November 1, 2007

Dr. Johnson and Today's Liars for Hire

One of the amusements of idleness is reading without the fatigue of close attention, and the world therefore swarms with writers whose wish is not to be studied, but to be read. -- Samuel Johnson, The Idler, #30, 1758

One of my odd hobbies is to read authors so ancient that they are only seldom taught and even less read in our post-post-modern world. Currently these authors are Montaigne and Dr. Johnson. A glance at the prose of these two giants is usually enough to warn today's readers to flee. Dense, extended paragraphs are composed of prolix sentences packed to the the gills with ten-dollar words. Unlike the thin consumé of contemporary fare served lukewarm and then constantly reheated in newspapers, magazines, and the books on the best-seller lists, these authors are thought to be difficult and, in absolute terms, they are. But in reading as in life, it is generally the case that the path of greater difficulty leads to the greater reward.

Another compelling reason to read authors from what seems like long ago is to gain perspective and insight into the present; to be confirmed in the constant suspicion that no matter how new and modern some idea or fashion may seem it is really only reiteration when it comes to the minds, behavior, and souls of men. For while the tone of these men's prose may seem archaic, their insights are often fresher than today's dawn.

A case in point arose yesterday as I was paging through the selected essays of Samuel Johnson (1709-1784.) Johnson may well be thought of as not only the father of the dictionary, but as the father of the magazine and the first columnist as well. He was also, perhaps, the high water mark for all three.

The brief essays I've been reading about in were first published as "The Idler," and were weekly broadsides on some subject from which Johnson could draw constructive moral lessons from contemporary observations. He believed that it was the duty of a writer to not only educate and inform but to elevate as well; duties long lost on the scribblers of today whose mission seems to be to increase ignorance, obfuscate, and aid in speeding our mutual degeneration. Tasks for which they seem to be suited by birth, education, and temperament.

Nearly 250 years ago, in Idler #30 of early November, 1758, Johnson turned his basilisk gaze on the then new breed of scribbler, "the news writer." If you think many things have changed in the way of the media world in two and a half centuries, you might want to read these arcane passages closely:

"No species of literary men has lately been so much multiplied as the writers of news. Not many years ago the nation was content with one gazette; but now we have not only in the metropolis papers for every morning and every evening, but almost every large town has its weekly historian, who regularly circulates his periodical intelligence, and fills the villages of his district with conjectures on the events of war, and with debates on the true interest of Europe."

It doesn't take much to see in this particular observation a distinct foreshadowing of today's 'global village' with its cable news networks, its AM/FM radio choices, and the proliferation of commentators on virtually all news stories from the trivial to the profound that shriek, hector, and lecture from all points of view along the endless strands of the world wide web. Indeed it would seem that currently the only area in which the market of opinions is shrinking is that of the newspapers and the major media networks.

Nevertheless, the "writers of news" are still with us, their number even more legion than before, the certitude of their foolishness even more unassailable. But, among the proud "professionals" of this realm, what rare qualities do they have to possess to make them fit for their perpetually stygian task? Dr. Johnson again is our dependable guide:

"To write news in its perfection requires such a combination of qualities, that a man completely fitted for the task is not always to be found. In Sir Henry Wotton's jocular definition, An ambassador is said to be a man of virtue sent abroad to tell lies for the advantage of his country ; a news-writer is a man without virtue, who writes lies at home for his own profit.

"To these compositions is required neither genius nor knowledge, neither industry nor sprightliness; but contempt of shame and indifference to truth are absolutely necessary. He who by a long familiarity with infamy has obtained these qualities, may confidently tell to-day what he intends to contradict to-morrow; he may affirm fearlessly what he knows that he shall be obliged to recant, and may write letters from Amsterdam or Dresden to himself."

"Contempt of shame and indifference to truth...." Seldom have the central requirements for the job of, say, regular columnist for The New York or Los Angeles Times been expressed in such a concise manner.

For a contemporary example of this kind of paid poltroon I commend to your attention the recent fisking of the infamous Paul Krugman by neo-neocon: 9/11, racism, and history: Krugman and playing the fear card. Krugman is only one, but certainly one of the "best" of our scribblers who "may confidently tell to-day what he intends to contradict to-morrow; he may affirm fearlessly what he knows that he shall be obliged to recant."

The only significant change is, of course, that spiteful scribblers such as Krugman will never be obliged to recant since their cant is fully sanctioned by their employers, and is indeed the primary reason for their continued employment. Any significant departure from the approved party line would be grounds for instant dismissal. Who then would have a Krugman save perhaps that billionaire's obscure toy network that continues to issue the thrice disgraced Dan Rather a few crusts in exchange for his diatribes from his dotage? Few I think.

This is something that any well-established scribbler knows down in the bones: You cannot bite tomorrow the foot you lick today. Dissent, as much as the hallucinatory crushing of it by the government is bemoaned by these addlepated house organists, is the one thing that is not at all to be tolerated by the organizations from which they draw their paycheck and obtain their dubious status.

For while there has been no change in the base motives and shamelessness of the myriad liars for hire in the mainstream media over the centuries, there has been a definite change in their approved targets.

In Johnson's time loyalty to duty and to country was assumed even if, among scribblers, honor did not play too large a roll. Perhaps this was because in the England of the 18th century the crimes of sedition and treason were not trivialized as they are today, and the consequences for the same were much more Draconian than a disapproving comment by the administration's press secretary. Perhaps it was also because irate readers would go beyond the mere dropping of their subscriptions, and move on to the torching of the publisher's premises in short order. In any case, the now treason of taking the side of a nation's enemy in time of war was not only unheard of but frankly unthinkable. Not so in Johnson's era:

"In a time of war the nation is always of one mind, eager to hear something good of themselves and ill of the enemy. At this time the task of news-writers is easy: they have nothing to do but to tell that a battle is expected, and afterwards that a battle has been fought, in which we and our friends, whether conquering or conquered, did all, and our enemies did nothing."

I suppose that to many of those in the unelected and self-selected fourth branch of government today this sort of "reporting" is incomprehensible, jingoistic, and that the only way to be truly "American" is to be reflexively "anti-American."

As we know it is common in the case in our blighted era that we see exactly the reverse of war-reporting in Johnson's day take place. During the past week, for example, Time Magazine slavishly reported on a mass-killing in Iraq -- "Iraqi police said they found 20 decapitated bodies dumped near a police station west of Baquba" -- that did not, in fact, take place. Their motives? Many and dishonorable, but in which the "news-writer's" constant compulsion to let atrocity trump truth is certainly paramount.

Stories of our country's struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan which highlight the futility of the missions, the defeats to be found in obvious victories, and the touting of the strengths in arms that our enemies manifestly do not possess are the common clay from which today's mainstream media shapes their tawdry Vietnamesque tale of woe. Why this perverse reversal should be so seems to be due to the inbred nature of the people that make up (and I mean "make up") what passes for news from the established media, along with the history of that lump of humanity in which, when it comes to war and the history of war, Vietnam is all they know. A different time, a different set of strategic necessities, a different enemy, different tactics -- all of that makes, in the end, no difference at all. For those people who now manage the news, it will always be -- for many -- 1968.

And since today's "reporting" is always about the past, what narrative of the present would be complete without the consistent reversal of atrocity exemplified by My Lai Massacre of the Vietnam era? For it is not enough that many professional "news writers" today are compelled to slant most stories to the left, and ignore others in the right, in their quest for 'a higher truth than mere facts can supply.' What must happen along with 'the little lies that make for a larger truth' is the proof of continuing atrocity on the part of America's armed forces. How else can they prove their loyalty other than in consistent and constant disloyalty. In Johnson's 18th century England it was the reverse. Then the barbarians were invariably the enemy:

"Scarcely any thing awakens attention like a tale of cruelty. The writer of news never fails in the intermission of action to tell how the enemies murdered children and ravished virgins; and, if the scene of action be somewhat distant, scalps half the inhabitants of a province."

In today's popular narrative, the barbarians are seldom those fascist Islamists for whom torture, murder, maiming and summary execution are a matter of daily diversion, but the very American troops without whom all our deformed scribblers would not live out a decade under Sharia law.

Then again perhaps not. After all, the soul-dead men and women who can turn their coat to the prevailing wind as readily as many, if not most, of our current commentators and writers of news could very well thrive in some sort of global Islamic sultanate. After all, tyrannies always need professional liars with a way with words and no moral foundations to sustain and advance them. What better class than our current generation of "citizens of the world" for whom duty, honor, and country mean less than zero?

Johnson sees this from two and a half centuries ago when he concludes his essay with the reflection:

"Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates, and credulity encourages. A peace will equally leave the warrior and relater of wars destitute of employment; and I know not whether more is to be dreaded from streets filled with soldiers accustomed to plunder, or from garrets filled with scribblers accustomed to lie."

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Posted by Vanderleun at November 1, 2007 8:17 AM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Pure insultainment. Sweet.

Posted by: Cousin Dupree at November 1, 2007 12:12 PM

Modern writers live in terror of saying something unequivocal. Generally, if you challenge their assertion, they will respond with a question. This is because they can't defend their position, but would like to attack yours.

Posted by: ed in texas at November 1, 2007 12:57 PM

For your delectation, Soren Kierkegaard on journalists. The following (hat tip to the editors of Touchstone magazine) is an extract from Joakim Garff's biography of Kierkegaard (pp. 471-72):

"The collision with The Corsair [Copenhagen newspaper] left Kierkegaard with a terrific loathing for the daily press and its practitioners, 'those who rent out opinions,' as he called them, using an expression he found in Schopenhauer and became infatuated with. Schopenhauer had noted quite correctly that although most people avoid walking around in a borrowed hat or coat, they are only too happy to go around with borrowed opinions, which have been served up to them by journalists: 'The great mass of people naturally have no opinion but—here it comes!—this deficiency is remedied by the journalists who make their living by renting out opinions.' This bizarre situation also has a logic of its own: 'Gradually, as more and more people are wrenched free of the condition of innocence in which they were by no means obliged to have an opinion and are forced into the "condition of guilt" . . . in which they must have an opinion, what can the unfortunate people do? An opinion becomes a necessary item for every member of the enormous public, so the journalist offers his assistance by renting out opinions.' In doing so journalists make people laughable in two respects: first by convincing them of the necessity to have an opinion, then by renting out an 'opinion which despite its insubstantial quality is nonetheless put on and worn as—a necessary item.'

Thus Kierkegaard came surprisingly early to the realization that the press lives by creating its own stories—'it acts as if it were reporting on an actual situation, and it intends to produce that situation'—with the result that reality itself becomes pale and imaginary. 'There is something the journalist wishes to publicize, and perhaps absolutely no one thinks or cares about it. So what does the journalist do? He writes an article in the most exalted manner in which he states that this is a need profoundly felt by everyone, et cetera. Perhaps his journal has a large circulation, and now we have set things in motion. The article is in fact read, it is talked about. . . . There ensues a polemical controversy that causes a sensation.'

. . . . The journalists also incur a moral responsibility because they are capable of completely altering a person’s fate overnight: 'Take a young girl. Someone names her, using her full name, and then relates that she had got a new dress last Sunday. This of course is not the most unsavory sort of evil—and nonetheless she is made ridiculous. Everything private, the condition of privacy itself, is entirely incompatible with being mentioned all over the country in a newspaper.' The vignette itself is so shy and retiring that the reader can scarcely get a glimpse of the problem, but it is there. Even though an announcement such as this is ethically neutral in itself, the mere fact of its publication becomes a violation of privacy. Kierkegaard saw more and more clearly that the media’s transformation of the population into 'the public' was accompanied by increasing infantilization, by the deprivation of the individual’s rightful authority, a condition that was all the more catastrophic because it was said to be identical to the public’s self-determination and its supposed possession of influence."

Posted by: Connecticut Yankee at November 1, 2007 4:25 PM

A challenge: Rewrite Johnson's last quote into today's vernacular so that those in the MSM will clearly understand their wayward ways.

I am still working on my rewrite and I have grave doubts it will be worthwhile.

But I do understand your point -- there is nothing new in human experience and responses to any and all circumstances. Then why do we not get utterly board?

Posted by: ChiefTestPilot at November 1, 2007 4:36 PM

Bravo. As I read this part:

"For it is not enough that many professional "news writers" today are compelled to slant most stories to the left, and ignore others in the right, in their quest for 'a higher truth than mere facts can supply.' "

I was reminded of Jeff Jarvis giving the game away when he wrote: "Anybody can get facts. Facts are the commodity. The truth is harder to find. Justice is harder to fight for. Lessons are what we’re after."

Lessons. The lessons must be taught

Posted by: TerryH at November 1, 2007 7:30 PM

The more shallow we think,
the easier we'll drink
the banal brew
from others' slop-sink.

Posted by: FamouslyUnknown at November 3, 2007 7:30 PM

You are entirely correct that modern scribblers would find a place in the Caliphate. Since Islam is a religion of deeds, of outward appearances that need not reveal or touch the heart, men without chests can easily give pro forma service to a hollow religion in order to flourish.

When you have no principles, it is easy to adopt superfluous ones.

Posted by: Chris at November 5, 2007 1:12 PM

It's funny how everything's connected. Today is November Fifth, Guy Fawkes' Day, so I reposted something I'd written about it almost two years ago.

Within that old post is a reference to one of Gerard's essays on Sam Pepys' diaries. So, I click on the link and find myself reading another Van Der Leun special, this time a rumination on the other great London diarist named Sam.

Proving nothing, really, other than there's always something interesting going on here.

Posted by: Mike Lief at November 5, 2007 2:45 PM
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