September 13, 2012

Is the Atlantic making us stupid?


A CIA front? A killer of criticism? A stupid machine?

… three delicious shots that have recently been fired at The Atlantic in an uncoordinated campaign against ongoing changes at the magazine. The last of these criticisms comes in Pamela Erens’ new Los Angeles Review of Books essay “Is the Atlantic making us stupid?”

Ostensibly a review of books based on Atlantic articles—including titles by Hanna Rosin and Lori Gottlieb—Erens’ essay argues that the magazine’s most discussed stories “are [its] frequent, and frequently controversial, articles about gender issues.” And, to Erens, the big question is what readers get out of all of the controversy. She writes:

[W]hen The Atlantic runs broad-brush trend stories on its cover or gives over column after column to writers who generalize and preach, it’s not doing much more than generating website hits and selling copies. But constructive engagement requires a deeper kind of thinking. Among other things, it means fighting the temptation to describe My Problem as Everyone’s Problem or to trumpet significant changes in social behavior or human consciousness where these just don’t exist. Promoting “big ideas” via shaky expert commentary or received wisdom or cleverly turned phrases can contribute to the degradation of serious public discourse. Self-appointed shepherds of that discourse have a responsibility to encourage humility and scrupulousness. There was a time when the experts “knew” that autism was caused by emotionally withholding mothers, that up to 90 percent of women were sexually frigid, that mothers who didn’t “bond” with their infants in the first hour after birth would have emotionally damaged children. Magazine articles were written based on the research and self-confident pronouncements of those experts, and they look pretty blindered and ridiculous now. Let The Atlantic, with its stated interest in furthering the gender conversation, look to posterity as much as to its sales numbers.

Too harsh you say? That’s what I thought when I wrote about Maureen Tkacik’s attack on the Atlantic. Surely, I asked, Benjamin Schwarz, the magazine’s national editor and the editor of its books section, couldn’t be accused of being in on a CIA front? Nor could the great magazine writers who have long been associated with the magazine.

But, via Twitter, Tkacik pointed to an essay she had written in the Washington City Paper in which she called Schwarz a “geopolitical economy think tank terrorism buff” and emphasized a stint he had spent at the RAND Corporation.

As to my question of how some of the great magazine writers of our day might be connected to the CIA plot, it took only a few days for notice of Robert D. Kaplan’s hiring at Stratfor, a company that’s been called a “shadow CIA,” to come across my desk. Maybe, I now admit,  Tkacik got it right.

And now we have the new shot from Erens, a fan of the magazine who complains that it’s sunk to “generating website hits and selling copies,” which jives closely with another Tkacik criticism, that the magazine is “a repository of shallow, lazy spin” … it’s a position, it seems, that’s catching on.



Kelly Burdick is the executive editor of Melville House.