On the January issue:
Our Social-Media Problem
To the Editor:
Christine Rosen makes many important points in her article on the perils of social media (“The Social-Media Decade,” January). But is there not some reason to suppose that the initial hopes of the social-media revolution have come to fruition after all? Namely, social media has revealed the traditional media as a collection of hopelessly biased and forever preening activists.
In a country that holds its free press in such high esteem, it’s only right that citizens get to see the true face of that press. Traditional journalism made it easy for ideologues to hide behind institutional walls. But with the advent of social media, the temptations of personal celebrity, brand-building, and simple narcissism drew out the most vociferous activists in the press and exposed them for what they are. Barely a day goes by without some journalist letting the cat out of the bag on Twitter and showing for all the world that he is not deserving of our blind trust.
Some journalistic institutions choose to punish their employees for this kind of thing. Others don’t. But, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that the American people get a fuller view of the press in which they place so much stock. I, for one, would hate to see us go back to the day when journalists can disguise their biases by employing subtle journalistic slant with impunity. A truly informed public is one with a clear picture of its informers.
Christine Rosen writes:
Joshua Berns is correct to note that one of the most significant changes wrought by the social-media revolution has been the effect of social media on mainstream media institutions. Reporters who once wove their ideological leanings into their reportage have now been liberated to tweet them—but they are also now subject to greater public scrutiny. In some cases, real-time criticism from social-media users creates much-needed correctives to media bias, as it did when high-school students from Covington Catholic were slandered by reporters for supposedly bullying and harassing a Native American activist at a monument in Washington, D.C. (Video footage of the event later revealed that the high-school boys were not guilty of anything but run-of-the-mill teenage awkwardness…and wearing MAGA hats).
But I would nevertheless urge caution in celebrating this change too enthusiastically. Although in some cases the media have had to acknowledge their own bias because of revelations by critics using social media, the ubiquity of social-media use has also given such exposés less and less force as time goes on. Now, after being attacked by social-media users, mainstream media outlets as often as not apologize for not being “woke” or progressive enough rather than having to admit their own liberal bias. Ironically, this has had the effect in many institutions of encouraging the hiring of more activist-oriented journalists. Consider the New York Times’ hiring of avowed feminist, progressive activist Sarah Jeong to its editorial board, even though her Twitter feed included such gems as “White men are bullshit” and “#CancelWhitePeople.” Jeong claimed she was only joking, and she kept her job because her jokes came at the expense of a group that the Times doesn’t deem to be victims.
In the long term, the vigilante-style takedowns social-media users have perfected aren’t the best cure for the disease that is media bias, because they contribute to a broader decline in trust in our institutions. Twitter and Facebook and other social-media platforms have helped the public recognize the ideological bias of some mainstream media outlets, but no one benefits if social media end up destroying them. However flawed are our media (and they are flawed), we still need media for a free society of informed citizens to flourish. Hot takes on Twitter aren’t an adequate replacement.
Jews and Buddhism
To the Editor:
I deeply enjoyed Jesse Kellerman’s article on Jews and Buddhism (“Why Are Jews Buddhists?” January). It gets at something I’ve observed in some of my religious Jewish friends: While the many daily rituals and demands of Jewish life serve to solidify the Jewish family and ensure the continuation of Jewish practice, they also, paradoxically, can minimize the spiritual side of religion. It seems that a good portion of Jews are left seeking spiritual succor elsewhere.
This is not, to be clear, an attack on Jewish practice, which is remarkably rich in spirituality and mysticism. The problem is that the popular view of Judaism often omits these aspects of the religion. And those who practice Judaism faithfully, especially in the busy modern age, can resort to saying and doing the right things by rote while leaving some of the deeper aspects of the faith behind.
The popular view of Buddhism, on the other hand, is entirely dominated by the spiritual—often comically so. And it seems, in a quick and shallow reading, like the perfect antidote to Jews in crisis.
Jesse Kellerman writes:
Lawrence Dornbusch’s appraisal is sadly accurate; I would add that the tension within Judaism between the letter of the law and its spirit is not a new phenomenon but one as old as the religion itself. Isaiah (29:13) upbraids the nation for mouthing God’s honor while distancing their hearts from Him and showing a mechanical respect. (Parts of Jesus’s rebuke of the Pharisees—indeed, a large part of Christianity’s original mandate—may be similarly understood.) Subsequent generations of Jewish religious scholars wrestled with the question in various forms: Does ritual require intention, or can one fulfill an obligation merely by performing the act? Ought we to plumb the commandments’ ethical purposes, or are they simply to be obeyed as God’s will? The technical, exacting nature of these inquiries would appear to further highlight the crux of the problem.
Faced with continual upheaval, Jews have tended, understandably, to cling to the concrete. There’s little sense in fretting over one’s soul when one is running to save one’s skin. Let us also note that Judaism is far from the only moral framework to privilege deeds over internal experience. “All the beautiful sentiments in the world,” James Russell Lowell writes, “weigh less than one lovely action.” But the legalistic flavor of halakha is unavoidable, such that “Talmudic” has acquired pejorative overtones, describing a system caught up in the picayune at the expense of its broader human appeal.
Likewise, there have been, over the generations, countless attempts at corrective measures, some from within, some from without, a few more farfetched than others. The same thirst for spiritual nourishment that animates today’s “yoga Shabbat” is found in the 18th-century rise of Hasidism (though not the same apparel). Here I must include my own personal fondness for paleo-Judaism. The American version of Buddhism, with its low barrier to entry, muted theology, and perceived malleability, provides a ready fit. At the same time, I suspect one could easily write an article similar to mine about other movements, such as Communism or folk music, that have attracted a disproportionate number of disproportionately fervent Jews. We seem to need to believe in something. And we’ll do it—the most!
In examining the plight of the contemporary worshipper, it is worth considering another strand of thought, famously articulated in the Sefer ha-Chinuch, an anonymous book of halakha first published in 13th-century Spain: “After the actions, the heart is drawn.” It is ritual itself, the book argues—ritual, with its formal structure and repetitive nature—that creates religious sentiment, rather than the other way around. (A less charitable rendering might be “fake it till you feel it.”) Psychologists starting with William James have noted the counterintuitive relationship between emotions and behavior. “We feel sorry because we cry,” James writes, “angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble.” Or, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel elegantly has it: “Being bound to an order and stability of observance, to a discipline of worship at set hours and fixed forms is a celestial routine. Nature does not cease to be natural because of its being subject to regularity of seasons. Loyalty to external forms, dedication of the will is itself a form of worship.” According to this formulation, we feel God because we do what He commands.
Of course, to appreciate the majesty and humility of bowing during the Yom Kippur service, one must come to synagogue in the first place. So how to get people there? Nu, it’s a problem. Don’t ask me to solve it, Mr. Dornbusch. I’m already late for yoga.
Saving Free Thought on Campus
To the Editor:
Ruth R. Wisse’s distressing article (“Save Me from my Defenders,” January), coming not long after Abraham Socher’s “O Oberlin, My Oberlin” (September), is cause for the development of active strategies to confront scandalous campus behavior. Childish students are being coddled by faculty and administrations. I was taken by Wisse’s description of a previous speaker’s encounter with threatening students who “swarmed around him, shoving a phone in his face to record his discomfort,” and even more startled by the insult that she endured at Bard.
Admission to these events should require that audience members sign a release acknowledging that they may be photographed and that these photographs may be disseminated to media. I doubt the administration would be happy with widely circulated images of students behaving shamefully toward distinguished guest speakers. These universities surely would worry that their fundraising and recruitment would be affected. Speakers should be protected by professional photographers armed with equipment needed to give a full account of the character of the school environment. Wisse’s article made me wonder if I should bother to attend Bard College events in the future.
Larry W. Josefovitz
Ruth Wisse writes:
I thank Larry Josefovitz for his observations. Bard’s awareness of the problem was already clear from the measures it took to protect me and my right to speak. The college has since then undertaken its own review of the events I described. But I doubt that this behavior can be corrected at the point of eruption by the filming he proposes or through any other such stratagem.
At this stage, higher education can be saved only through an overhaul of admissions, hiring, and curriculum. College can once again be a place of learning when it admits students on the basis of intellectual and personal maturity. If it intends to perpetuate the best of Western civilization, it will have to hire faculty and reset curriculum accordingly. I think the deterioration has gone too far for tinkering at the edges.