The New York Times’ moral lapse
The Gray Lady blew it when it decided to review Jared Kushner’s new memoir, no matter how scathing the review. Your correspondent also blew it by posting about the review.
By Brad Berens
When people learn that I’m an atheist often the first thing they say is, “oh, so you don’t believe in God?”
“No,” I push back gently. “That’s not what atheism means.”
Defining atheism as “you don’t believe in God” keeps God at the center of the conversation. It reinscribes God’s importance, defying God’s authority but accepting it as the thing to defy. This is the territory of literary characters like Milton’s Satan and Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus who try to rebel against God and fail.
In contrast, what atheism really means is “I am skeptical about the value of belief in a supreme being.” It asks, what does the notion of a supreme being get people in the first place? Are the benefits worth the cost either to the individual or to society? Atheism puts aside the questions around the actual existence of a supreme being because there’s no scientific evidence either way. “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” as the saying goes, but neither is it evidence of presence.
Stepping away from the unanswerable (scientifically speaking) question of a supreme being’s existence allows us to ask different questions.
The difference between the conventional definition of atheism and the one I’m describing here is like the difference between immoral and amoral. An immoral person does things that he or she believes to be wrong (and feels guilty about it). An amoral person doesn’t let moral questions get in the way of doing things (and feels no guilt).
Don’t get me wrong: there is no connection between amorality and atheism besides the Latin prefix “a.” I’m a deeply moral person—I believe in right and wrong in the world and strive to do right things. I am also an atheist.
Ideally, we’d have separate words for the two things I’m talking about: anti-deity (for the people who reject God’s authority but accept God’s existence) and atheism (for the people like me who question the benefit for individuals and society of a belief in a supreme being).
By now, you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with The New York Times, which is fair.
My point is that once you step outside the conventional definition of a phenomenon (like atheism), it can empower you to ask different questions. One such question…
Why did The New York Times review Jared Kushner’s book?
On Wednesday, August 17, Times book critic Dwight Garner reviewed “Breaking History: a White House Memoir” by Jared Kushner, the 45th president’s son-in-law and former advisor. I am deliberately not linking to the review for reasons that should become obvious.
There is no doubt that 45 and his ilk put on a riveting show, but watching that circus is the attentional equivalent of eating a steady diet of caffeine and sugar without protein or vegetables (rather like 45’s actual diet of junk food and more junk food). My posting about the Times’ review added nothing to my ability to think seriously about things that matter or to help others do so. I was voting for bread and circuses over shaping my mind with substance.
Garner’s review is among the most scathing, searing things I’ve ever read, and I read a lot of things! The review’s title shows this from the start: “Jared Kushner’s ‘Breaking History’ Is a Soulless and Very Selective Memoir.”
I first learned about Garner’s review via Twitter. I went to the NYT site, read it, relished its acerbic wit, took a screenshot of the single meanest sentence, and then posted the screenshot to Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Lots of people engaged with my post.
I shouldn’t have done it. Nor should the Times have indulged itself by publishing that review or any review of Kushner’s book.
There are two reasons for this.
First: as fire needs oxygen to burn, people like Jared Kushner, his wife, and his father-in-law all require attention in order to have influence. Denying them that attention constricts their influence. (Elsewhere, I’ve referred to this as an “Attention Quotient” metric or “AQ.”)
Neither Jared Kushner nor anything he writes have been newsworthy since January 20, 2021. We were witness to Kushner’s job performance for four long years. The only service that Garner’s review did was to inform readers that “Kushner’s fealty to Trump remains absolute,” which translates to “no surprises here; move along.”
Both the Times and the United States would have been better served to let the book live or die on its own instead of giving it oxygen. In the event the book broke into the bestseller lists, it would then have been appropriate to include such a literary surprise in the Sunday Book Review supplement.
I should not have posted about the scathing review, because by doing so I too added oxygen to the destructive flame that is 45 and his family. In posting about the review, I was seeking attention rather than adding value. I regret this.
Second: in “The Principles of Psychology” (1890), William James famously observed:
My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind—without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground—intelligible perspective, in a word.
There is no doubt that 45 and his ilk put on a riveting show, but watching that circus is the attentional equivalent of eating a steady diet of caffeine and sugar without protein or vegetables (rather like 45’s actual diet of junk food and more junk food).
My posting about the Times’ review added nothing to my ability to think seriously about things that matter or to help others do so. I was voting for bread and circuses over shaping my mind with substance.
The current media logic is that things that are hot are newsworthy, which then creates a feedback loop in which more news attention creates more heat, which then merits more news attention.
The trick, as with the real definition of atheism, is to ask what all this attention is getting us both as individuals and as a society?
The answer is not much.
Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at www.bradberens.com, follow him on Twitter, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).
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August 24, 2022