Is anyone really surprised? At the particulars, maybe, but that he did it, that it was discovered and like his self-plagiarism turned out to be sitting in relatively plain sight? I was more surprised by the number of tweets to the effect of too bad, so sad, I really looked up to him (!), and by The New Yorker’s initially light reprimand in June. With the self-plagiarism coming on the heels of his New Republic evisceration, was not, as the Times might say, a pattern beginning to emerge?
One of his first New Yorker posts—I assume now taken down—was on the surprisingly high marks New Jersey wines received in blind taste tests versus Bordeaux. Lehrer concluded that people largely prefer what they think they ought to based on expense and reputation; that the chemistry of the wine matters less than that of the brain perceiving it.
My first thought was that a Bordeaux would be likely to fare relatively poorly, pitted against a nearly 40-year tendency toward big, fruity, flavor-forward California Pinot Noir-ish wines. Bordeaux in particular: an average vintage would taste musty by comparison, a bit too much of the cellar it aged in for many palettes.
Nor did Lehrer acknowledge the idiosyncrasies and intricacies of price determination. Bordeaux, an appellation contrôlée, guarantees certain standards but in practice can influence market value regardless of a particular vintage’s quality. A wine whose producer didn’t apply for the appellation contrôlée generations ago might retail for an eighth of the price of a wine from the next vineyard over, and yet have similar qualities.
Lehrer’s self-plagiarism initially made this seem too petty to blog about, but it comes back to me now, a ghost scent I didn’t know to chase. I’d attributed it to carelessness or unfamiliarity with subject matter—disappointing in The New Yorker, but to be expected from a method applied repeatedly to diverse topics.
Now I see I was giving too much credence to contrarianism as his signature move. Maybe it was heedlessness that was his move; a fey sense that the world would bend to his genius, his need to be seen as right and assurance that he was, his disregard for his topics—for they were never the subject, only the means to it.
It’s all very sad. So many people were so eager for complexities to be reduced to so little wonder.