Monday, November 12, 2012
Ethics for Elitists: Part One of Two
This summer I was talking to a friend of mine when a friend of his happened to walk by. Like me, this new friend was an editor in Christian publishing. I edit books; he edits a magazine. "You two should really know each other," our mutual friend told us. "You're both elites." We were both deeply offended, actually--I, because I've made a rather unelitist habit of drawing books out of previously unpublished and relatively underground writers; my new friend, because his magazine is a bastion of Christian anarchy, and you may well imagine how anarchists feel about elitists. So we blustered and bristled, at which point our mutual friend decided to reassure us. "Don't worry. You're elitists, yeah, but you're elitists in Christian publishing." In other words, we are the upper crust of what is essentially a crustless sandwich. The publishing industry depends on elitism, I will begrudgingly admit: if we were to throw the doors open to any old writer, the business model would collapse on itself. Publishing thrives on celebrity and scarcity; the books that perform best are few and their authors are famous. The problem with publishing unknown authors is that they're unknown, and most readers buy books by authors they know--or who are known by people they know. Demonstrate to a publisher that a benchmark number of people are buying what you have to say, no matter how oddball or unorthodox it is, and that publisher will be inclined to make some money off you. Being the arbiter of elitism is an asset, and what good is an asset if you don't exploit it? Not exactly inspiring, is it? Still, plenty of unknown authors get published, which we might think of as the more trailblazing side of the business. Even that side, however, is vulnerable to ethical lapse. We can bestow credibility and authority on writers simply by granting them a publishing contract, sure; but we require that they contort themselves to make their book our book. More insidiously, we can whittle away at an author's credibility or subvert their authority by refusing to offer them a contract. The power of a publisher, like any power, is godlike, and godlike power is something mere mortals should always handle with care. Publishers aren't the only elitist enterprise out there, I hasten to add. It's the one I know most intimately, but there are plenty of others, each wrestling with its own ethical dilemmas, its own little god complexes and petty jealousies that intrude upon its decision making. What we elitists need, I think, is an ethic. As elitist as I am, I like things simple. Fortunately for me, so does Jesus, who sums up all the Law of Israel and all the commandments of God in two ideas: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength; and, love your neighbor as yourself. Here I'll focus briefly on loving God as elitist ethic; in another post I'll spend a little time on what it looks like for an elitist like me to love his neighbor as himself. There's actually not much to say about the God part. Loving God comes immediately into conflict with the god complex that so many elitists suffer from. We find it harder to appreciate the unique contribution God makes to life when we see ourselves as Godlike: God holds life and death in his hands? Well, so do doctors. God has the final word on the execution of justice? Well, so do lawyers and judges. God claims responsibility for souls as they move about the earth? Well, so do airplane pilots.