Journalists are conflicted about Jonah Lehrer, judging by the number of frantic Gchats and emails I received from my peers yesterday after Michael C. Moynihan broke the news in Tablet that the 31-year-old wunderkind science writer, already under fire for extensive "self-plagiarizing," attributed numerous fake quotes to Bob Dylan in his most recent book, Imagine. (The media was so obsessed with the story that they actually managed to crash Tablet's website for a bit after the piece went live.)
There's shock: it's unbelievable that such a highly regarded, well-paid New Yorker staff writer and author of three books is also equally prolific at making stuff up. (Lehrer resigned after the story broke, and his publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is recalling print copies of Imagine.) There's a fair amount of schadenfreude, and relief that someone who seemed so brilliant and accomplished wasn't actually doing that much better than the rest of us after all. And then there's pity, too, because Lehrer certainly isn't the first journalist to make a mistake under pressure.
Why would such a superstar self-sabotage himself like this? In Salon, Roxane Gay argues that the real question isn't why Lehrer did what he did; it's why we put him on such a pedestal in the first place. Why did Lehrer feel so entitled? (Because only someone with an entitlement complex and a giant ego would blatantly lie as Lehrer did, time and time again.) Why is our culture so obsessed with boy geniuses? Gay writes:
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 can write a good sentence. He can parse complicated science for the masses and make us feel smarter for finally being able to understand the complexities of the human mind. 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.
Gay foresees a book deal in Lehrer's future:
Jonah Lehrer will flagellate himself publicly to our satisfaction, explaining the how and why of his deceptions and fabrications. 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.
Whether or not that happens, the Lehrer incident — and the media maelstrom that followed — might shine more light on the writer's fans, mentors, and editors than on Lehrer's motivations to deceive. It's also a much-needed reminder that not every genius comes in an endearingly geeky-hip package.
Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia, put it well in a New York Times post:
[Gitlin said] that not only had Mr. Lehrer carved out a career in the popular niche of brain science, but he had created a persona that is perfectly suited to a 21st-century media environment.
"Conjure me up a guy who talks science winningly, who shows you that everything is transparent, and does it in a self-help-y spirit," he said. "In our age, a guy who looks cute and wonky is better positioned to get away with this than others."