Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Die, Infurior Bieng!

Some department store buildings from York, Pa., are lined up and were to appear today, but some things are just too good to pass by.

In Canada's National Post on Feb. 13, a writer named Yoni Goldstein decided to hail what he sees as the imminent end of copy editing as a good thing for the world. That is, unless this was a piece of satire so deep that it already would have closed on Saturday night.

First, let's take it as a simple expression of his opinion. There's no point in getting into his ad hominem descriptions of we who are "cynical, gruff, and weird in social situations" or his feeling that copy editors only apply "arcane" style rules. The Washington Post once famously wrote an article in which it characterized what "all" Pentecostals are like. We all get a certain license to be idiots.

It is Goldstein's conclusion that would raise this to the level of extreme Internet utopianism. He writes:

"... Online news sites and blogs tend to be nearly completely unconcerned with the kinds of typos and grammatical errors that copy editors are paid to seek out and fix. ... Still, this is no reason to get sentimental about the lowly copy editor. If he is unacknowledged within the newsroom and a relic online, it is because we as readers have evolved. We no longer sweat the small stuff of proper hyphenation and correct usage of semi-colons - it's the ideas and opinions that we're after. If a few words here and there are misspelled, so what? We're smart enough to know it hardly matters to the quality of the story or argument."

As I said, this COULD be simply a piece of satire written with tongue so far in cheek as to not be visible.  Because it turns out that Yoni Goldstein, M.A. in English literature, 2003, at York University, former editorial board member of the National Post, former assistant editor of the Canadian magazine Maclean's, and former editor of something called the Book for Men, and current blogger for the Huffington Post Canada, also writes pieces such as this:

"Reaction to [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper's Davos announcement of coming changes to Old Age Security was predictable. "Poor old people" was the general tenor -- one day they're heading jauntily toward retirement at 65, but now, because of our emotionless jerk of a prime minister, they'll have to work an extra two years.

"Well, boo hoo. Am I the only one unmoved by the 'Won't someone think about the old people' cries? Because it seems to me that working an extra two years is the least old people and soon-to-be-old baby boomers can do for the rest of us....

"Oldies have already been working for 40 years; they're used to the routine and it's my understanding that old people love sticking to routines -- that they turn into shriveled head cases when their daily schedules don't follow predictable patterns. So staying at work (combined with regular consumption of prunes) is actually the healthiest option for them....

"We know that we know more than you -- we've grown up in a world where all knowledge is available at the click of a mouse. The collective wisdom of the Internet trumps your meandering stories of personal hardships. We're the wise ones, not you.

"So, old people, it's time to get up off the couch and make yourselves useful. No more free rides here."

So at this point, I might be saying: Yoni, what you would truly need a copy editor to tell you is, I didn't know Jonathan Swift, but you're not Jonathan Swift. At some point, you've got to put a phrase in, a wink-wink, that says, "Hey, folks, I'm writing this as satire." Simply being over the top no longer counts, because people who really believe what you're poking fun at have been there before you and have said it already. Part of the collective wisdom of the Internet is that it is impossible to be over the top. Someone will try to surpass you just to show he or she can. And despite the old saw, words can harm.

When the Internet era was just catching fire, Mickey Kaus, one of the earliest big-name political bloggers, wrote enthusiastically about the layoff of copy editors (in what by today's terms would be small numbers) at the Los Angeles Times. I can't find it in a search of Kausfiles, it was years ago. Kaus' point was that some reporter he knew at the Times could write, as he saw it, flawless copy on a wristwatch keypad, and that all that copy editors did was mangle this 100 percent wordsmithing with their useless questions and "arcane" rules. It was clear that Kaus had had his subjunctive modes tied up in a knot about this for some time. He was not being satirical.

In this, he reminded me of a former editor at a newspaper far, far way and his tale to me of why he had abolished the local copy desk: "I'm a smart guy. I was a reporter for 20 years. Copy editors asked me a lot of dumb questions. Savvy?" Well, I savvied, and praised the stars I was leaving.

He may have been a smart guy, though I must humbly admit it was not apparent to me. He may have written flawless copy. He may have had copy editors who were obsessed with small points or arbitrary rules they couldn't back up. My experience in 35 years in newspapers is that most reporters do not write flawless copy, and about two-thirds of them know that. Those who do write nearly flawlessly for the most part appreciate the backstop. Those who do not and know it appreciate that someone is there to make their work better or at least stop it from being misinterpreted. Those who do not appreciate it tend to see writing as a form of masturbation -- I'm giving myself pleasure, and man, it feels good.

So either Yoni Goldstein thought he was aiding the cause of copy editing -- but did so too subtly that it was too easy to believe him, in a world where business-side cost cutters, egomaniacal writers, editors in chief obsessed with "feet on the street" are constantly looking for justification to get rid of all those picky, delaying, self-righteous copy editors who don't understand today's world -- because if you spell the prime minister's name Steven Harbor and follow it with "He're one superdooper dickhed," you'll get more web hits than a reasoned piece of political commentary will draw. ("Fuckin'-A! The prime minister's a dickhead! Pass me another Molson.") Canadian humor can be more savagely cutting than American. Or perhaps Yoni really does spend his days doing hand jobs. Perhaps he will enlighten us. A contribution to support the American Copy Editors Society -- which does have Canadian members -- would be a nice way to show it.

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