HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

July 23, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Journalism's Judgment

In a recent essay in The Nation, Eric Alterman remarked on the "the MSM's reflexive anti-intellectualism." By "MSM" he was referring to the mainstream media, in this instance represented mainly by the Washington Post.

It has become common to take shots at the mainstream media, but in this case it was more than justified. Leading newspapers, as well as the network news organizations, regularly behave as though the American public is so dimwitted it's a deliberate insult to address them in a book employing reference notes or in language more complex than would be appropriate for third-graders.

I don't think I can be accused of overestimating the intellectual grasp of the average American, but I see no reason to dumb down reporting just because some members of the public won't be able to comprehend it easily. The duty of journalism is to paint things as they are, not to win elections by condescension. The so-called regular guy who doesn't have time to pay attention to over-elaborate argument is one of the most destructive myths we've decided to swallow in this country. If there are legions of such guys, it's useless to try to address them at any level because they're too stupid to understand anything.

Our nation would be far healthier if we regularly encountered searching and critical reporting on both television and in our newspapers. If some people found it too taxing for their listless brains, more would be stimulated by it to take an active interest in public affairs. And that would make it harder for government officials to mislead and manipulate. Also, a tradition of critical thought in the media would build on itself to the extent that we might begin to expect truth in the morning when we pick up our newspapers or in the evening when we turn on our TVs.


Ah! Here's Brightness

Last week the president invited nine right-wing journalists for a chat at the White House -- a meeting that has drawn much comment. By all accounts, Mr. Bush was breezy and cheerful. And the main reason seems to be that he's on God's side. Or is it the other way around?

The president repeated his oft-asserted claim that God gives freedom to everybody. But it's not the ordinary, dictionary-based definition but, rather, Mr. Bush's version of it. His notion of freedom appears to be based primarily on the freedom to be born rich and to get richer all through life. Those who meet that condition have been selected by God and, therefore, have no need to wonder about their good fortune because it has been conveyed by divine wisdom. It's nice work if you can get it, but God doesn't pass it out very liberally.

A far greater number of people are free to work for Wal-Mart all their lives and to worry about whether the partial health insurance they may be able to buy will cover the disease God could decide to confer upon them. As has been noted down the ages, God's ways are mysterious.

But when you consider the scale of freedom as it operates around the world, the Wal-Mart type is pretty high up on the list, quite a few notches above the African cotton farmer who is free to be starved by the subsidies U.S. taxpayers provide for wealthy cotton farmers here in this country.

Still, whatever the variety, it's all freedom and God provides it all. That's why the deity is happy in heaven and Mr. Bush is happy in the White House.


Rhetorical Fear

In an otherwise effective essay in the New York Times about the inability of most members of the Bush administration to empathize with anybody, Judith Warner includes this phrase about the aftermath of the events of September 2001: "the terror that took up residence in our guts following the attacks."

The sentimental hypocrisy that Americans generally were plunged into a state of fear by the deliberate airplane crashes in New York and Washington has become an element of national mythology, so often repeated that one hesitates to deny it. But it needs to be denied because it's false, and a nation that bases itself on false mythology is leading itself down a bad path.

I remember September 11, 2001 very well. I certainly felt no fear or terror, and no one I talked to expressed any fear or terror. There was a recognition that America had enemies in the Islamic world and that some action would be required. But there was no more fear than what's created by the knowledge that every time you go out in a car, you might get into an accident.

People started talking about being afraid because pundits announced that fear had struck into the heart of America.  And, then,  people began to think that if they didn't admit to being afraid there was something wrong with them. Once that notion took hold, politicians began to play on it and major portions of the population allowed themselves to be manipulated by something that didn't actually exist.

No good has come to us as a people or a nation as a result of embracing a sentimentalized fearfulness. I am not saying that a few individuals didn't actually feel something akin to fear. But in a large population there are people who are afraid all the time anyway and persistently looking for something to hang their fear on.

Fearfulness is seldom a useful emotion. So to manufacture it deliberately, just for the sake of the thrill, is not the behavior of mature people.


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