Posts from July 2009

July 13th, 2009

The Great Explainers!

Our books today all hail from the same turbulent, amazing decade, the 1970s, when (believe it or not, you headstrong young things of today) it seemed to every intelligent person that some version of ‘the future’ was suddenly here among us, suddenly happening. The first hints of hi-tech automation, the first inklings that complex machines might actually be miniaturized sufficiently to be useful in daily life (my first calculator was very nearly the size of the laptop I’m typing this on – it was considerably heavier, and even the this text-creating program has more calculating capacity), the sinking into the collective mindset that such things as remote-controlled satellites were hovering over our heads – and most of all, the moon landings, with television footage of men actually walking on the surface of the moon … all these things combined to give the average inhabitant of the industrialized West the real impression that for the first time technological innovations were happening faster than society was developing to handle them.

It’s almost impossible in mid-2009 to convey the simultaneous combination of wonder and trepidation that impression caused in, say, 1969. In 2009, what’s percolated into the collective mindset is precisely the speed, the unthinking incomprehensibility of technological change. One of the surest ways to tell that a civilization is entering its own equivalent of Byzantine decadence is this communal acceptance of incomprehension: when the average 20-something American is informed today that next year’s i-phone will have 300 times the power of the one they bought last year – that it’ll be able to access radio, TV, the Internet, every private database on Earth, and privately encrypted personal medical records for everyone who’s ever lived, the ominous, dark response is likely to be “Wow! That’s great!” (or worse, “It better, for what I’m paying”). That’s one of the best ways you can tell that a civilization is overripe and ready to fall from the branch (or, more likely from a historical point of view, to be plucked): when the very last thing that average 20-something American would ever ask in such a circumstance is “How? How is that even remotely possible?”

But half a century ago, such decay had only just barely begun – the citizenry was still robust, still directly engaged in their own forward invincibility, and plenty of its members were indeed asking “How? How are these new things possible? What will they mean to my life?”

I think that, as much as anything, explains the incredible crop of great, extremely rewarding books from this period whose aim is to explain things, to lay out the history of various branches of knowledge, carefully illustrate the trends and thought-currents, and put it all in perspective. These books are all, at heart, responses – responses to the feelings of upheavals rocking Western society during their decade.

The first and most influential of them all kicked things off in 1969: Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, which sold gazillions of copies for over a year. Clark’s book – magnificently illustrated, as are all these books – grapples with what ‘civilization’ actually means, what brings it into existence, what occludes it, what characterizes it, how it grows. This broad framework gives Clark a perfect vehicle to wander around all of Western civilization from the Middle Ages to the present day, and that’s just what he does – literally. He wanders into churches, museums, historical sites, always engagingly synopsizing and illustrating his points. And his points boil down to one main point, although he’s characteristically unassuming about it:

At this point I reveal myself in my true colours, as a stick-in-the-mud. I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellectuals of our time. I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction, I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven’t changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence we must still try to learn from history.

In other words, Sir Kenneth is a humanist, in the finest tradition of humanists since the breed was born. But in 1969 there was one ghastly extra dimension to humanism that Colet, More, and Erasmus never faced:

Our other speciality is our urge to destruction. With the help of machines we did our best to destroy ourselves in two wars, and in doing so we released a flood of evil, which intelligent people have tried to justify with praise of violence, ‘theatres of cruelty’ and so forth. Add to this the memory of that shadowy companion who is always with us, like an inverted guardian angel, silent, invisible, almost incredible – and yet unquestionably there and ready to assert itself at the touch of a button; and one must concede that the future of civilisation does not look very bright.

Clark is talking here about the prospect of nuclear war that overshadowed everything for the whole of the 50s, 60s, and 70s – and future historians will have a tangled task on their hands, trying to chart the extent to which that prospect penetrated into every aspect of the social and intellectual life of those decades. It was different from the terrorism-inspired anxieties of the present day (inaccurately so, since the real chances of a hostile nuclear detonation in 2009 are about a hundred times greater than those in 1969) – it was the threat of the world ending, and it created a tension that certainly played its part in generating these books. Every age has its own doomsday scenarios, but unlike the present day’s fear of uncontrolled global warming, the fear of nuclear war was a fear of what technology could do – cutting-edge technology that virtually nobody could understand.

Civilisation was an enormous success and found its way into countless homes. The next great-explainer phenomenon that came close to matching its success was J. Bronowski’s 1973 The Ascent of Man, a massive and again generously illustrated tour of the author’s idiosyncratic and highly personal look at what could be called the spiritual anthropology of the human race. Bronowski knew many of the great physicists who helped to make that overlooming threat of nuclear war possible, and he everywhere in his book cautions against surrendering to just the kind of complacency we now take for granted. In one of the book’s most affecting passages (whose words will be familiar to all you West Wing fans), he visits the remains of the ash-pit at Auschwitz and strikes his own version of a defiantly humanist position:

It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods…

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.

“Knowledge is not a loose-leaf notebook of facts,” Bronowski insists. “You cannot possibly maintain that informed integrity if you let other people run the world for you while you yourself continue to live out of a ragbag of morals that come from past beliefs.”

That note of irritation is important; it’s sparked by the tendency – already beginning to be visible in the early ’70s – of many people to pull inward and throw up their hands when confronted with what looks like too much complexity. Firmly situated in an era primed on international competition, our combative author naturally pictures this complacency as a fatal misstep in a race that’s a long way from being finished:

The ascent of man will go on. But do not assume that it will go on carried by western civilization as we know it. We are being weighed in the balance at this moment. If we give up, the next step will be taken – but not by us. We have not been given any guarantee that Assyria and Egypt and Rome were not given. We are waiting to be somebody’s past too, and not necessarily that of our future.

I shouldn’t let all this talk of technology and art obscure the fact that this wave of great explaining volumes also encompassed other disciplines. By far the most studious and technical of our volumes today is Jonathan Miller’s 1978 The Body in Question, in which he surveys the history of medicine and medical knowledge. Miller is considerably more acerbic than the rest of our authors, and often his prose is the most arresting:

To sum up, then. At one time or another we have all been irked by aches and pains. We have probably noticed alterations in weight, complexion and bodily function, changes in power, capability and will, unaccountable shifts of mood. But on the whole we treat these changes like changes in the weather: as part and parcel of living in an imperfect world. The changes they cause in our behaviour are rarely noticeable – not inconvenient enough to interfere with our routine. We retreat a little, fall silent, sigh, rub our heads, retire early, drink glasses of water, eat less, walk more, miss a meal here and there, avoid fried foods, and so on and so on. But sometimes the discomfort, alarm, embarrassment or inconvenience begin to obstruct the flow of ordinary life; in place of modest well-being, life becomes so intolerably awkward, strenuous or frightening that we fall ill.

Falling ill is not something that happens to us, it is a choice we make as a result of things happening to us. It is an action we take when we feel unacceptably odd.

Miller’s dispassionate precision makes his book challenging and fascinating reading even now, when medical science has progressed as far beyond that of 1978 as 1978 was beyond 1078. You’d think another branch of learning that’s undergone a similar morphing would be natural history, since the last forty years have seen a devastation of the natural world not equaled since the Cretaceous. An estimated 30,000 species are rendered extinct every year in our modern era, and the end of such a process is as certain as if it were written in stone. But the certainty of such a future actually serves to highlight both the bravery and the genius of the greatest of our explainers today: Sir David Attenborough, whose 1979 Life on Earth is one in a long line of similar volumes he’s produced in his long career of acquainting the busy humans of this planet with the mind-staggering splendor and complexity of all the other living things who live here. Attenborough is the only one of our present writers who has continued to produce an unbroken string of fascinating, stimulating volumes, and Life on Earth is no exception. It traces all the forms and families of living things, although it all inevitably comes down to the human race:

This last chapter has been devoted to only one species, ourselves. This may have given the impression that somehow man is the ultimate triumph of evolution, that all these millions of years of development have had no purpose other than to put him on earth. There is no scientific evidence whatever to support such a view and no reason to suppose that our stay here will be any more permanent than that of the dinosaur …

But although denying that we have a special position in the natural world might seem becomingly modest in the eye of eternity, it might also be used as an excuse for evading our responsibilities. The fact is that no species has ever had such wholesale control over everything on earth, living or dead, as we now have. That lays upon us, whether we like it or not, an awesome responsibility. In our hands now lies not only our own future, but that of all other living creatures with whom we share the earth.

But as entertaining as Miller or Attenborough (and there are other such specialists, plenty of them) are, the main thrust of these great explainers is that great burgeoning thing first coming into clear view in the 1970s: the plastic world of technology, growing and building on its own complexity in ways even its own architects couldn’t predict. Since the avatar of that technology was the space program, it’s no surprise that the best of our explaining texts today comes from James Burke, who was the BBC’s chief reporter on the Apollo missions. His 1978 book Connections traces the sometimes torturous genealogy of a handful of the modern world’s most crucial inventions, such as telecommunications, nuclear power, plastics, and transistors.

Burke makes the genealogies fun, and his book is so lively and light-touched that it makes delightful reading even when treading in the deepest waters. And perhaps as a direct result of Burke searching out so many trends as they wind their way toward the present, he sees some of the forces bubbling underneath his own time more clearly than our other authors. Reading Burke’s book, especially its concluding chapter, you’re struck by how eerie it is: here’s this extremely intelligent and imaginative man, in possession of all the facts currently available, groping blindly toward a something he can just barely see coming, a something that represents the next step in so many of the technological evolutions he’s been exploring:

Now that computer systems are within the price range of most organizations, and indeed of many individuals, an avalanche of data is about to be released on the man in the street. But what use are data if they cannot be understood?

We all know what that something is: the Internet revolution, the massive, world-straddling, utterly unforeseen interconnectedness of software technology that shrinks, expands, fuels and shapes our world – a revolution virtually none of its beneficiaries understand anymore or care to. Burke was (and still is, thank goodness) the quintessential questioner, and even forty years ago, he could see the possibility of that technological indifference well enough to lament it:

The high rate of change to which we have become accustomed affects the manner in which information is presented: when the viewer is deemed to be bored after only a few minutes of air time, or the reader after a few paragraphs, content is sacrificed for stimulus, and the problem is reinforced. The fundamental task of technology is to find a means to end this vicious cycle, and to bring us all to a fuller comprehension of the technological system which governs and supports our lives.

That vicious cycle hasn’t been ended, and I sometimes wonder if it even could be anymore – and whether or not anybody under the age of 60 would even want it to be. Earnest, unabashedly believing humanists like Clark, Bronowski, and Burke seem antiquated today not merely or even mostly by their inquisitiveness but by their enthusiasm. In 2009, swamped to its eyeballs in the irony epidemic born of the late ’80s, caring about anything more substantial than ‘skinny’ jeans and X-Box is socially appalling. Recently in a gathering of young people in their late teens and early 20s (dancers mostly, but still, not actually lobotomized), I started talking about the fact that North Korea is controlled by a madman in possession of nuclear missiles. The whole living room responded virtually in unison with a “Dude, chill” that would have made Bronowski weep.

But whether this is Byzantium come ’round again or just the darkness before dawn, it’s still intensely comforting to go back and re-read these massively engaged and learned volumes. They pulled together all the vast achievements of the past, hammered them into spirited and often quite lovely prose, and then looked forward – sometimes with alarm, sometimes with excitement, but always with a sense of engagement. There’s something hugely refreshing in that.

October 20th, 2006

comics! 52and counting!

My extremely young friend Elmo spends a great deal of his time with alien species. He betakes his sylphlike form to the nearest open parkland and slowly, by ineluctable stages, he VANISHES from the human-view of all the living things around him. Those living things then proceed to pay Elmo the highest compliment they can: they completely ignore him.

They cavort in front of him, they scamper all over him, and they let him into their own perceptions of the living world. Elmo loves to play games with his own perceptions in this way – it’s his particular drug. It’s a drug-habit he shares with, among many other people (including innumerable anonymous British bird-watchers throughout the ages), David Attenborough – and a habit entirely unknown to various crocodile hunters of recent vintage. Buff, married, obviously gay nature-jumper Jeff Corwin has spent innumerably more hours around innumerably more species than Elmo ever will, but he’s a pathetic, complete stranger to the interest, the joy, and especially the exhilaration Elmo can find in a walk in the park.

So when it’s Elmo supplying me with a batch of current comics, instead of his roommate, my nemesis Pepito (theirs is a marriage of convenience, I assure you), I know to pay attention.

Five issues this time around, an uneven batch. Starting thing off are the Wildstorm relaunch of Wildcats and the Authority.

This is ominous stuff, this sudden reappearance of Wildstorm titles like pesky super-villains you were sure were dead and buried. Wildcats has always been a crappy concept, and we all know the Authority was only ever a two-arc wonder.

So imagine my surprised happiness when both these debut relaunches turned out to be really, really good.


No, they stink, both of them, a whole lot. Wildcats is the worse by far, despite Jim Lee’s technicaly adept pencils. The main point of this first issue is that cool people smoke. They smoke cigarettes when they’re down on their luck, they smoke cigars when they’re kicking ass, but in either case, they’re NEVER loser enough NOT to smoke. Geez.

The Authority #1 had a little more complexity to its crapitude. It’s unbearably slow-paced and clogged with cliches, but Gene Ha’s artwork is genuinely interesting. I’ll never look at another issue of this turgid piece of poop, but that artwork was interesting.

Luckily, the rest of the batch didn’t suck. The latest issue of X-Men had fantastic artwork by Yanick Paquette and a fairly snappy story besides, although can I just say I HATE this big blue kitty-cat Beast? The movies were a success – can’t we dial back this ‘secondary mutation’ crapola to the classic Kelsey Grammar look?

The latest Ultimate Fantastic Four continues the God War story arc, and it’s incredible – Mike Carey’s writing is better than the vast majority of sci-fi short stories that appear in Asimov’s and Analog, and Pasqual Ferry’s artwork is the best of his career. The only irritating thing about this whole story arc is that it IS a story arc. I’d be happy to buy the grapic novel it was obviously designed to be NOW, instead of waiting for the whole process to run its course.

Wrapping up batch in question is the title by now guaranteed to get a totally ambiguous reaction from the crack staff at Stevereads: 52.

Every issue, there’s stuff I really like and stuff that really irritates me, and this issue is certainly no exception. So let’s go through it categorically, shall we?


Well, of course a comics veteran such as myself not only likes but LOVES the whimsical gesture of having Elliot Maggin as Oliver Queen’s campaign manager.

*In the days before comics grew up, Elliot Maggin provided readers with an endless stream of good stuff, wiry, witty issue after issue. I don’t know that he or any of his colleagues in those simpler days could write a comic today – and I’m not sure they’d want to. But this little invocation was a nice squirt of nostalgia.

*the look of Super-Chief – great size, great buffalo-mask.

*Judging from the memorial sculpture carved by the Martian Manhunter in this issue, it seems that Maxima is finally dead. And so our long national nightmare is over.

*the continued fascinating and well-done characterization of Black Adam – now accompanied by Isis and this new character Osiris.

*the hilarious way Ambush Bug infiltrates the ‘next issue’ banner at the end of the issue.


*Um, week 24? At the end of Infinite Crisis, Oliver Queen was a pin cushion, two arrows through his lungs and a convicted killer standing over him. Not only does this opening sequence not jibe with the story being told in flashbacks over in Green Arrow (I predict this is going to happen a lot), but it doesn’t make sense on its own.

*the unholy resurrection of Keith Giffen’s weird, apparently unappeasable fetish for loser-supergroups. Note to Keith: they weren’t funny then, and they aren’t funny now.

*Osiris? Did I miss an issue? Where did this kid (however entertainingly written) come from? Did I miss an issue? Wait … Elmo, Pepito, you izquierda … DID I miss an issue?

*Uh, the DEATH of Super-Chief? After one friggin issue? Geez.

*My usual complaint about 52 in general: the basic concept of this whole series – in addition to showing us the events that took place in the ‘missing’ year after Infinite Crisis – is to show us what the super-hero (and super-villain) world would be like without Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman in the picture. And this opportunity – it’s unlikely there’ll be another – is being hugely wasted.

Put simply, we shouldn’t be reading stories about a bunch of losers (and Super-Chief, sniff) trying to be the Jutice League.

Wonder Woman was not only the most powerful woman in the world but an ambassador and de facto friendly face on the superhero community. Superman, despite his extensive rogues gallery, spent most of his time averting natural disasters. And Batman kept the most viral assortment of stone-cold psychopaths under constant control.

In addition to figuring out everything that happened in that missing year, this series should be about what happens to the world when none of those things is true anymore. What happens when the only person between UN sanctions and the superhero world is, for instance, Black Canary? How does Catman handle a Richter 7 earthquake in northern China?

How the hell does Captain Marvel handle the Joker?

Alas, we’ll never see that storyline. 52 seems intent on a more soap-opera theme instead. Guess we’ll have to take the good with the bad of that, and I’ll just have to silently (well, metaphorically, you undertand) regret the path not taken.

October 18th, 2006

In the Penny Press! Crikey!

Since about 250 pages of the latest Atlantic Monthly are devoted to Joshua Green’s profile of Hillary Clinton, it seems only right to start off with that – and to note right away that Green comes off as … well, not to say ‘an asshole’ but certainly a CAD.

He spends the gigantic bulk of the article maintaining all the bells and whistles of journalistic objectivity – the hours logged with his subject, the tells-it-like-he-sees it descriptions, the wide-ranging secondary sources. For 249 of its pages, I was reading intently and learning something on every page.

Then I got to the last paragraph and uttered a ‘what the fuck?’ that I’m sure was also uttered in a certain breakfast-nook in Chappaqua:

Yet it is fair to wonder if Clinton learned the lesson of the health care disaster too well, whether she has so embraced caution and compromise that she can no longer judge what merits taking political risks. It is hard to square the brashly confident leader of health-care reform – willing to act on her deepest beliefs, intent on changing the political climate and not merely exploiting it – with the senator who recently went along with the vote to make flag-burning a crime. Today Clinton offers no big ideas, no evidence of bravery in the service of a larger ideal. Instead, her Senate record is an assemblage of many, many small gains. Her real accomplishment in the Senate has been to rehabilitate the image and political career of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Impressive though that has been in its particulars, it makes for a rather thin claim on the presidency. Senator Clinton has plenty to talk about, but she doesn’t have much to say.

Yeesh. I’m guessing somebody’s access-codes have been shredded …

The issue also features a heartfelt though somewhat scatter-brained tribute to YouTube written by Michael Hirschorn. Like so many writers who set out to describe just exactly what YouTube is revolutionizing and just exactly how it’s doing so, Hirschorn quickly loses his way and begins nattering (amazing how lenient we become toward this – nattering, but extremely well-paid nattering in a premium forum … the latter two qualities, you’d think, disqualifying the former; personally, off the top of my head, I can think of four people I know who could have written this piece better, ALL of whom would benefit immensely – personally and professionally – from having a piece published in the Atlantic).

Of course I, like everyone else, worship YouTube. I spend at least 30 minutes a day there, indulging in every stray whim of visual curiosity. College girls puking in plain view? You got it! Precision-flying plane slamming into a crowd of spectators? You got it! Surging ocean waves at sunset? You got it! Insane basset hound named Lucy having a fit right in front of the camera? You got it!

I’m not convinced that it spells the death-knell of anything, let along movies and tv, but nevertheless: I’m entranced. If I could figure out how to TRANSPLANT YouTube videos onto these posts (as even a casual glance at other blogs reveals EVERYBODY else knows how to do), I’d be treating you all to my latest finds practically every day. But alas, the last time I called up one of my young friends and asked him to give me step-by-step instructions on how to import something to my site, my phone’s battery died (and the sun came up) while he was still going strong.

So in the meantime, you’ll have to make do with typing ‘crazy cat’ and ‘crazy dog’ into YouTube yourselves! Endless hours of mindless fun!

Of course, there are those who would say that if you’re willing to plug yourself into YouTube, you’re one step closer to being willing to LIVE video games all the time. Lots of those people are quoted in Jonathan Rauch’s article on video games in this issue.

Much space is devoted to how COMPLEX video gaming technology is becoming, how the graphics and sound effects are becoming more and more lifelike all the time, how the interface of user-interaction is getting more and more complex all the time.

The piece concludes with this:

We can’t know where the quest to build interactive drama will lead, but we do know that the dramatist’s tools are the oldest and most potent of all emotional technologies. Sooner or later, drama will converge with the video game, the newest and most vibrant of all entertainment technologies. And then? Not long ago, I attended a stage performance of Aeschylus’ The Persians,’ the most ancient work of the dramatic literature. Even in translation and at a remove of 2,500 years, it left an audience of modern Americans feeling stunned and disembodied, as if the intervening millennia had disappeared. Wow, I heard myself think, if I could play that, I’d be so excited!

To put it mildly, there’s a lot wrong with this. We’ll pass over that bit about stage-plays being referred to as ‘entertainment technologies’ and focus on the central nub of the issue, the one I focus on with all the hundreds of video game addicts I know.

You know them too, I guarantee it. You’re statistically likely to BE one yourself. These are the young people who, when you ask them at work or school every morning what they did the evening before, sheepishly offer vague non-answers: ‘nothing,’ ‘not much,’ ‘stuff’ …. because the real answer, in each and every case, is: “I played video games from 6:30 pm until I passed out, between 2 and 4 am, fully clothed but unfed and unwashed.”

Some of these people might say this sordid little truth out loud once – it’d be good for an office chuckle. But none of them would ever say it as many times as it actually happens, because it happens every single time they have free time of any kind. 10 page papers with footnotes are written on the B line on the way to the class where they’re due, so that radioactive mushrooms can be detonated from 6:30 pm to 4:30 am.

Some of these addicts are intelligent young people, and some of them have in the past attempted to defend or even justify their addiction to me, on just the same grounds as the above ridiculous quote does: that video games AREN’T just passive thumb-exercises. That they have depth and worth and dramatic power and even (in one arguer’s disasterous case) LITERARY merit.

I realize nobody wants to admit when they’ve let something into their lives they can’t control, but this is just silly. Rauch here is being willfully blind to the gaping problems in his own assertions.

The reason his modern American audience was enraptured by ‘The Persians’ has nothing to do with ‘entertainment technology’ – it arose from the fact that Aeschylus, the play’s single, human author, used a combination of intellect, historical knowledge, intuition, and most of all poetic talent to craft a thing that would draw an audience in and work a deep impression on them.

But he didn’t specify WHICH impression, or which shades of different reactions each person would feel. I’m sure no two of Rauch’s fellow audience-members felt the EXACT SAME exhilaration over the performance – it would be altered by their seat-mates, their view of the stage, their knowledge of Athenian history, their experience of life and of theater. In other words, although everybody in the audience would be moved by the power of ‘The Persians,’ no two audience members would have seen the exact same play.

That’s literature’s central power: its ability to transform us, individually.

Nobody has ever been transformed by a video game (well, except for those few – their number grows every year – who, by playing literally non-stop, managed to transform themselves from living to dead), and nobody ever will be. And the reason is simple: video game users are entirely passive. All their possible interactions with their game are pre-programmed, and knowing this prevents them from CARING what their own reactions are to anything that happens.

While stage plays seem on the surface even less flexible (Hamlet never lives; Mary Tyrone never takes up jogging), Rauch could testify that in reality they’re far moreso – since when they’re done well they form an intensely interactive, intensely individual bond with each member of the audience, and audience that, through the strength of that bond, VERY MUCH cares about its own reactions.

All of which is already known to video game addicts – they weren’t advancing their argument in any kind of sincerity. They were just killing time until they can get back to their hand-controls.

Still, as irritating as I found this video game piece, I’m afraid top irritation honors for this issue go to the regular ‘Post Mortem’ feature, this time eulogizing ‘crocodile hunter’ Steve Irwin.

We here at Stevereads have little patience with the old nostrum about not speaking ill of the dead. We think it probably originated in the Middle Ages, when there was a good chance the dead would pop back out of the ground and SMACK your ill-talking pie-hole. But nowadays, thank to ‘C.S.I.’ our dead STAY dead, so we’re free to ill-talk our heads off.

And what’s the point of it anyway? It does a disservice to the truth to whitewash ANYTHING. If I were ever going to be dead, I’d like to think my friends would be frank about my shortcomings (and if me being dead was offered hypothetically, my having shortcomings is SO much moreso…), just like I’d want my enemies to at least grudgingly admit my good points.

That being said, some of you may already know what I think of this opportunistic blockhead Irwin.

But if you didn’t know, this post mortem, written in high priggish style by Mark Steyn, would take you on a guided tour of all my reasons.

Steyn takes the same line on Irwin that Irwin took on himself during his brief, unbearable tenure as something that could be passed off for a kind of sort of ‘naturalist.’

Irwin died of a stingray barb to his heart, as most of you know. Any guesses on how you get a stingray to barb you in the heart? Let me tell you, since my freakish little nature-boy Elmo never speaks on this blog: you pick one up and FUCK with it. Otherwise, you – and it – are perfectly safe.

Steyn quotes Irwin on the subject:

We can’t keep looking at wildlife on a long lens of a tripod. Then there’s this voice of God telling you about the cheetah kill. After 450,000 cheetah kills, it’s not entertaining anymore.

That’s Irwin in a nutshell: the pseudo-naturalist for the video game age. An adult cheetah accelerates to 70 mph in under seven seconds; its frontal cortex analyzes course-changes in its intended prey so fast that neuroscientists can’t tell you how the brain tissue in question can do it; the entire hunt takes roughly fifteen seconds from start to finish, and the smallest mishap can result in a broken leg for the cheetah, thus death. In the entire animal kingdom, just about three creatures rely on the adaptation of spectacular speed-bursts to secure their prey.

But is that ‘entertaining’ enough for the joystick generation? NOOOOOOO.

It makes matters worse, very much worse that Steyn decides to burnish Irwin by tarnishing somebody who does it right: believe it or not, David Attenborough comes in for a paragraph of trashing:

In the presence of animals, he lowers his voice to a breathy whisper … Sir David keeps his breathy whisper even when he’s back in the BBC studio doing the voice-over.

Well, OK, except: no he doesn’t. He keeps the ‘breathy whisper’ (note the sneer associated with feeling awe or reverence for the natural world … pshah! what’s this simp THINKING?) only when he’s doing voice-overs for on-site lines uttered in that whisper that didn’t come out clearly on tape – his actual in-studio voice-overs are all done in normal voice.

The differences, of course, go much deeper. Attenborough has studied birds and animals his entire life; all that Irwin knew about the animals he FUCKED with was what he hurriedly glimpsed on his cue cards.

I watched a program of his once – he was in India, and some local residents told him there was a 20-foot anaconda living in a nearby drainage ditch. And that was all it took: without further ado, while the cameras watched, Irwin walked over to the open brackish ditch and lept in – I remember thinking ‘the man is insane, literally insane – he has no idea if the anaconda is anywhere nearby, no idea if four or five actually poisonous snakes are in the ditch, no idea what skin-fungi he’ll pick up, some of them untreatable, some of them fatal. ‘

I remember asking myself: why on Earth would anybody DO such a stupid thing?

Subsequent viewings gave me my answer. The entire thing was about money – Irwin grabbed at ratings the way he grabbed at wildlife. It turns out he did both ineptly – TV sees no better nature-ratings than David Attenborough’s, and it’s a little unlikely that Sir David will ever die by a sea-snake up his ass.

A tragedy for Irwin’s wife and family, yes, and I suppose his viewers will miss him for the five minutes it takes to find another lunkhead adrenalin junkie to jump into drainage ditches.

But in my limited but valid brief as spokesman for at least a corner of the animal kingdom (the wonderful branch of canidae! One can’t help but notice that Irwin never decided to FUCK with any kind of wild dog; he might not have known much about wild exotica, but give the man credit: he could sense when he stood a good chance of being ripped apart like a fat rag-doll), I have to say: good riddance.

The immense marvels of the natural world – those who’ve survived the onslaught of humanity – aren’t here for the ratings-amusement of mankind. They are their own gorgeous, incommunicable worlds, and naturalists like David Attenborough understand that. Jackass croc-jumpers like Steve Irwin not only don’t but don’t WANT to.

So: the ‘crocodile hunter’ got a stingray barb in the heart. Great final-ever ratings stunt, but please: let’s have no others.