WASHINGTON, D.C. - I once had a colleague who went on to take a big job with a well-known public figure, someone I thought was one of the most destructive people in public life, a peddler of prejudice and paranoia, a predator on the worst in us.
In interviews, my former colleague was often asked why he/she took the job, having never been associated with the extreme views of his/her new boss.
“I’m really fascinated with big brands,” came the answer.
Ah ha: Brand trumps morality.
Great atrocities in journalism, the arts and other creative endeavors are being committed in the name of “brand,” a newly holy value in the capitalism of brainwork, a triumph of marketing over virtue.
Another example: You may or may not know the name of Leon Wieseltier. For those who don’t, Weiseltier has been associated with The New Republic magazine since the 1980s. He is one of the most erudite and intellectually ambitious writers on politics and culture we have outside of academia.
On Thursday, Wieseltier was sacked as the literary editor of The New Republic, along with its top editor, Franklin Foer. The memo announcing the putsch was written by Guy Vidra, the CEO of the 100 year-old magazine who started work there in October.
Wieseltier, wrote Vidra, had been the “beating heart of this brand.”
I assume that this was an intentional insult by Vidra. If so it was vicious.
Vidra came from Yahoo! News, exclamation point included. His boss is Chris Hughes, a 31-year-old mini-mogul who had the pluck and vision to be Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate at Harvard. He is said to have half a billion or so to play with. These guys come from the techno-greed world of brand, disruption and new models, of hip euphemisms for the old art of producing money. And that is fine, but their linguistic hipness must not be allowed to disguise their sins.
Kleenex is a brand of tissues. Crest is a brand of toothpaste. Pepsi is a brand of soft drink. Kim Kardashian is a brand of female homo sapiens.
The New Republic is not a brand.
It is a century-old institution. It is a part of American history. It is an increasingly rare outfit that turns out nicely written and ambitious articles on eclectic and important topics, by people who are rarely rewarded with wealth, celebrity or virtual celebrity. It may be a dinosaur but it isn’t a brand.
Hughes and Vidra will probably turn TNR into a brand that gets more page views and advertising dollars than it does now. They may invent the brand but they will have killed the brain. The publishers of tabloids don’t pretend they are committing Journalism with a capital J; these characters do.
The brand concept and its grotesque cousins in commerce are making American culture more homogeneous, lowbrow, crass, anorexic and, I suppose, profitable.
On some level, who cares? Money is money. Change is change. Entertainment is entertainment. First world problems.
But when the ideology of Brand and the doggerel of Disruption tarnishes noble causes or legitimizes corruption, it is depressing.
It is this cult of Brand that forces popular writers to churn out a marketable best seller every summer and squeezes out literary fiction.
It is what inspires Hollywood to make such dreck.
It is what has reduced too much journalism to click bait and one-liners.
Again, who cares? While newspapers are dying and stupid new web sites are flourishing, it also is true that a few geezers like The New York Times, The New Yorker and CBS Sunday Morning are doing some of their best work ever. And there are new guys with genuine ambition, like Vox.com, Pro Publica and Vice.
Hollywood is churning out Dumb and Dumb Beyond Belief, but TV is having a renaissance on cable with shows like Homeland, Downton Abbey and Breaking Bad.
Brand is fine for toothpaste. It is inappropriate when it gets tangled with more high-minded enterprises.
The Cult of Brand also is Orwellian. It obscures and muddles and disguises the phony. And it needs to be protested.
What the late columnist Lars-Erik Nelson said of politics equally applies to commerce and media.
“The enemy isn’t liberalism. The enemy isn’t conservatism. The enemy is bullshit.”