Help Wanted

When I started writing this blog back in January, I thought I had world enough and time to heap obloquy and opprobrium on any writer at my leisure.  It would be years, I imagined, before my words of scorn had any effect on the New York Times mediascape, if they ever did.  Now I found out how wrong I was.  The new editor of the Magazine, Hugo Lindgren, is making a bunch of changes and cutting three of its most hateable features: Virginia Heffernan’s “The Medium,” Randy Cohen’s “The Ethicist,” and Deborah Solomon’s “Questions For.”   Truly, this Hugo Lindgren is doing God’s work.  But I can’t help feeling sad.  “Time is a violent torrent; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by, and another takes its place, before this too will be swept away” (Marcus Aurelius). Man’s days are as grass, our little life is rounded with a sleep, and also you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.

I never meant for this to happen — I just wanted these authors to take more pride in their work.    Nonetheless, it is their fate to be crushed to earth and languish in humiliating obscurity, taking jobs as public radio personalities and writing bestselling philosophical treatises about iPhones.   But if I can’t stop them from leaving, I can help them in other ways.  In fact, I intend to help everyone.  I do so below, by identifying these three writers’ main strengths and weaknesses, then suggesting other employment for which they might be more suited, and who should get their jobs.

Heffernan’s latest piece is called “Online Medical Advice Can Be a Prescription for Fear.”  It’s in the typical “article about a website” format, and explains why MayoClinic.com is a better source of medical information than WebMD.  You can probably guess some of the reasons yourself — for example, the Mayo Clinic is a famous medical clinic — but in case you cannot, she spends 800 words telling you.

“Because of the way WebMD frames health information commercially, using the meretricious voice of a pharmaceutical rep, I now recommend that anyone except advertising executives whose job entails monitoring product placement actually block WebMD.”

Good news:  You just got medical advice from a Harvard doctor!  Bad news: … the doctorate is in English Literature.  This is just like the time my gynecologist started lecturing me about the essentialism inherent in the Western philosophical paradigm.  “I always recommend that my patients reject the phallogocentric epistemology of the West’s Aristotelean intellectual lineage and embrace more pluralistic ways of re-cognizing and re-presenting the embodied Self.”  “Thanks, doc, but I just need some vagina pills!”

She describes a more ambiguous state of affairs in “The iPhone Condom Debate,” about a controversy over whether to put plastic protectors on iPhone screens.  It seems these protective surfaces can be bought from a company, and will shield your screen from scratches.  The topic gives her ample scope to project her technology fetish onto her fellow iPhone users.

It turns out people on Mac message boards are hotly divided about this subject.  “They frame the conversation as one about screen clarity and sensitivity — seemingly empirical subjects fit for message-board dissection. But things get emotional fast…. What they want from their smartphones and tablets is pretty intense. If they didn’t use the word ‘condom’ so much, I wouldn’t have said this, but — what people want from their Apple devices seems to be copulation. Or at the very least life partnership.”  Lady, I gotta tell ya, message board debates always get “emotional.”  If that’s the standard you go by, people on political message boards must want to fuck John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, Al Gore, wind turbines, solar panels, organic arugula, assault rifles, confederate flags, birth certificates, and fetuses that were aborted using your tax dollars.  People would be literally teabagging Rand Paul and sticking their dicks in the hole in the ozone layer.  Which of course they aren’t.  Or are they? Also, isn’t Virginia Heffernan the one who’s always raving about TV viewers’ “illicit desires” and people wanting their entertainment “inside them“?

“But if careering around the Web doing symptom searches is your bag (and, come on, we’ve all been there), there’s still MayoClinic.com.”  New pet peeve:  Writers who exhort the reader to “come on, just admit it, you’ve done it too.”  Every time some writer tells me to “just admit” things, it’s always in reference to some stupid nonsense I haven’t done and wouldn’t ever want to, like reading my boyfriend’s e-mail or forgetting to vote.  Either that or (as here) it’s something completely normal and bland.  I don’t actually feel sheepish about Googling medical symptoms online!  I’m not going to make a doctor’s appointment every time I feel a funny twinge!  Stop trying to build rapport with me by telling me I’ve “been there”!  You don’t know where I’ve been!

Heffernan’s ideal new job: Reviewing high-tech sex toys and 3D porn.
Who should replace her: Message board commenters.

The New York Magazine reporter who announced Randy Cohen’s departure called his column “funny and insightful.”  I’ve expressed doubts about his insight before.  In the most recent “Ethicist,” an unemployed person writes in to say he has been offered a job setting up outsourcing operations for a company, but thinks it would be wrong to take it.  Cohen thinks it’s okay:  “It is not unethical for an ambitious young person in, say, Mumbai to land a job that might otherwise go to an ambitious young person in, say, Seattle, and there is no opprobrium in your helping him or her land it. Americans do not enjoy moral precedence over Indians. Some people feel we have a greater ethical duty to those closest to us — our neighbors — but in an era of global trade and travel, that is a recipe for tribalism and its attendant ills.”

Thank you for your exciting multicultural perspective on how Indians are people, too.  Cohen isn’t buying into those essentialist phallogocentric ideologies!  Fight the power, my brother!  If I may be so bold as to opine, though, I think the reason people object to outsourcing is not so much that it gives jobs to spunky, tenacious Indians, as that corporations terminate decently paying jobs with vacation days and benefits, and replace them with jobs that pay 12-year-olds 30 cents an hour to operate machines all day in a big room full of sweaty people — “sweatshops,” if you will.

So Cohen isn’t always “insightful,” but is he “funny”?  I always had a hard time telling what his jokes were supposed to be, but I think I’ve sussed it out now.  In last week’s column, somebody writes in saying they changed the locks on their house because they suspected their ex-maid of stealing their Oxycontin.  He discusses the situation quite reasonably for a few paragraphs, then seems to panic and go all to pieces because the column doesn’t have any jokes in it.  The result is this:  “As to your changing the locks and cutting down all the trees in your yard so you’d have a clear field of fire if she returned with a zombie army to wreak a terrible vengeance — is that it? — there you might have overreacted.”

Zombies are a form of supernatural creature featured in many popular horror films and internet memes.   Changing the locks so a person who stole your stuff doesn’t get into your house is an overreaction because… it’s probably not, actually? Drawing a parallel between an extreme situation and a mundane reality is a common tactic used to create humor.  It’s referred to as “overlapping but incompatible frames of reference” by scientific theorist Tom Veach.  I see the “incompatible” part, but I don’t see the “overlapping.”  Plus, how come I have to keep invoking all these philosophers and mathematicians and economists and literary theorists to explain a few articles, anyway?  People read this magazine over the breakfast table! It’s supposed to be easy to understand!  Be lucid, please!

Cohen’s wacky zombie reference isn’t an isolated incident, but part of an overarching trend in his writing.  In the outsourcing column, he writes that “your taking this job is not akin to sneaking into a local I.T. firm and squirting Krazy Glue into its door locks.”  The word “Krazy” sounds crazy, and thus funny.  In a discussion of tipping, he asks “why should that diner owner’s profits rise if, instead of a side of bacon, you order a side of diamonds?”  (Jan. 14.)  Diamonds are so expensive that you can only order them in the finest restaurants, establishments that would be unlikely to offer a “side of bacon” on their menus.  An co-worker’s IRS mixup will cause government officials to “notice that she is simultaneously working in another state, suggesting either fraud or the ability to travel at hyperspeed, which, if the latter, could be the technological breakthrough America needs to be a country of robust innovation (not like that ridiculous Segway).” (January 7).  Segways are an undignified mode of transportation, which shows that America is going down the tubes.  “To avoid [unpaid debts from loved ones], custom urges us not to do business with family or lend money to friends or, for other reasons, lend money to a cat. How can a cat repay you? It’s a cat!” (December 30).  He explained that one himself.  I could keep going — and in fact I kind of want to, because it’s relaxing — but I won’t.

But perusing Cohen’s work reveals patterns that run much deeper.  Every column features two letters.  Of the two, Cohen deems one to be wacky, because it involves rich people, or middle class people’s jobs.  He judges the other one to be serious and important, because it’s about Nazi atrocities or strippers.  Naturally, only the first kind gets embellished with a joke.  That means one joke per column.  Cohen has been writing this column for ten years… at a rate of about 50 columns per year, that would mean he has written ~500 jokes in his tenure at the Timesand they’re all exactly the same.  Cohen may tax the reader’s knowledge of philosophy, psychology, cognition and intellectual history, but he at least doesn’t strain my math skills.

Cohen’s ideal new job: “Punching down” movie scripts that Hollywood producers deemed too comedic.
Who should replace him: An ethics expert.  Or some rando with a B.A. who writes criticism for the Times, because that’s who they already picked.

“No one is more terrible at talking to people than Deborah Solomon,” writes one blogger of the author of “Questions For.”  Among her claims to fame are are having been written up by the ombudsman for misleading editing, and a bizarre incident involving a botched live interview with Steve Martin.  But despite what might seem like unpredictable gaffes, her most noteworthy feature is consistency.  Amoeba-like, she has a predictable response to every stimulus:  When conducting an interview, zing the interviewee.  Every printed exchange features her asking a few regular serious questions, a few fun, bubbly gossip questions, and a few skeptical “gotcha” questions.  It doesn’t matter who she’s interviewing — Nelson Mandela, John Waters or an Enron executive, her tone and technique don’t waver.

Her most recent piece is about Eugene Jarecki, a director who has made a new documentary about Ronald Reagan.  In the interview, he identifies himself as a moderate Republican who finds today’s right wing too extreme, and shares some thoughts about Reagan’s attempts at personal myth-making.  Solomon concludes the chat with this: “Why are you wearing a cowboy hat in this photograph?  You’re a bit of a myth builder yourself.”  Fortunately for Jarecki, he has a plausible defense for this allegation:  Someone gave it to him.  Congratulations, though:  You just zinged a documentarian for wearing a hat.

Perhaps Solomon desires to show she’s not dazzled by fame.  Perhaps she believes that only conflict and extreme awkwardness are entertaining.  Whatever the reason, the zings keep coming. Henry Louis Gates, a professor of African American studies, produced a TV show where they did genetic tests to reveal prominent Americans’ ancestry.  Solomon asks him: “Why is it meaningful? We all share DNA and are related to one another if you look back far enough in time.”  Well damn, that’s a good point.  I used to think DNA sequencing and the human genetic legacy were interesting subjects, but now I’m not sure…  this article is raising so many questions for me…  congratulations, you just zinged a race studies scholar for studying racial diversity.

She interviews philosopher Daniel Dennet, who wrote a book claiming that evolution and biological processes can explain people’s propensity to believe in religion.  She asks him: “But what’s the point of that? Wouldn’t it be more worthwhile to spend your time and research money looking for a cure for AIDS?” Dude, I don’t think this guy is qualified to do AIDS research.  For one thing, he doesn’t have a medical degree.  Curing AIDS isn’t like starting a punk band; you can’t just do it in your basement on the weekend.  {Phone rings in run-down studio apartment.}  “So dude, I was thinking we should get together this weekend and work on some AIDS research.  No big deal, just try out some ideas, see if anything comes together.  Yeah, I wrote this really sweet hypothesis last night, I want to hear what you think of it.  I’ve been thinking it’d be cool to get the old research team going again, maybe go on Craigslist and find some experimental subjects.”  A FEW WEEKS LATER, ON CRAIGSLIST:  “Alternative/low-fi pathology research team seeking healthy HIV-positive adults for long-term clinical therapy trial.  Looking for someone with cool taste in research modalities.  Our influences include Louis Pasteur,  Robert Koch, the Human Genome Project, CCR5 Receptor Antagonists, HIV Protease Inhibitor, Alexander Fleming, Oliver Sacks, Jonas Salk, The Mayo Clinic, International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, Hippocrates.  We are a couple of laid-back biomedical science bros, but looking for someone with a strong work ethic who would be available to meet up for comparison trials at least once a week.  No compensation, but we’ll split grant money evenly when we start getting gigs.  If interested, holler back with a list of your favorite antiretroviral therapies. No needle drug users.  420 okay.”

Anyway, congratulations, Deborah Solomon:  You just zinged a philosopher for writing about philosophy stuff.

In her worldview, all people, whether artist, statesman, or rogue, take on the same status: colorful but unscrupulous characters who are likely to pull a fast one on her, and the American public, if not kept in check.  Her relentless suspicion doesn’t mean interviewees don’t sometimes get the last laugh, as you’ll see in her chat with Das Racist.

Solomon: Rap is a black art form that originated in the Bronx, so why, as two Wesleyan graduates who met in college, would you think you could rap?
Himanshu Suri: Would you prefer your rappers to be uneducated? Victor Vazquez: And would we even be on the page of this publication if we had not gone to Wesleyan?

Solomon’s ideal job: Warden in a jail
Who should replace her: Someone who has a positive attitude and likes being around people.  I think most Americans have this on their resumes, so almost anyone could do it!

New York Times writers and editors, I hope this has been helpful.  In my next post, we’ll discuss career options for some of our currently employed NYT favorites, because it never hurts to have a backup plan.

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3 thoughts on “Help Wanted

  1. I’ve often wondered about Deborah Solomon’s typical “work”week. Monday (or Tuesday, depending on how the weekend went) discover who the underling lined up for her to “question.” Take a couple of hours to discover why subject has been chosen. Sometime on Wednesday email (or better yet lunch with) a Times colleague or ex-boyfriend or private school/college fellow alumnus/a who might know subject, or at least something about subject’s field or accomplishments. Meanwhile have underling schedule phone convo for late Thursday, but not too late. Have underling simultaneously transcribe convo. Retreat with underling to nice but not too expensive or social restaurant for drinks/dinner to hash out column while ideas still fresh. Highlight of underling’s week! On Friday noon-ish go to newsroom to make sure underling has more or less gotten gist of column hash-out, then leave for seasonal weekend destination (beach, mountains, abroad). If one or more Sulzbergers involved in weekend plans, well, more fun for all!

    It might be nice if the Ethicist recommended outsourcing Solomon’s job to India in HIS farewell column.

    A. M.

  2. Add loathesome Pete Wells to the ranks of the fallen. No longer will Times Magazine readers suffer those horribly twee Cooking With Dexter squibs. This development will, at the very least, remove that recurring, strange “Highlights” Magazine feature.

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