As Andy Rooney might have begun one of his trademark rants, what’s the deal with resident cranks in the media these days? We’ve always had them of course—some readers will recall Richard Needham’s free-association frothings in the Globe—but now there seems to be almost a Cult of the Curmudgeon. There’s Don Cherry on national TV, exulting in his own bigotry; consummate sourpuss Rex Murphy in the National Post, whose other job is apparently to make the CBC’s Cross Country Checkup unlistenable; and the character the Ottawa Citizen’s Kate Heartfield took in a few months back, whose angry monotone braying and cane-shaking has adorned the op-ed page every week since—a jarringly unpleasant person whose name must not be mentioned here, lest I be called “obsessive” and a “stalker.”
Try imagining any of these people cracking a smile, let alone having a good belly-laugh. It isn’t in them.
Now, I must declare interest here. I possess more than a few traces of curmudgeonliness myself: current affairs make me grumpy, and I have the social media at my fingertips to share that mood with others, like it or not. But I can still step back and wonder at the phenomenon, not of this state of ill-grace itself, but of the pulpits eagerly afforded to it.
Curmudgeons are all old white males. (I know, Christie Blatchford, but she somehow just escapes the category.) It’s a deeply gendered condition, and it’s the very reverse of the wise Elder. Think impotent, spittle-flecked fury, with a walking-stick. Uncle Frank grumbling at the annual Christmas dinner about immigrants or some other cible du jour, to put us all in the festive spirit. Lucky he can’t write to save his life, or you’d be reading him this morning.
Let me be clear: curmudgeons are obnoxious individuals, best left in their cold mental garrets. But many of the ones you see in the media have leverage. Some who tend to curmudgeonhood also happen to be capable journalists, at least on occasion—Peter Worthington, say, or Doug Fisher. Andy Rooney, bless him, could be funny—and when they took him briefly off the air for some transgression or other, 60 Minutes lost 20% of its audience. Like it or not, Cherry’s knowledge of hockey is encyclopedic, when he deigns to share it with us. The other ones? Well, Rex uses a lot of vocabulary, which too many Canadians mistake for style. That other fellow once wrote like an angel, but appears to have fallen. It seems, however, that, talented or talentless, knowledgeable or otherwise, the factor that really counts is mildly (and sometimes not so mildly) transgressive rudeness.
Canadians are a polite and respectful people. But all that civilized restraint requires that we find ways to discharge the collective Id, as it builds up pressure like Old Faithful under the Tyranny of Nice. (I can’t help it, I like the phrase.) Curmudgeons are safety-valves. We aren’t allowed to talk like Uncle Frank, but somehow he keeps getting invited to the annual turkey-fest, doesn’t he?
Blogs, Twitter and Facebook allow just about anyone to ape curmudgeons, but these upstarts aren’t usually very good at it. Frankly, they haven’t paid their dues in wrinkles and leg-cramps. Besides, anonymity, their usual condition, breeds contempt. The media house-pets, on the other hand, all have names and pedigrees. As they snort and stamp in their plus-sized editorial cages, they entertain us, or many of us. More important, they offer social catharsis.
The downside is that they caricature old age. There is something patronizing about giving these folks a protected little media stage from which they can whinny and bellow—as though their declining years are supposed to give them some kind of antic pass. In that sense, to be a little unkind, it’s just another more politically correct version of putting freaks on display. Never mind that one of them can play the violin like Itzhak Perlman, while another displays formidable calisthenic skills. That’s not what the crowds are paying to see.
So I, for one, fail to be amused. And no doubt some of the young’uns here will draw the wrong conclusion.
UPDATE: My brother sent me this link—could it explain the gender question?