Journalism is the art of translating abysmal ignorance into execrable prose. At least, that is its purest and most minimal essence. There are, of course, practitioners of the trade who possess talents of a higher order—the rare ability, say, to produce complex sentences and coherent paragraphs—and they tend to occupy the more elevated caste of “intellectual journalists.” These, however, are rather like “whores with hearts of gold”: more misty figments of tender fantasy than concrete objects of empirical experience. Most journalism of ideas is little more than a form of empty garrulousness, incessant gossip about half-heard rumors and half-formed opinions, an intense specialization in diffuse generalizations. It is something we all do at social gatherings—creating ephemeral connections with strangers by chattering vacuously about things of which we know nothing—miraculously transformed into a vocation.
All right, I suppose that all sounds a little spiteful. I take it back. I am perfectly aware that there are quite a few men and women of considerable gifts laboring in the fields of journalism, and that some figures of genuine literary eminence have risen from the ranks of the profession. My affection for H. L. Mencken verges on the idolatrous. I can think of a half-dozen writers I admire who began (and in some cases ended) their careers writing for the popular press. And, after all, I am not entirely certain how I should classify what I am doing in writing a regular column. Still, it seems fair to me to note that what a journalist does for a living does not, in itself, require him or her to be a scholar, an artist, a philosopher, or even particularly good at sorting through abstract ideas. And, really, it is hard both to meet a regular deadline and also to pause long enough to learn anything new, or waste much time even following one’s own arguments.
Which brings me to Adam Gopnik, and specifically his New Yorker article of February 17, “Bigger Than Phil”—the immediate occasion of all the rude remarks that went coursing through my mind and spilling out onto the page overhead. Ostensibly a survey of recently published books on (vaguely speaking) theism and atheism, it is actually an almost perfect distillation of everything most depressingly vapid about the cogitatively indolent secularism of late modern society. This is no particular reflection on Gopnik’s intelligence—he is bright enough, surely—but only on that atmosphere of complacent ignorance that seems to be the native element of so many of today’s cultured unbelievers. The article is intellectually trivial, but perhaps culturally portentous.