The Atlantic Monthly recently announced its “Brave Thinkers” for 2012. The designation “Brave Thinker” honors those who, in the Atlantic’s estimation, risk “their reputations, fortunes, and lives in pursuit of big ideas.”
The key here is “in the Atlantic’s estimation,” because the proverbial visitor from Mars would have trouble identifying what exactly is so courageous about the positions taken by some of those honored.
That’s not to say that there aren’t real examples of courage among some of the honorees. By any estimation, Chen Guangcheng, whom we’ve mentioned on BreakPoint, the blind Chinese human rights activist, is an exemplar of courage in both his thinking and, more importantly, in his actions. The same can be said of 2011 honoree Lydia Cacho Ribeiro, a Mexican journalist who was raped, beaten, and left for dead as a result of her efforts to expose corruption.
But several others seem to be honored for merely thinking in ways that the Atlantic approves of. Case in point: writer-actress Lena Dunham. The magazine acknowledges that her antics might reasonably be called “dumb, cute, narcissistic . . . amateurish, [and] a confused product of our pornified age” before deciding that it takes guts to act this way in public.
Perhaps it does, but are we really supposed to equate exhibitionism and over-sharing with standing up to totalitarian governments and drug cartels?
Another choice that leaves me feeling bemused is what the Atlantic calls “American Nuns.” While I’m not Catholic, I know that nuns are not monolithic: some nuns are very traditional in their deference to the Church’s authority, and others, in particular the Leadership Council of Women Religious, verge on self-parody.
I’m guessing that the Atlantic intended to honor the latter, which leads me to ask: has the Atlantic adopted the Islamic calendar and not told us? After all, in the year 1412, nuns defying the Vatican would have been a courageous act, but in 2012 it’s a smart career move. Praise from the likes of the Atlantic and the New York Times is to be expected—a visit from the Spanish Inquisition isn’t.
Then there’s New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Scarcely a day goes by without yet another dire warning about the consequences of America’s “obesity epidemic.” In that context, limiting soda sizes is hardly the stuff of the Spartans at Thermopylae.
You know what would be? If the mayor spoke out about the public health consequences of promiscuity with anything approaching the passion he invokes in his battle against Big Gulps.
Instead of celebrating people whose thinking mirrors its own, the Atlantic would be well served to broaden its horizons. In the spirit of cooperation, I have some suggestions:
Iranian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, who was recently released after three years in prison. Nadarkhani faced a possible death sentence for apostasy. Given that, when it comes to capital punishment, Iran makes Texas look like Massachusetts, refusing to renounce his Christian faith makes Nadarkhani a truly brave thinker.
Another truly brave thinker is Asma Jahangir, the Pakistani lawyer who represents those charged under Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws and the victims of honor killings. Her work is so dangerous that she had to send her children to England. Without her, the victims of oppression would likely be voiceless.
This, and not confirming the prejudices of its readers, is what it means to risk your reputation, fortune, and life in pursuit of a big idea. Maybe next year.