At the beginning of the semester I scheduled that essay for this week, and I’m shocked by how well it dovetails with recent events. On Tuesday, February 12th, the Knight Foundation paid Jonah Lehrer $20,000 to speak at a Media Learning Conference. Last year, Lehrer, a writer for The New Yorker and Wired, was found to have fabricated quotes; repeatedly recycled his own work (for which he was presumably paid handsomely each time); plagiarized from press releases, websites and magazines; and reproduced errors even after his sources corrected him.
After this information emerged, remarkably–or perhaps not so remarkably, if we look to Solnit–Lehrer remained on staff at Wired, which argued that his work at that magazine hadn’t contained errors, so no need to let him go. Only later, when it emerged that in fact the Wired stories had contained the same litany of ethics violations, was Lehrer fired.
The conversation that followed the Lehrer scandal was only partially about the colossal arrogance, ego and ethical disregard that motivated his behavior. Mostly, it focused on the tragedy of a promising young talent who had thrown it all away. In an interview with writer Ryan Kohls, artist Milton Glaser describes Lehrer’s downfall this way:
“First off, I felt so sad for the poor guy. Here he was, his future guaranteed, top of the world working for The New Yorker, writing a book that had already sold 200,000 copies, and he shot himself. How could he have done that knowing it was inevitable he would be discovered? What kind of madness? Why would anybody do that? The self-sabotage to that degree was incomprehensible. I looked back at what I had said and half of it I know I didn’t say…”
The New Yorker editor David Remnick put it like this,
“This is a terrifically sad situation, but, in the end, what is most important is the integrity of what we publish and what we stand for.”
Sad. It is sad that this privileged, young, white male darling of the establishment has in fact turned out to be rotten. It is sad. I suppose if you are also a privileged white man with an Ivy League education in New York City, it is sad.
If you’re a woman, or a writer of color, or a working-class writer, and you have been struggling and struggling and struggling just to make it financially or to break through the slush, just to get an editor to answer your emails, it is not sad. No, “sad” is not the correct term. It is infuriating, degrading and insulting.
In a brilliant piece for Salon, Roxane Gay parses out why someone like Lehrer can be so lionized, commit such ethical violations, and then be lamented as a fallen star:
Lehrer’s success and this current humiliation, how far he had to fall, is a symptom of a much bigger problem, one that is systemic, one that continues to consistently elevate certain kinds of men simply for being a certain kind of man. Jonah Lehrer fits the narrative we want about a boy genius. He is young, attractive and well educated…He is the great white hope.
Jonah Lehrer is part of a system that allows magazines, year after to year to publish men, and white men in particular, significantly more than women or people of color. He is part of a system where the 2012 National Magazine Awards have no women nominees in several key categories. He is part of a system where white editors belabor the delusion that there simply are few women or writers of color who are good enough for their magazines because said editors are too narrow in what they want, what they read, what they think, or just too lazy to work beyond their Rolodex of writers who look and think just like them. He is part of a system that requires an organization like VIDA to do an annual count that reveals a disheartening, ongoing and pervasive practice of a certain kind of writer predominantly gaining entrance to the upper echelons of publishing. He is part of a system that exhausts itself denying these problems exist or that these problems matter.
At the end of that story, published on July 31st of last year, Gay predicted:
“His phone will start ringing again because he’ll still be an intelligent young man who fits the genius narrative so well. Slowly but surely, Lehrer is going to start climbing back toward grace and he’ll reach it because he’s part of a system that is too big to fail, that very much wants men like him to get back to grace.”
And sure enough, this February, his phone rang. The Knight Foundation offered him $20,000 to talk about the neuroscience of decision-making in his own life. The Foundation later apologized for paying him, but with this caveat:
“…we do not want our foundation partners to think that journalism controversies are too hot for them to handle. Instead, we want to send the message that when things go wrong the best action is to admit the error and get back to work.”
Yes, no soul-searching here, no examining a system that consistently and formulaically elevates this person above other types of people in spite of, or because of, a destructive and ethically dubious arrogance.
In his prepared remarks, Lehrer echoed the larger media narrative of sadness, tragedy even: “Being smart, having a high IQ can actually make you more vulnerable to [biases] … Self-awareness is not enough, not even close … Listing my flaws, saying I’m arrogant is not gonna make me humble. … The self-blindness makes me very, very sad.”
And despite the fact that he, and those he deceived, are so sad, his arrogance persists and persists:
“It’s not enough that I’ve been humbled. I still may be arrogant.”
“I need rules because I don’t trust myself to not be arrogant.”
“I’m just trying to grapple with my own arrogance and come up with the rules that force me every day to contain it.”
Finally, Lehrer concludes, “If I’m going to regain some semblance of self-respect, then I need the help of others,” he said. “I need my critics to tell me what I’ve gotten wrong if only so that I can show myself that I am willing to listen.”
Wait a minute: you need help? You, who have been given book contracts and publications, who have been paid for recycled, plagiarized work, and then paid again to talk about this recycled, plagiarized work as so many journalists and writers, male and female, struggle just to break in, you need help?
This has to be the point when the publishing industry as it stands reaches a state of complete and total delirium. A privileged, white, male, Ivy League-educated journalist is being paid to discuss his ethical violations and to ask for help to tame his own arrogance, while every single woman I know is fighting just to get her writing recognized, just to get an editor to listen and give her a chance; fighting to be chosen over the easy and given alternative of the trusty elite white male.
Hey, Knight Foundation: I can think of a hundred different ways you could’ve spent that $20,000 to support women writers. That could be a freelancer’s salary for a year: this might sound improbable, when people like Lehrer earn so much more, but the women writers I know are making less than $20,000. It could fund research for a book by an up-and-coming woman journalist; research for several stories by women journalists; research about why the publishing industry so consistently favors men and what to do about it; an award for a journalist like Sarah Stillman who does phenomenal, important, and ethical reporting; a speaking fee, for that matter, for Stillman to talk about her work and being a woman in her industry; a scholarship for a young woman writer; a magazine or website founded by women journalists; a course for women journalists on how to break through barriers of class and gender. I can guarantee you that the other women I know could keep adding to this list.
But instead, let’s think about how we can help Jonah Lehrer. Let’s feel sad for him, he who had it all, and those like him who will have it all, and whose arrogance torpedoes their shining careers: but not for long. Let’s regret that for once, our infallible formula for genius and success and credibility, in fact, failed. But let’s not listen to those voices that question this formula: instead, let’s dump money into rehabilitating its heroes. Jonah Lehrer needs help. Jonah Lehrer needs rules. Jonah Lehrer needs a platform on which to discuss his arrogance problem.
Meanwhile, the rest of us keep banging on the door, listening to the sound of our fists echoing back at us.