Significance for the Long Run: Developments Last Week
Al Gore's speech, delivered as part of the Martin Luther King day observances at Constitution Hall, was exciting. For the first time a major spokesman, someone who can reach the whole nation, laid out in the clearest terms, the march of the Bush administration towards tyranny. Internet commentators can write about the president's abuses all day, but only a tiny number of people read them. It would be nice to believe that each posting has been like a drop which runs together with other drops to form a rivulet, and then the rivulets join to form a trickle, and so on until a genuine river is created. Perhaps Gore's speech will be the symbol of that river's surging to forcefulness. The issue now will be whether the press will take it up and give it the attention it deserves. And if it doesn't, then we have to say the press has deserted the nation and sold itself to interests that aren't much interested in either truth or public well-being.
In the New Yorker issued today a cartoon titled "At the Corner of Irate and Insane" has several people standing on the street, labeled with captions like "furious because it isn't the 18th Century." Comedy is often more penetrating than the most somber analysis. Anybody who reads the news has to ask himself from time to time, why aren't people more concerned over the serious developments in society? And maybe it's because too many of us are indulging in trivial irritations. People can get monumentally angry over insignificant annoyances while remaining indifferent to abominations undermining the truly good things of the world. I guess you could call this an inability to see more than two inches in front of your face. But whatever it it, it seems to be making Americans into a strange pack of folks. But, maybe, if we lived elsewhere, we would want to expand that observation to include the whole human race.
In the Washington Post, writing about global warming, David Ignatius said, "we are all but ignoring the biggest story in the history of humankind." He's certainly right about that but the sad truth is that the principal newspapers and television networks in the United States come close to ignoring most of the really important developments in the world while using tons of newsprint on Hollywood award shows and other less than vital matters. If our main journalistic sources can be said to have a collective mind, then it's a mind of astounding triviality. What's happening to the Constitution of the United States is certainly the biggest political story unfolding in America right now. Yet it doesn't begin to approach in coverage, whether Trent Lottt is going to run again for the Senate and other such thunderous decisions. The serious question is, what causes our news organizations to downplay the vital developments that are creating the future? The three possibilities that pop first to mind are laziness, ignorance, and cowardice. And a reading of the news indicates that the third is the most influential. We don't have many brave journalists in America, at least not in positions which determine what gets on the front page and what gets time on TV. And we probably need courage there more than anywhere else.
In a column detailing the way Yahoo in China supplies the names of its users so the authorities can throw them in jail, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post spoke of businessmen as "moral dunces." It's not a bad term to apply to people who care about nothing but money. One of the peculiar thought gaps in America is the assumption, which functions without much examination, that morality should operate in all areas of life except for money-making. And when the money-making reaches gigantic levels, as it does in the actions of large corporations, then morality is completely out the window. We don't expect corporate executives to look at anything other than the bottom line, regardless of what's at stake. It's an accepted economic sin for an executive to live with a 9% profit when, if he fired 25,000 people, he could make 10%. A point we need to clarify about this attitude is that it's religious in nature and pertains to the most powerful and effective religion in America today, the worship of money. Compared to it, Christianity is a piker. It would be grand if journalists would start calling things what they are. But, especially with respect to the religion of money, that's not to be expected any time soon.
Michael Kinsley published a sprightly essay explaining why telling lies is a normal part of a lawyer's career path and why, if a lawyer becomes a judge, lying becomes even more essential. Then on the front page of a prominent newspaper we see an article titled "Public Apathetic on GOP Race." The two pieces fit together nicely. People have been cynical about politics just about as long as there have been political systems. But the cynicism among the American people lately has swollen to something much like an aneurysm in the public brain. Goodness only knows what might happen when it pops. Unrestrained cynicism is not healthy but a cynicism both unbounded and ignorant may be lethal. The people of the United States believe with the faith of a zealot that corruption reigns inside the Washington beltway but their own intellectual corruption makes K Street seem like an boulevard in glory land. It has become the principal stock in trade of comics on TV and America has long since replaced Poland as the topic of international jokes. We have to give the Republicans credit. They long since recognized the condition and decided to build their political future on it. That's why no matter how fantastic the falsehood coming from the White House today, you can count on something even more bizarre tomorrow. Quite a while ago, Reinhold Niebuhr proclaimed irony as the rule of American history. And there may be no irony over the course of history more profound than the condition in which near-total belief in the falseness of politicians produces an almost-as-total acceptance of what they say.
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