I enjoy Conor Friersdorf’s journalism for The Atlantic. Friedersdorf is an engaging and thoughtful writer who covers tough topics, generally, with balance and insight. In a recent report on the “Middlebury mob,” however, Friedersdorf committed a major intellectual party-foul on Charles Murray. Examining whether Murray’s Bell Curve–the book ostensibly protested at Middlebury—is racist as is alleged, Friedersdorf noted the following:
(Like many of the protesters, I’ve never read the bestselling book, which was published when I was 14. Later, reading up on the debates that followed its publication, I thought the smartest critics of the two controversial chapters that focused on racial differences were more persuasive than their defenders.)
I bear no standing animus against Friedersdorf, but this is remarkable stuff. You’re a top-flight journo, you went to a great school like Pomona, and you write for The Atlantic–yet you publicly dismiss books without reading so much as a page? Further, you excuse yourself from digesting the book’s content because it came out when you were a teenager? By this standard, the Iliad came out when we were all distant specks of potentiality in the cosmos, so I suppose we can opine about it with nary a browse, right? This is laughable stuff.
There are vast heaping hordes of books that we all haven’t read, and won’t read, and that’s fine. We shouldn’t feel bad about that. But here are the rules: if you are going to pass judgment on a book, especially a hot-button one, you have to read it. The rules here are so slight and modest as to nearly blush in our presence. You only have to read a work (and yeah, maybe think about it a bit, too), then you can feel free to give us your take. That’s basically the standard among serious-minded thinkers.But again–and not to confuse you here–if you don’t read a book, whether because you were playing Little League, or because you–ahem–didn’t find the time to do so, you don’t get to play. You certainly don’t get to take to the pages of one of the world’s most prestigious outlets and criticize said book. That’s lazy, to say the least. Tendentious.
All this may seem an errand in the journalistic wilderness, but it’s really not. This sort of laziness, this kind of intellectual shorthand, this type of virtue-signaling-without-really-even-thinking-about-it, is endemic today. It’s a part of why our society is fractured. We’re full of hot-takes but short on knowledge. In general, Conor Friedersdorf plays the game fairly, and he’s not a horseman of the apocalypse, from what I can tell. But this is not his finest hour. He–and we–need to do better. We need to give our debate partners, and even our opponents, the charity of taking them seriously, engaging their work, and only then weighing in on the merit of their ideas.
I’d hope Conor will read this, but then again, he’s an Atlantic journalist.
(And he’s 36 or 37, so take that to heart, too.)