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The Writer vs. Himself

Andrew Phillips

PopMatters examines what happens when a journalist tries to take a chart-topping band to task.

PopMatters Events Editor

Wayta save the world, hippie...

* * *

They're calling it THE GODSMACKDOWN: Arthur vs. Godsmack, and the much-hyped bout went down something like this:

ROUND 1: Jay Babcock, editor of anti-war culture magazine Arthur, set himself up for a political confrontation with Sully Erna, the lead singer of the chart-topping hard-rock act Godsmack over the issue of military recruitment.

SULLY: I would say, if I had to guess what our age group is, it's probably between ...18 and 40.

JAY: Oh yeah?

ROUND 2: Babcock soon pulled out the big guns, noting that the band has shown significant support for the American military and questioning the moral reasoning behind their decision to allow songs to be used in Navy ads.

JAY: So I notice you guys have been really involved with promoting the military.

SULLY: Well, they actually came to us, believe it or not. ...And hey, I'm an American boy so... I'm proud of it.

ROUND 3: Stacked or not (you decide]), the interview quickly took a ragged tone, shifting from amicable debate to an all-out argument that grew bigger than the issue at hand -- songs in recruitment ads -- and became a sparring match over the war itself. Angry stammering and reflexive retorts (not to mention a few choice curses) flew from both sides and unfortunate things were said in the heat of the moment.

JAY: [interrupting, incredulous] When did Sadaam try to come in here and control our country?


ROUND 4: The singer hung up in anger after about ten minutes, and two days later the editor published the complete transcript online -- blemishes and all -- along with the audio and a (slightly snotty?) note asserting his belief that an actively pro-war band should be able to answer anti-war questions, especially when that band has the number one record in the country.

His band is using their music to help recruit poor, under-educated, foolish, impressionable kids into the military at a time of worthless, pointless war, the consequences of which we -- all of us -- will be feeling for the rest of our lives. If he doesn't care to discuss this -- all of this -- he shouldn't do interviews... especially with anti-war publications.

ROUND 5: All hell broke loose on the message boards.

* * *

It's 5 am on a Tuesday night; I've read hundreds of digital tidbits, and I've got hundreds more to go. I've become obsessed with these posts, because they're as compelling as the interview itself. So, a writer tried to make a point (or a "difference" if you're inclined to agree with his politics). Did it work? I don't know yet. One thing's for sure, though; if he was trying to build a consensus, he failed miserably.

I'm at comment #118 on Arthur magazine's message board, this one a 1700+ word essay -- with annotations -- meant to debunk another long essay/comment asserting that the United States has never been an agitator in world politics. The responses, like the interview itself, become crasser as they continue, inflating the issue and veering into stock debate over the war in Iraq.

I've read anti-military rants that decry "inlistment" [sic] practices as well as pieces written by alleged (or real) members of the military, airing their anger at what they believe to be an attack on their intelligence ("Godsmack didn't make me join the Navy"). I've read phrases like "monkey turds" and seen enough pervy plays on the name Babcock to make a middle school bully blush. I've seen the word "fuck" used so many times that it's become textually impotent, like "the" or a serial comma.

So, why am I still reading? Well, the deeper you get into the boards, the more you realize that what seems like an easy issue to address -- whether or not what Babcock did was effective, and/or a good idea -- is bound to a number of more subtle issues. I'm not sure what happened here yet, but I do know two things: (1) Good or bad, Jay Babcock did a lot more here than just ask some dude about who his band licenses their music to. (2) The ethics of what he did are not easily placed on the spectrum of journalistic practice.

While they vary in color and tone, the hundreds of responses to Babcock's piece really break down into five general categories, none as smart (or quite as crass and stupid) as they seem at first:

1. Jay Babcock sucks giant monkey turds. If he hates AMERICA so much, why doesn't he go live in Iraq?

For all its charge and passion, this is just a silly thing to say. It's an all-or-nothing technique, a love-me-or-leave-me tactic that quashes debate with ridiculous generalities. But, somewhere deep down in this challenge, there's an actual idea gasping for air: for all its faults, America is a pretty decent place to live, at least comparatively.

2. Godsmack sucks giant monkey turds and Jay Babcock proved it! Thank God, because there are lives at stake.

Equally overwrought, these responses reserve no room for subtlety, so it's not surprising that they miss the complexity of Babcock's interview tactics and their effect. These respondents use a presumed purity of intention to gloss over the specific interview's inadequacies. They assume Babcock's arguments as unassailable truth and the connection between Godsmack and war tragedy proven. In a ten minute argument? Please.

3. Jay Babcock sucks monkey turds and he's an irresponsible journalist.

These responses paint Babcock's interview as an act of "typical" liberal griping. They say it was an ambush from the start with no semblance of objectivity. Whether or not it was an attack, they're certainly right that it was a confrontation. But this line of thought fails to consider that it is subjectivity (i.e. opinion) that spurs honest debate as well as effective investigative journalism. And who's to say Babcock really intended for things to go so quickly to poo?

4. Godsmack sucks giant monkey turds, but Jay Babcock tosses them.

This is a more thoughtful take on the issue, heralded by those who agree with Babcock's underlying views, but feel that his confrontational technique is part of a larger problem. "Coax, don't push," they say, if you want to persuade. And never distract with bold, polarizing gambits like this one. But then, where does that leave us? Should he not have done the interview at all for fear that it would spin out of control? Would his point have been rendered ineffectual if he took a more moderate tone? After all, quiet people and moderate actions don't change the world... or do they?

5. Complacency sucks giant monkey turds.

Another more reasoned response, these people proffer the notion that, whatever its effect, aggressive debate is sorely missing in contemporary American discourse. Of course, this argument marginalizes the interview's potentially polarizing effect and falls down a slippery slope by saying that intent is more important than effect. After all, grand, unfocused debate can be just as ineffectual as no debate at all.

* * *

I wrote the words "the writer vs himself" at the top of my screen several days ago. I can count the moments since then, a distinct stage of outrage and intrigue for every waking one. I started out thinking that Babcock had shot himself in the foot, then stuck it in his mouth (how's that for mixing metaphor?). My immediate reaction was that he went too far and undermined his goal by making himself seem an easily dismissible extremist. Thus the title "the writer vs himself."

But, even if that is true (and I'm no longer sure that it is), what at first seemed an easy task (to quantify and comment upon the act of another journalist) has become complicated by rapidly-shifting reasoning and the complexity of the issue at hand. And now, the title has come to describe the conflict in me as I've explored the gaps in the many "monkey-turd" lines of reasoning:

Do I think he went too far? Maybe, maybe not.

Did his act help his cause? Hard to tell.

Did his act hurt his cause? Hard to tell

Do I think Jay Babcock is an irresponsible journalist? Could be, but then he might also be a particularly responsible one.

When the sum of your data -- in my case blog posts, message boards, and a nice, long chat with Babcock himself -- lends no conclusion, you enter a whole new journalistic debate. If the problem here is that Babcock's interview, for whatever reason, got out of control and eventually lost its focus, how is it possible to write something effective without also getting consumed by the issue's complexity? How do you keep from further fanning the flames?

After all, when you start to write a media critique about how a grand gambit on the part of a journalist might have been ineffectual, it's hard not to turn on yourself -- to recognize the hypocrisy in expanding it even further.

And writing about how you can't make up your mind and the world is just a gosh-darn complex place? That's the biggest, most boring trap of all.

* * *

When I talked with Jay Babcock, I didn't ask him what he had thought about the night before his interview, because I like what I think he thought too much. In my mind, he thought the same thing I did when I read his interview a few days later and decided to write about it:

"This is my chance to make something happen."

But wait; that sounds self-centered, and it's not quite right. For anyone that writes and thinks critically, the mind is constantly seeking a point of resolution, a moment when what you believe and what you do sync up in perfect harmony with circumstance to create something larger -- something that not only reflects the world but has the power to shake it from an imperfect state. A point where what you've said and done come together to form something important.

It's in these kinds of essays and interviews that great changes occur, that great points are proven. Of course, you'll notice, there are several factors to this equation. You have to be (1) the right person, (2) at the right place, (3) at the right time, and (4) have the right thing to say. And, the elusive fifth rule: you have to pull it all together perfectly. Herein lies the problem. If brilliance (and greatness) is the perfect convergence of these factors, then what happens when you can only manage two or three? A shitstorm of criticism.

So if you aren't sure you'll manage to cover all five points, should you even try?

When Babcock spoke to me, fielding my sometimes contrarian questions, his responses were measured and intelligent. Though he seemed exhausted to the bone (and after a week defending yourself, who wouldn't be), he also seemed open to honest debate -- he even e-mailed me days later with a USA Today article, a smart complement to one of his points. So why does he come across as less open in his interview with Erna? Why are some critics saying that what Babcock did was an ambush?

Perhaps it's because he, like all of us, is an imperfect person and in a moment of action, there's little room for self-restraint. Perhaps, in the moment when you see the rickety old bridge before you, and truth on the other side, you're too busy running across to consider how far you'll plummet if you don't mind the broken boards.

When I got off of the phone with Babcock, I was convinced of the purity of his intentions, that he's an honest journalist who was trying to make an honest point about a band's involvement with the military -- to push them and their fans to more deeply consider the action. I was convinced that he had a lot of good questions inside of him, about America and the war in Iraq.

What I was not convinced of was that he has any more answers than the rest of us. And how frustrating is that? Behind reason and thought, there's an anger that drives many Americans, an intangible frustration and a feeling of powerlessness that grows as things unfold that are beyond their ability to comprehend. It's pretty easy to unleash all that anger in a weak moment, to lavish it on sources tangential or only semi-related to the larger conflict (and Godsmack is arguably that). It's even easier to let something small get much bigger than it should be.

When I spoke to Babcock, I told him that, no matter what, I thought that his desire to make a point with an article that was essentially a piece of entertainment journalism was admirable. When I said that I think it is hard to do what he did, he responded that it's easy, that anyone can do it.

I think he misunderstood what I meant. It's true; anyone can try to make a difference, but it's much harder to pull it off. So, should we try when we know we might fail, or worse, damage what we're trying to do? Should he have looked down while he was running across the bridge and considered the risk? Maybe, but then maybe it doesn't matter. After all, it's only after we've put a foot through a rotten plank that we learn the danger of what's before us, and exactly how far we can or can't cross.

I'm convinced that if enough people make an attempt at the bridge, eventually someone's bound to get to the other side successfully. If enough journalists (entertainment or otherwise) poll their conscious and go after the tough questions, someone's bound to carry it off with the grace. Sure, they might step on their own toes from time to time, but the sum total of their efforts (however small) will yield a positive result: more thought, and as a result, a better grip on truth. And with enough little victories, whose to say what can be achieved?

Of course, that doesn't make things any easier for people like Babcock, or me for that matter. I've worried over the piece before you into the wee hours of the night, knowing that, while I have a chance to transport a few readers over to the other side, I could just as easily plunge in the process. If I do, then I'll sympathize with Jay even more, because, like him, I'm just trying to keep my footing and make it across the bridge.

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