HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

March 3, 2008
From Liberty Street

Turned Off

John Turner


I don't know precisely why it happened. But I do know it came suddenly, almost like a light switch being flipped. My zest for keeping up with the details of the presidential campaign disappeared.

That doesn't mean I'm going to stop paying attention, but now I will have to force myself rather than approaching the task eagerly. The only general explanation I can offer is that there comes a time when the toxicity of a process fills you so completely you feel that if you swallow another drop your entire being will explode from turgid putrefaction.

Politics, in addition to being a struggle for advantages, and an argument, and public performance, is a culture. In America right now, the culture of politics is so charged with ignorance and vulgarity it nauseates anyone immersed in it, and turns them towards behavior they ought never, in their ordinary character, to consider. I believe, for example, that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are decent persons with a genuine desire to serve the people of the nation. Yet both of them allow their campaigns to do disgusting things. It's hard to know whether this comes about because their campaigns just get away from them, or because they feel forced to engage in garbage tactics in order to win. But in either case the degeneracy of the culture is demonstrated.

Political candidates, though, are the least of the problem. They tend to behave better than most members of the swirling crowd known as the insiders. Those who report on political events and talk about them incessantly have become more diseased than the actual participants. The culture disgorges a gaggle of men and women who manage to work their way onto television or into the major publications, that is, collectively, as pathetic a pack as has ever presented itself publicly as being worthy of attention.

Why this is the case, I don't know for sure. Some say it is the result of money counting more than truth. Money flows from attention. And attention flows from sensationalism, maudlin sentimentality, and outright lies. And the latter three -- I suppose we must admit -- flow from the tastes of the American people. There's some truth in this charge, but the trouble with it is that it ignores the manufactured quality of public taste. People begin to like what they are fed. And they are fed certain brands of rubbish not just because they demand them. Something else is pushing junk and dreck at them and it is this something else I think we need to examine. What is it? Where does it come from?

Until recently, I was avid to observe the language and the thought processes of persons such as Chris Matthews, Tim Russert, Clarence Page, David Brooks, Jon Meacham, Michael Gerson, John Harris, and Mark Halperin. These men probably compose as representative a group of news analysts as any other eight persons could.  They are all considered, within the general political culture, to be significant and responsible. They are certainly successful in that they all make quite a bit of money and manage to get themselves before the national television audience fairly frequently.

There are certainly differences among them. Some are brighter than others, some more goodhearted, some better read. David Brooks, for example, clearly knows more than Chris Matthews does. Clarence Page obviously has a more generous heart than Tim Russert. Yet, for all the distinctions you can find in the group, there is a sameness too. And the sameness is what testifies about the culture.

Every one of them fails the test of seriousness, at least with respect to his public performance. They don't fail in exactly the same way; there are differences here also. Brooks seems at times on the verge of breaking through to genuinely significant issues, but he veers away at the last moment. His is primarily a failure of courage. Tim Russert, by contrast, can't begin to imagine what seriousness is. His is a failure of constitution. Yet, one way or another, they all fail.

I suspect it is the lack of seriousness in the political culture that turns it putrid. It cannot take account of what human meaning is or how it might be approached. It cannot pay attention to the men and women who do strive to explain human meaning. It is, actually, scared to death of them.

It's not that there are not persons who do approach political questions seriously. You can find them pretty easily if you look. But they cannot break through into the general political culture. A great wall has been built to keep them out.

It's the reason for the wall that perplexes me. How and why did it get built? These are questions no moderately serious person can give up on. Yet, I believe it's the case that remaining always within those walls will make you so sick you can't think straight, you can't pursue adequate explanations. Everyone needs to break out from time to time. And, as I say, I reached that point a couple weeks ago.

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