus says:

        I’ve never paid much attention to JMG despite his having some worthwhile things to say because anyone whose parades around with florid titles and in pajamas has lost the authority to be taken any too seriously. It seems my avoidance is well founded.

      • leavergirl says:

        Yeah… he writes often well and perceptively, but his whole archdruid authoritarian egocentric trip is very off-putting. I still read him here and there. IMO his writings never quite deliver on the implied promises… probably because his mind is so closed to further input. — Which is really another way of saying that he does not (want to) get a significant part of the problem we are all whittling away on.

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