Thanks to Nalano over at Big Smoke for pointing this out. Check out his site for a running critique and extollment of New York City which is as free from bullshit as can be. His writing has all its edges intact and his passion for the city compels further reading.
This is an excellent analysis of smarm and its relationship to anti-snark and anti-negativity (the kind of pleasantry-peddling pseudo-positivity expressed by contemporary “self-as-brand” charlatans and other sanctimonious feel-gooders, i.e. “the niceness brigade”). The piece is long but it’s cogently divided and full of wit and barb. These passages capture Scocca’s thesis:
"Smarm" and "smarmy" go back to the older "smalm," meaning to smooth something down with grease—and by extension to be unctuous or flattering, or smug. Smarm aspires to smother opposition or criticism, to cover everything over with an artificial, oily gloss.
The evasion of disputes is a defining tactic of smarm. Smarm, whether political or literary, insists that the audience accept the priors it has been given. Debate begins where the important parts of the debate have ended.
"Smalm" recalls Disraeli’s use of the phrase "unctuous, oleaginous, saponaceous" to describe Samuel Wilberforce (known then as Soapy Sam due to his slippery style of debate). I’m surprised Scocca didn’t mention Twain, a master of snark (he did cite Mencken, though).
This essay is a defense of opinion, acerb, and confidence, those qualities which are essential in an Age of Smarm wherein faux nicety and overt offense-taking routinely mask appeals to authority, aversion to change, and not a little hypocritically-insecure narcissism.
The notion that disagreement and critique should be couched or preemptively apologized for is childish and counterproductive. We can and should have heated arguments (even rows) and still remain friendly with—or at least tolerant of—each other. I’ll take an honest exchange of ideas over lubed-up fecklessness and allusion-flinging every fucking time. For example: I have far more respect for Christian fundamentalists than for smarmy Good News liberal/moderate Jesusites; at least they’re honest and they have some core of nonrelativistic opinion underpinning their beliefs.