The issue is motivation. Why do people write about current events, as events simply happen, whether one writes about them or not? The tree falling in the forest may or may not make a sound, depending on whether anyone is there to hear that sound, if there is a sound, but the tree falls nonetheless. Stuff happens.
Part of it is that there is an industry – people not near the forest seem to want to know about trees falling, and what that might have sounded like, and what it all means. What’s going on with the trees? Se we have an industry that reports what’s going on – and tells us what it means. In the current issue of World Affairs Journal there’s a fine article on that – Jacob Heilbrunn with Rank-Breakers: The Anatomy of an Industry. It’s about reporters and commentators and what now passes for public intellectuals, fighting with each other:
George W. Bush has done a favor for the intellectuals who hate him so much: he has made them celebrities. His War on Terror has triggered an impassioned debate on the left over the direction of American foreign policy. On one side are interventionists such as Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens who claim it is essential to confront “Islamofascism” and the left’s appeasement of “soft jihad,” especially in Europe – what Berman in an upcoming book calls The Flight of the Intellectuals. On the other side are liberal intellectuals such as Tony Judt and Ian Buruma, who want to unmask liberal hawks as neoconservatives après la lettre who, in Judt’s phrase, “provide an ethical fig leaf” for the Bush administration’s brutish foreign policies.
The item is long, and amusing, but odd – a walk through many decades of big guns telling us what it all means, and that only they have it right, ending with the online folks:
Today, [Christopher] Hitchens (who has staked a claim by writing Why Orwell Matters) and fellow former Brit Andrew Sullivan, whose blog features a tagline from Orwell advertising his own willingness to react to events without the blinders of dogma (“To see what is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle”) have styled themselves as fearless thinkers in the Orwell mold. So much so that Ron Rosenbaum asked in 2002 in the New York Observer, “Is there an implicit, unspoken competition between these two Orwell devotees over who will turn out to be the Orwell figure of September 11? Perhaps not consciously, but if there is, I’d suggest they deserve to share the honor, each for taking on his own political base.”
Orwell, the intellectual lone wolf par excellence, never had a “political base.” But it’s not hard to see why he appeals to intellectuals who see themselves as genuine apostates. He was the original rank-breaker and independent spirit; a warrior of deed as well as word, who had seen combat in Spain, battled Stalinists there as well as fascists, and nearly died after being shot in the throat. Returning home, he dedicated himself to a decidedly unfashionable anti-Stalinism by publishing Homage to Catalonia in 1938. From that point on he was an outlier, often living in penury. Hitchens and Sullivan, both of whom traded their green cards for gold cards, had neither of these experiences.
But nonetheless these two, and many others, claim the mantle of Orwell – fearless thinkers who see through dogma, convention, who call out the bullshit flung by the left, or the right, for what it is, and who question what is fed to us by the government and industry, or the church. We are being told what is what. We believe it all, or any of it, at our peril. Someone need to say, hey, wait a minute – that’s not what’s really going on.
So you get the new public intellectuals, and those who provide the same service in the guise of comedy – Stewart, Colbert, and, to a lesser extent, Keith Olbermann – telling us to step back and look at the crap we’re being fed. And in the last decade this intensified with all the blogs – see Memeorandum, continually updated, offering links to all the would-be Orwell’s, indexed on the hot top of the hour. Who knew there were so many intellectual lone wolfs, out to strip away the spin and give us the real truth?
Orwell would smile. Technology has given us an army of thoughtful skeptics, refusing to accept pernicious nonsense. Of course they don’t agree – they shout at each other a lot, electronically these days. Hillary is really evil, Barack Obama a fraud, McCain a flat-out liar, and so on – so perhaps Orwell would not smile, especially were he to see something like this:
It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can’t get anyone to notice. He is like a great painter or musician who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile.
So, is that cutting through the crap, to the essential truth? The author, John Hinderaker, thought so, on July 28, 2005 – and seems to still think so. Others disagree. So you do know what you are forced to do – decide who you trust, or more precisely, who you think is clearly deluded, or at least has been blinded by the spin and just cannot think clearly any longer. You will, if you think the president and the current administration have made a cataclysmic mess of things, be told you simply have a case of Bush-derangement Syndrome – you’ll get over it. If you think Obama is kind of nifty, you’ll be told you’ve been taken in by a glib charlatan, playing on your foolish, adolescent idealism – maybe you should grow up and look at the real world, full of mean and nasty folks out to kills us all. And if you like Hillary you are, of course, a racist who admires people who break the rules to get what they want – shame on you. And if you dislike McCain, well, you hate America – he was a war hero, so what’s your problem?
And it’s far more complex than that – variations on all those themes play out minute by minute on the web. In Hyde Park the Brits have always had Speakers Corner – now we have that continually, worldwide, with millions of voices. Who knows what Orwell would make of that? Spend some time in lower Manhattan – you sooner or later you’ll run into the toothless, wild-eyed fellow who tries to buttonhole you and explain that the government is secretly poisoning cream cheese with a psychotropic agent to make us all bald, or some such thing. The net – what they now call the political blogosphere – has more than a few of those. You need to be able to decide who is worth reading.
Why has this new forum, with it legions of cut-rate Orwell’s, taken off as it has? Perhaps technology – the rise of the web as the prime public space, free to all – combined with an authoritarian, secretive government, and a media that makes its money by telling of dire threats – terrorist attacks to sharks gobbling up hapless swimmers to pedophiles everywhere – accounts for this explosion of reassessments of everything.
But perhaps something else is going on. See Scientific American:
Self-medication may be the reason the blogosphere has taken off. Scientists (and writers) have long known about the therapeutic benefits of writing about personal experiences, thoughts and feelings. But besides serving as a stress-coping mechanism, expressive writing produces many physiological benefits. Research shows that it improves memory and sleep, boosts immune cell activity and reduces viral load in AIDS patients, and even speeds healing after surgery. A study in the February issue of the Oncologist reports that cancer patients who engaged in expressive writing just before treatment felt markedly better, mentally and physically, as compared with patients who did not.
Ah – you’re just reading some else’s attempt to feel a bit better. But then, for the reader, there’s also a benefit – finding something that expresses what you felt but couldn’t put into words, like this from “Hilzoy” at Obsidian Wings:
People are writing about [Clinton] as though she were a bomb that needed to be expertly defused, as opposed to a person who can govern her own life, and is responsible for her own choices.
I am aware that it must be hard to face the fact that you’ve lost. But it became clear that she was not going to win the nomination months ago – I would say after Wisconsin, but certainly after Texas. Moreover, this is not unprecedented. People lose the nomination every four years. Most of the time, they do not stay on until it is mathematically impossible for them to win; they leave when it has become clear that they will not win. They do not complain about disenfranchising all the states with later primaries, they do not threaten to keep their supporters home, and they certainly do not threaten “open civil war” if they don’t get nominated for Vice President. On those rare occasions when some candidate does this in the absence of some truly monumental issue, we normally think that that candidate is a narcissistic and unprincipled person who has just shown why s/he should never, ever be President.
There is absolutely no reason not to apply these same standards to Hillary Clinton.
Right now, instead of floating demands in the press and comparing herself to abolitionists and suffragists, she could be telling her supporters that she lost fair and square; that while there was a lot of sexism in the campaign, there was racism as well, and that sexism does not explain why a candidate with literally every institutional advantage over her opponent lost the nomination. She could be reaching out to the voters who supported her in places where Obama has had trouble, and urging them to vote for him. She could, in a word, be doing the right thing: trying to earn that respect she seems to want.
Instead, she’s throwing tantrums, making demands that she has no right to make, and threatening civil war.
I can’t imagine a better demonstration of why she should not be President or Vice President. Nor can I imagine a better demonstration of why some of us who are committed feminists are not happy with her as our standard-bearer. She lost. It happens. If she were an adult or a professional, she would deal with it. Apparently, she is neither.
Now that hits the nail on the head – unless you’re a Clinton supporter.
But then, sometimes you just want confirmation of something that’s been gnawing at you, that you couldn’t put into words.
So sixties folks might get some relief from Ron Rosenbaum in Slate with In Praise of Liberal Guilt:
When did “liberal guilt” get such a bad reputation? You hear it all the time now from people who sneeringly dismiss whites who support Obama’s candidacy as “guilty liberals.” There are, of course, many reasons why whites might support Obama that have nothing to do with race. But what if redeeming our shameful racial past is one factor for some? Why delegitimize sincere excitement that his nomination and potential election would represent a historic civil rights landmark: making an abstract right a reality at last. Instead, their feeling must be disparaged as merely the result of a somehow shameful “liberal guilt.”
He’s all for guilt:
Guilt is good, people! The only people who don’t suffer guilt are sociopaths and serial killers. Guilt means you have a conscience. You have self-awareness, you have – in the case of America’s history of racism – historical awareness. Just because things have gotten better in the present doesn’t mean we can erase racism from our past or ignore its enduring legacy.
And the specific argument is this:
Critics of Obama supporters who use the phrase “guilty liberal” or “liberal guilt” in a condescending, above-it-all manner suggest there’s something weak about feeling guilt; they paint a trivializing, Woody Allen caricature of it.
Actually, I think it requires a kind of strength, not weakness, to face the ugly truths of history and to react to them in an honest way. “Liberal guilt” isn’t a reason one must automatically support a black candidate, but that doesn’t mean that liberal guilt – better defined as an awareness of the need to contend with, and overcome, a racist past – shouldn’t be a factor in politics.
Ah, that feels good! It really is too bad that at her blog at the Atlantic, Megan McArdle thoroughly dismantles his logic – Orwell style, working through the language and the ideas, working him over but good.
But then, maybe each is just self-medicating. That’s okay – onlookers can get some grounding in what is really going on – they can find out about those trees falling and all. Yeah, they’re blowing smoke at each other – but not all second-hand smoke is bad, to change metaphors.
And that said, I feel much better, thank you.