BEHIND THE CURTAIN: Assigned to interview the savant!

MONDAY, APRIL 24, 2017

Part 1—The semi-comical functioning of our rather fraudulent world:
A funny thing happened, five years ago, in the suites at Vanity Fair.

Jim Holt, whose name won't ring a bell, had written a recognizable type of book. For unknown reasons, Vanity Fair assigned Lauren Christensen to interview him about it.

The fruit of that session can be squeezed here. Before the Qs-and-As began, readers were handed this overview:
CHRISTENSEN (7/16/12): New Yorker Jim Holt has established himself as an invaluable fixture in the most sophisticated conversations about philosophy, physics, mathematics, and theology today, as an author and essayist for The New York Times and The New York Review of Books. With his latest book, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story, out today from Liveright, Holt allowed VF Daily to pick his brain...
Was it true? Had Holt "established himself as an invaluable fixture in the most sophisticated conversations about philosophy, physics, mathematics, and theology today?"

That is a matter of judgment. The humor of the situation involves the person Vanity Fair picked to deliver this judgment.

At the time her judgment was rendered, Lauren Christensen was one year out of Princeton, where she had majored in English. Starting in June 2011, she had worked at Vanity Fair. According to she best positioned to know, she had worked in some or all of these capacities:
Assistant Editor to Aimée Bell, Deputy Editor
• Edited features, columns, and Spotlights across politics, culture, and Hollywood sections
• Coordinated an integrated monthly development process across all departments for incoming stories
• Directly aided contributing editors with story ideas, research, and editing
• Compiled the Vanity Fair books list for first serial and Hot Type considerations
• Pitched, researched, and wrote independent book reviews for both the print magazine and
By this time, Christensen may have edited features, columns, and "Spotlights" across politics, culture, and Hollywood sections. She may have compiled the Vanity Fair books list for "Hot Type" considerations.

Now, through zero fault of her own, she was handed a new assignment. She was assigned to name the people who are invaluable fixtures in the most sophisticated conversations about philosophy, physics, mathematics, and theology today!

Question: in what world would an editor assign such a task to such a young, unqualified person?

Answer: in the world of our modern journalistic elite, after the curtain's drawn back! In the world of the music men who have helped create the world in which we all cringe today.

Nothing that happened in this comical instance was Laura Christensen's fault. Had deputy editor Aimee Bell made this rather unlikely assignment? We have no idea.

(In 1992, Bell, then 26, was reportedly "an editor of the Vanities section of Vanity Fair magazine in New York and is the books editor there." You can confirm those facts here.)

Whatever! Someone asked an English major one year out of college to engage in the act of judgment to which we have alluded. Understandably, when the Qs and As began, the Qs and As started like this:
CHRISTENSEN (continuing directly from above): Holt allowed VF Daily to pick his brain—highlights from our chat:

CHRISTENSEN: Mr. Holt—I have to confess: a lot of this book was over my head.

HOLT: Oh no! That’s terrible. I’ve failed.
In truth, that was an excellent way for this young journalist to start. In his utterly bogus response, it was Holt who cast himself in the role of cosmic pretender.

At the time this piece appeared, the alleged success of Holt's new book hadn't yet been established. Holt is an elusive figure whose background is surprisingly hard to pin down. Even today, the leading authority offers only the short bio shown below, but the bio does start to establish the worldly success of his book:
Jim Holt is an American philosopher, author and essayist. He has contributed to The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, and Slate. His book Why Does the World Exist? was a NYTimes bestseller for 2013.

He hosted a weekly radio spot on BBC Wales called "Living in America, with Jim Holt" for ten years. He has appeared on William F. Buckley's Firing Line, NBC News with Tom Brokaw, and CNN. In 1997, he was editor of The New Leader, a political magazine. Holt lives in Greenwich Village, NY.
Is Holt "an American philosopher?" Only the recent college grads know for sure!

This bio does make the somewhat muddled claim that Holt's book "was a NYTimes bestseller for 2013." Under "Awards and Honors," it further notes that Holt's book was a 2012 finalist for a National Book Award.

(According to Nexis, the book appeared on the Times hard-cover bestseller list for three weeks during 2012, and for one week during 2013, never rising above number 23. During 2013, it appeared on the paperback bestseller list four times.)

In truth, Holt's book wasn't a giant best-seller, whether for 2012 or for 2013. That said, the leading authority doesn't mention another high honor received by Holt's book. Inevitably, in December 2012, the New York Times selected Holt's "existential detective story" as one of the ten best books of the year.

Should the Times have made that selection? That's a matter of judgment. That said, Christensen couldn't know this honor was coming when she received her assignment in the summer of that year.

Presumably, Christensen asked around concerning Holt, then voiced a conventional view. As an author and essayist for The New York Times and The New York Review of Books, Holt had established himself as an invaluable fixture in the most sophisticated conversations about philosophy, physics, mathematics, and theology today. She herself didn't understand Holt's book. But it was what everyone said!

Christensen did something very right when she started her conversation in the way we've cited. She said she had no fucking idea what the fuck the invaluable fixer was talking about in his highly sophisticated book.

Did Holt know what he was talking about? We'll flirt with that question this week. In the process, we'll be starting a highly controversial conversation, one we expect to extend over several weeks.

At present, we're all waiting for Donald J. Trump to start his invaluable war. With our national discourse now a mere memory, we think it's time to take a peek behind the curtain and chuckle about the assortment of journalistic and academic frauds who have brought us to this darkly amusing point.

Who would ask a college kid to make an assessment like the one which landed in Christensen's lap? Music men would take that step—and none of Us would notice.

Tomorrow: Who the Sam Hill is Jim Holt? And what the Sam Hill has he said?

Later today: Drum on Comey


  1. "Question: in what world would an editor assign such a task to such a young, unqualified person?"

    That college kid may have been the one on the staff who had most recently taken a class in math, philosophy or physics. Even for English majors such classes are typically required as breadth requirements. You don't get increased knowledge in those fields via life experience, the way you do in the social sciences. So distance AWAY from college leads to less knowledge, not more. She may have been the most qualified person for this assignment.

    Why should any of us care about Jim Holt? I didn't buy his book when it came out and I don't plan to now.

    On the other hand, there was a March for Science this past weekend. There are any number of books about climate change that would be more relevant to that event, how it was covered, and why it is important that the press cover it.

    I find myself wondering why Bill Nye the science guy seems to be the only person mentioned in connection to the various marches around the country, despite the many prominent scientists who also spoke. But Somerby is fixated on Jim Holt and some poor college kid assigned to review his book.

    1. Plenty of people with Ph.Ds with relevant writing skills who could do the work Christensen is being asked to do.

      Bob's point is the the is critiquing pretenders in the media: people who claim to be experts or writers with expertise, but are not very competent.

      My guess for why Bill Nye gets all the coverage is that he once did a PBS childrens show about science, and people remember him that way (not saying there is anything wrong with that). That has given him a good "brand" and contacts within the media that makes him the "go to" guy for people in the media. I am pretty cynical about Nye: he has endorsed questionable products in the past and, I assume like most media people, commands five figure speaking fees. Sometimes it seems like he doesn't know what he is talking about when he is interviewed.

      Note to DinC before you post: none of this has anything with denying the reality of man-made global warming. Before you post anything on the subject, please view this website for important information:

    2. Great point 10:35. Plus, shamefully, he has yet to mention the O'Reilly exit.

    3. Go away not-Greg

  2. Poetry:

  3. If Holt's book was about well-known scientific matters and intended for the unsophisticated, as the title and his own comment about "failure" would suggest, then assigning an unsophisticated person to read the book and interview him about it would seem to be appropriate.

    If the book was actually intended to be ground-breaking then it should not have been aimed at the unsophisticated and Holt would not have expected the reviewer to understand it.

  4. Holt seems to be deliberately obscure about his academic background. For example, despite claiming to be a Fellow at Columbia, he has no academic vita. He doesn't seem to have earned a doctorate anywhere, although he did get an M.A. in math.

    Somerby isn't one to respect academic qualifications, given that he regularly derides those who have them. Now he is claiming that a person with a B.A. from a good school is unqualified to asses the writing of someone with an M.A. (in math) writing outside his field of training.

    I just don't see it. Either academic qualifications matter or they don't. It is not fair to use them when you don't like someone and ignore them when you do. I suppose Somerby is complaining that the blind are reviewing the blind, in this case. Holt's work has been endorsed by actual philosophers. Maybe he is suggesting that philosophy itself has no substance, since anyone can do it and garner praise from philosophers who ought to be able to recognize quality in their own community.

    I dislike navel-gazing. I dislike it when Somerby does it, as he does ad nauseum. I dislike it in the media. But I especially wish Somerby would just spit out what he wants to say, instead of these oblique hints at his views. This reviewer was given a pile of B.S. written by the newest TED huckster and she did a creditable job of pretending there was some there there. Somerby wants to blame the paper who assigned her for giving her a task over her head, not the philosophy community for anointing yet another king with no clothes.

    The good parts of philosopher have evolved into real fields of knowledge (physics, math, logic, psychology, applied ethics). The chaff is left and it seems to occupy some good minds with meaningless activity that is of no use to anyone.

    Somerby has no qualifications to asses the quality of either this reviewer or Jim Holt. He has a B.A. from a good school and no further experience whatsoever in math, physics or philosophy. On what basis does he set himself up as the arbiter of anything? Hubris abounds.

  5. Question: In what world would a blogger select an
    obscure five year old interview/article as the starting point for a theme series?

    Answer: In a world where a bitter, aging career hopping blogger rages at the young and cringes at the world and thinks everyone else shares that view.

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