AUSTIN, Texas -- The Tonya Harding/Paula Jones match on "Celebrity Boxing" ... I have no idea how to finish that sentence. OK, it's a concept. Maybe it's camp. Or haute tacky. Sure, we could shoot whoever thought of it, but don't you get the creepy feeling it says something awful about the culture? I just can't figure out what. It's a "What is the world coming to?" moment.

The New York Times critic says this "is not a postmodern joke about Warholian fame," she thinks it's a cruelty joke. I suppose people have always paid to see freak shows. But I suspect even P.T. Barnum would have been taken aback by this. Once you start thinking about it, though, it has a perverse fascination. How about "Fantasy Celebrity Boxing" with Medea versus Lizzie Borden?

The Broadway revival of "The Sweet Smell of Success" has touched off a round of cultural analysis about our obsession with fame. The trouble with cultural analysis is that it tends to end up with some depressing conclusion, like, "We are all terrible, terrible people." That, or some French intellectual announces Jerry Lewis is a genius.

Decrying the Decline and Fall of Absolutely Everything has been an easy way to make yourself sound smart at least since Jeremiah, but every now and then even I am tempted to join the pessimists.

A few months ago, I had what I thought was a weird conversation with an editor at "People" magazine. "Who is your publicist?" she asked, as though it were a reasonable question.

"My publicist?"

"Yes, your publicist."

"I don't have a publicist."

"You don't have a publicist?"

"No, I don't have a publicist."

The comedy was that we were both equally confounded. Then I found out (always the last to know) that some journalists do have publicists.

Eric Alterman, one of our better media critics, recently wrote an unhappy-anniversary salute to "The McLaughlin Group." "Public affairs television programs were often dry and pompous ... but devoted to the proposition that reporters should appear on news programs only when they've learned something of value of which most people are unaware (hence the word reporter). The McLaughlin Group transformed the essential qualification from specialized knowledge to salable shtick. Not only television but journalism itself has never recovered."

A broader indictment of American culture is in the March issue of Harper's magazine by Curtis White, a splendidly cranky academic who takes on such icons of enlightenment as National Public Radio in general and Terry Gross in particular, Time magazine, self-hating boomers, inane Buddhists, Louise Erdrich, Jane Campion and The Antiques Road Show, just for starters.

White's bete noire is the flabby thinking of what he calls the Middle Mind. "Unlike Middlebrow, the Middle Mind does not locate itself between high and low culture. Rather, it asserts its right to speak for high culture, indifferent to both the traditionalist Right and the academic Left."

White believes the Culture Wars are over, and Middle Mind won. Middle Mind, for example, sees nothing odd about the premise, "Some of our best writers work for TV." Middle Mind does not distinguish between artists and poseurs. Of Gross, he writes, "From the perspective of a person really interested in art and culture, one can only say, 'Well, I think she's on my side, but, God, she's so stupidly on my side that I hardly recognize my side as my side.'"

Attacking NPR is like attacking Minnesota Nice -- you could, but you could probably find better targets, too. We can always use a few shots at the trite and the simple, but the mean and the dangerous are more deserving. And then there is the ineffable.

The Tonya Harding/Paula Jones match on "Celebrity Boxing" ... So where's Jeremiah now that we really need him?

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