October 6, 2008
From Liberty Street


John Turner

I have in mind this morning a division which I may not be able to describe very well. Still, I'm compelled to make an attempt to say what it is.

I'm thinking of the way national affairs are discussed among journalists and current politicians as contrasted with the way they're treated by historians and political philosophers. Though the two groups address the same subject you would scarcely know from their analysis that they're looking at the same thing.

Why is that?

The weakness of both journalists and politicians is that their systems of reward are grounded in flattery. Journalists always report that people are more astute and competent than they are. Politicians always employ grandiose language in describing any accomplishment, regardless of how modest it may be. With both groups, truth is secondary to other aims. I don't know that we can blame them for not setting truth higher. We, the people, certainly don't set it very high. We would rather be told happy lies about ourselves than to hear the truth. This is the canker of democracy and we are not near to curing ourselves of it.

Scholars and serious thinkers are in a different game. They have to accept the unlikeliness of ever securing public acclaim. The best they can hope for is respect from a few and a lasting reputation. So, the barriers holding them away from truth are lower than they are for those in the contemporary limelight.

This is not to say that scholars are always more accurate than journalists. Contemplative people have their own egotisms to lead them astray. Still, on the whole, we can trust accounts from seasoned thinkers more than we can stories told by people in the chase for immediate fame and influence.

The gap between these two perspectives widens and narrows over time. It seems to me that in the United States right now, it's unusually wide. European friends have told me it's always wider in America than it is among themselves because Americans are trapped in the myth of American exceptionalism. The people of the United States are unwilling to view themselves simply as members of the human race. They believe they are more virtuous and more intelligent than other people and consequently that the actions of their government inevitably exhibit a sounder morality than do the behaviors of other nations. This belief, which is akin to religious faith, must be bowed down to by anyone who hopes for public reward.

Religion, or at least the form of religion that has flourished in America, makes people not only subject to myth. It requires from them mania. There have to be devils or why else would godliness not reign on earth? So in America, it seems, we always have to have something, rising up out of evil, that threatens our way of life.

During the major portion of my life it was Communism. Historians of the future will tell us about the massive waste, misery, and horror caused by the fear and hatred of Communism between 1947 and 1989. We were, during that era, not simply working to counter the actions of another nationalistic power block that had the potential to injure our interests. We were, rather, on a crusade against evil which took the name of Communism. Now Communism has been replaced by terrorism and in some Americans' minds by Islam.

Historians seldom view the world as an arena in which good clashes against evil. They see it, rather, as a place where human egotism, selfishness, and ignorance often become so exaggerated that humans form themselves into blocks with the intention of killing or subduing the members of other blocks. These plans have the power to override other efforts directed at making life less menacing for everybody. Can there be any doubt, for example, that medical research in America has been crippled by our determination to maintain enormous powers of destruction?

My thesis is that a country grows healthier as it narrows the divide between contemporary myth and long-term analysis. That's because it becomes more capable of basing its actions on reality instead of automatically reacting to fantasy. If there's anything to my thesis then the big question becomes: how do we bring these perspectives closer together?

In a democracy, people have to demand something if they’re to have a chance of getting it. That means, in our current situation, that people who see history as having something to teach us must start insisting more forcefully that journalists and politicians take greater account of it.

Politicians who show no grasp of the historical behavior of nationalistic structures, should be scorned as simple-minded opportunists.

Journalists who do not regularly apply historical analysis to their reports of current events should be written off as incompetent.

We have the right to better thinking from those who practice and report on politics. And if we fail to require it of them, then who will be responsible for the attendant miseries that flow down on us?


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