Earnest and the Snarks

Want to get the zeitgeist of our times? Check the reactions to the Olive Garden review.

The story’s gotten seemingly everywhere the past week, but briefly: 85-year-old, semi-retired Marilyn Hagerty wrote a review of the new Olive Garden restaurant in her home town of Grand Forks for the Grand Forks Herald. The review was straightforward and unassuming, praising things like the “Tuscan farmhouse style,” the busy kitchen staff and the “warm and comfortable” chicken Alfredo.

Then, as Joe Posnanski put it, the Internet exploded.

Hagerty’s review was passed around on social networks — 40,000 shares on Twitter and Facebook combined just from the Herald’s widgets. (Also 138 plus-ones on Google+, but that’s a different post.) Bastions of Internet culture like Fark.com and Redding linked to the review with snarky commentary, such as this representative headline Fark gave it:

Residents of Grand Forks, ND are lining up for blocks to enjoy a one-of-a-kind European dining experience that finally puts the city on the culinary map with its unique brand of Tuscan refinery. It’s called “The Olive Garden.”

The Herald put its finger on the source of the humor in its coverage of its new viral star: “residents of more metropolitan areas found it amusing that a chain restaurant would be reviewed. In larger markets, newspaper reviews are reserved for exclusive, high-end eateries that offer fine dining.”

Of course, as Hagerty pointed out to the Village Voice, “If you were going to review the fine dining here, you’d be done in three weeks — there’s only about three places you could call ‘fine dining.’” Having lived and worked in a town even smaller and more remote than Grand Forks for several years, this practical defense of the Hagerty review is definitely spot-on.

But don’t stop there. The reaction — and counter-reaction — to Hagerty’s review shine a spotlight on the Death of Sincerity.

It’s one of the most striking features of modern Internet-based culture, the culture of a young, urban and tech-savvy base that in many ways dominates national discourse.

In this culture, almost nothing is taken seriously. Irony is the dominant mode of communication, and coolness lies in a detached reserve. If someone seems too earnest about something, it’s grounds for mockery and parody. Look at Fark’s reaction to Hagerty’s review. If someone from the Internet generation wanted to gush about Olive Garden, they’d phrase it like this: “I love the Olive Garden un-ironically.” This is a culture in which ironic discourse is so pervasive you have apologetically point it out when you step away from irony and say what you actually mean.

Our preferred superheroes are dark and brooding, not bright and earnest.

I speak about Internet culture clinically, but of course I’m by-and-large a full participant in it. I’m plugged into social media, I check Fark regularly, I read sites like Gawker and The Daily What. Irony and detachment are my constant companions.

But the reports of sincerity’s death are somewhat exaggerated. Though it can sometimes seem otherwise when you spend so much time online and talking with other people who spend lots of time online, vast swathes of America aren’t a part of this culture of irony. If the base of Internet culture is young, urban and tech-savvy, then it’s correspondingly weakest among the old, rural and analog among us.

Living in South Dakota — certainly older and more rural than the country at large — the past four years has been a constant reminder of this dichotomy. I particularly recall interviewing a South Dakota politician who had recorded his own patriotic country song at a studio in Nashville. Full of earnest devotion, stirring instrumentation, an extended quote from the Declaration of Independence and harmonizing backup singers, it seemed at first blush to be amazingly corny. But that was the irony talking. Finding that anthem’s earnest sincerity corny was like marveling at what they call a quarter pounder with cheese in Paris. It’s a different culture. A different language.

This divide, between a culture of sincerity and a culture of irony, maps out along a lot of the other faultlines in what’s been called the Culture War. But just like the other battlegrounds of the Culture War, things aren’t quite cut and dry. Most people inhabit the cultural borderlands, partaking of both sincerity and irony. Wouldn’t it be absurd to be otherwise? Even in the most conservative, rural parts of America, people who always say what they mean and never play with words are unusual. And even in the hearts of Brooklyn or San Francisco, latte-sipping hipsters have things they love un-ironically.

While Marilyn Hagerty is unapologetically earnest, her son, Wall Street Journal reporter James Hagerty, translates her sincerity for people not up on her “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” approach: ”She doesn’t like to say anything bad about the food. Her regular readers read between the lines. If she writes more about the décor than the food, you might want to eat somewhere else.”

Hagerty’s Olive Garden review talked a lot about the décor.

Posnanski, one of the most web-savvy columnists writing, noted the pull of both sides:

I want to live in a world where someone in Grand Forks or anyplace else can enjoy the Olive Garden. I want to live in a world where people can like things unconditionally, without irony, without sarcasm.

Sure, I know: It’s the Olive Garden. I get the joke. And, hey, I enjoy poking fun at the Olive Garden’s excesses as much as the next person…

Sure enough, when Posnanski ate at an Olive Garden, post-Hagerty, he ran into a patron gushing enthusiastically about the Olive Garden chicken. “It would be easy to jab at that sort of euphoria over Olive Garden chicken, and it might be funny too… But snark wasn’t how I felt. Instead, I felt happy.”

I’m not broadly read enough to draw a bigger picture about this cultural battle of snark vs. earnest. Is the rise of irony a reaction to the socioeconomic dislocations of the Internet economy, much how the Industrial Revolution two centuries earlier sparked reactions and counter-reactions like Romanticism, Idealism and the precursors of Existentialism? It seems plausible, even compelling, but I’m speculating. Still, it’s facile to suggest that sincerity is going to die, that it’s a movement of the past and is going to be replaced by the new, ironic viewpoint of the young as generational change does its inexorable work. Some combination of factors has sparked this new culture — and who knows what the next culture will be? So it’s probably worthwhile to keep a foot in both camps — to retain the ability to mock the Olive Garden while still appreciating people who don’t.