If there was ever a personification of the faults of online news, it is John Kennedy O’Toole’s vile Ignatius J. Reilly, an arrogant, miserable creature of letters and of his mother’s basement. ‘Most fools don’t comprehend my worldview at all,’ he says, advising a young man on what to read in 1960s New Orleans. ‘You may skip the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. That is mostly dangerous propaganda. Now that I think of it, you had better skip the Romantics and the Victorians, too. For the contemporary period, you should study some selected comic books. I recommend Batman especially, for he tends to transcend the abysmal society in which he’s found himself. His morality is rather rigid, also. I rather respect Batman.’
It is with the might of Ignatius J. Reilly that many find ourselves utterly hooked on hate-reading. One can hate-read for substance or form, for politics or pop culture – although artisanal hate-reads invariably paw all facets. So while many claim that online connectivity has bred a new form of alienation, I appeal to the grand community of this noble art, and share my handpicked curation of the finest hate-reads of the year.
Just two days before the UK election in May, Britain’s professional socialist, Owen Jones, penned a screed so ill-advised that its headline – ‘Russell Brand has endorsed Labour, and the Tories should be worried’ – leapt from Guardian screens onto coffee mugs around the world (with thanks to Speccie colleague Toby Young) once its comedy value had hit home after the Tories’ resounding victory. In October, Jones’s Guardian Australia stablemate, Van Badham, applied a more subtle hyperbole when she made out Brand was a prophet and his visit to Australia a warm-up act for the coming revolution.
Australia’s hate-read frequent flyers don’t usually display the talent for such stunning political imprescience, but tend to prefer to dabble in an equally rare artform in itself, a hybrid of the tepid and the bizarre. Dean Frenkel – the man who speculated that the 2013 election hinged on K Rudd knowing 100,000 words – returned with further bouts of pseudoscience to claim (swiftly debunked by experts) that the Australian accent is a product of historic alcoholism, and that the cost of our poor communication ‘may amount to billions of dollars’ annually.
Charles Waterstreet continued to chart his decline, with his weekly Fairfax column following Michelle Payne’s winning ride in the Melbourne Cup rendering even the most seasoned hate-reader perplexed. One wonders whether the journalistic convention of a Lifeline number at the end of the column ought to have been present. But it’s not us – or any reader, really – that Waterstreet has in mind as he scatters words one after another. His casual opening boast (or criminally unfunny satire) states: ‘No one has spent more time, effort and money in advancing the interests of women than me. I have spent all my time, in the past, and intend to spend all the rest of my time, in the future.’ Moving to the earnest, he decries the castration of racehorses, stumbling into his lone achievement of managing to fit two instances of the phrase ‘their little Malteser cherries’ into one paragraph.
Gideon Haigh once mused on the process of editing an Elizabeth Farrelly column that ‘there being so much one might do, maybe best just let it go and see if anyone notices.’ It is through this prism that one must read her weekly word-association, and on our Prime Minister, she doesn’t disappoint. ‘The air itself has a new edge,’ we’re told, framing him as both ‘an intelligent bogeyman’ and Beyonce, before predicting that he would reign for longer than Menzies.
But conventional political discourse has nothing on the j’accuse of the minutiae of identity politics. Here rests an Hermitage of crimes so fabulous that the question of being fooled by parody is usually one’s first concern. The ubiquity of the baseless trigger warning is now such that few bear mention, but online magazine Everyday Feminism’s trigger warning explainer came prefaced with its own: ‘Everyday Feminism definitely believes in giving people a heads up about material that might provoke our reader’s trauma. However, we use the phrase “content warning” instead of “trigger warning,” as the word “trigger”… evokes violent weaponry imagery. This could be re-traumatising for folks who have suffered military, police, and other forms of violence.”’
A writer at Slate counseled against the ‘semiotic violence’ of horizontal hugging, colloquially known as spooning, arguing that, as a ‘dimension of ideology’, spooning ‘is fundamentally a sexist arrangement… a perverse strategy by which we nightly enact the unjust relations of “big” and “little” privilege that plague our society on every level.’ His solution? ‘Conscious cuddling.’
Dostoyevskian agonising continued at Slate with a young man trying to reconcile his feminism with his love of grilling meat on the barbecue. ‘Uncomfortable with the pleasure I take in something so conventionally masculine’ though Jacob Brogan was, he finally made peace with his conscience by ‘actively making light of cookout customs’ even while he was enjoying them. ‘Having all this context doesn’t stop me from grilling,’ he reported. Of course, there’s more to identity than being a man or a woman. Back at the Guardian, Luke Stavrand Woolf, ‘a transgender, non-binary person’, asked: ‘Is masculinity so fragile I can’t even walk my cat?’ In XOJane, Sarah Chrisman, who believes she wasn’t born in the wrong body but at the wrong time, accused us – all of us – of demanding that she ‘first explain and then justify my entire existence’. You’ll be pleased to know that we have her assurance that she will continue to live her life as a Victorian lady despite ‘ignorance and misbehaviour’.
I wonder why Western progressives are intent on inventing such hardships when there exists a strong tradition of bottling absurdity. One of the Kremlin troll factory Sputnik’s stars, Ekaterina Blinova, reminded us that reupholstering history remains a fine art, as she asked ‘Why Does the West Hate Stalin?’ and ‘World’s Secret Shadow Government: Conspiracy Theory or Frighteningly Real?’
For all of the inherent mirth in the practice of hate-reading, it also asks serious questions of our media consumption in the digital age. Does the interdependence of click-based media and absurd politics render Reilly’s Batman a contradiction: must we chose between transcending an abysmal society, or being of rigid morality? Do we laugh off the manufactured ills of opinion pages, or do we confront them in moral and ideological battle? Much like our friend the feminist griller, I’m utterly conflicted.
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