In a recent article about how nobody actually reads The Economist but everybody says they do – voila, instant smart and serious persona – Mark Leibovich recalled the episode of The Simpsons where Homer is given a copy of The Economist on a plane.
“Look at me, I’m reading The Economist,” he boasts to Marge. “Did you know that Indonesia at is a crossroads?”
For Leibovich, saying that he read The Economist often when he really only dabbled in it is a way of counteracting the fact that he, like anybody else who has tried to make themself sound more worldly than they really are, is a total faker.
“Like many people who sometimes travel in high-powered circles, I am a complete fraud. I have no idea how I got here. This is an especially familiar condition in Washington, where I live, and where the impostor syndrome is like our psychological common cold. So a lot of people lie about reading The Economist here. We probably have the highest number of lied-about subscribers. Because it’s important to come off smart and worldly and cognizant that Lagos will overtake Cairo to become Africa’s biggest city in 2013. Also, that 2013 will be the first year since 1987 that will have all digits different from one another. And it could be a really big year for neutrinos," he writes.
A similar fraudulence occurs on my bookshelf upon which exist tomes that I bought purely for showing off with and have never read. Examples that spring to mind include Wuthering Heights (saw the movie instead), Shantaram (too big to take to the beach) and Paul Keating’s biography (appropriate addition to any left-leaning bleeding heart, even if you have never cracked it open).
See, it’s easy to appear much cleverer and more serious than you really are. Really, all it takes is a link or two to a slightly indecipherable if very worthy article on your Facebook page and listening to the same NPR podcasts as everybody else.
Indeed the ease with which we exaggerate our cleverness proves that there’s something wrong about the exaltation of gravitas. Seeking to be seen only as smart and worthy can mean that you are the one at the dinner party imperiously asking everybody if they have read the latest Economist/you are never invited to dinner parties. It can also mean that you don’t place any importance on “un-worthy” or “silly” topics like, say, body image or fashion. Indeed there really ought to be a drinking game for predicting when the first call of “first world problems” will appear in the comments on one writer’s searing analysis of how women still don’t own their bodies, or cries of ‘dumbing down’ if fashion stories exist alongside stories about female circumcision. It is both short viewed and sexist to think that one can’t be interested in reading about both.
Lena Dunham posed as Twiggy for an Entertainment Weekly magazine spread (shot by Ruven Afanador) late last year. Because you can be uber smart and also be excited about playing a fashion icon.
Take clever clogs economics reporter Jessica Irvine. She recently had a book of columns about how economics works in real life published. In her popular columns Irvine takes complex theories and issues and compresses them into ways that are easy for people to understand. This is a surprisingly hard thing to do - witness the plethora of indecipherable yet worthy columns you may have read.
In 2011 Irvine wrote an overwhelmingly popular column about how she used the principles of economics to lose a whopping 20 kilograms and get into her healthy weight range (no 'thinsperation' here). This year Irvine wrote another column about how she is going to use the same principles to lose the 8 kilograms that she had re-gained this year. Predictably, twitter folk expressed concern that Irvine was tweeting about her adventures in diet land instead of the fiscal cliff. Thus implying that writing about diets is frivolous and not something that a smart economics reporter should bother herself with. Just as Clementine Ford wrote about how going on a diet isn’t a betrayal of the sisterhood, it’s frustrating that only ‘serious’ topics are associated with being smart. Forgetting that it is through pop culture, faffy fiction and gossiping with friends that many of us make sense of the world around us. Beside all that, as Irvine pointed out in her (unnecessary) defence to the concerned citizens, the economic reality of obesity is certainly not silly anyway. Apparently there was a big article about it in The Economist.
The condescending implication that Irvine cannot tweet about economics and dieting at the same time without losing some of her smarts, influence or credibility is completely fraudulent. The popularity of Irvine's economics of dieting columns illustrated this, and it is a shame that Irvine has created an entirely new twitter handle for her diet tweets. Only true dinner party bores would believe that talking only about worthy, sensible things makes you smarter or more interesting than the rest of us.
What’s more, only the very clever can write and chatter about both the worthy and the frivolous in a way that the rest of us can grasp meaning from it. Bonus points if it entertains us at the same time. Ask any in-demand dinner party guest.