Stephen Glass and the Art of Forgiveness

Stephen GlassStephen Glass is back in the news. In the upcoming issue of Harper’s Magazine, they are running a letter from him and have issued a retraction about an article he wrote for them all the way back in 1998. For those who don’t know, Glass was a writer at New Republic in the mid to late 1990s. He was something of a star — publishing many remarkable and amusing stories. The problem was that he was just making stuff up — in some cases, entire articles. But it is coming up on two decades now and Glass is still running around making amends.

The article in question is, “Prophets and Losses.” In it, Glass supposedly went to work for a telephone psychic outfit. By the calculations of the Harper’s Magazine editors: “at least 5,647 of the 7,902 words… were based on fabrications.” That’s pretty amazing. At the same time, as a writer, I appreciate that he was actually writing. The question is whether such writing would have been published had it not been “true.” And the answer to that is pretty clearly that it wouldn’t have been. People accept much less interesting stories if they are supposedly true. Just look at The Blair Witch Project, which never would have been a hit without the cover story of it being real. It just isn’t that interesting and has a totally boring denouement.

The treatment of Stephen Glass is typical of the way we treat people who have made mistakes in the past. We are not a forgiving society.

But I still think it is pretty bad that Stephen Glass is still trying to piece his life back together. The same goes for Jayson Blair, although I don’t know what he’s up to. In Glass’ case, he’s trying to become a lawyer, but the state of California thinks he can’t be trusted to be a lawyer because of all the made-up stories he published. It’s kind of amusing really. I mean, a lawyer?! He wants to be part of a profession where creating plausible but false stories is critical.

Michael Hiltzik at The Los Angeles Times noted last week that there is much to dislike about Glass. In particular, “His imaginary characters are lower-class, often minority figures, depicted as credulous and uneducated, sometimes speaking in dialect.” But that brings up the broader issue of why it was that Stephen Glass was such a hot commodity while he lasted. As Hiltzik put it, “Glass played on his bosses’ prejudices…” So the question is: if his bosses at New Republic had such a classist take on the work, do we really think that the lawyers of California do not?

My interest is not in Stephen Glass. He’s from a privileged background. Even with all his baggage, and without license to practice law, he finds himself with the impressive sounding position at Director of Special Projects at a big-time law firm. But the treatment of him is typical of the way we treat people who have made mistakes in the past. We are not a forgiving society. There is a binary nature to our attitudes, where people are all good or all bad. And that just isn’t the case. People are all grey, as far as the eye can see.

But for most people without the resources of Stephen Glass, life is effectively over after a drug felony. These are the people who I fret over. And as a society, I think we really need to decide when we are going get over past wrongs. In Stephen Glass’ case, his great wrong was to embarrass a certain economic and intellectual class. I don’t defend what he did. But he’s hardly a murderer — and even they deserve some reconsideration over time. As a society, we need to learn the art of forgiveness.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

12 thoughts on “Stephen Glass and the Art of Forgiveness

  1. Very interesting, Frank. Well done. I wondered what happened to Glass but never had a doubt that he wouldn’t be ensconced somewhere and not sleeping under a bridge. Still, enough is enough. There are politicians getting elected time after time who have done things far worse than him.

    We do have a problem with forgiveness, unless you happen to be Dick Cheney or Donald Trump or. . . I was going to say Bill Cosby, but never mind.

    But seriously, we need to forgive felons enough to let them vote. They couldn’t do any worse than half the voters in the country already, and maybe they’ll even do better.

    • We have an interesting system that gives out ridiculously harsh punishments but keeps punishing long after. I remember the phrase from movies, “Paying your debt to society.” And that used to be true. But no more! If I were king of America, I would require that everyone read The New Jim Crow. I don’t think most people know what’s going on. In fact, they would think it was un-American. And it is.

  2. Forgiveness may be given but forgetting almost never is. However when it comes to the lawyer thing-you have to convince the State Bar that you are of moral character despite all of the stories told about lawyers because they do try to keep the worst of the lot from practicing law. They often fail but they at least try.

    Maybe we should make people listen to “Let It Go” more often. Because you can forgive someone but if you don’t let it go, what value is that forgiveness?

    • There is no problem that can’t be fixed with a song from a Disney movie!

      From my perspective, people who haven’t done awful things just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

      We couldn’t forgive Hester Prynne three and a half centuries ago and we can’t forgive much of anyone today. All that changes is the kind of people we do this too, not our tendency.

      • I suppose but most people don’t do terrible things on purpose to each other unless they just broke up. Then I have to deal with the fall out.

        The reason I mentioned the forgetting as opposed to forgiving is the fact that it has been nearly 20 years, why do we care what happened then? It is like most people just cannot forget what someone did when they were a completely different person which most of us were when we were 22-5. A lifetime of experience has changed us and for many of us, made us into better people.

        • I agree. There is a well established tendency to take one bad act of a person and think it is typical of them. At the same time, we fully contextualize our own bad behavior and see wrongs we do as outliers. It’s an important habit to get beyond.

          • That is actually such a problem that there is a vast body of law (with Rules, and everything!) on what you can bring up to establish character in court. For both victims of sexual violence and for the defendants.

            It may be why we should allow people to go get a new name and identity once in a while so they can start fresh.

            • I like in the wild west where people could move to a new territory and start over. We don’t much allow that anymore. It’s sad, because it isn’t just bad for the individual; it’s bad for the whole society. People don’t understand that keeping people unemployed or under-employed is a huge drain on society. But they have their ideas of justice, so it doesn’t much matter. Of course, most people have no idea how ex-felons are punished for the rest of their lives.

              • This is true. One of my Facebook friends posted a story about a foolish woman who broke a bridge this past weekend. And he said she needs to be publicly shamed for it. I pointed out that this means she will never find work again because prospective employers will google her making it impossible to leave this mistake at 23 behind.

                Plus, this is why we have a justice system. She will be cited, fined, and probably sued for the damage she caused. All the while unable to pay for it because of people like him.

                • Yep. Although what does that mean “broke a bridge”? At first I thought she punched someone in the nose. This must have been a small bridge.

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