Black Friday has come and gone, but the sales of dime-store epiphanies remain brisk, ever brisk!
As every burlesque performer knows, to sell yourself, or at least something you’ve created, you just gotta have a gimmick. It’s the way you stand out from the crowd, the way to rapidly multiply among those precious viral growth medium slots in the public radio demograshpere like some kind of upper-middlebrow version of the disease in Contagion. You know the carriers: Diane Rehm, Bob Edwards, Morning Edition, and the Holy Grails: Colbert or Stewart.
We’ve seen gimmickless books fade away without that kind of invaluable free publicity:
Cokie Roberts and her unfinished Wellesley-theses-turned-book-club-also-rans about famous women in history. Susan Stamberg autobiographies. Scott Simon family tear jerkers. They all lacked that oomph, that one-liner pitch cum subtitle that will set those Christmas encrypted credit card numbers sailing along the Amazon.com Digital River when someone needs a gift for the retired former philosophy major or the not yet employed twenty-something soul searcher or Wall Street occupier.
But some public radio correspondents know how the game is played. They become proxies for our curiosity. They inhabit, or at least pretend to inhabit, some intellectually titillating aspect of the spirit of their audience for long enough to satisfy the dilettante urge for just enough exploration…not so deeply as to be boring or uncomfortable, mind you…just enough to limn the edges of a possible cure for the common mid life crisis.
Take for example Neal “Not the Barbarian” Conan. I don’t doubt that he was actually curious about devoting a year of his life to being an announcer for NPR’s official sacred pastime, the sport of baseball, especially as a break from arduous years as a foreign correspondent, but I have to imagine his gimmicky book plan was what allowed him to go through with it. And so he did, thus baseball fans out here on Planet NPR didn’t have to.
Conan’s quest (“Conan’s Quest”, amazingly, is not yet a video game title or second gimmicky book) is similar to Gimmick King AJ Jacobs’ book The Year of Living Biblically. In case you don’t know, AJ Jacobs is the guy who manufactured a different gimmick-based holiday-gift-ready codex about reading the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica (so we don’t have to.) From that “experience” he managed to land at least eleven (!) promotional spots on Weekend Edition. That might be a record, as it even beats the number of spots given to gimmick-queen Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s silly book about neuro-imaging the soul. (I did not make that up.)
Like Neal Conan, Jacobs also claims to have spent one year doing something supposedly holy, living according to the rules of the Old Testament (so we don’t have to): “Raised in a secular family but increasingly interested in the relevance of faith in our modern world, A.J. Jacobs decides to dive in headfirst and attempt to obey the Bible as literally as possible for one full year.” Why would you try to live according to Old Testament rules followed by no modern person if you were truly interested in “the relevance of faith in our modern world?” You wouldn’t. It’s a gimmick, and a pretty clever one. Gimmicks sell books. And while some of the promotional copy surrounding the book holds out the promise of epiphanies to be found within by “readers both secular and religious”, the book’s actual approach seems to be light hearted.
As we see from multiple examples, gimmicky books that delve lightly into subjects that public radio listeners find interesting get huge publicity from public radio programs. That probably seems logical and harmless to you, so let me explain why I think this is a pernicious trend.
Public radio has limited time, especially during their highest rated hours. As listeners we should expect them to use that time well. As monetary contributors (not looking at you, Sam Negus) we have a right to demand that they use that time well. In theory the best radio shows would present the most informed and most articulate voices speaking on topics of interest and import. Yet this almost never happens. The practice of presenting gimmicky book authors who happen to be on publicity tours is one of the reasons. Bookers and producers are either over-worked or lazy, so the temptation in either case to cherry pick from authors currently on book tours shilling their latest non-fiction gimmick-fest is irresistible.
Newspaper editorial page editors use a similar shortcut for filling column inches. Authors (or their publicist proxies I sometimes suspect) are only too eager to pen editorial-length versions of their gimmick books for placement in newspapers. I call these “advertorials”. They can be quite stealthy, but having read many I can usually identify them by the end of the first paragraph. There are a couple of give-aways. They are often on topics that must be awkwardly twisted to appear relevant to the events of the day, and they never fail to end with a byline that just happens to include the name of the advertorial author’s latest book, which just happens to be recently published and in full promotional mode.
To sum it up: smart people (think college professors) with deep knowledge are rarely heard at length on public radio unless they happen to have a new book to sell. Meanwhile people (smart or otherwise) with shallow knowledge get loads of airtime simply because they have a new book to sell. This is what happens when notions are productized. It’s a positive feedback loop, meaning it keeps getting worse.
Which brings me, at long last, to Eric Weiner and his new gimmick-book, Man Seeks God.
At this point I want to mention that until I did some research for this post I had little prior knowledge of and I have no animus towards Mr. Weiner. I recall his byline but could not name a single specific report filed by him. As with Scott Simon, I’m certain I’d enjoy a beer summit with him to try to change his mind about a few things, and as with Scott Simon this blog post will have to substitute. Speaking of “beer summit,” if you think I’m not shoehorning Henry Louis Gates Jr. (i.e. civil rights) into this before the end you must not be a regular reader.
As I have pointed out elsewhere on this blog, the semi-official religion of public radio is what Daniel Dennett termed “Belief in Belief”, described by Christopher Hitchens as “the strange idea that, though faith itself may be ludicrous and incoherent, the mere assertion of it may possess some virtues of its own.” Or, as I put it, in order to be thought of as a good person it doesn’t matter what clothing you believe the emperor is wearing, as long as you can’t tell that he’s naked. While Weiner does come out (spoiler alert!) as something like an Atheist at the end of his exhibitionistic spirit-quest, Man Seeks God seems vying to be the ecumenical Bible of Belief in Belief. He’s practically a Belief in Belief street preacher, as you will see.
The premise of Man Seeks God is little more than the title indicates. Mr. Weiner is, at least for the purpose of selling the book concept, hot to get some religion in his life. As a result he decides to take a grand tour of the world’s faiths (so we don’t have to) in hopes he can adopt one for himself. So maybe it’s more like he goes to the sacred animal shelter? Anyway, if you are a regular public radio listener you already know the rest: all of the religions offer something wonderful. But they all also present the Goldilocks dilemma: too this or too that, never just right.
While I found the idea of the book redundant with the seemingly infinite public personal (oxymoron?) spirit journey books we’ve had to date, with several hundred thousand unique titles from Jane Fonda alone, it was too innocuous for me to pay much attention to. When I heard the inevitable log-roll piece on Morning Edition I just sort of tuned it out.
But then came the final straw: Weiner’s advertorial was published in the New York [freaking -ed] Times.
It’s a minor Christmas miracle of awfulness, managing to be simultaneously insipid and bigoted, both trendy and old hat. Worst of all it was crass and commercial about its subject even as it inhabited the already crass and commercial form of an advertorial.
I did not like it.
I am very much not the only one who didn’t like it, but I am the only public radio blog that did not like it so keep reading.
What’s not to like, aside from the arch but not arch enough writing style? He gets into trouble as soon as paragraph three where he demonstrates lazy, conventional, and frankly bigoted thinking when he divides his model of current religious discourse between “True Believers” and “Angry Atheists” (capitalization his). And yes I’m an atheist, and yes, this comment made me angry. But my point is that I wasn’t angry until he called me a name. In fact atheists aren’t generally angry until someone like Weiner points at them and yells to anyone who’ll listen “Hey, look how angry that guy is! He’s soooo angry!” Calling atheists angry is glib dismissal. The expression “angry atheist” generates mild fear and revulsion. It turns atheists even more into the infamous “other” through the language of warning. Growing up in the southern states I frequently heard many phrases that served a similar purpose. “Militant Blacks” and “Pushy Jews” are two such poisonous pairings which were used to mentally censor whole races and world-views, that could retard the “arc of history”, that could succor repression.
And do I really need to mention that there is more anger in a single homophobic Westboro Baptist Church protest than in all meetings of atheists and freethinkers throughout all time combined – even as gelato mongers near to an atheist convention hall refuse entry to the godless? (Hmm, denying groups of people access to eateries, where have I heard of that before?)
You might think that in spite of the ugliness of “Angry Atheist” Mr. Weiner was being quite fair because his phrase “True Believer” was also meant as something of an insult, creating a balanced pair of “others,” neither of whom merit attention. But the phrase “True Believer” has no essential negative character. People are happy to call themselves “true believers”. Many religious people are even happy to call themselves fundamentalists, and even to describe themselves proudly as “intolerant.”
This autonomic drawing of false equivalence between atheists and fundamentalists (often employing the phrase “fundamentalist atheist”) adds nothing to the discussion and serves to obfuscate the profound difference between the entire thought processes of the two groups. The ultimate goal of this language is to seem to place Mr. Weiner, his book, his advertorial, his readers, and his interviewers in a privileged corporate suite looking down on all the silly culture warriors clashing by night. He does this explicitly by trying to coin a new meme for all the hep cats like him: “Nones” (capitalization his.)
“Nones” are defined as “people who say they have no religious affiliation at all” though, according to a poll (so it must be true), only seven percent of them are claimed to be straight up Angry Atheists. (At the None conventions the atheists should have separate but equal water fountains. That’s just science.)
Why Weiner includes the atheists in the “Nones” group I don’t know because he goes on to make a set of weirdly contradictory claims about Nones:
- “Nones … drift spiritually and dabble in everything from Sufism to Kabbalah”
- “Nones are running from organized religion, but by no means running from God”
- “Nones may not believe in God.”
The answer, I think, lies in the sort of entrepreneurial spirit that has long defined America, including religious America.
We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious.
- The Sublime: “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must remain silent.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein.
- The Profound: “Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense..” – Carl Sagan
- The Pseudo-Profound: “Mmm…I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the word pray rhymes with the word…play…mmm” – I’m just guessing someone on Speaking of Faith or Krista Tippett On Being has said that.
- The Dumbest Thing Ever Said About Religion: “We need a Steve Jobs of religion.” – Eric Weiner
We Nones may not believe in God, but we hope to one day. We have a dog in this hunt.
To everyone else, Merry Christmas, and if you are interested in the topic of the varieties of religious experience, try Sweet Heaven When I Die by Jeff Sharlet, the writer who outed the shenanigans at the C Street house. Then read his other books too.
I’d like to quote Louis CK from his quite recent live online reddit.com crowd-sourced interview.
Louis CK: I’m not an athiest. I think god [sic] is there and that he is watching and he made us. I just don’t give a shit.
Reddit person “Brenner14”: This will come as a surprise to many.
Louis CK: well i [sic] don’t “Believe in god” i [sic] have zero idea how everythign [sic] got here. I would personally say that, if i [sic] had to make a list of possibles, god [sic] would be pretty far down. But if I were to make a list of people that know what the fuck they are talking about, I would be REALLY far down. aids [sic].
Really, what else is there to say? If only Louis CK had listened to Ludwig JJW.