The downward spiral of Jonah Lehrer’s career over the last month has shocked his peers and instilled in them a visceral need to understand. Following the revelations of self-plagiarism, outright fabrication, and lying to cover his tracks, we were bewildered. How could such a seemingly talented journalist, and only 31 years old, have thrown it all away?
One theory, proffered by Salon’s Roxane Gay, is that “there is a cult of bright young things, a cultural obsession with genius, a need to find beacons of greatness in an ordinary world.” According to her piece:
Lehrer’s success and this current humiliation, how far he had to fall, is a symptom of a much bigger problem, one that is systemic, one that continues to consistently elevate certain kinds of men simply for being a certain kind of man. Jonah Lehrer fits the narrative we want about a boy genius. He is young, attractive and well educated. He can write a good sentence. He can parse complicated science for the masses and make us feel smarter for finally being able to understand the complexities of the human mind. He is the great white hope.
Gay is absolutely correct about our fixation with bright young things. It’s an obsession that places enormous pressure on aspiring writers. The thing is, most journalists don’t do what Lehrer did despite the twisted system in which they work, and there are problems with the way that Gay applies the bright-young-things hypothesis to Lehrer. First, she wants to add white and male to the equation, and while she’s right that there is still too much gender and racial bias in this industry, I have five words for her: Janet Cooke. Black. Female. Fraud.
Another problem with the hypothesis is its simplicity. Yes, there is a cultural obsession with genius (preferably young, though not necessarily so) and a need to find beacons of greatness in an ordinary world, which sometimes begets the emergence of false idols. But there is genuine virtuosity out there, too, and there’s a reason that we’re attuned to it and hold it aloft once found: Talent is inspiring—usually in a good way.