Wednesday, November 16, 2016

What News?

The very sad news of the death of the journalist Gwen Ifill, one of the anchors of the PBS News Hour, is in our house a kind of “objective correlative” of a more pervasive distressed mood following the general election.  I had no personal acquaintance of Ms. Ifill, but I was a great fan.  She was a luminous presence of intelligence, amiability, and spiritual generosity, a person of refinement and moral weight.  She understood the distinction—strangely unobserved by many of her professional peers—between reporting the news and trying to make the news. 

Journalism has played a huge role in recent political events, either through an actual or a perceived “media bias”.  We say that seeing is believing, but it as often works the other way around.  We seek confirmation of what we already believe, often with great success.  That is perhaps the essence of living or writing in a “bubble”.  My fear going into the election was that, whatever the outcome, about half the country would be left feeling aggrieved.  I was right about that, though wrong in identifying which half.  From one point of view this election barely had a winner.  Trump was behind in the gross popular vote, and he won only because of the vote in the Electoral College—the way the Cubs won only because of the rules of baseball.  According to most of the sources I read Donald Trump won because large swaths of the American electorate cannot accept America’s increasing “diversity”.  I think that is exactly backwards.  Mr. Trump won because America is already “diverse” in ways apparently unfathomable to the nation’s elite journals.  Looked at from the broad perspective that includes the “down-ballot” and state elections the vote was a stupendous Republican victory, an electoral blizzard.

Years ago, while I was researching my book The Anti-Communist Manifestos, I came upon a man named Sender Garlin, an American Communist journalist and one-time staffer on the Daily Worker.  Among other things, Garlin had played a role in the conversion to Communism of the young Whittaker Chambers.  Though his politics were grim, he was a fellow of good humor as is suggested by the following anecdote he reported.  In 1927 Garlin was working for the Bronx Home News, and was assigned to write the story about Lindbergh’s solo flight to Paris in May of that year.  His editor, ever mindful of his journal’s parochial mission, put the following headline on the story: “Lindbergh Flies over the Bronx on Way to Paris”.  I was reminded that cosmopolitan self-absorption is still vibrant in the Borough of Manhattan as well, when on the second day following the election the New York Times ran a two-banner headline proclaiming that “Democrats, Students and Foreign Allies Face the Reality of a Trump Presidency.”

            Hard upon that, I was sedately tooling about in my second-hand Mazda, with my radio tuned, as always, to NPR.  NPR has suspended its regular programming in order to focus full time on their “International Festival of Sore Losers,” an enterprise possibly accordant with my own mood.  The “New Yorker Hour” came on, featuring the famous magazine’s editor (David Remnick) and two of its staff writers (George Packer and Amy Davidson) in conversation about the election and its meaning.  These are three extraordinary intellectuals.  I actually remember Remnick as a brilliant Princeton literature major nearly forty years ago.  And you don’t get to be a New Yorker staff writer by just showing up.  But this conversation, I mean…Tell me not in mournful numbers.  Concerning the rubes who elected Trump there’s been an intellectual development among the Sore Losers.  They (the rubes) are more to be pitied than censured.  True enough that they may mostly be academically uncredentialed and unpigmented persons of xenophobic, homophobic, and racist character, but one has to make allowances for their upbringing, which has been among grain silos, cow pastures, revival meetings, and meth labs.  The conversation partners joined in the heavy, heroic effort to understand their compatriots in Bartlesville and Altoona, though they had to stoop ever so low to do it.  Being deplorable in elite eyes might be painful; but being pitiable must be crushing.  I hope it will not come to suggesting “Hug a Hillbilly” lapel buttons.

            I think that we can conclude that American journalism—as opposed to certain inspiring American journalists—failed us rather badly during the late political campaign.  Fortunately as we face the anxious days ahead we do have other and more promising institutions, and in particular our Constitution with its reasonably clear delineation of powers and the limitations on those powers.  For stamp our little feet as we may, wave “Not My President” signs as we wish, he will indeed be our president.  According to Mr. Trump Americans have become so used to losing that we don’t know what winning is.  That is one of several of his positions for which I find scant empirical backing.  It seems to me that a large cohort of Americans—including some who wield the overwhelming power of the press—are so used to winning that they have forgotten how to lose in the spirit of the democratic compact.


1 comment:

  1. I was following a thread (which I now can't recall) through that great time-consuming Tower of Babel known as the internet when I stumbled upon your "Dark Side ...". Apart from a passing interest in alchemy, I was puzzled about why I decided to start reading your book but it turned out to be enough of a fun and fascinating read to let me both tolerate and enjoy its academic precision. Still, what really compelled me was the mind that created the work. An unpretentious, self-effacing yet deep scholarship and a general wisdom about history, about life life in general, filtered through the overt subject matter. So much so, that I decided to write and tell you so even though in my almost 70 years I've never contacted an author.

    Now, after googling you, I find that you have received about every form of recognition and praise that someone in your field could obtain. So my little "well done" seems both pathetic and redundant. But as a real layman, as an academic outsider and general reader maybe it is of some value. I am an artist and I'd like to think that I have gotten to that point, that an artist must necessarily get to, where he/she becomes detached from both criticism and praise of his/her work. But, now and then, someone says something that indicates that they really "get" something you've done, someone penetrates the occult so to speak. And you can't help feeling that, if this one passing comment is all that comes of it, my efforts have still been worthwhile. So I hope my response is something of that sort. I also hope that "Dark Side ..." is to be followed by more of the same. For me it was, to say the least, "most enlightening".

    Peter Cross

    P.S. I find it hard to believe that you tackled the story of Cagliostro. Most would have avoided him in some fashion because of the tangled mess of sources involved. Somehow, though (and it must have been with much trouble) you have managed to convey the story in an interesting and coherent manner while not sacrificing academic integrity. Again, well done.