Arts & Culture

Meritocracy And Other Fairy Tales

From: David Samuels To: Shmuel Rosner Dear Shmuel, Thank you for your provocative and insightful response to The Runner. I am not a conventional journalist, in the sense that I don't see my job as advancing the big picture group-think … Read More

By / May 12, 2008

From: David Samuels To: Shmuel Rosner

Dear Shmuel,

Thank you for your provocative and insightful response to The Runner.

I am not a conventional journalist, in the sense that I don't see my job as advancing the big picture group-think narratives embedded in front-page news stories. I believe that the surface cleverness and sense of assurance and stability conveyed by most third-person news stories is misleading and largely unearned. Reality is always darker and more unstable.

For example: Maybe the State of Israel should be shut down over the next decade or so and its Jewish inhabitants shipped off to a reservation in Wyoming in order to ensure the future viability of the Jewish spiritual legacy for mankind, and to prevent a future nuclear holocaust that will kill tens of millions of people in Israel and Iran. Or maybe the Palestinian national cause is bankrupt and needs to be uprooted once and for all, beginning with the forced military depopulation of large areas of the West Bank and the Stalinist-style "liquidation" of tens of thousands of Hamas foot-soldiers in Gaza.

As horrifying as both of these alternate narratives might seem, they have more in common with the common run of the historical experience of Jews and Arabs alike than the underlying expectation of an eventual peaceful accommodation between Jewish Israelis and Palestinian Islamists that drives nearly all Western news coverage, which can best understood as a kind of wishful group-think fairy tale.

Contrariwise, I don't see Barack Obama as the devilish tool of his addle-brained pastor or as the latte-skinned Messiah worshipped by legions of yuppie Democrats. I see him as a representative American — a self-made man, part con artist, part performer, living in an imaginary future that will make him and his audience whole. His faults are mine, too, and it is hard for me to see him or anyone else I think or write about from any other angle, which is why I make a point of acknowledging the fact that my responses to the people I write about are deeply shaped by the demands of the narratives I choose, which are shaped in turn by my own personal history and prejudices.

Writing is indeed an extremely powerful and specific form of manipulation that imposes an unavoidable moral burden on the writer at the same time as it serves as a source of pleasure and income. I enjoy manipulating you, and it pays my rent. At the same time, I feel a powerful sense of responsibility to rewire your brain in ways that will have a beneficial effect on your inner life and your personal sense of connection to other people and to some larger whole that you and me and my atheist friend Sam Harris might all agree upon as a useful premise for thought and action.

The questions and sympathies that emerge from your encounter with my text are the direct and considered results of what I wrote and the way I wrote it. This is true of the work of every moderately skilled and self-aware writer who is working in the area of literature rather than news. So congratulations on having been successfully manipulated into the illusion of having a free and independent response to my work.

Personally, I don't like James Hogue very much, and I feel some sympathy with the bicycle maker Dave Tesch, whose tools Hogue stole. Now, if I simply instructed you to feel sympathy with Tesch, the way an editorialist might, you would probably bridle at my instructions, in the same way that you would probably feel annoyed at Princeton University if I tried to justify their decision to expel Hogue. At the same time, I see James Hogue as a representative America who embodied the abstract logic of self-invention and being born-again, and took those ideas to an uncomfortable extreme. One purpose of my text is to create sympathy for Hogue's victims without denying Hogue his actual achievements or reducing his personal autonomy and the strangeness of his choices to a bunch of symptoms for which Prozac or some newfangled anti-psychotic pill might be usefully prescribed.

I deliberately fractured the narrative and told the story backwards to escape the easy romantic narrative about Hogue as a misunderstood heroic loner who made himself up from scratch — a combination of Holden Caulfield and Jay Gatsby. To soothe my own demons, perhaps, I also want to show how Hogue's fraud is matched by the larger fraud practiced on an ongoing basis by Princeton and other elite universities that craft fairy tale stories about meritocracy in order to disguise their own bizarre hierarchies of preferences whose larger purpose is to keep the universities at the center of the fluid and ever-changing American class structure. The purpose of a text-machine like The Runner is to embed this very exact if somewhat confusing constellation of ideas in the gentle reader's brain by inducing "thoughts" and "feelings" that sometimes appear to mirror my own sympathies and opinions and sometimes oppose them.

I am not the narrator of my work. I am the creator of work that includes a character named "I" to a greater or lesser extent depending on the story that the author David Samuels is telling. My chosen method of writing nonfiction is to write about other people's lives and experiences as seen by through the eyes of a narrator who is very present in the text but about whom very little is generally revealed in the way of overt prejudices or biographical detail. The choice to include a shadowy first-personal narrator present in the text is a conscious choice that I make in order to create a certain climate whose apparent subjectivity has the paradoxical effect of heightening the sense of transparent reality for the kind of reader I am trying to reach. In The Runner, I expand that voice somewhat in order to establish myself as a double for James Hogue, in the sense that all Americans are doubles for James Hogue in one way or another, at the same time as we protest that he is an unpleasant person and that we have nothing in common with him whatsoever.

I think that the themes of double-ness, lying and imposture have a special significance for me as an American Jewish writer. If Americans are self-made people who embrace an imagined future in order to escape the burdens of the past, American Jews seek to have their cake and eat it too by embracing the future-oriented American idea without relinquishing their historically bound identity as Jews. While I don't think that the American and the Jewish identity principles are always necessarily opposed, I do think that keeping both ideas in one's head at one time can be the source of a tremendous amount of creative tension.

It is also inherently deceptive, in the sense that one is quite often signaling to others that one has agreed to dissolve one's particular heritage and historically bound point of view into a common Christian-inflected, highly individualistic and alienating, yet incredibly productive future-oriented social whole that most American Jews view with a high degree of distance and skepticism. The only real parallel for the ungracious refusal of large numbers of American Jews to buy into the full weirdness and wonder and scariness of the American idea is the experience and behavior of blacks — whose situation is radically different because of the overt and inescapable historically-bound prejudice directed at the color of their skin. Blacks can't dissolve themselves in the American melting pot, and so they often see the American idea as a open lie at the same time as they taste its sweet honey.

Jews have many more opportunities to lie to themselves and to others about the degree of distance they feel from mainstream American narratives that do not include them. But the distance is still there, in the minds of Jews and in the minds of those who are aware of how Jews relate to the society around them – some of whom are friendly to us, and increasing numbers of whom see Jews – in some religio-political-national formation – to be aliens or enemies. The secret inner man of questionable moral convictions who animates my work is the Jew who presents himself to the world as an American.

Yours,

David 

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