MONDAY, MAY 24, 2021
Kafka recoils from the Times: Work like this might have made Kafka's Gregor Samsa feel a bit like an insect.
Behavior like this made the young Plato adopt a type of exile. "When I saw all this, and other things as bad, I was disgusted and withdrew from the wickedness of the times," he wrote in the Seventh Letter.
One thinks of Antoine Roquentin, the main character in Sartre's 1938 novel, La Nausée (Nausea). As described by the leading authority, Roquentin "becomes convinced that inanimate objects and situations encroach on his ability to define himself, on his intellectual and spiritual freedom, evoking in [him] a sense of nausea."
Then too, there was the deeply alienated Meursault, the main character in Camus's famous 1942 novella, L'Étranger (The Stranger).
(We tend to include John Book, the Harrison Ford character in the 1985 film, Witness. He adopts a type of internal exile out of dismay with the corruption of some police officials and that era's social disintegration.)
We're discussing the aversion we felt over the weekend as we read some of the offerings in the New York Times' latest special section. Such work may have made Gregor Samsa feel a bit like a roach.
For what it's worth, we assume that all the work to which we refer was done in something resembling good faith. But the work was routinely very poor, or so the logicians tell us.
Tomorrow, we'll steel ourselves for the task of discussing these underfed essays. For today, let's offer a note concerning the banality of the journalistic culture from which such essays emerge.
In the special section to which we refer, contributors offered their thoughts on the occasion of the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd. In Saturday's print edition, we read Nicholas Kristof's contribution to this special collection. Yesterday, the New York Times' Sunday Review dedicated its space to nine more essays exploring that theme.
This special series was assembled by Patrick Healy, who recently became "Deputy Opinion editor." (We're not fully sure what that means.)
Healy is 28 years out of college (Tufts, class of 1993). He has been at the Times for sixteen years, serving in various capacities.
We have no doubt that Patrick Healy is a good, decent person. Presumably, he had no control over what was said when he was named to his new post.
The announcement of Healy's new assignment was made by Kathleen Kingsbury, Opinion editor at the Times. Colloquially, she seems to be the head of the Times editorial board.
Late last month, Healy was named deputy head of the board. At the start of her announcement, this is what Kingsbury wrote:
KINGSBURY (4/29/21): I am delighted to announce that Patrick Healy will be the next deputy editor of Opinion.
Patrick is an accomplished journalist who has excelled in any number of roles at The Times over the past 16 years, showing range, versatility and creativity. A proven leader, he has worked collaboratively and generously across the newsroom with editors and reporters, and teams including Video, Graphics and Audience.
For the past three years, he has served as the Politics editor, where he deftly and tirelessly led the team through the 2018 midterm elections and then the historic presidential race...[H]e brought out the best in established reporters and editors, while also hiring essential new voices in Times political coverage like Astead Herndon and Lisa Lerer.
Our former colleague Rachel Dry gives a glimpse: “Patrick owns an incredible pair of dog-shaped slippers. He brought them out in New Hampshire in February 2020, and calmly and confidently outlined coverage for the primary in his puppy-shod-feet. A planning doc for every possibility, plus whimsical loungewear, represents what makes him such a generous colleague and friend: He leads with humanity, with knowledge drawn from his wide-ranging experience, and with a commitment to being the best and getting the best out of a team. He leaves big slippers to fill.”
The announcement continued from there. In the next paragraph, Kingsbury noted this: "As a deputy editor in Culture, he expanded news coverage, including creating the ratings hit, Best of Late Night."
Never mind what that Best of Late Night "news coverage" actually involved. Did you know that our highest-placed upper-class journalists speak so freely about their orgs' "ratings hits?"
Let us say it again. It isn't Healy's fault that Kingsbury wrote what she did. But yes, that's what she wrote:
Healy has some incredible, dog-shaped slippers! He leaves some very big slippers to fill at his previous post!
Healy's whimsical loungewear "gives us a glimpse," we were told, or something roughly like that. As to what we were getting a glimpse of, we weren't precisely told.
That banality was published by the person who heads the New York Times editorial board. Each person can now decide what that means, or whether it means anything at all.
We would suggest that people willing to traffic in such banality will never help Our Town find a sensible path as our society continues to slide towards the sea. But then, we've been "putting up with this [banal] behavior our whole lives," to borrow from the Ben Johnson character's line in The Last Picture Show.
(The Johnson character said "trashy.")
That film was about a dying Texas town. On Saturday, we were appalled by Kristof's contribution to this weekend's special collection of essays. As Kristof pretended or seemed to be discussing public schools, it seemed obvious to us that he was phoning it in, whether he knew it or not.
On Sunday morning, matters got worse. We reviewed some entries, then quit, recalling an assortment of nausea-ridden characters.
Does a type of moral and intellectual banality define the mental life of Our Town? Our brains are wired in that precise way, major top experts have said!
Tomorrow: Why not start with this?