What Becomes a Hack Most?
There may be those who find it inappropriate that a participant in the Slate Hackathlon--Slate's quest for the greatest hack in American journalism--should also be the one to write the introduction. In proper journalism circles, that would be considered a conflict of interest. But of course the hack, properly understood, is someone to whom the rules of proper journalism do not apply. If I were not a hack, and therefore not qualified to participate in the Hackathlon, I would also not be qualified to write this introduction. In fact, if I were to spend any more than 10 minutes writing this introduction, I would not be qualified to write this introduction. One of the wonderful things about the achievement of hackery--as opposed to virtually every other exclusive professional distinction--is that qualification is in inverse proportion to desire. Groucho Marx did not want to be a member of a club that would have him as a member. The hack does not want to be a member of a club and so is a member. If the preceding two sentences do not precisely parse, it is because I have a party to go to, and I'm halfway out the door.
Not long ago I read an article by a colleague of mine. It was deft and brilliant and had been written in the blinking of an eye. When I saw him next I blurted out "You're such a hack!" To my surprise, he was mortified. But why? He had set out in his piece to prove that A equals B and he had done so, so convincingly and persuasively and effortlessly that I was convinced that, given another 10 minutes, he could also have proven that A was not B or, alternatively, that A was actually Z and the intervening letters were of the utmost irrelevance. I was saluting his command, his artistry, the tantalizing sense he gave that his talent, at a moment's notice, could be permanently untethered from his conscience. In my eyes he was no less than a literary Kostabi. What he wanted to be was another Picasso, which made no sense at all. Kostabi completes $100,000 Japanese commissions by calling his assistants between courses at Le Cirque. Picasso merely painted the contents of his own soul. And how hard, in the end, is that?
We are in the midst of an unfortunate cultural period in which authenticity and earnestness are prized above all else. As a society we are crowding into the front of the national classroom, shiny red apples proffered obsequiously in our outstretched palms. The purpose of the Hackathlon is to prove that those lounging at the very back, lofting spitballs at the blackboard, are the true heroes.
Over the next few weeks you, the reader, will have the opportunity to vote on the hackwork of all four of the contestants. I cannot speak for the other three. But as you consider whether to vote for me, remember this. If I lose, it will not bother me in the slightest. The way I see it, I spend eight hours over the course of a month and Slate writes me a check. Trust me. It's just another job.