Forgive the Woody Allen allusion.
My last Times column focused on some religious or observant Jews who are nonetheless non- or anti-Zionist. Like these guys:
It’s all a lot more interesting than I am making it sound.
Meanwhile, the question of what is permissible speech in the Jewish community is very current. John Judis, author of a new book about the founding of Israel, was just re-invited to speak at the Museum of Jewish Heritage; his book has not pleased conventional Zionists. Judith Butler, the literary critic, will not, however, be speaking about Kafka at the Jewish Museum. And Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi will not be speaking at the Orthodox high school Ramaz.
I am coming a bit late to the Grantland “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” controversy, and you may be too: for a primer, read this searching attack on Grantland’s article, an attack published by Grantland. It is cogently argued, and in many ways persuasive, but I feel that it’s no-outing-at-any-cost conclusion dodges some pretty important questions for aspiring journalists (and in our efforts to get things right, and be ethical about it, we’re all aspiring journalists).
“Maybe it was relevant for [the author] to inform the investor that she wasn’t a physicist and probably didn’t work on the stealth bomber and probably also wasn’t a Vanderbilt cut from the same cloth as the original Commodore,” Christina Kahrl writes. “But revealing her gender identity was ultimately as dangerous as it was thoughtless.
“What should Grantland have done instead? It really should have simply stuck with debunking those claims to education and professional expertise relevant to the putter itself, dropped the element of her gender identity if she didn’t want that to be public information — as she very clearly did not — and left it at that.”
That’s all well and good ... except that it shatters the compact between reader and journalist that undergirds most lengthy profiles: that the reader can expect to learn about the profile subject’s life, including her or his past. That the journalist will not keep from the reader a big, essential, massive truth about the subject. That the journalist will be, as I put it to my students, the reader’s representative. If the journalist becomes a coy keeper of secrets, sitting on facts that the reader would very much prefer to know, then what we have is celebrity journalism, in which editors and journalists agree to all sorts of conditions, never disclosed to the reader, in order to obtain better access.
Of course, there is a difference to what Ms. Kahrl is proposing: I acknowledge that. She is saying that being out about one’s gender identity and past is a special case, and for good reasons should be the choice of the profile subject. And I myself concur, in principle, that there are all sorts of facts that a journalist should keep, or should feel free to keep, out of a piece: deeply private matters about a subject’s sex life (except when relevant), the subject’s finances (except when relevant — how I would have loved the Times, in yesterday’s story about sub-minimum wages for waiters, to ask the restaurant owners how much they earn), the arrest records of the subject’s minor children, etc.
But the fact that a subject, for the first several decades of her life, lived under a different name; with a different gender presentation; and, for a while, perhaps, in marriage to a person of the sex opposite to that subject’s sex presentation at the time — it’s just hard to see how concealing all that is possible without, in effect, lying to the reader. Unless the profiler just chooses not to delve into the subject’s life prior to a certain year.
And of course plenty of profiles pick up just one year ago, or five years ago, or whenever the subject entered public life. But many of the best profiles, my favorite ones, take me way back to the subject’s childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, skiing accident in her twenties, failed business in her thirties, aborted run for office in her forties — the whole darned life.
And what Ms. Kahrl is saying, I think, is that for transgender persons not out about their early history living under a different gender presentation, such profiles should never be written. Even when, I guess, they themselves have a relevant career history (of lying or fraud, say), that reaches back into those years.
I am not saying Ms. Kahrl is wrong, but I think we all need to think about this a lot more. It would impose — it would self-impose — a pretty severe restriction on what journalists do. And I am not sure we could limit it to the cases of transgender persons. Plenty of people enter public life — as politiians or, as in Ms. Vanderbilt’s case, ambitious, self-promoting entrepreneurs, and God bless such people — in middle age, with parts of their past they wish to keep private. Should that right to privacy be extended only to matters of gender or sex? If so, why? And if we extend it to other categories, by what criteria?
That was the cute title This American Life gave my 20-minute spot last weekend, about the rabbis who will go vigilant (cattle prods, karate chops) in persuading Orthodox Jewish men to free their wives. (A “get” is the Jewish writ of divorce, which only a man can provide.) Listen here, at about 26:20. Among others, it features the “chained wife” Gital Dodelson and her (ex-)husband:
Also last weekend, my Times Magazine piece about mobile phone usage in public spaces (h/t to William H. Whyte) ran, at long last. Cf. here.