In my last post, I confess I may have foamed at the mouth a bit raging against "the chummy relationship between the media and the big-corpo-statists" who have created the disunity in our country. In response, my left-of-center friend asked me what political reforms could I offer to address the problem. Here was my response:
Saturday, January 23, 2021
Government and Media Took Away Our Unity: They Cannot Give It Back
I am trying to get at the question you posed at the end of your email, when you asked for my diagnosis and prescription for what I regard as a media that has become altogether poisonous. For many years I have had Christopher Lasch on my reading list, having seen his name mentioned in various books or articles I'd come across. I happened finally to read his Revolt of the Elites a few weeks ago. It was a revelation. Apparently others have said the same following Trump's 2016 election. Lasch's thesis is that our media is not an aid to our public discourse. To the contrary, our media seeks to put an end to public discourse. Our media is simply an outgrowth of a modern condition in which our elite class has become entirely insular, talking only to themselves, with but an academic concern for the practical interests of ordinary Americans.
At the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, partisan newspapers were an outgrowth of public discourse. Every person knew where to find opinions that suited their own. (As I recall reading elsewhere, the debates themselves were often misreported, to suit the editorial perspective of the particular paper.) Around the turn of the century, with the civil service reforms following government scandals, newspapers became more professionalized. Lasch argues newspapers became more of a resource for legislative research services. (The professionalization of legislatures, and the extinction of the part-time, citizen-legislator, is a topic for another time but is a related and serious problem.) The newspapers no longer served as extensions of public debate. The public was excluded from the process of seeking truth. Instead, it was replaced by journalists seeking mere facts. And today, of course, the difference between "truth" and "values," on the one hand, and "facts" on the other hand, is almost entirely obscured.
So Lasch argues that the American public, having been excluded from the public debate, no longer has any reason to become informed – the flood of professionally produced, "fact-checked" information has the effect of drowning debate rather than informing it: "Since the public no longer participates in debates on national issues, it has no reason to inform itself about civic affairs. It is the decay of public debate, not the school system (bad as it is), that makes the public ill informed, notwithstanding the wonders of the age of information. When debate becomes a lost art, information, even though it may be readily available, makes no impression."
"What democracy requires," Lasch went on, "is vigorous public debate, not information. Of course, it needs information too, but the kind of information it needs can be generated only by debate. We do not know what we need to know until we ask the right questions, and we can identify the right questions only by subjecting our own ideas about the world to the test of public controversy."
Neil Postman said something similar in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, where he agreed with Huxley over Orwell in diagnosing the modern condition: "What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance." Eric Voegelin had seen this coming some decades earlier from the trenches of the social sciences, whose publishing profligacy was just beginning: "Since the ocean of facts is infinite, a prodigious expansion of science in the sociological sense becomes possible, giving employment to scientistic technicians and leading to the fantastic accumulation of irrelevant knowledge."
As Lasch points out, modern journalism takes its cue from Walter Lippmann's elitist thesis that the public doesn't really care about democracy per se: it just wants effective governance, and the generous public goods it promises: “The public is interested in law, not in the laws; in the method of law, not in the substance.” Trump proved Lasch's populism right, and Lippmann's elitism wrong. The pre-Trump American government produced a relatively stable, prosperous order. Yet it had become unresponsive. The people could see in their government a highly professional, skilled, and effective body of men and women, but what the people could not see in their government was anything of themselves, or anyone who advocated their interests. Without that, it was all for nothing. If you cannot see yourself in your country, you will see yourself out, one way or another.
Lasch did not see partisan newspapers as an ideal. And I do not either. But they served a vital need in a democracy. When that fell away, in its place for more than half a century we had a professionalized state and a professionalized media. It was not without its benefits. But we also got the CIA, who eventually admitted propagandizing to US citizens through a professionalized media. And then we got an NSA to spy on our government's enemies, who turn out to include its entire citizenry – and that mass Constitutional violation, too, with the complicity of a professionalized, corporatized media.
So professionalization is no panacea either. At the bottom of it all is the crooked timber of human nature. "I do not know what is in the heart of a scoundrel," said Joseph de Maistre, "I know what is in the heart of an honest man: it is terrible."
Before I tell you my diagnosis, let me tell you I also tend to agree with you about money's effect in politics. This is a topic on which my views in the past likely were affected by partisan bias. Money is too big a topic and I don't want to get distracted by it here. I always recall how Larry Lessig tried to forge an alliance between the Occupy movement and the Tea Party movement. I might have mentioned to you before, or maybe not, that I see a nexus between Tucker Carlson's anti-corporatism and Elizabeth Warren's (though Warren has tempered her views since becoming a politician). So I see our cronyist corporatist government as having become deeply corrupt. And it really bothered me to hear the sanctimony of Senatepersons and Congresspersons talk about January 6 as a violation of the "citadel of democracy" and a "threat to our way of life." I have already condemned what those unarmed slapdash vandals did there, but the contempt these lawmakers show toward their constituents on a daily basis is a worse violation of our democracy, in my view, than mere trespassing in the cradle of that contempt, and the burning and looting of people's livelihoods this past summer was a greater threat to our way of life than a few broken windows at the Capitol, which did not prevent the loss even of a single day's work. (On the score of lives lost, this summer's riots were far deadlier, too, than January 6.)
So having got that out of my system, here is my diagnosis for our media problem. And you are not going to like hearing this, but here is my opinion:
It's the Nietzsche, stupid.
By which I mean, what we are witnessing here is the scrambling of mortals to fill the void left behind when modern man "killed God." On this, too, I find Lasch was here before me when he observed that modern man's quest for certainty is fundamentally a religious quest. The world's great religions teach humility of belief – but the man who will take no religion has no schoolmaster by which he might receive that lesson: "For those who take religion seriously, belief is a burden, not a self-righteous claim to some privileged moral status. Self-righteousness, indeed, may well be more prevalent among skeptics than among believers. The spiritual discipline against self-righteousness is the very essence of religion."
The Abrahamic religions teach of the folly of seeking to reach the perfection of heaven in the story of God scuttling the project of Babel. Those religions, at least the Christian religion, teach Give all that thou hast to the poor and follow me, if thou wouldst be perfect. But the modern man has not yet heard of this lesson against seeking perfection in earthly works. As Dostoyevsky said, "socialism is not merely the labor question, it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism today, the question of the tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to heaven from earth but to set up heaven on earth."
The Abrahamic religions teach the story of the great flood, by which God purged wickedness from the earth. But the act grieved God so terribly that he vowed never to do it again. I have been enriched by reading the Old Testament because it teaches that justice is a thing so terrible that no one ought ever pray for it, and indeed to pray that God may stay his hand. ("Indeed I tremble for my country," said Jefferson, "when I reflect that God is just....") Indeed, it is why Paul says that the law is meant as a schoolmaster to bring people to the gospel: once one realizes that no one can stand to the measure of justice, one will beg for mercy. And in Christ, God freely gives it.
But the Nietzschean man, the super-man, the over-man, has not yet learned this – if ever he can. The rains of the elites' deluge are starting to fall on our heads as they seek to purge what they see as wickedness from the earth. As Lasch goes on, a secular society has not yet grasped the need for a discipline of belief, the need of any epistemic humility, and so "it misunderstands the nature of religion: to console but, first of all, to challenge and confront." Our purely secular society wants justice – ancient, tribal, bloody justice, from which there is neither escape nor forgiveness, only punishment.
Another way to express my diagnosis might be that we have an addiction to certainty. Too many Americans today believe that there is right, and there is wrong, and that every contest between them may be settled scientifically. By acquiring moral judgment man was cast out of the garden, but by shedding moral judgment and substituting science in its place, the idea seems to be, we might attain paradise. But not only may we have scientific certainty of every conflict of values, but also do we insist on judgment: the right must be rewarded, the wrong punished, and in this lifetime. If we are to have unity, we must search our souls for any trace of certainty, which is the father of disunity, and cast it out. And replace it with the spirit that says we all of us must work out our own salvation in fear and trembling, that there but for the grace of God go I into perdition, and to seek truth, and to do good, but never to be certain that we are right, and to pray in earnest that our neighbor will be saved.
But you will tell me: Tim, you are talking about religion when I asked you for policy. And you will be right. In all these things I have my eyes on something beyond this world. But there is no other way to reorder a polity that has gone wrong than to return to its foundations, to its purpose. The purpose of the American polity was to have a space where we each could serve our neighbors, our families, and our God. To be quite clear, what I am saying is: America is a Christian nation, in its best and broadest sense of allowing every American the freedom and opportunity to serve God, or at a minimum not to interfere with their neighbors' freedom and opportunity to serve God. No other answer to great political schisms may be given than to return to God. A people must serve something higher than themselves, for there is no surer way to wreck our world than to put it under our own feet. The pedestal of Shelley's Ozymandias, the 13th century Ramses II, the earthly king of all earthly kings, said, "Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair." And all had been laid waste.
Humility, my friend, is my prescription. God himself, though he created paradise, could not maintain its perfection while allowing us grubby humans to inhabit it. Earthly works cannot deliver us. Nor the fire and punishment of justice. Through mercy, by grace, may we return to God. But not to Eden. Those gates are closed to us.