Two recent articles in our campus’ “paper of record” deal with the way said paper is received by its audience; i.e., with derision and hatred. “Snark’s inefficacy” and “On hating the Daily Princetonian,” are two of the most outrageous Opinion columns this ex-Opinion columnist has ever read. “Snark’s inefficacy,” by Will Rivitz and Christian Wawrzonek’s “On hating the Daily Princetonian,” exemplify the specific ways the Daily Princetonian seeks to monopolize campus discourse by smothering all dissenting opinions. Though Rivitz gets credit for a flashier title, both guys have basically written the same article—owing much to ex-EIC Marcelo Rochabrun’s farewell “Letter from the Editor”—both making the same point: “If the Prince is bad, it’s your fault.”
The problem with both of these pieces is that their central point—that people don’t like the Prince—misses the central point: that people don’t like the Prince with good reason. Rivitz quotes Wawrzonek’s view that “hurtful, malicious or disrespectful criticisms will only turn away the very people who want to improve our paper and nothing will ever change.” This self-satisfied assertion ends Wawrzonek’s piece, and suggests the quality of the writing and choice of subject matter is our fault, dear readers. But here is also an unconscious admission that the writer knows something is wrong and just doesn’t care. Honestly, as a call to action it almost works: if you’ve somehow survived sentences like “Psychological bias is really a fascinating topic. Scientifically speaking, it exists in all of us,” you may end the article with a feeling that it’s about time you tried your hand at opinion columns, if only to do better.
With apologies to Rivitz, who I know has no time for snark, I cannot react to the Prince in any other way, and I hope to prove in this article that said snark is not “ultimately meaningless.” In his discussion of snark, Rivitz quotes a dude named Ryan Holiday, who writes, “You know you’re dealing with snark when you attempt to respond to a comment and realize that there is nothing you can say.” I’m going to borrow from Tom Scocca’s rendering in a Gawker piece (which everyone should read), which claims that snark is a reaction to smarm, and smarm is the “absent authority” masquerading as the manners-police. According to Scocca, what the smarmy among us disdain as “disrespect” may actually be a valid response to the status quo’s pretty formidable mechanisms performing their various inauthenticities in my face while I’m trying to live my only life as authentically I can. One might remark that the reason Ryan Holiday cannot respond to snark is not because it’s mean or because it doesn’t warrant a response, but because someone actually just made a really freakin’ good point, and because often power doesn’t need—or want—to respond at all to criticism, by virtue of what it is.
There are two sentences in Rivitz’s piece which hurt me—and you, too—on an ethical level. “I don’t say this to give the impression that ‘Prince’ writers don’t pay attention to negative feedback,” he writes. “As self-applauding as it sounds, we really do care about what we write.” The double negative here is painful and we should all remind ourselves that “self-congratulatory” is an actual word that exists and that “self-applauding” is a dissonant hobgoblin that need come nowhere near my brain ever again, but whatever. My real problem is with the ideas expressed here. “We really do care about what we write,” does not follow logically from any notion of self-congratulation. There is nothing self-congratulatory about caring. In all honesty, this is almost the exact opposite of self-congratulatory. It reveals a deep need, a big ego-driven commitment to one’s reputation. I know, because I wrote these columns. It’s impossible to write something you know so many people will read and not worry about what they will think. Congratulation is external, caring is internal. So what do they mean, here? Do they honestly think they deserve congratulations for simply giving a fuck?
It’s hard to write for the Prince for very long. I wrote 25 Opinion articles over the course of two and a half years. I am proud of six of them. The other 19 include, to name a few, a consideration of the phrase “chill-to-pull ratio” and a discussion of the “#whatshouldwecallme” meme. I know that writing a biweekly column of 800 words is not a form that invites consistent excellence. In fact, it rewards mediocrity, hemming-and-hawing, and obfuscating the point. But it is a form that enables one to establish a consistent and occasionally rewarding relationship with a group of people unlike any group any of us may ever write for again. We all share the same small campus. We share the same cultural touchstones and proximity to contagious diseases. We are probably only one or two people away from knowing anyone else. This means that writing, here, can be really effective in that it actually penetrates into real life, and that can be really good, if you understand your role as a columnist to be an especially audible member of a conversation that’s larger than you, and not simply a step on your path towards the Wall Street Journal.
Over and over again, Rivitz and Wawrzonek and other columnists who despair over the anonymous shade in the anonymous comments, instead of engaging with them for what they hold or what they are, reveal that they know, actually, in their heart of hearts, that this snark is not unwarranted. To write—and to publish—two pieces dismissing mean comments is to legitimize them, whether they like it or not. But their backwards way of doing so reveals what the Prince understands the function of the Opinion section to be. It’s not, really, about giving the student body a voice. It’s not, really, about caring what the student body has to say (that’s what the commenters are doing in the comments, after all), no matter how many times they claim oppositely. It’s about shouting us down.
Nowhere does Rivitz showcase this more than with his assertion that “it is far easier to skip straight to the comments section and upvote that short comment because it fits in with a particular campus narrative than it is to read an article and come to one’s own conclusions about it.” This is a paranoid, almost delusional view of campus, and a misread of what purpose a so-called “campus narrative” can serve. It’s also a bizarre rendering of some kind of uber-individualistic interpretation of the human intellect, in which we all exist in some kind of Randian universe where the mighty (and therefore worthy) triumph by themselves alone, where a discussion of societal good isn’t even on the table. We know that’s not the world we live in. We live in a world we call “postmodern,” a world of competing truths. But for Rivitz, and for Wawrzonek and Rochabrun, too, I’d wager, “campus narrative” is a euphemism for “those who oppose the Prince.” To claim to be victimized by one so-called “narrative,” which—I would argue—is not a “narrative” at all, but a belief, maybe even a fact, is ludicrous. To assert (wrongly, I would claim) that people upvote comments hating the Prince for the sheer joy of hating the Prince, is yet again to miss the point, and this is exactly what makes the Prince so hateable.
Its total inability to let opposing viewpoints speak even from tiny little anonymous boxes at the bottom of articles is at the root of all this, anyway. The Prince is the “paper of record,” the voice of history (and therefore of a certain kind of hegemonic power) on this campus. By not only discrediting but summarily dismissing any form of critique leveled against it, the Princetonian further undermines the already shaky standing of alternative viewpoints. The campus narrative we should be alarmed about is the narrative of the resident journalistic power, which actively seeks to eradicate all other voices, and—in other sections—exposes members of its community to social scorn and censure for breaking breakable laws, and which in the name of “truth” steamrolls over the voices of people insisting (anonymously, which is really the only way they are able to, given the consequences) that they stop.
I don’t envy any Prince writers right now. I quit for a reason. I get that it’s really hard to churn out a daily paper in this little hamlet; it’s hard enough to put out a weekly one. But Wawrzonek and Rivitz and Rochabrun keep reflecting criticism outwards. It’s not their fault, we hear over and over again. It’s ours. It’s not even that we’re to blame as much as we are reproached for not taking the initiative to make it better ourselves. Rivitz even says this explicitly: the Prince, by virtue of what it is, he writes, suffers from “systemic issues within news publications.” So how, exactly, is that our problem? I want to make an analogy which in all honesty I don’t think is as sensationalist as it sounds: this logic puts me in mind of (conservative) politicians who dismiss structural, systemic, societal failures (like poverty, for example) with claims of individual incompetence or inherent unworthiness. (This is admittedly over-the-top, but I don’t think I’m wrong in identifying a Prince-wide tendency towards conservatism and regressivism.) As journalism loses its unassailable role in society, as there arise more and more ways to learn what is happening in the world, and to whom, it is easier and easier for the people to question the “facts” that were once unquestionable, by virtue of existing in a self-created and self-policed vacuum.
By using the word “inefficacy” in his title, Rivitz drenches his whole article with a capitalistic sheen, implying that something is only good if it produces a tangible result, and revealing why the conservative and the powerful have such a distaste for snark: it’s not manageable. It’s not controllable. You can’t quantify it or calculate it. It is—however small—a form of subversion. It’s why the Nass is able to bill itself as the “alternative weekly newspaper,” and find itself existing as a social entity in addition to a quasi-journalistic one. In all honesty it is this ethos that unites this paper more than any golden, gleaming journalistic dreams. This is absolutely a drawback. But it is also what makes us valuable.
But, they say, the snarky among you—the critical, the ironic—must tone it down in the name of bettering the Prince for all, a statement that assumes allegiance to the Prince simply because it is the Prince: old, famous, and respected (at least for now). It’s not that our snark could actually have purpose, have a source, not that commenting is the only way people have to respond to the instant canonization of inanity that any publication in the Prince entails, but that we (and I use the pronoun here to represent all who are displeased with the Prince, having never actually commented anonymously on any articles, as far as I can recall) are talking at all. No, it would be in the Prince’s (and somehow, apparently, our) best interests if we stayed silent. Or, by Rivitz’ recommendation, quoting fellow columnist Bennett McIntosh, give up and fall in line. “The entire staff of the paper turns over every four years — if you want to improve the Prince, there is literally nothing standing in your way,” he quotes.
Yes, you read correctly: literally nothing! Nothing at all. Not a history of publishing sub-par writing about unimportant topics (like anonymous comments on the Internet, for God’s sake), not even a broader but no less serious anxiety about what it would mean to be complicit in the sins of such an institution, anyway. When people like me write articles like this, we discourage the Prince from being good, they claim. It’s my fault. It’s your fault for reading this.
My dad wrote for the Prince in the late 70’s, and my daughterly curiosity has occasionally led me to look at the online archives of the Prince, to read his writing and the writing of his peers. A significant portion of it is really good, and remarkably different in style than what the Prince is like now. The writing from then is lush, descriptive, witty. And yes, journalism has changed. We want different things from newspapers, now, we want certain kinds of information in certain kinds of ways, because we are cyber-capitalist datamongers. But as the “paper of record,” the Prince serves an incredibly important, singular function for us as Princeton students, one that the Nass, as biased as I obviously am towards it, cannot and will not serve for many a year at least. It would be cool if the Prince admitted that it has some responsibility to its readership, and not vice versa, and that the least it could do is preserve for us some sense of what it was like to be a student here, even as that changes. But I guess, for now, that that actually is up to us.