Further Reflections on Irony and Satire
January 4th, 2014
Here’s a comment that I think perfectly summarizes the problem (and the beauty) of satire. It comes from a guy named Chris Smith.
You’re totally not a hack for trying to excuse your defamatory hoax against a windbag like Brooks as “satire”, and your half-assed, belated “apology” is certainly sufficient. On behalf of everyone who read this well-plotted piece of non-claptrap, I sincerely thank you for wasting our time.
PS – the above is an example of actual use of “irony”.
Now, I had to read this two or three times to figure it out, and I’m still not 100% sure. I think what Smith is saying is that I am a hack, that my apology was insufficient, and that my piece was not non-claptrap or truly ironic. But it could work the other way–that it was not a defamatory hoax, that Brooks is a windbag, that his time was not wasted, that he’s sympathizing with my trouble in being understood as an ironicist. In other words, without knowing the valence of Chris Smith’s attitude toward me, it’s hard to tell what’s ironic and what’s not. I’m pretty sure I detected the valence after the third or fourth read, and that it is hostile, which makes the rest fall into place (but I’d point out, it works exactly the same way backwards). If Chris Smith were to contact me and say, “Dude, what have you been smoking? Of course I’m on your side,” I’d be a little embarrassed to think I’d spent all that time analyzing his comment and coming up wrong.
I don’t blame Smith a bit for my uncertainty, although I think he was probably more confusing than he intended. He made me think, which might contribute in some small way to delaying the onset of dementia. More to the point, if my understanding of his point was in some way crucial, if, say I was a writer or editor of a mass media outlet contemplating a piece about whether or not Gary Greenberg is a hack writer, I would reach out to Chris, who provided his email address, and just ask him. If he didn’t respond, or if his response didn’t clarify the question, I’d find some other way to find out–google him, ask his friends, look for other stuff he’s written, and so on. And I wouldn’t go forward until I had an answer that satisfied me, or if I did go forward, I’d note that I didn’t know exactly what the facts are here.
So let’s say you’re not Chris Smith, but Betsy Rothstein, a blogger for something called the Daily Caller. I’d never heard of either before yesterday at 10:53 a.m., which is about when I was pulling the battery out of the Bobcat. Her email went like this:
Name: Betsy Rothstein
Message: Hi there. I write for The Daily Caller in Washington, D.C. I’d like to talk to you about your David Brooks essay. I need to verify that this is real, that you actually knew him, smoked weed with him, etc…
Thank you so much.
P.S. My phone is 555-555-5555
It was one of fifty-seven emails that hit my inbox between 1045 and 1120. I thought I had answered it, but I think now that it was the one that my son was writing for me when he quit as my amanuensis. In any event, I did not answer Rothstein.
That didn’t stop her from posting, at 11:44 a.m. a story under the headline “Dude who smoked pot with DAvid Brooks surfaces, writes about it.” Unlike Chris Smith, Betsy Rothstein’s valence was unmistakable from the first sentence, wherein she describes me as “a p[sychotherapist who has been diagnosed with major depression.” She does throw in a “he claims” and an “allegedly” here and there, but she obviously took the piece seriously, so seriously in fact that she confesses to finding it “so thick with bitterness and resentment… that it is almost hard to read.”
Later (and I don’t know when, because I wasn’t aware of any of this until last night), she posted an update.
The Mirror has learned that Gary Greenberg, the psychotherapist who claims he smoked pot with NYT‘s David Brooks in a story on his blog is actually a hoax. There is absolutely no indication on his blog, however, that it is a hoax and Greenberg has a long list of credentials. The New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza asked Brooks about Greenberg and Brooks said he doesn’t know him. In addition, Wired‘s Steve Silberman tweeted with certainty that it was satire and wrote that he “checked” on it. CNN’s Jake Tapper probably put it best: “People need to learn that creative lying does not = satire.” Greenberg’s site has yet to be updated with any clear sign that what he wrote was satire
So her intrepid reporting had exposed me as the hoaxster I would have told her I was if she';d waited for an answer. What she fails to report, however, is that Silberman weighed in at 10:50., more than an hour before she posted her report, and just few minutes before when she emailed me with her question about the truth status of my blog post. Her initial post came long (in Internet time) after the tide of journalists that had been lapping at my door was turned back by my immediate and unequivocal confirmation that the piece was satiric. But somehow the fault was mine. And I needed to be spanked–by Jake Tapper, and then by Rothstein herself, who, in case her dismay wasn’t clear enough, posted another piece at 2:54 titled “Gary Greenberg adds his ‘I was full of sh*t disclaimer.” She said the notice I posted was “lame [sorry] and late.” I guess she must be right. As of this morning, I’m still getting comments on the article indicating that people are skipping right over the disclaimer. (But tell me, Besty, why the asterisk? Surely a website that claims that climate change is a hoax (a word they obviously know the meaning of [IRONY]), uses Nelson Mandela to sell its voter ID support, and runs an article suggesting that it should be a crime to speak up for Obama–surely such a media outlet knows wherein lies obscenity.)
Anyway, last night, I was going over the hundreds of emails I’d gotten, trying to make sure I’d responded to the ones I thought should be responded to. I saw that Betsy’s had gone unanswered. When I went to respond to it, I realized she was the person who had written this Daily Caller article, which I had just read. So I emailed her at 9:37 last night.
Betsy–It’s not real, but I guess you figured that out. I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you earlier today. Things got a little hectic around here. But here’s a question: if you were uncertain enough to ask, then why didn’t you wait until you got an answer?
Then I went to bed. This morning, this response was waiting for me.
Seriously? You wrote a completely false story and you ask why didn’t I wait? There was no indication for me to believe that what you wrote wasn’t real.
You’re a psychotherapist, right? You need to examine yourself. Your behavior as a writer disgusts me. No one should believe a word you say.
It was followed in my inbox by a twitter notification:
@Bookofwoe has some serious self-analysis to do. Such a lying prick. But it’s everyone else’s fault.
I didn’t know whether to fall in love or commit hari-kari.
But seriously, I guess Betsy Rothstein is aspiring to fill the Ann Coulter chair of American journalism. After all, if “there was no indication for [her] to believe that what I wrote wasn’t real” (and there is something really wrong with the syntax there), then why did she email me in the first place? You can’t have it both ways, Bets.
Wait a minute. Of course she can. It’s the Internet.
AS for Jake Tapper, I don’t really know who this guy is. My CNN exposure comes from The Daily Show and the Colbert Report. So that might explain my reaction, which is that I thought Creative Lying = cable news. Or Creative Lying = Daily Caller, which seems to specialize in climate-change-is-a-hoax and Obamacare-is-the-coming-of-the- Antichrist stories, although on second thought, that’s not so creative is it?
So my hat’s off to all those journalists who did their jobs, especially to the superbly named Zack Beauchamp
and his not so well named thinkprogress.org. I’m sorry if I got your hopes up that you’d have an excellent celebrity kerfuffle to palaver about for awhile, and another reason to hate on David Brooks (if only privately). To those of you who wanted to cross post it (as satire) anyway but were nixed by your editors, I feel your pain. And to all of you, I understand that the Internet is a demanding place, that nanoseconds count, that no one can afford to be the last lemming over the cliff, and I don’t envy you one bit for having to spend your days on the wrong end of a firehose spewing all sorts of toxicity.
Myself, I’m going back to my broken machines and my foul-mouthed son, and to Melville, whose point in the Confidence-Man seems to be that 1) the easiest thing to convince people of is something they already wanted to believe, and 2) that reading only starts with looking at words on a page, that you have to fully engage with the written material to understand it, and yourself, and your world.
I Broke the Internet’s Heart (HYPERBOLE)
January 4th, 2014
NB: Evidently, you are supposed to label everything you write on the Internet according to its genre. No one wants to tell me what the labels are, but I’m guessing things like “fact,” “fiction,” “myth,” “satire,” “truthy” “pointless speculation,” “character assassination,” and so on. So I’ll try to keep up with the times. Everything below is true unless labeled otherwise.
Yesterday I woke up at the usual time, poured myself a cup of coffee, and browsed the NY Times. The plan was to work on an essay I’m writing about, and I must reiterate this is FACT, The Confidence-Man, Herman Melville’s strange and marvelous novel about a man aboard a steamboat who hoodwinks passengers by telling them exactly what they want to hear. But I got sidetracked by David Brooks’s confession that he smoked weed in high school, which was followed by a lecture about the swinishness of all those who did not, as he did, quickly recognize that it was an IQ-point-shaving, idiocy-inducing pastime that was bound to result in embarrassment and moral decay. (SLIGHT EXAGGERATION)
Now, David Brooks has annoyed me before, but usually I swallow my bile along with my coffee and move on to stuff that’s important. There are exceptions, of course. I did write a pretty snarky review of his book The Social Animal for The Nation (called the book the love child of Malcolm Gladwell and Kilgore Trout), and I’ve mentioned him on this blog before, probably not to agree with him, and I think I’ve even tweeted about him, but usually I just let it go. David Brooks doesn’t care what I think about him, and I don’t blame him for that. And there are plenty of other people out there hating on him, and I don’t need to add to the hating. So why bother?
But still, this column…what really got me, even more than his faux-social-science-based haranguing was his blithe confession to committing (and getting away with) what was in his (and my) day a real crime, the kind of thing that if you weren’t affluent and (usually) white, would ruin your life. And in many places that’s still the case. As the father of a 15-year-old who may smoke pot one day, and as the therapist to plenty of people dealing with this concern, and as the citizen of a country that arrests something like 700,000 (NOT FACT CHECKED, BUT CLOSE TO ACCURATE) people every year for pot crimes, crimes that result in prison sentences, loss of jobs, loss of access to student loan money, expulsion from school and so on, I found this outrageous. So I thought about writing about it here on this blog. And then the voice in my head, the one that often gets me in trouble, said to me, “I smoked pot with David Brooks.” (FICTION; IRONIC INTENT; I NEVER SMOKED POT WITH DAVID BROOKS AND I AM GLAD FOR IT)
And then my other voice, the one that sounds a lot like my wife, said, “No, you can’t do that. It would be wrong.” And then my first voice said, “Yes, but it would be so much fun.” And then my other other voice said, “You have to write that Confidence-Man essay,” but then my first voice said, “Yeah, but the editor said you could have an extra few weeks on that,” and then all my voices said together, “Let’s do it.” (ENTIRE PARAGRAPH MADE UP, MOSTLY. THE VOICES ARE IMAGINARY, BUT NOT DELUSIONALLY SO. “IT WOULD BE WRONG” STOLEN FROM STANLEY ELKIN, WHO STOLE IT FROM RICHARD NIXON)
So I did. Then I emailed it to some friends and sent it out to my 300 fellow magpies on twitter. (METAPHOR) Then I went outside and started dealing with the snow and cold. Then my snow plow wouldn’t work–the hydraulic oil had waxed up in the cold. Then my Bobcat wouldn’t start–battery couldn’t handle the cold. So I got down on my old tired knees (EXAGGERATION0, took off the plow, got the battery out of the skidsteer, and made for the store.
But events intervened. While I was working on the battery, my wife had come out to the garage to tell me that my old buddy Steve Silberman had called wanting to know if it was true. That was my first clue. I got the next when my phone, which I’d grabbed on the way out the door, began giving the little ding-ding it makes every time I get an email, and which a friend says is the sound of an angel getting its wings. God was evidently making lots of angels. I read some of the emails. Lots of them were from editors at leading journals, online and print. The Atlantic, salon.com, slate.com, gawker.com, HuffPo, the Washington Examiner, the Daily Caller (which will get its own entry eventually), and so on. Mostly, they wanted to know if they could cross-post the article. One of them offered me $250 if I’d let them do it RIGHT NOW, and when I didn’t get back for twenty minutes, my response went unanswered.
I was flattered, of course, but it occurred to me, given Steve’s phone call, that maybe they’d missed the irony (although I thought the scene with faux stoned David standing on top of his faux Mom’s Vista Cruiser waxing ecstatic about Edmund Burke was a dead giveaway, even if the story about Freaks and Lord Jim was not–not to mention that the piece including a “confession” that I smoke pot, which would be a really self-destructive thing to admit, since I don’t live in Colorado or Washington, have a kid, own property, and make my living as a licensed health care provider). So I got out of the truck, shucked off my shoes and coat, and wrote to the editors, “sure you can cross post, but you do realize this is satire, right?” (GENERALIZATION, SPECIFICS IN EACH EMAIL MAY HAVE VARIED, BUT NEVER ENOUGH TO OBSCURE THE FICTIVE NATURE OF THE BLOG POST) I was surprised when most of them said they did not, but not surprised when most of them then lost interest, sometimes without even bothering to respond. Nor more than a little disappointed–I didn’t write this thing with dreams of viral glory. I wrote it to entertain myself and whoever cared to read it, so if it wasn’t going to get the HuffPo seal of approval, who cares? Sic transit and all that.
Also somewhere in there, my web guy called (on the phone, so I knew it was urgent) and said I needed to moderate comments on my blog, which turns out to mean I had to approve comments for posting. By then there were like 50 of them, so all I did was to make sure they weren’t spammers or scammers before checking the box. I did notice words in there like hoax and dirtbag, so I figured I’d hit a nerve. Plus which, when my web guy reassured me that the site was handling the traffic, that was a tipoff too.
But I didn’t have time to deal with this. I had machines to fix. I put my warm clothes back on and headed to the auto parts store, with my fifteen-year-old and my dead battery and my ceaselessly dinging phone. He read me the messages. I asked him to respond to a couple for me. “I’m not your fucking secretary,” he said.
“Amanuensis,” I replied.
“Amanuensis. You’re not not my fucking secretary. You’re not not my fucking amanuensis. And you swear too much.”
“Greek word. Means assistant and…”
“Whatever.” (POETIC LICENSE: I THINK I THOUGHT THE BIT ABOUT AMANUENSIS, NEVER SAID IT, BUT THAT’S HOW MY SON WOULD RESPOND FOR SURE, AND HE DEFINITELY MADE THE FIRST COMMENT. FACT: KID COULD CURSE THE CHROME OFF A TRAILER HITCH.)
So I let the emails pile up, until I got home around 1 pm. Then I disappointed a few more editors, had a really fun conversation with a guy named Zack Beauchamp, added a notice to my blog warning readers they were about to read satire, and went back out to the garage which is, thankfully, an Internet-free zone. (EXAGGERATION: YOU CAN GET A BAR OF WIFI OUT THERE, AND A LITTLE BIT OF 3G AS WELL, BUT WHY BOTHER?)
What I didn’t know, and didn’t learn until Zack’s article came out, was that for like two hours (six centuries in Internet time) I was the talk of the Internet. People thought that Brooks’s former potsmoking buddy, resentful at being called a “full-on stoner” had come out swinging. I felt a little bad about that, mostly for the real full-on stoner, because now, if he wanted to take his potshot (INTENTIONAL PUN), he’d have all sorts of credibility problems, but also because it seemed like I’d put a lot of people to a lot of trouble for nothing. I mean, Ryan LIzza called David Brooks to find out if he knew me? Surely, those guys have better things to do. (And why didn’t he call me? The New Yorker has my contact information. I write for them from time to time, or at least I used to.)
I suppose that sounds stupid or naive or disingenuous or something like that, that I should have understood that this would happen, that in fact this is what I wanted all along–to get some publicity for myself by perpetrating a hoax. But–and I know you may not believe this, but this is FACT–I can’t see where the hoax is. Hoax implies fraud, fraud implies some intent to gain at others’ expense. What exactly did I set out to gain? Whom did I fleece of what? I thought the satire spoke for itself, the blog post was free, I didn’t get the $250, and anyone who asked got the truth right away. As for notoriety, or what the Internet calls “exposure,” this will all be forgotten by later today, as the next clusterfuck materializes out of the ether. (I will admit that I had a moment of thinking I might disappear for awhile, let the Internet sort it out, and of being irritated that by telling Silberman the truth so quickly, my wife had taken away that option, but that other voice prevailed.)
So who exactly got hurt? Brooks? He’d already confessed to smoking weed and, if I do say so myself, I made him sound like a pretty smart high schooler, especially for a (less than full-on) stoner. Who wouldn’t want to be remembered for connecting Lord Jim and Freaks as a senior in high school? The websites? They never did the cross-posting, because I told them the truth. The editors? Most of them asked the right question and moved on, as they should have; the rest I’ll address in the next post. The reading public? Now, that’s an interesting question, which I will answer with a story from my childhood that is FACT, as best as I can remember.
My paternal grandmother’s name was Dorothy. She was Hungarian, managed to get out in the 1920s, moved to a little town in the Alleghenies, then to another, where her husband became the proprietor of the Popular Store, a clothing and shoe store serving the coal miners and railroad men. They were the only Jews in town. My grandmother never learned to drive and had the immigrant’s natural wariness, so she didn’t get out much. But she was a smart woman, read all the time, including the newspaper. One day when we were visiting her, she read a column in the paper by Art Buchwald. (POSSIBLE CONFLATION. IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN BENNETT CERF BUT I’M PRETTY SURE IT WAS BUCHWALD) I don’t remember what it was about, and I won’t make it up, that being a sensitive spot right now, but it was some kind of satire. My grandmother came out of her bedroom clucking her tongue. “Lum,” she said (that was her nickname for my father), “I just read…” and proceeded to precis the column and deplore its content, whatever it was, as if it was true. It fell to my father to gently explain to her that Buchwald was only kidding. My grandmother was crestfallen and, I think, humiliated. No one likes to be fooled.
So I think that is what happened. There is something inescapably cruel about satire, at least good satire (which, I have to admit, I think mine was), and not only to its targets: it doesn’t work as satire unless the reader is trying to figure out if it’s true or not, unless you in some way play with his credulity. If the piece is too outlandish, it’s just farce, and if it’s too realistic it’s not funny. (I’d say it’s lame, but a correspondent has taken me to task for the “able-ism” of that word.) So it’s got to be plausible, funny, and focused. You have to think it’s possible that someone is actually proposing that the poor eat their young, and that this might make sense, for a Modest Proposal to work. But to the extent that the reader thinks it’s true, his generosity and trust are being abused. That doesn’t mean satire shouldn’t be written, but it does mean that you can expect people to get their feelings hurt. Add to that the fervent wish, expressed by many of my correspondents, that it was true, that David Brooks really was as a high schooler the same insufferable prig he is in his columns today, and that some former buddy of his was calling him on it in retribution for having been accused of having “sunk… into a pothead life,” and you have the grounds for some people to get upset and angry. In this small way, I broke their hearts.
Now, some of those people can take that in stride. Others want to claim that I have deliberately hurt them by hoaxing them. I can understand both perspectives. I’m more sympathetic to the first than to the second (and my emails and comments are running about 5:1 in favor of the striders [ESTIMATE]; I can’t figure out how to assess the twittersphere). If you can’t stand being challenged, I generally think, then stay out of the printed page. Besides, a little research, a little thought, a moment or two of reflection or inquiry, a second reading–these are all prophylactics against being fooled for more than a moment, or certainly would have been in this case. But it seems that I am obsolete in this respect. The Internet allows no time for any of that. Evidently, it’s no longer up to the reader to engage with what he or she is reading. Instead, it’s up to the writer to announce his intentions, although I have to say that seems to me to sort of take away the purpose of reading and writing. So I’m a little sorry for hurting their pride (which is why I apologized in the notice added to my blog post), but not overly so.
Next up: the editors.
I smoked pot with David Brooks
January 3rd, 2014
Please note: What follows here is satire of the Juvenalian variety. I thought I embedded enough tipoffs, but then again I forgot how much stranger than fiction truth can be. So to those who thought it was real and suffered pain as a result, I apologize.
Now that he’s gone and outed himself, I guess I’m free to tell the secret. I smoked pot with David Brooks. I was one of that “clique” with whom he had “those moments of uninhibited frolic.” There were seven of us. We all know what happened to Dave. The rest: a surgeon (rich), a dentist (gay), two lawyers (one dead already), one teacher and one househusband/artist (that’s me). I never spoke up before because I figured if I threw mud at someone whose whole career rests on being squeaky clean, well, that’s just mean. And it’s mostly irrelevant now. I mean, like he said, we’ve “aged out” and “left marijuana behind.”
Well, all except me. I still get high from time to time. It helps me deal with the kids, makes me more playful and my knees ache less when I get on the floor with them. Dave would probably say I delayed having them until so late because I was too busy getting stoned, and maybe he’s right, although I like to think I was waiting for the right woman and the right time. Anyway, I gather he doesn’t have any problem with my once a week toking, even if it’s “not a particularly uplifting form of pleasure and should be discouraged more than encouraged.” So even if social scientists have proved smoking doesn’t really make me more creative (although I could swear it does, and I’ve heard others say the same, but what do we know?), and even if it makes it impossible for me to “graduate to more satisfying pleasures”–although marriage, kids, reading, music, conversations with friends, I used to think those were pretty satisfying– I guess I’m okay in his book.
Funny thing. I didn’t know before this morning that I was the “full-on stoner” who was one of the four reasons Dave gave up weed. Sorry as I am to hear that our frolics are now his shameful 4 a.m. memories, after all these years of silence, it’s nice to know I mattered to him, that I was a significant part of the moral life of someone so important and with such a strong “sense of satisfaction and accomplishment”—an achievement I guess I made possible by teaching him that “one sort of life you might choose is better than another sort of life.”
And here all along I thought he quit because of that time we got pulled over by the Radnor cops in senior year right after we’d clambaked his Mom’s Vista Cruiser, and first thing the cop does after the smoke clears is look him right in his red, red eyes, and said, “I don’t suppose it would go over so good if I went over to 632 Haverford Road and told Mr and Mrs Brooks their boy was out here with his clique smoking pot.” I was so impressed with the way Dave pulled himself together then. He didn’t beg for mercy or fight with the cop. Somehow he knew exactly how to go all bar mitzvah boy, how to talk to authority, how to flatter and impress and toady, even stoned to the gills, like his inner Eddie Haskell was deeper down than the pot could get. And it worked. The cop let us go, told us we were lucky he knew Dave and that we were white kids from Radnor, and later on, at the pizza house taking care of our munchies, chattering and cackling over our good luck and trying to figure out how Dave and the cop knew each other, busting on him for being a narc, Dave was quiet and pale and barely touched his hoagie, and I think that was the last time he smoked pot, at least with us.
But before that, did we have some uninhibited frolic! He wrote in his column about the time he got high during lunch and then “stumbled through” a presentation in English class. Too bad he didn’t go into the details. But I remember it pretty well. It was senior year. We all had to give a 10-minute talk about one of the leitmotifs in Lord Jim. We’d both chosen “one of us,” an idea that was totally DAve’s. He’d gotten after we smoked some insane Thai stick and went into Philly to see “Freaks” at the TLA. We’d figured out our talks on the train back home. Mine was going to be about how Conrad was being ironic, and the “us” weren’t exactly people you wanted to be one of. His was going to be about the way Jim’s “selfishness of a higher order” was a model for Hamiltonian government. Mine went off without a hitch, even though I was as stoned as he was. (But I was probably already the full-on stoner, so maybe I had a tolerance.)
But when Dave got up there, I think he was trying to be literary or casual or something, and he started in by saying that the idea had come to him watching Freaks, and he got totally sidetracked, the way you do when you’re good and high. “Oh, man, you shoulda seen it,” he said. “These, like, total freakazoids. This one? Prince something or other? No arms or legs, but he could roll a cigarette and then light it—with his mouth, man! He’d fit right in here at Radnor Get High…” and here he started giggling uncontrollably, and all he could say was “One of us, one of us, gobble gobble gobble” until Mr. Sedgwick had to tell him to sit down. (Later Dave told us he told Sedge he’d never done it before and he was really sorry and Sedge said he wouldn’t call his parents, but he (Dave) was such a good boy he knew he wouldn’t do that again.)
The other part he didn’t tell was about how we got high at lunch. This was back when you could smoke at school. Cigarettes, I mean, but naturally that wasn’t all we smoked. Smokers had to go to an area set up outside the cafeteria, hemmed in by the other wings of the building, sort of like a cell block. Architects must have been stoned or something, or maybe that was back when we didn’t care so much about smoking, but anyway they put the air intake for the second floor in a corner of the cell block. So we were smoking this joint of Jamaican over in that corner and Dave got the bright idea to blow the smoke into the register. “That’ll make everyone up there one of us!” he said. And sure enough when we went up to class the whole floor stank and the vice-principal was hustling up and down the hallway, wrinkling his nose like a bloodhound trying to figure out where the smell was coming from, and then he went into the boys’ room and dragged out one of the only two black boys at Radnor High, yelling at him for smoking pot in school.
I remember the guilty look on Dave’s face when he saw Mr. Santangelo with the kid by the collar. Later on, he told me that he was tempted to confess, but he also happened to know that that boy did smoke pot, that he was a full-on stoner, so if he got in a little trouble, it might be good for him. When I read today that Dave thinks that “not smoking, or only smoking sporadically gave you a better shot at becoming a little more integrated and interesting,” while “smoking all the time seemed likely to cumulatively fragment a person’s deep center,” I thought about that boy and wondered if getting kicked out of school had helped him hold together his deep center, and if his going to juvy was the kind of subtle discouragement that Dave thinks governments should engage in when it comes to the “lesser pleasures.” I suppose he thought he was doing the kid a favor by letting him take the rap.
There were other frolics, of course. Not with girls—Dave wasn’t much for the girls, all fumbly and mumbly and the pot just supersized his nerdiness. But culture and politics, those great interminable debates. Beatles or Stones, pipes or papers, negotiate over the hostages or send in the troops. Dave had a way of starting off all reasonable, usually talking about how both sides were equally bad. But the stoneder he got, the more opinionated he became, and his opinions—well, let’s just say that when Dave wrote this morning that in a healthy society “government subtly encourages the highest pleasures” I remembered a time we were parked out at French Creek and he stood up on top of the Vista Cruiser and gave a speech to us about what Jefferson really meant by the “pursuit of happiness,” and how a government should uphold our right to get as high as possible, and how George Washington grew pot and old Edmund Burke must have smoked it, and I wondered if Dave was sending his old posse a secret message. I wondered if, especially now that he’s past fifty and divorced and all that, he’s getting a little tired of maturity, of being harnessed to “the powers of reason, temperance, and self-control,” not to mention to the New York Times, he wanted us to come take him out and apply some subtle peer group pressure to his “moral ecology.”
Which we’d be glad to do. I just found the other guys on facebook. Flights to Denver are cheap. Pot tourism is already happening, we can buy a cheap package, maybe even find a Vista Cruiser to rent or an air register to blow our smoke into, bake a whole floor of the hotel. If you’re reading this, Dave, consider it an invitation. Let’s go encourage our lesser pleasures, relive those days before we aged out and got all inhibited and gray, give ourselves some new embarrassing memories to wake up to at 4 a.m. Because there’s only one thing worse than waking up in the wee hours reminded of what an idiot you can be, and that’s having nothing at all to trouble you, just the smooth satisfaction of success.
Mistakes were made, Part 2
December 30th, 2013
So that was a textbook case of how to handle a mistake. And here’s the textbook case on how not to.
Richard Noll is a professor of psychology at DeSales University. He’s that rare thing–a mental health worker who understands history. His most recent book, American Madness: The Rise and Fall of Dementia Praecox, is terrific. When psychiatrists finally discover, as I am sure they will eventually, that schizophrenia is not a single disease or anything like a single disease, they will have to acknowledge Noll as one of the first people to say so.
Noll is no stranger to controversy. He wrote a book in 1994 called The Jung Cult: Origins of a Charismatic Movement. The book was published by Princeton University Press, which was pleased enough with it to submit it for a Pulitzer. It didn’t win, but the Association of American Publishers gave it its Best Book in Psychology award for that year. Princeton is also the publisher of Jung’s collected works, which is a beautiful and expensive multivolume set, one that most likely yields substantial financial rewards for both the press and the Jung family. So it’s no surprise that when the Jung family objected to Noll’s book, which made a splash in popular media, Princeton U Press decided to dump Noll, and pulled the plug on another Jung project he was editing for them, which was already in page proofs. I guess they decided it had been a mistake to let Noll bite the hand that was feeding them.
Full disclosure here: my wife wrote her dissertation on people who claimed to have been abducted by extraterrestrials, and back in the late 80s-early 90s, had some contact with Noll, who was also interested in that topic. She recently confessed that she liked him–although, she reassures me, not THAT way–and that makes me like him, because I like her. Noll’s interest in ET abduction was part of his larger interest in dissociation, the phenomenon whereby consciousness is split such that two separate selves can exist in the same body. It’s a weird occurrence, and an unusual one, thought mostly to be caused by extreme trauma, but I have no doubt it happens.
You may remember that at the end of the 1980s, about the time that my wife was crushing on him, the country was riveted by accounts of Satanic Ritual Abuse. In a word, there was a sudden outbreak of people, mostly children, claiming to have been forced by Satanic cults to witness and/or participate in heinous acts, like cutting out babies’ hearts and eating them, often in day care centers. The stories were disturbing and implausible, but they could not be refuted, because it is impossible to prove a negative. They were perfect fodder for a moral panic, and that is indeed what happened. The results included the jailing of over 100 day care providers (some of whom remain imprisoned), the sundering of some communities, and children unalterably confused about what had happened (or not happened) to them.
That’s a pretty lame summary, and I apologize, but I don’t want to get sidetracked by this fascinating example of the witch hunts Americans seem so good at. If you want more, there are plenty of good books on the topic, including this one and this one. What you can’t do, however, is to read the excellent article that Noll wrote on the subject very recently for Psychiatric Times–an article, as he explained, that he wrote because he felt that psychiatry’s role in the epidemic was in danger of being forgotten.
Despite the discomfort it brings, we owe it to the current generation of clinicians to remember that
an elite minority within the American psychiatric profession played a small but ultimately decisive
role in the cultural validation, and then reduction, of the Satanism moral panic between 1988 and
1994. Indeed, what can we all learn from American psychiatry’s involvement in the moral panic?
The article was short but comprehensive, well documented and informed by personal experience. He singles out two psychiatrists–Bennett Braun, and RIchard Kluft– who were instrumental in giving legitimacy to the SRA accounts. They helped change the DSM to make Multiple Personality Disorder (thought to be caused by the abuse) seem more common, they started the International Society for the Study of Multiple Personality and Dissociation, and they founded a journal called Dissociation.
Noll was one of the earliest mental health professionals to try to cast doubt on these outlandish tales. In the article, he reocounted his appearance at the 1990 ISSMP&D annual meeting, a conference attended by, among others, Gloria Steinem.
The 4 members of the plenary session panel were [psychiatrist Frank] Putnam, [psychiatrist] George Ganaway, anthropologist Sherrill Mulhern, and me. Putnam had read my Dissociation critique and wanted me to present my argument in person. Putnam and Ganaway presented carefully balanced arguments that did not directly reject the reality of SRA. Instead they expressed concerns about the linkage of MPD to such controversial claims, noting it would hurt future research on child abuse and trauma.
Mulhern and I were strident in our outright rejection of the veracity of SRA claims. She cited
anthropological and sociological research while I hammered home the view of historians that ancient
accounts of bizarre cult practices had to be read in context. Along with my fellow panelists, I too
mentioned the October 1989 preliminary report of an investigation by Supervisory Special Agent Ken
Lanning from the FBI Behavioral Science Unit at Quantico which found no corroborating evidence of
the existence of Satanic cults engaged in any criminal activity, let alone kidnapping and ritually
sacrificing thousands of American babies. Lanning’s findings had emboldened Putnam to organize
the special plenary session and go public with his private skepticism. The full FBI report appeared 3
Gloria Steinem approached me after my talk and suggested materials to read which she felt would
help me change my opinion of SRA accounts. During the conference I attended one of [psychiatrist] Bennett Braun’s legendary SRA workshops (“See the Satanism!” he screamed as he pointed to a patient’s red crayon scratching on a sketch pad. “There it is!”). Several persons—all licensed mental health professionals—approached me and let me know I wasn’t fooling them. They knew I was a witch or a member of a Satanic cult who was there to spread disinformation. But apparently the panel
presentations had a different effect on others. As one conference attendee, an SRA believer, later
wrote, “Mulhern and Noll cut a line through the therapeutic community. A minority joined them in
refusing to believe sacrificial murder was going on; the majority still believed their patients’
Noll sent the article to Psychiatric Times, an independent online and print journal that provides comprehensive coverage of the profession. The editor’s response was enthusiastic. “We all think your essay is terrific,” she wrote. Not only would they love to publish it on the web, she added, but “I thought right away that it would work in print.” Indeed, she wrote, “We all love the article and are thinking of using it as one of the cover stories for our January issue.”
On Dec. 6, the article was posted on the PT website. It almost immediately earned a complimentary tweet from Allen Frances and a mention on h-madness, a website for psychiatric history buffs. The editor made some suggestions for the print version and asked for Noll to finish them by Dec. 16. But then on Dec. 14, Noll discovered that his article had vanished from the website. He made gentle inquiries and determined that it wasn’t a glitch, but that PT had intentionally taken down the article. The reasons were vague–something about how they didn’t like the title (which they had chosen), and how they didn’t like the fact that he had named names. But whatever the reason, the article was gone.
Earlier this week, Noll finally demanded a full explanation. And he got one.
Dear Dr. Noll,
I don’t blame you for being miffed at the inexplicable disappearance of your article, and the long delay in getting back to you with an explanation. I’d like to offer a sincere apology for the delay, and to explain what happened. It hasn’t helped that our offices were closed most of last week and that communications between editorial board members and staff have been generally slow because of vacations.
As you know, Professor [redacted] is the final arbiter of History of Psychiatry columns, so our staff enthusiastically went ahead and posted your article. I read it the weekend it was posted, however, and grew immediately concerned that it raised potential liability issues—possibly for you and, by extension, for Psychiatric Times. I therefore thought it prudent to hide the piece from public view until I could get some guidance from our editorial board. The board did support these concerns, and it was suggested that I consider obtaining corporate legal advice. There was also the suggestion that Drs. Kluft and Braun and some others discussed in your essay needed to be given the opportunity to respond to claims made in the piece. However, there was also general consensus that the piece “may be of some historical interest, but not particularly relevant to the problems facing psychiatry today.” Ultimately, it was the board’s recommendation that we not publish the piece.
We respect your expertise and previous contributions to Psychiatric Times. The scenario is a first for us. I’m so sorry it happened this way. We will return your copyright form and hope that you find another venue for the piece.
This explanation is so far to the stoat end of the weasel scale that it’s hard to know where to begin–particularly given PT’s reputation (deserved, as near as I can make out) for not flinching from controversy. (After all, they gave Al Frances the launching pad for his jihad against DSM-5.) Blaming the enthusiasm on Professor [redacted]? Claiming to have been unaware of the article until after it was posted, and then immediately smelling a rat? Mentioning lawyers without mentioning whether or not they were actually consulted? Suggesting that it was somehow too late to get rebuttals? A board recommendation to not publish an article that had already been published? Sorry that it happened this way, as if it would have been okay to do this if they’d been nicer about it? I mean, my God, as if the removal of the article wasn’t contemptuous enough, the least they could have done was to come up with a story that showed some respect for Noll, and for readers, and for history, and for all those poor schmucks still in jail for feeding baby hearts to children.
Whatever, the point is that suddenly the essay wasn’t so terrific. It wasn’t cover story material. It wasn’t even worthy of being left on the website. It needed to be removed, forgotten, repressed.
You can read the article here. It’s definitely worth your time. But you can trust me on this. I’ve gone through some really grueling legal reviews conducted by expensive New York lawyers who smell lawsuits the way blue tick hounds smell raccoons. And I’ve taken on, in pretty abrasive terms, some very deep-pocketed people. So I have some sense of what is actionable and what is not. And I just don’t see the “potential liability issues.” It’s a nice, concise, simple history of a less than stellar moment in the history of psychiatry. Every statement is documented; most are taken from public records, and the rest are from Noll’s direct experience. All he is saying is that psychiatry made a mistake and needs to learn from it, and he’s pretty darned gentlemanly about it, especially for someone who blew the whistle early on. This is about as strong as it gets:
The resounding silence of the elite psychiatrists could only be interpreted in three ways by those of us “in the trenches” who looked up to them for guidance: these Satanic cults were real (despite the lack of corroborating physical or forensic evidence); the experts did not know if they were real and were afraid of insulting the patients; or there was an abject failure of ethical leadership.
Of course, I’m not a lawyer and I don’t play one on tv. So I could be wrong. Maybe some lawyer somewhere could find a way to sue him for libel or defamation. But, especially given that the journal loved the article enough to publish it, isn’t it at least the sporting thing to tell Noll what the liability worries are and allow him to address them? And as for the “not particularly relevant” excuse, well, that’s just laughable, given how enthused they were with the article. So what’s the real story?
Noll is way too much of a mensch, and of a careful scholar, to speculate out loud. But no one wants to be reminded of an abject failure, least of all a profession that sometimes seems to specialize in them (did you see the reports this week that the studies proving that stimulants were the best treatment for ADHD were flawed?), and even less the individuals who made the mistakes and who, after the edifice collapsed, brushed off the dust and got on with their professional lives. I’m figuring that Noll embarrassed some influential people, and they had more pull than he did with Psychiatric Times, which reacted by expunging him, in exactly the same way that the mind, confronted with something it can’t tolerate, pushes it into the unconscious.
So mistakes were made, all right. And unlike PsycCritiques, Psychiatric Times has done everything in its power to deny responsibility for it. LIke I said, a textbook case.
One of the reasons Al Frances is a hero in so many people’s books (including, at least in some ways, mine), is that he has tried to take responsibility for abject failures of ethical leadership, or at least has been honest enough to admit they have occurred. That this kind of candor is so rare within psychiatry is a signal that there is something rotten deep within its professional culture.
Mistakes Were Made, Part 1
December 30th, 2013
We all make them. And, as the other cliche goes, when we do we can learn from them. Not only that, but our response to them reveals who we are, or at least who we wish to be.
That’s why, when I insulted my ex-wife in a public forum and she objected, I apologized right away and without qualification. Not because I’m such a good guy. I’m not. But I asked myself who I wanted to be in that situation, and the answer was, the kind of person who apologizes right away and without qualification. So I did. It was painless, and she was gracious, and it was over.
Now not every situation is that straightforward. But in the last couple of months, I’ve seen a couple of mistakes get made, mistakes much more serious than my regrettable lapse, in both cases by professional journals, and the difference in response has been telling.
The first mistake was committed by an American Psychological Association journal called PsycCritiques. A couple weeks before Thanksgiving I got email informing me that the journal had just published a review of my book. I clicked the link. There I discovered a review written by Peter Nathan, professor emeritus of psychology and public health at University of Iowa. It was totally serviceable, save for a couple of details, which you will glean from the email below:
Dear [editor of journal]
Thanks for alerting me to this review. I generally do not respond to reviews, but I’m afraid I must bring a serious problem in this review to your attention.
In the review, Dr. Nathan writes,
“What you will learn is what Greenberg quotes his interviewees—many of them principal players in the conflict—as thinking and saying about others involved in the conflict. Much of this material is fascinating, although the credibility of some of Greenberg’s interview material is uncertain. I am inclined to take parts of it with a grain of salt and be entertained by all of it.”
I’m glad Dr Nathan was entertained, but if I am reading this correctly (and I am not sure I am; the passage is not entirely clear), he is suggesting that I have fabricated interview material. That is a very serious charge, and I am surprised that you allowed it to be published without offering me an opportunity to respond, especially in the absence of any evidence for it. (I am distinguishing here between an opinion about the merits of a book, which of course Dr Nathan is entitled to express without my input or knowledge, and an allegation about my integrity.) I am fully prepared to prove that every quote in The Book of Woe is accurate; every interview was transcribed and the voice file archived. I would also point out that although many of the people quoted are unhappy about the way they were depicted, not one of them has ever challenged the accuracy of the quotes.
I note that earlier in the essay, Dr Nathan cites a quotation from Darrel Regier regarding Allen Frances, and then goes on to quote further from my book in the extract that ends, “Blinded by pride…” Again, Dr Nathan’s prose is a little hard to parse, but from his subsequent comment, “These are surprisingly unrestrained comments by Regier,” it would appear that he thinks that the extracted material is a quote from REgier. It is not. It is my gloss on Regier’s comment, and there is nothing in the Book of Woe that would indicate otherwise.
I mention this in part because it is possible that Dr Nathan’s skepticism may be based in part on the unlikelihood of Regier ever saying anything like this. If that is the case, then the problem here is compounded: he is offering as evidence for his serious charge about my credibility a quotation that any reasonable person familiar with the DSM-5 (including me) would agree is indeed incredible–if its source is alleged to be Regier. That is Dr Nathan’s error, not mine.
Of course, it is entirely possible that I am misreading Dr Nathan, although it’s hard to find a meaning other than the one to which I am objecting–that he is alleging dishonesty on my part. But if that is somehow the case, then I would ask that you re-edit that sentence to convey the meaning that Dr. Nathan intends. I also think you should clarify that the extract that includes the comment about Frances’s being blinded by pride is not a quote from Regier. Finally, and most important, I must insist that you either get DR Nathan to cite his evidence for his charge and allow me an opportunity to respond, or remove it from the review.
I wish I could take this with a grain of salt, be entertained, and move on, but I make my living in part as a writer of nonfiction, and I cannot afford to have my honesty questioned in this fashion. I hope you can appreciate the seriousness of this matter, and its urgency for me. I fully intend to be collegial and cordial about working this out, and you will find me a very reasonable negotiator,m but rest assured I will not hesitate to take legal action against you and Dr Nathan if we cannot reach a satisfactory accommodation.
You may reach me by email or atxxx-xxx-xxxx
Gary Greenberg, Ph.D.
Now, to their great credit, PsycCritiques responded immediately and worked with me over the next couple of weeks to solve this problem. They were a little slow to remove the review from the site while it was being revised, but otherwise they were cordial and collegial and ultimately changed the text and ran a correction, linked to the original article. The correction was unequivocal. See for yourself.
Correction to Nathan (2013)
This is a correction to a previously published article: DSM–5: The Perfect Storm
The review “DSM–5: The Perfect Storm” (PsycCRITIQUES, Vol. 58, No. 45, Article 3) contained three errors.
1. In the paragraph that begins “For example, Greenberg quotes Regier as remarking,” the full paragraph should read as follows:
For example, Greenberg quotes Regier as remarking, of Frances, as early as 2010, “His major critique [was that] nothing has changed in the scientific world since his revision and hence no substantive revision is possible” and “that his judgment on the pragmatic consequences of revisions should take precedence over any of the experts” (p. 138). In other words, according to Greenberg’s understanding of Regier’s comments, Frances was
trumping up his personal grievance into a broadside against the institution he once served and in the bargain calling into question the credibility of the APA. . . . Blinded by pride, he had become his own kind of antipsychiatrist and, even worse, a turncoat. (p. 138)
2. The sentence immediately following the quotation above should be deleted. That sentence read as follows: “These are surprisingly unrestrained comments by Regier, presumably speaking for both himself and Kupfer.”
3. In the paragraph titled Final Word (referring to The Book of Woe), phrases in the third to last and second to last sentences should be deleted, and the last three sentences of the paragraph should read as follows: “Much of this material is fascinating. I am entertained by all of it. Greenberg writes very well.” The deleted phrases are underlined in the following two sentences from the original review:
Much of this material is fascinating, although the credibility of some of Greenberg’s interview material is uncertain. I am inclined to take parts of it with a grain of salt and be entertained by all of it.
The deleted text conveys the impression that Greenberg had fabricated the quotations. There is no evidence for this assertion. It should not have been included in the original article, and PsycCRITIQUES regrets the error.
The review has been modified to reflect the above edits.
This is a totally menschy apology. It made me feel better, it righted a wrong, and it closed the book on this issue. In other words, it did exactly what an apology was supposed to do. And it would have receded into the backroads of my memory had it not been for an incident that occurred a couple of weeks later, which I will write about in my next post.