Wednesday, June 10, 2009

That Jay Hancock can write up a storm

Unaccustomed as I am to praise of writers’ work — hey, I was a copy editor, a fault-finder; they didn’t pay me a princely sum to coo over the prose — Jay Hancock’s Baltimore Sun column stands out on the arid, featureless plain of business journalism.

Today’s column on why Maryland should not be thought of as a Southern state any longer, linked to legislative leaders’ desire to affiliate with the Eastern rather than the Southern division of a trade group, shows some of his typical touches.

His opening sentence plays with the South’s historic flirtations with secession: Isn't it time Maryland seceded from the South?

He emphasizes his basic contrast by seizing on a telling statistic:

In a South characterized by social conservatism, only 41 percent of Marylanders reported attending weekly church or temple services in a recent Gallup Poll. That was slightly below the national average and far under the upper-50s percentages for the Deep South.

He never passes up a chance to take a shot at unsound policy and witless behavior:

Maryland is the home of smart growth and Columbia, one of the first planned communities. Should Columbia share a regional designation with Houston, home of stupid growth?

Beyond statistics and public policy, there are social conventions and mores to take note of:

Virginia is still reliably Southern, despite analysts who say it's being transformed by yuppies and carpetbaggers in Arlington and McLean. The analysts were saying the same thing two decades ago.

Order an iced tea in Tysons Corner (no smart growth there!) and you'll get it sweetened whether or not you ask for it.

And yet he acknowledges that the separation from the South is far from absolute — he observes that Maryland is still, if vestigially, a tobacco-growing state.

Though I particularly enjoyed today’s effort, his work is regularly gratifying.

When the all-taxes-are-evil crowd started moaning that a drop in the number of millionaires in Maryland must certainly be a result of a recent income tax surcharge, Mr. Hancock pointed out that “[t]hey're bugging out because of Maryland's estate tax, which applies to a bigger portion of a dead person's hoard than the federal estate tax or those in other states.”

It was a delight to watch him play with the political labels — conservative, liberal, socialist, pinko, right-winger — in a column, “Let’s cut spending and raise taxes,” that put forward intelligible and sensible points of view that spread across the entire spectrum.

And if you, like I, have a recent college graduate in the family, share his column, “Advice to grads: Strap yourselves in for the long ride ahead.” It will be more valuable than any number of banal graduation addresses by notables the graduates will cease to remember in a fortnight.

Who cares about Ashton Kutcher?

Not to pick particularly on Mr. Kutcher, who portrayed a dolt on a television series and later became the incumbent husband of Demi Moore, but he appears to be representative of that group of people we call celebrities, whose activities are followed avidly by the news media. They draw legions of followers on Twitter, and yet their appeal remains obscure.

The appetite for this sort of thing used to be sated by supermarket tabloids and People, but now has a “Celebrity News” category on its main page, and goes in for such breathless bulletins as “Britney Spears dating her agent.” (Media commentator Steve Yelvington tweeted today: “CNN Headline News has devolved into a video National Enquirer. Beware: The next level is alien abductions.”) One of my dearest former colleagues is responsible for editing celebrity coverage at a publication that I think I will not name. This cannot be wholesome.

Please, please do not think that I am scorning gossip. Gossip, which I think an anthropologist would attest is virtually universal in human societies, serves an invaluable function in establishing and solidifying communal values, all the while brightening our drab, dreary, featureless, forgettable little lives. My mother, the late Marian Early McIntyre, for a quarter-century the postmaster of Elizaville, Kentucky, spent a goodly portion of the workday monitoring the comings and goings of the citizenry and reporting on her findings. And in large organizations, such as newspapers, run by managers comically incapable of communicating effectively, gossip is just about the only means to find out what is going on.

Moreover, when we’re able to talk about a governor of New York carrying on in extravagant assignations with hookers, or the governor of New Jersey conducting a homosexual liaison with a subordinate, we can witness a wholesome leveling-down of the great and the mighty.

But Angelina and Brad and Jen?* Paris Hilton? The aforementioned Mr. Kutcher? It cannot say something very pleasant to contemplate about ourselves that we should devote so much attention to figures of such slender substance. We lack the gossip worthy of a great nation.

*Actually, Angelina Jolie, whatever her manifold personal eccentricities, is an actress of some power, and Brad Pitt has had some agreeable roles. But I have never fathomed the appeal of Jennifer Aniston, who came to notice in a TV series that a friend described one night at dinner as “you know, that show with half a dozen people living together, with each one dumber than the last.”