Thursday, June 04, 2009

Condescension and Credulity

No matter with what skill the great manage to seem other than they are, they cannot conceal their malignity.
--Jean de la Bruyere, Characters

That implicit credulity is the mark of a feeble mind will not be disputed.
--Sir William Hamilton

After a brief, nominal flirtation with the ideal of objectivity the political press is poised to revert to its roots in factional advocacy, with the larger outlets financed and influenced by corporate, private or foundational sponsors. That is, what of it will be left behind by the receding waters of the economic and cultural deluge. This goes carelessly unlamented by many amid the celebration of a "new media" (see New Economy, 2000). I see no reason to celebrate an order wherein any news organization with significant resources is ultimately funded by one powerful faction or another.

Yes, we've never had a truly unbiased, independent press. The ideal is likely impossible. But impossibility is the last reason to abandon a worthy ideal. Impossible ideals are the only ones worth striving for. It's all in the striving. The old class and regional biases, as exemplified by the world's most provincial newspaper of selective record, The New York Times (granted, its province constitutes its own city-state, giving its prejudices an imperial reach) aren't going away after all, and the fall of one order doesn't necessarily give way to something better. Human nature already ensures that the natural tendency of institutions is toward degradation.

The mayhem of the blogosphere is welcome for, among other things, its popular revolt against Crimethink as mostly determined by the "old media" in its role as a sort of priestly caste. Their monopoly may be gone, but the new advocacy model of journalism only increases their accusatory fervor, as opposing outlets trade accusations, depending on who's calling out who, of bigotry, anti-Americanism, xenophobia etc. But the stirrings of insurgency should not be mistaken for success (or its inevitability), and the potential for a reaction leaving our discourse more constricted than before remains. The mechanisms of control and panic still being put in place under the ruse of a "war on terror" lend themselves well to the purpose. To say nothing of the fact that once created power travels easily from descending to ascending faction, like a parasite abandoning a dying host for a healthy one. Power is agency; it tends to spill over the confines of its original justification to find new purposes, and is never surrendered by those who have it on mere principle.

An unfortunate consequence of Barack Obama's unique and slightly perverse appeal, and the rout of a decadent Republican Party, is the conversion of too many from opponents to proponents of power. This includes what remains of the "mainstream media", whose bias is not toward liberalism or conservatism as much as it is toward cowardice--accepting uncritically on one hand the appeal to consequences upon which current liberal social science and ensuing policy is based, and on the other its (counter-intuitively) natural complement, the nationalism of the Right. The term "political correctness" should be expanded to include American exceptionalism, at the least. What passes for liberalism today is just chauvinism differently expressed. Neither Left nor Right is uniquely corrupted by power. Power itself is the problem. That the exercise of power is an unfortunate necessity of governance makes it not less but more true.

The advantage, for instance, in a real, exaggerated, or surmised "right wing terrorist threat" is too tempting, with the potential for discrediting or radicalizing (prodding the fiction into reality) the opposition. Combine this with the impetus for legislation against "hateful" speech increasing along with a Democratic majority and the multi-ethnic populace which it must keep in a state of festering resentment and alarm (just as the Right must do with its base) and the previously mentioned journalists advocating on behalf of a very particular and hostile worldview. More than ever we need those with the resources to do sustained investigative reporting to at least feel chastened by a standard of objectivity. The aforementioned New York Times might seem to deserve its fate (every fate that isn't the result of natural catastrophe, and even sometimes that, is "deserved," after all) but the breadth and scope of its daily issue is a wonder, and its loss would be a tragedy.

The new media has also produced the ominous phenomenon of the top-down activist organization, reverse-engineering the model of the grass roots organization to put it directly in the service of the powerful and flooding the arteries of the new telecommunications with creepy, viral efficiency. I'm convinced that if the emails I receive from MoveOn.org came in audio format they would be expressed with a thick Russian accent over a straining analog recording of martial music. No, that would give them too much of a human quality. The "Age of Obama" threatens to become the slogan of our new multicultural tyranny, imposed in part by the political/ideological equivalent of the non-governmental organization.

Alas, what remains of the moneyed press increasingly exists not across an antagonistic divide from from the powerful, but is fragmented by the same factional rifts and insulated by the same elite prejudices. Big Media is an adjunct of the ruling class. This, combined with the inevitable connoisseur's appreciation of the art and play of politics that develops over time, renders it congenitally incapable of distinguishing political maneuver from statesmanship. Which brings me, finally, to the subject.

It's become difficult to tell where the President's political skills leave off and Big Media's credulity begins. The mistaking of platitude for profundity and condescension for compromise has become downright pathological in the age of the Wonder Brother. Never has so little awed so many so much.

This incapacity increases as our democracy matures, a consequence of age accelerated by the Obama effect, the increasing viability of the Fox News/MSNBC model of advocacy journalism, and the much deserved disrepute into which the Republican Party has fallen. If independence is our measure of health, the fourth estate, having endured a fitful adolescence and the disillusionment of middle age, is entering its dotage. As is the case with the aged, it's intellect is no longer supple and its biases are irrevocably set; it's less and less able to control its utterances for the sake of decorum; it grows fonder of sentimental kitsch. The press' gushing over this or that vaporous issuance from President Obama is the equivalent of the kitten and puppies calendars decorating an old folks' home. Correct that; the various artistic representations of Obama by acolytes, uncritically admired recently in that same Times, are precisely equivalent.

So when President Obama directly addressed abortion in his speech at Notre Dame, what we witnessed wasn't the brave magnanimity over which so many gushed--the president made certain there would be no change in his decidedly uncompromising support for taxpayer-funded abortion on demand in every municipality in the country. Offering meaningless, self-congratulatory expressions of compromise unattached to substance in such a way is an act that would typically be described disapprovingly as nerve, not "courage", as in "it takes nerve." But you do have to hand it to him.

As is the case with the new president, still, it wasn't the act but the reception that is remarkable. In this case the complete surrender of a former bastion of opposition to the cruel, calculating expedience of the president's abortion position, abandoning (to use the president's favored language) the powerless and voiceless to the powerful and loud. Ralph Ellison's concept of the inherent oppression of "invisibility", something the president is sure to have appreciated in the romantic abstract, has never been so applicable. This would be a defining feature of the unborn child (though the president's insistence on abortion goes beyond unborn and unwanted to inconvenient, as he will not sacrifice the good graces of Planned Parenthood to compromise on behalf of children who survive extraction), along with helplessness and powerlessness. The president's definition of abortion as a "choice" is an unremarkable commonplace in our low, dishonest age after all.

No; contrary to the adulatory response from the president's vast amen corner, what we witnessed wasn't a marvel of rhetoric or magnanimity, not a bold offer of common ground, but a condescending expression of power. Condescension is a form of disdain. The president brandished his position on abortion, a position the church once insisted was unconscionable, and planted it like a flag in the heart of what was once one of its grandest institutions. To the cheers of its children. This was not lost on him, even if it was lost on the press.
Some things aren't open to compromise--rather, this used to be true. "Common ground", here offered by the unmoving and unmoved, is the field of surrender. Compromise is the murder of principle by expedience, and "unity", another favorite of the president, is a prerequisite of tyranny. Meanwhile, what remains of the mainstream press has become so intoxicated by the expression of power that it cannot recognize it as such.

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