Are We All Jonah Lehrer?
08/09/2012 - 17:08
Helen Chernikoff
Jonah Lehrer falls from grace.
Jonah Lehrer falls from grace.

Until two weeks ago, when he was revealed to have made up quotes and attributed them to Bob Dylan, Jonah Lehrer was one of the most successful journalists of his generation, and an It Boy, and a good boy, to boot.

At 31, he’s the author of three books that nimbly dance a line between the sciences and the humanities altogether invisible to most mere mortals: Imagine (containing the falsified quotes), How We Decide and Proust was a Neuroscientist.

He was a contributing editor at Wired. On staff at The New Yorker. He was a Rhodes Scholar. And he’s so cute! That artful stubble! The sculptured eyewear! He married a nice Jewish girl and together they bought an historic house in L.A.

I am by no means above schadenfreude – as I guess the above makes clear – but I still feel sorry for him.

I think it’s because of my visit last week to Camp Nesher, an Orthodox sleepaway camp that hosts two bunks for kids with disabilities. So those kids sleep in special settings, but during the day, they mix frequently with the rest of the camp, baking cookies, whiling Shabbat afternoons away on the lawn and whooping it up at the dance parties that usually break out after dinner.

It was this crazy scene especially – the stomping on tables, the conga lines -- that made me think about Lehrer.

My theory is that he, and I, and most folks, especially Jews, have bought into a fantasy of professional perfection, of omnipotence and success, and for a while Lehrer embodied it. From the outside, it looked like he would never make a misstep, but would move from strength to strength forever.

I think we all want to believe in this just like most Americans want to believe in the myth of the self-made man: we all want to fantasize that if someone is that person, we too can be that person, someday. Many Jews are particularly susceptible to this fantasy because collectively, we carry around the baggage of our recent immigrant striving-and-success story.

The main difference between Lehrer and me, I think, is that he's smarter than me. Had I ever reached such rarified heights, I might have lied too, lest I fell.

But not those kids at Camp Nesher. To see the world they live in, the swirling dancing, the kid in the wheelchair in the middle of it, the kid with Down’s Syndrome bouncing up and down to the music, was to be reminded that we all matter, and that the present moment matters, and that there’s more to life than laurels and the next thing.

I wonder if Jonah Lehrer was ever one of those kids. I want my kids to be those kids.

helen@jewishweek.org; @thesimplechild

Comments

Please! Don't even try to connect this lazy, sloppy individual to "the baggage of our recent immigrant striving-and-success story."
If he had ever sought the professional perfection you think haunts Jewish Americans, he wouldn't have made up quotes attributed to a living person. GIVE ME A BREAK!!

Ms. Chernikoff-

No we are not all Jonah Lehrer. I should like to think that there are still some highly successful folks out there who have principles or at least some sense of self-preservation.

There was no reason for one famous man to put words in the mouth of another, even more famous man. A skilled writer can use exact, properly attributable quotes and still effectively support his argument. It was completely unnecessary and incredibly stupid to boot. My impression was that Lehrer was lazy more than anything else. He just could not be bothered to work to get the real quotes to fit his text.

Lehrer must surely know that imagination and creativity do not extend to the point of recasting what others have said or written, especially in a major publication of the popular press.

The saddest thing about the whole affair is that now we can never be sure whether or not Jonah Lehrer has been cheating and lying all his life. His recent actions cast grave doubts upon his body of work, his academic credentials and God knows what else.

His parents must be very proud.

I found charming his semi-geeky appearance and the way he presented his ideas in a self-help sort of format. Now I look at him, and he looks like a clown. Just imagine it. All he needs is the outfit.

Maybe he can get a job at Camp Nesher in that capacity.

"Schadenfreude ist die schönste Freude." So the Germans say, but I take no delight in Lehrer's failure.

Sincerely,

Andrew Bulgin

Is this writer for real? Did he even bother to READ the investigative piece by Michael Moynihan? Lehrer lied and lied and lied to Moynihan for weeks and tried to get him off his tail. The most bizarre and astounding lie involved Lehrer telling Moynihan that Dylan's "people" had given him never before published quotes that were to be used in an upcoming Scorcese documentary.

Is Lehrer THAT stupid that he didn't think Moynihan would check this with Dylan's people.

Journalists work very hard to get interviews and quotes with celebrities. So called "journalists" like Lehrer are an insult to the profession.

Shame on Lehrer for lying and lying to the reporter, who only wanted the truth.

Shame on the author of this piece for not dealing with the real issues at hand.

And sorry, if Lehrer were "smart" he wouldn't have made up such bizarre whoppers that could be so easily fact checked in the first place. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

My guess is that your kids WILL be those kids because of the values you are imparting to them.

Beautifully written, as always.

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