Aug 30 '12

For our purposes, I’ll define a hack as someone who writes something he or she does not believe (or who carefully looks the other way to avoid encountering any facts that might get in the way).

The purest example of a hack I can think of is John Gribbin, a physics Ph.D. who many years ago unscrupulously wrote a ridiculous book called The Jupiter Effect. Another example would be whoever publishes those books they sell at newsstands in Chinatown with lucky lottery numbers.

More recently, we encountered think-tank administrator Arthur Brooks, who wrote, “Unless you are in a heavy physical industry or have a health issue, why should you retire at 65? You’ll still be in your prime”–a statement that applies to congressmembers, Clint Eastwood, Betty White, and not many others. I’ll label Brooks here as a hack because it’s hard for me to believe that he really thinks that most people are in their prime at 65.

Just to be clear: when I’m describing someone as a hack, I’m not saying he’s political or that he’s writing something I disagree with. I’m saying that he’s writing something that he doesn’t himself believe.

Anyway, the point I’d like to consider here is: why am I so surprised to find that someone is a hack? I read something hackish and try to figure out how he could possibly think that, what was he really trying to say, etc etc. Labeling the writer as a hack is my last recourse.

But then I was thinking, the correct starting point in reading such things should not be academia or even mainstream journalism, but rather advertising and public relations. There’s no expectation that these people believe what they write. Whether Don Draper really believes that Lucky Strikes are the best–who cares? That’s not the point.

With Arthur Brooks the story is a little bit different. Although, I assume, he does not really believe that silly line about retirement, he does (I assume) believe that reducing Social Security benefits would be preferable to raising the limit of income that is taxed for Social Security. He’s not (I assume) a pure Don Draper, hired to say whatever he is told to say. Rather he is (I assume) comfortable writing evidently false statements in the service of a larger goal.

Still, I think advertising and P.R. is a good model here, in that these are fields in which there is no presumption of sincerity and in which it’s part of the job description to say things that don’t believe.

This is one thing I sometimes wonder about law professors: as academics, they’re expected to stand by what they write and to be open and sincere. But as lawyers they are trained to be advocates (for example, it’s considered ok to defend someone who you think is a killer). Does that leak back into their academic writing?

P.S. This is not just about Republicans. For example, I haven’t read the books of James Carville but he certainly gives the vibe of being someone who might not believe everything he writes. I could also throw in Michael Moore here–did he really believe that O.J. was innocent–but he’s more of an entertainer, again a field where there is no presumption of sincerity.