Mark Oppenheimer, you're the author of Wisenheimer: A Childhood Subject to Debate
, a religion columnist
for The New York Times
, and a widely published freelancer
Q. Tell us briefly about your recently published book. What's a "wisenheimer?"
Wisenheimer is a
real word, if an old-fashioned one. (Readers over 50 tend to know the
word, much as they know "whippersnapper" and "By Jove!" OK, maybe they
don't actually use "By Jove!") But also "wisenheimer," which means
"wise guy" or "smart aleck" is, according to at least one dictionary,
simply a combination of "wise" + "enheimer," "from last names of German
origin, such as 'Oppenheimer' and 'Guggenheimer.'" So once I realized
my name was actually part of the word, the choice for a title was
The book is about growing up a talkative kid, and how my love of
language and talking both delighted and enraged people around me. I had
a big vocabulary -- but another way of saying that is that I had a big
mouth. I could get into trouble with my words. In fact, when I was 10
years old I DID get into trouble with my words: home one night alone,
my parents out with friends, being desperate for someone to talk with,
I made some prank phone calls that ended with my nearly being arrested;
I will leave the details for readers of "Wisenheimer" to find, but
suffice it to say that where phone lines are involved, the FBI too can
be involved. It was pretty hairy.
And then, shortly thereafter, when I made it to junior high school,
I discovered the debate team, and that really turned me around. Having
a healthy, constructive way to channel my verbosity (and my budding
adolescent anger) made a big difference in my life. It made me happier,
for one thing. And the rest of the book takes off from there, as I
immersed myself in the weird, wacky subculture of competitive debate
and oratory. I think the book will appeal to lots of people, but I had
in mind the same people who loved Stefan Fatsis's "Word Freak," about
the world of competitive Scrabble. I was pretty pleased he gave me an
enthusiastic tribute for the book jacket; honored, in fact.
A couple sub-themes about the book: First, I have a deep skepticism
of a lot of what passes for "progressive" education. For grades 2-4, I
attended a progressive school that was pretty disastrous for me. They
had lots of touchy-feely, student-centered ways to teach math and
science, but they weren't very interested in just letting me sit in a
corner and read books; and nobody was interested in argument. There was
such a premium placed on interacting, and movement, and playing
together, that a kid who just wanted to read and talk about ideas was
seen as some sort of reactionary.
Second, I really think we need competitive debate to start before
high school. I was lucky to be at a junior high school with a debate
program. But why is it that we have activities for 9-year-olds who love
music, or math, or nature, but not 9-year-olds who love talking? And
now that I am a dad of a talkative daughter, I can foresee wanting to
send her someplace where she can argue with somebody other than me and
her mom, you know?
As a blogger, I've thought a lot about debate online, where so many of
our political and cultural conversations are happening. It can be a
rewarding medium that offers an impressive diversity of perspective and
a wealth of knowledge that informs discussion of any subject. But a lot
of online debate is ruined by trolls, a level of vitriol I've never
observed in offline life, and perhaps by flaws in the architecture of
threaded comments sections.
Do you think better, more productive debates are possible online? If so, how do we bring them about?
am not sure how you save online debating. For starters, the commenters
are a big problem. Even when a few of them are helpful, they seem to be
outnumbered by the flamers and, well, big ol' jerks. I think Andrew
Sullivan has it down right: if you have comments, email them to HIM,
and he will post the best ones. Then again, he has an assistant (or
two?) to help him sift through the mail.
But look, the lack of face-to-face interaction is a blow for
civility. It is much harder to be mean to people whom you are looking
at. Take a fairly mild bit of ridicule, like Sarah Palin's derision
toward "community organizers" -- would she have said that if she knew a
few community organizers were nearby? (Then again, what are Tea
Partiers but community organizers? Think about it...)
I am pretty impressed by Bloggingheads.tv
. Heck, I would even like
to be on it sometime; it seems the only website that has made civil
debate its sole mission, rather than a happy side benefit. Then again,
it's a minority of people who are going to give over the time to watch
an hour of streamed video. Truth be told? I wish we had more good
debate on radio. For example, I am sure that when David Brooks and E.J.
Dionne do their weekly forum on Friday afternoons on All Things
, there are times they want to slap each other around a bit,
but being on NPR
, they have to be, you know, civil. They refuse
actually to debate. So they talk past each other, or something like
Among some religious people, there is a belief that the mainstream
media is hostile territory. You've managed to find willing interview
subjects at evangelical colleges, among Mormons, even within the
famously media shy Church of Scientology. Has distrust of media ever impeded your reporting? How often do you approach people who worry that a New York Times columnist or a freelancer from Slate isn't going to treat them fairly? How have you convinced them otherwise?
I think that people who are worried
I might be unfair go and read stuff I have written, and then usually
decide I am pretty fair. I don't write with an anti-religion animus; I
write with curiosity. The web is thus a real gift to my reporting: I
can say to people, "Go look at my stuff, then decide if you want to
talk with me." That usually works out.
Most often, it is the anti-religious folk who send me the hate
mail. When I write without obvious antipathy toward Scientology, I am
accused of being a sucker or a shill; when I wrote
conservative lesbian blogger Eve Tushnet, I got a lot of mail saying I
had set back the cause of gay rights by "giving her a platform." There
are a lot of people who figure journalists must be taking "a side," and
they can come from the left or the right, loosely speaking.
I did have one fellow say he figured I was Jewish "since The Times
is a Jewish paper." I wasn't sure what he meant by that, but the funny
thing is he didn't mean it as an insult, and he was happy to talk. He
was a Southern Baptist missionary, by the way.
Interestingly, I sometimes get skepticism from professors who fear
that a mere journalist won't be smart enough to do their views justice.
Hilary Putnam, the Harvard philosopher, once sent me a very dismissive
e-mail when I asked him for a comment, although when I wrote back, he
subsequently apologized. He's a great philosopher, so it meant a lot to
me that he backpedaled. I don't have that e-mail any more, but I could
never forget it. Q. Once
upon a time, you taught a graduate class I took at NYU on religion
writing. What's the most challenging skill an aspiring religion
journalist needs to acquire? What are the most common flaws you see in
newspaper and magazine stories on religion?
I don't think any of us ever solve the
conundrum of writing about people who take certain things on faith. I
am always dogged by the worry that I am not being tough enough; why do
I NOT always affix a clause to mentions of "God," saying "(should He or
She or It exist)"? After all, we usually don't write about invisible
entities. That is not to say that God is not real; but even the most
religious people will admit that a real God would nonetheless be fairly
difficult to describe in 900 words of newspaper text.
So we just ignore
the problem and skip on to the meat of the story. And that might be for
the best; articles about religion would be pretty tedious if they
always got bogged down in first-order theological questions. A lot of
times, the theology isn't even the story: the story is stuff so factual
and real that you can smell and taste it: pedophilia in the Catholic
church, schism in the Episcopal Church, the Gaza flotilla, etc.
The most common flaws in religion reporting are the same as common
flaws in all reporting: lack of skepticism, taking the speakers' words
for it. We always have to be skeptical, even of monks and priests and
imams and rabbis. And we have to remember that power corrupts, so the
people we are likely to revere may be the most likely to fail us.
Q. What is your own relationship to religion? Has it informed your reporting?
always like quoting my old teacher, the great historian Jon Butler. He
hated discussions of whether professors should reveal their beliefs to
students. "Such a question assumes that I KNOW what I believe!" he
I think that's right; most of us have beliefs that change daily.
I once got into a fruitful web discussion with the Christian blogger
Rod Dreher. He seemed unwilling to concede my larger point, that even
the most faithful have lapses of faith, and some days even have no
faith. So even if I told you I was a devout, orthodox Muslim, how would
you know that on a particular day, as I was writing a particular
article, I was feeling devout? Maybe that was the day I had a crisis of
faith and went gambling and womanizing!
As it happens, though, I am Jewish, belong to a pretty cool Conservative Jewish congregation beki.org
and take my daughters to Sabbath services pretty much every week. I
love ritual, but I don't think too much about God. To the extent that I
believe in him, it is affirmed through the act of ritual (Wittgenstein
is very smart on this topic, much smarter than I am). I do think a lot
about the afterlife, in part because my elder daughter is at the age
when she asks a lot of questions about where we go after we die. She
believes we all go to Dog Heaven (per the children's book by Cynthia
Rylant). I can buy that.
But I don't mean to be glib about the question. I wouldn't have
gotten a doctorate in American religious history if I didn't think
religion was meaningful and very worthy of study. And not just Judaism
-- I studied much more Christianity than Judaism in graduate school. I
was going to be a church historian before journalism got me.
Oh, your question! How does it inform my reporting? Honestly, I
don't think it does, except in this one way: as someone who knows a lot
of religious people, Jewish and Christian and Hindu and Muslim and
otherwise, I hope I am unlikely to stereotype them or make easy
assumptions. I know religious people are complex -- sometimes in ways
they wish they weren't. For example, see my comments above, about how
even the most devout are atheists on certain days of the month; that's
not the kind of thing they talk about much in some churches and
mosques, but it's a testament to the complexity of all human beings,
and to their intellectual power, to say they are always testing their
Q. The political journalist Peter Beinart wrote a widely discussed New York Review of Books
piece recently arguing that Israel is at risk of losing the support of
liberal Jews in America. You've done a lot of writing and reporting in
that world. Do you think that his assessment is accurate?
I haven't done so much writing about
Israel or Zionism, partly because I have been to Israel but once. From
what I can tell, though, Peter (whom I know from college, and whom I
like) is right. Jack Shafer wrote a take-down in Slate of Peter's
piece, but I wasn't persuaded that Peter is wrong. Even if Frank
Luntz's polling was worthy of more scrutiny, Peter is certainly right
that Zionism has become the province of more conservative and
affiliated Jews, and that a liberal, skeptical Zionism was much more
alive in, say, 1967 than it is now. And look, the equating of Judaism
with the modern Jewish state is necessarily a recent and historically
As a journalist, I have to remain interested in
and alive to expressions of Judaism that are not just Zionist, but
anti-Zionist and non-Zionist, or simply indifferent to Zionism. That is
one area where journalists are often blind: they, not the Jews or
Zionists, are often the ones to equate the two rather unthinkingly. I
try to honor Jews, Zionists, and people who are neither by remaining
aware of differences within and between all these camps. AIPAC
certainly talks as if they speak for American Jewry, but a journalist
has to let people speak for themselves, and not outsource the reporting
to lobbyists or pressure groups. It is easy to get a quotation from
AIPAC, or from anti-Zionist activists (I got the Gaza flotilla
spokeswoman on the phone in about 30 seconds of trying; we had a
lengthy talk) -- but I try to be just as interested in people who are
lone wolves and totally unidentified with any group.
Q. I notice that you've written about the 1960s and the effect of that
decade on religion, and that a topic you sometimes speak about is the
spiritual lives of young people. How have the religious lives of youth
evolved over the last five decades?
The main difference is the decline of
denominationalism. It used to be -- I will use your time frame of five
decades ago -- that in, say, 1960 being Methodist meant something
different, FELT different, from being Presbyterian or Lutheran or
whatever. I don't think many Americans feels that way today.
still pretty pronounced differences between, say, Catholicism and
Judaism, or Catholicism and Protestantism, but even so people are
jumping ship more and more. What is interesting is that Jews fret over
the 50 percent (or thereabouts) intermarriage rate, but what do you
think the intermarriage rate is for Lutherans or Congregationalists?
How many Lutheran college students are saying, "Well, I would love to
marry you, but you aren't Lutheran -- would you consider being baptized
in my church?"? Pretty few. It is almost laughable. The last redoubt of
denominationalism is the radio show "Prairie Home Companion," which
still makes jokes about Lutherans, as if that still meant something as
an ethnic group.
I hope people hold their mail -- yes, I know that for some people
these distinctions still matter, a lot. I am speaking generally.
the answer most people will give you is that kids today are spiritual,
not religious. OK, fair enough. But as they get older most of them will
find religious homes, if they find them at all, in traditional
churches, churches that belong to one denomination or another (or
specifically identify as non-denominational, in opposition to
denominationalism; that is true of a lot of evangelical "Bible
churches"). So what is interesting is how little thought people will
put into the history or character of their church's larger body.
Mostly, young people today just find a local church they like. Or they
sleep in on Sundays. Or get up and listen to "Car Talk." Or one of
those ubiquitous "Acoustic Café" radio shows.
Q. Where can readers interested in your work find more of it?
Everywhere! I am omnipresent! But mostly
they can find my work every other Saturday in the National section of
The New York Times. Or they can buy "Wisenheimer" to learn how debate
saved me from juvenile delinquency (literally). Or they can buy
"Thirteen and a Day," about my bar mitzvah road trip. Or "Knocking on
Heaven's Door," about religion in the 1960s counterculture. Or check
. (The "www" is very passé, or didn't you know?)
Hey, thanks for the interview. It has been a pleasure.