Academia, Chris Hayes, CMU, Elitism, Genius, Journalism, Mediocrity, Pitt, Racism, Ross Douthat, Thomas Friedman, Whitemansplaining, Writing
I am most definitely not a journalist. At least not in any professionally trained sense. I majored in computer science, then in history, all while picking up minors in mathematics and in Black studies. Going further back in time, I refused to be part of the high school yearbook committee, even though my classmates asked me to be on it at least four times. I was always a writer, even when I was only in observation mode, even though I didn’t see myself as one until I was well into my 30s. I just didn’t want to work with a group of people who were caught up in their own middle class dramas, the petty jealousies, and the even pettier emotions over pop cultural icons and incidents.
By the time I thought about J school, I already had my doctorate. I’d already learned from one of my former professors and several senior colleagues my academic writing was “too journalistic.” That’s what they thought, anyway. I knew my writer was stuck between the way I wrote before my PhD work at Carnegie Mellon and the four years of academic abuse I endured to make my writing colder and more “scholarly.”
I did find my way back to writing without all the high-falutin’ bells and whistles. The words fait accompli and raison d’etre and “promulgated” and “posited,” and (especially for me) “indeed” all had to die in a supernova. Less is more, clarity and conciseness are more important than showing off my super-dense writing skills, at least that’s what the proverbial they say. And “they” are mostly correct.
But in my twenty-plus years of venturing into the world of journalism and writing, it is so clear to me the rules of academia operate in this white-male dominated world, too. Especially when discussing big ideas, like the West’s past, the US’ present, our collective futures. No, that domain is a “white man’s country.” Thomas Friedman, Ezra Klein, David Brooks, Nate Silver, Matt Yglesias, Matt Taibbi, Chris Hayes, Ross Douthat, Tucker Carlson, and an army of others. While there are Black and Brown men and some white women (and nary any Black women and women of color) working as big-idea columnists, I could lock them in a medium-sized conference room and light a match. And many in this group have spent more time discouraging me as a writer than doing anything else, from Pittsburgh to DC and back.
If you are like me and have decided to convert your research and your lifetime of expertise and experience to write about big ideas, then you know the marketplace for our ideas is small. Add to this my penchant for writing pieces on American racism and American identity, about racism’s impact on Black folx and people of color, and the window for publishing my work is a few micrometers in width.
Rarely do I hear from folks in my circles about what they think of my writing or my ideas. Not even disagreement or open disparagement — even that would be something to work with. But it’s mostly deafening silence out there among the literati set whenever a piece of mine is out there to read.
If it were just the geniuses group, I wouldn’t really care. (I mean, if Ross Doofus is a genius because he among the white male set was honest about the mythology of Harvard, then everyone’s a genius. Many of us knew this without spending $200,000 to go to Harvard or before even attending college at all. Elite white folk and their narcissism start off in K-12, after all. Woe to us who school with them!)
Academicians and their silence, their “meh” responses to anything not published in a “peer-reviewed journal” with 300 footnotes and a few pages on multivariate chi-squared bullshit analysis (this includes Black academia). Journalists and their silence, their sort-of, “you write about race and racism well, but you don’t really know anything” when I do hear the occasional burp. The result is me feeling like Sisyphus, constantly reinventing the wheel to publish, well, anything, even though I have enough bylines to my credit to be part of a meaningful conversation about virtually any topic related to the US and the West.
None of this, though, is anything compared to the granting of “genius” status to the white-male set in journalism. To me, they are journalists. Period. Even the ones who have to edit and interpret the bigger picture think in newsworthy hooks, news cycles, and the relative immediate response of a reading or watching or listening audience. They do not care that their response to the January 6th insurrection might well lead to obvious fascism in the US by the 2030s. Nor do they care that their coverage and their analysis often ignores the anecdotal, emotional, and statistical regarding racist oppression in the US and its implications for the future.
Friedman’s “flat-earth” ideas are mind-numbing. David Brooks’ conservatism is really fairly well-written middle-class white teenager angst and contrarianism. Chris Hayes’ neoliberalism assumes total insulation from the deep cracks in America’s facade of freedom and ignores the falsehoods of ever-increasing progress toward equality. Their whitemansplaing allows them to ignore the past and the future, to focus in blindly ignorant ways on the present. They are only “geniuses” because there is an army of other white men who like what they are saying.
As I have said many times, I am not going to win any popularity contests. Nor do I seek to win them either. I don’t need praise to keep writing. It would be nice, though, if maybe once every couple of months, someone I know or sorta know would go, “hey, this is really good. It’s given me lots of things to rethink about x, y, or z.” It would be better still to get paid for my think pieces, at least more than $150 here, $300 or $400 there. It’s not much comfort that the powers that remain did this to W. E. B. Du Bois, too, and often denigrated Lorraine Hansberry and James Baldwin as much as they praised them.
All I know is, “genius” without challenging yourself, your supporters, or the status quo isn’t genius at all. It’s a bunch of grinning dumbasses slapping each other on the back for stating the obvious in their white-bred world.