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A Few Questions About Jill Abramson, From David Brooks For David Brooks By David Brooks
I find myself alternately fascinated, humbled, and engaged by the recent dismissal of Jill Abramson as the editor of this newspaper. Full disclosure: I am a columnist for the New York Times. Put another way: The words you are reading are appearing in the paper that Ms. Abramson, until around noon Wednesday, helmed.
Perhaps a quote from an outside source could help clarify this, and the outside source I choose to cite is me. I cite a column I wrote last Monday, which, I believe, qualifies because, according to the philosopher David Hume, we are merely an aggregate of our experiences, and the David Brooks who sat down to write that column is not the same David Brooks who now sits before you, writing this.
Here’s the lesson that Sunday David Brooks has for Friday David Brooks: “One of the hard things in life is learning to ask questions that you can actually answer.” (Thanks, Monday David Brooks.)
And so, because I can answer the question: Is this column about the New York Times appearing in the New York Times, I ask it. And I (Friday David Brooks) answer: Yes.
Throughout world history, people have been fired. Some of these people have been women. J.K Rowling was fired from her job as a secretary at the well-respected international organization, Amnesty International, and she went on to write the much-lauded Harry Potter books. Madonna was fired from the popular coffee and donut fast food establishment, Dunkin’ Donuts, and she went on to be one of the most powerful women in entertainment, and the singer of hits like “Holiday,” “Isla Bonita,” and “Take a Bow.”
When you have a society and a woman living in that society is fired—as Abramson was a woman, living in a society, and was fired—this often becomes an opportunity for the people in that society to ask themselves questions. One of those questions might be: “Did she get fired because she was a woman?” In the cases of both Rowling and Madonna, I think we can safely say no. Rowling was fired because she was too busy thinking up story ideas to do her work. Madonna purportedly squirted jelly on customers.
Now, would a man sitting around the Amnesty International office dreaming up stories also be fired? Would a man squirting jelly on customers at Dunkin’ Donuts be fired? We can never know. It is not within our power to go back to say, London in the 80s or Detroit in the 70s and say, “Why did you fire J.K. Rowling?” or “Why did you fire Madonna?” That is what makes these things so hard to figure out. We weren’t there.
In the absence of actually having been present in the moments of Abramson and Sultzberger’s relationship, none of us can ever know what went on between them. But we can seek solace in context, and for this I can think of no finer source than a recently published book I just read, Lady, You’re Out of Here: Why Women Get Fired, written by Martha Frame, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania. In her fascinating account of women being fired throughout history, Frame provides telling anecdotes that reach from the guilds of the Middle Ages to Silicon Valley. What emerges is a chilling portrait of people who have a tendency to feel uncomfortable when women frown at them. These same people can tend to react poorly when women say things like, “Why does that guy get that much money, what a bunch of fucking bullshit,” but the people who react poorly to the frowning are not necessarily the same as the ones who react poorly to the questions about their predecessor making more money than they do, but sometimes—and that’s what makes this such a provocative read—they are.
In the interest of playing devil’s advocate, I also read another fascinating book. This one, written by Yale professor philosopher Finn Coates, is called I Couldn’t Really Tell You, I Was Kind of Hoping You Guys Knew. This exhaustively researched work, which began in 1982 as Coates’ Stanford dissertation, looks at a bunch of unrelated events—a Pee Wee hockey tournament in East Winstead, CT in 1994, a riot at a Maryland prison that same year, the sinking of a friend’s Boston Whaler moored at a slip in Fort Myers, FL—and decides that no one had any idea why the one team won, or why the riot started, or why the boat sank, because when no one is watching, there’s no witness to the account, and thus, no story. It raises a lot of fascinating questions about our eyes and how they work, and leaves us with the unsettling sense that if we’re not actually in front of something, looking at it, we don’t see it. I myself read it with one hand over one eye, as if to slowly acclimate myself to a shattering reality.
It is possibly a shame that Jill Abramson was fired. And I am not suggesting that she will land on her feet by becoming the best-selling author of fantasy books about a child with magical powers or that she should team up with important figures from New York’s nightlife underground and record dance records. It is possible that that Abramson’s dismissal, as outlined in Frame’s book, indicated an inability for certain male belief systems to confront women frowning or getting annoyed about their salary. It is also possible that that had nothing to do with it. The important thing is that we as a society are confronting the demons that may make us do things, and, in the absence of confronting these demons, are at least asking ourselves questions that we can answer, like, “Am I now done writing this column?” Yes.
Sarah Miller is the author of this column as well as Inside the Mind of Gideon Rayburn and The Other Girl. She lives in Nevada City, CA, where she is not currently monitoring her friend’s experience with an animal communicator. Follow her on Twitter @sarahlovescali.